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Inside the Mind of TAO FENG's John Tobias

The co-creator of MORTAL KOMBAT chats exclusively with us about his latest game!

By Chip Meyers     April 09, 2003

Next time you're hanging with your pals and playing Xbox, ask them if they can remember the names of a few characters from the original MORTAL KOMBAT. After all, it's been ten years since the original arcade game came out. Who would remember that kind of trivia?

But here we are a decade later and MORTAL KOMBAT's roster of colorful heroes and villains, be they thunder god Raiden, battle-harderned warrior Liu Kang, evil sorcerer Shang Tsung or the undead killer Scorpion, are just as memorable as they were all those years ago. Not many video games can leave that kind of legacy with gamers, but then again even fewer game creators can say they had a hand in creating such lasting pop culture.

John Tobias can. As one of the designers of the original MORTAL KOMBAT, Tobias saw his creations go on to make the leap to more video games, feature films, comic books, animation and even a television series. His name might not be as well-known as his creations but his style of game design is. After leaving Midway Games a few years ago, Tobias formed Studio Gigante and they have just released their first game for the Xbox, TAO FENG. On the surface TAO FENG might appear to be another fighting game but upon closer inspection you begin to see the trademark Tobias touches: attention to small details, complexity with how you choose to battle, incorporation of eastern mythology and fantastic character design.

I had the chance to ask John Tobias ten questions about his latest game and his thoughts on his past, present and future. How does the guy who helped give birth to some of the baddest video game fighters out-do himself? Find out the answers below.


Q: First off, why TAO FENG? After co-creating one of the world's most popular fighting games ever, what brought you back to the world of martial arts games?

JT: After leaving Midway and starting Studio Gigante we felt that there were still innovations to be made in a genre that has been around for a long while. Aside from that, as we moved forward in procuring our first project it became pretty clear pretty fast that publishers were looking for us to create a fighting game or at least a game with a fighting component.


Q: What about Microsoft's Xbox made you decide this was the platform for the game? Was the decision made first to design a game for the Xbox, or was TAO FENG already in development?

JT: We began talking with Microsoft pretty early in terms of working with them to develop a first party product for Microsoft Games Studio. They were specifically looking for a first party fighting game and we were very impressed with their plans for the Xbox in terms of the hardware capabilities.


Q: Studio Gigante is the game design company that you've formed after leaving Midway Games and your extremely successful run on MORTAL KOMBAT. What's Gigante's mission as a developer of games? Are you targeting certain systems or genres specifically?

JT: Surviving in this industry as a developer is extremely difficult. Our priorities are to first do what is right for Studio Gigante from a business standpoint. That of course involves making great games and TAO FENG represents our first effort. It certainly will be our most difficult because of the situation we found ourselves in. We literally grew our company from 4 principals to a total of 25 over the course of that game's development. We like the Xbox as a platform and we like what it can do but we're keeping our eye on potential cross platform development.

Q: When you were the lead artist for the MORTAL KOMBAT series, you created a memorable streak of characters that fans still remember to this day. When you approached designing the characters for TAO FENG, what was your primary concern in making them stand out and apart from your earlier creations?

JT: Well the character designs for both MORTAL KOMBAT and TAO FENG were heavily influenced by Asian culture- specifically Chinese mythological themes. The story for both of those games was about fusing those themes with a westernized setting. I think that MORTAL KOMBAT began to lose the specific mythological influences over time. The characters in TAE FENGare a return to the core mythological archetypes in terms of hero and anti-hero themes. I think in terms of their visual design, we're able to create characters much richer in detail today than we were able to do with digitized graphics back in the early 90's. A lot of what happened with character design in the first MORTAL KOMBAT games was about dealing with the graphical limitations we were working under. I do however feel that MORTAL KOMBAT and all of the characters I created became a slice of American pop culture back then. It would be nice to create something that has that kind of impact again but certainly it's not something that I expect. So much of what happened with MORTAL KOMBAT was about it being the right product at the right time. The gaming landscape is different today.


