Mortal Kombat

'Long Live Mortal Kombat - The Definitive History of MK' goes behind closed doors to reveal untold stories from the making of Mortal Kombat 1 through 4 and explore how the franchise shaped popular culture. Written by David L. Craddock (@davidlcraddock), the book is funding now on Kickstarter.

In this excerpt, the industry's superpowers meet to determine how to self-regulate content – knowing that if they fail, the government will do it for them.

Rob Holmes had a strong suspicion that Howard Lincoln was p****d. "He started by walking into the room and saying, 'I'm really p****d.' That was the opening to the conversation," says Holmes, co-founder of Acclaim Entertainment.

Holmes had met up with Nintendo of America's general counsel and senior vice president minutes earlier to escort him to the meeting. The summit had been months in the making. It was January, and the 1994 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was winding down. The booths where exhibitors like Nintendo and Acclaim showed off their latest software were cramped and sweltering, but the meeting room where Lincoln made his memorable entrance wasn't much better. "This was as the show was closing, and we were sitting around what was, in essence, a large card table," Holmes adds.

Representatives from some of the largest video game studios in the world had squeezed into the room and into chairs. Some were friends, some acquaintances, others bitter enemies. There was Larry Probst, CEO of Electronic Arts. Other representatives attended on behalf of Activision, Konami, Capcom, and Sega of America president Tom Kalinske, perhaps the largest source of Lincoln's bad mood.

Four months ago, Acclaim's 'Mortal Monday' campaign had unleashed millions of cartridges containing home versions of Mortal Kombat. Nintendo's Super NES and Game Boy editions were selling well, but for the first time, Sega was pummeling them at retail. "To put this in perspective, you have Howard Lincoln who is now ruing the fact that the Genesis version was far superior, at least in the minds of gamers, thanks to the blood code," Holmes explains.

Mortal Kombat was just the tip of a growing iceberg. Every month, it seemed more publishers were backing out of agreements to make games exclusively for Nintendo hardware and choosing to put their titles on the Super NES and Genesis. Even Acclaim, the first North American publisher to release games on the NES back in the late '80s, played both sides. Electronic Arts had gone a step further by making its bestselling John Madden NFL Football series exclusive to Sega; EA's executives had no intention of being handcuffed by Nintendo's severe policies.

Holmes knew Lincoln understood the business sense of Acclaim and the other companies defecting to Sega. He also knew it didn't make public announcements any less difficult for Nintendo's executives to swallow. Lincoln and his bosses, Nintendo Company Ltd. president Hiroshi Yamauchi and Nintendo of America leader Minoru Arakawa, were used to publishers grovelling for the opportunity to host software on its platforms. Now Lincoln was surrounded by allies-turned-defectors.

Holmes sympathized with Lincoln but had no time to play referee. He filled a unique role: Acclaim was the only publisher who had worked with every other company represented at the summit. "We were the only ones in the room that could make that claim," says Holmes. He and fellow co-founders Greg Fischbach and Jim Scoroposki had coordinated the meeting, which they saw as imperative for the industry's survival. "Push came to shove," Holmes says, "and we reached out to Nintendo and Sega and said, 'All hell is breaking loose. It's going to continue to break loose. We need to sit down and talk,'" Holmes says.

Beneath the surface, Lincoln was most upset by what had happened at the hearing last month. The event, televised and heavily reported on in mainstream media, had ostensibly been about violent games like Mortal Kombat but had devolved into a slugfest between Nintendo and Sega. The senators had chastised the industry at large and ordered them to come up with a system of self-regulating the content of their games – or else. "Here you have these people that at this point are basically sworn enemies," Holmes recalls. "The most recent experience they'd had with each other from a corporate standpoint would have been at the Senate hearings."

The agenda for the meeting was loose and simple. Talk. Come up with solutions. One topic that arose early on was the state of the industry. There was too much going on. Nintendo and Sega were vying for dominance, which was exasperating for them but great for publishers. More consoles competing for market share meant more platforms for developing games. Publishers were sprouting up around the globe as Nintendo and Sega made video game publishing more profitable, but their industry was still viewed by other, bigger industries as the last kid picked for the dodgeball team.

MK 11
The original Mortal Kombat spawned a massive multi-media series, including games, toys and movies — Image: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

That, at least, was something everyone could agree on. CES organizers shunted publishers with exhibitors from the adult video industry or into the least frequented areas of the hall. "At one show, I don't remember what year it was, but it was pouring rain," Holmes remembers. "We were walking through our area, and there were leaks in the ceiling."

After some passionate discussion, the gaming titans agreed the senators had to be dealt with first. Once Washington was off their back, they could talk about pulling up stakes at CES and going elsewhere. Maybe even launching a trade show just for video games. "We talked about having to do something and that we weren't 100 percent sure what it would be," admits Holmes. "It's the first time we broached the shared realization that we didn't feel we were getting proper focus from CES, so we talked about setting up an independent gaming show which later morphed into E3."

Dealing with the politicians meant devising an impartial way to rate games. Sega already had a plan of action. In May 1993, Kalinske and his team had left the nine-to-13-year-old demographic to Nintendo while they focused on their players, one-third of whom were 18 or older. Kalinske had also expected blowback from Mortal Kombat and other violent games, so he had moved to develop a rating system for Sega's titles. One of his first appointees had been Arthur Pober, an educator in New York best known as the former Principal of Hunter College Elementary School and the current Director of Special Programs for the Board of Education for the City of New York and Director of Gifted and Talented Education for New York City, among myriad other qualifications. Kalinske had met Pober when he worked in the toy business. Now he wanted Pober to captain a board of sociologists, psychologists, child developmental experts, and independent educators.

Pober had assembled a board of experts with Kalinske's approval, and that board had designed the Videogame Rating Council, a system that would assign ratings to every game on Sega hardware. The easiest solution seemed to be adopting the guidelines used by the Motion Picture Association of America. Kalinske met with MPAA president Jack Valenti to adopt their system. "It was so well known," Kalinske says. "PG, PG-13, et cetera. And he refused. He dismissed the video game industry as being this little thing, like, 'Why would I want to soil my hands with this?'"

Pober and the Council devised their own system. What they came up with was a slate of ratings similar to the MPAA's. "GA" was the equivalent of a movie's "G" rating; "MA-13" suggested that parents review content before their children played it; and "MA-17," like "R"-rated films, targeted adult audiences. Those ratings were not intended to censor games, Sega clarified, but to act as guidelines to parents.

In the meeting, Kalinske proposed the Videogame Rating Council could be used by all publishers. Lincoln disagreed right away. "Howard wanted nothing to do with that, since it was Sega's thing," Holmes says. When the meeting ended, tension was still palpable. "What I would say came out of it was not any definitive decision other than, okay, we'll have people meet in the immediate future," Holmes recalls.

Although future meetings would bear more fruit, the magnitude of that first gathering was not lost on anyone. "It was beneficial for Nintendo and Sega, too. They realized they didn't have to be friends, but they had to speak with each other. It set a different tone to how the industry itself was operating," Holmes says. "That is one of the most important meetings that happened in that era of video game history."

After putting distance between himself and his rivals, the reality of what was at stake hit Howard Lincoln like a slap.

That meeting had marked the first time so many delegates from the fledgling video game industry had occupied the same space. One look at all the faces around the table had been all the proof he had needed to comprehend how big their business had grown in a relatively short time. The room had been small, but the financial stake was high: Every person at that table represented a company worth millions of dollars. If the industry's leaders failed to regulate themselves, they would lose control over their growing empire. "It pales by today's market cap in the industry, but in those days, a billion-dollar marketing cap was nothing to sneeze at," Robert Holmes says.

Swallowing his personal feelings, Lincoln made the next move. "Howard was the first one who reached out and said, 'We can't keep going like this. We have to sit down,'" Holmes recalls. "The animus at that first meeting was very real, but Howard was mature enough to think, I've got to be able to sit down with Tom Kalinske and the others so we can figure this thing out."