Q: So many of your characters were based in not just martial arts movies (like Liu Kang being an homage to Bruce Lee) but also in fantasy and Japanese mythology. Where do your ideas come from? Do the costumes come first or is it the character's power/ability...?

JT: My affinity for martial arts grew out of my addiction to Hong Kong action movies in my teens. Movies like 36 CHAMBERS and all of the Shaw Brothers films played a big influence for me in my Mortal Kombat days and continue to do so. Even today I draw influence from films like STORM RIDERS or any of Tsui Hark's films. I love that stuff.

The conceptualization of a character can spark from a bunch of different places. It can evolve out of the desire to portray a specific style of martial art- like Wulong Goth from TAO FENG and his use of preying mantis style. It can come from a mythological beast like the phoenix- in the case of Fiery Phoenix; or it can draw from specific characters out of Chinese or Japanese mythology like Zhao Yen (Tao Feng's main boss) and Raiden from MORTAL KOMBAT.


Q: I understand that some of the talent used to motion capture the animations for TAO FENG have also done work in Hollywood. Can you elaborate?

JT: We worked with incredibly talented martial artists and stunt people. They've all done work in film and many of our stunt men are a part of a group called the Alpha Stunt Team from Japan. They were amazing. I remember one day after rehearsal we went to visit the motion capture studio at House of Moves to check out the space and see if there was anything that they needed specifically in terms of wire rigging or pads. And they wanted us to remove the cushions on the floor so that we could get a more realistic impact on concrete. That's what I call dedication. We also worked with an amazing Wushu practitioner named Ming Liu who has worked extensively in film- she performed motion for a couple of different characters. Her husband Alan Liu also worked with us. They both did a great job. Danielle Bergio did motion for a couple of our female characters- she worked on the MATRIX films. Mike Chaturantubut worked with us- he's worked in TV and film for years and just did a fantastic job for us as well. Those are just to name a few of the people we worked with.


Q: An argument could be made that the fights in TAO FENG are more bloody than MORTAL KOMBAT, or at least more realistic. You've incorporated broken bones, bruising and cuts into the game and there's considerably more fighting moves available to each character. Do you think that fighting games are moving away from showing superhuman feats of stamina and strength and instead making fighting more grounded in reality and thus more graphic?

JT: Actually I'd say that TAO FENG sticks to more the fantastic side of things than it does true realism. The realism in our game comes from the portrayal of character damage, which has never been done in game in the way that we do it. I've always appreciated seeing a monk jump several feet into the air and perform a kick out of a somersault from a standing position than two Olympic judo wrestlers roll around on the ground.


Q: Deciding to attack your opponent or heal yourself is an important part of the game's strategy and it's also a shift away from the punch-punch-punch philosophy of so many fighting games. What was the decision to include this aspect of the game, and is it a part of the game's overall theme?

JT: TAO FENG is a game that requires practice and a level of skill. It's really easy for someone to pick up the control and mash buttons for 10 to 15 minutes and dismiss the game as having bad control. Our design was about rewarding someone who practices with victory over a button masher. The healing in our game coincides with our 'chi' system. The player's ability to build his Chi and use it to heal any limb damage he may be suffering or to unleash a Chi Attack. A Chi Attack is a flashy special effect style attack that ranges from a wall of fire to a teleportation type maneuver depending on the character. This adds another decision making process for the player to make outside of punching and kicking.


Q: SMASH TV was your first creation and your enthusiasm for fights, movies and pop-culture parody was already showing through even before you went on to develop the MORTAL KOMBAT series. What was your original drive to design games? When did you stop and realize that making video games was what you wanted to do?

JT: I've played video games since I was 6 or 7 years old. My Dad enjoyed playing them and brought the different versions of PONG that were available at the time and all of the Atari 2600 games. I remember he was a big fan of SPACE INVADERS. They've always been a big part of my life. My career course was first as an artist. Coming out of school my desire was to pursue illustration or animation as a career. I freelanced as a comic book illustrator for a few years- pretty much right out of high school. When I started working at Midway (Williams Electronics back then), I knew that video games was the right thing for me. I enjoyed the people I was working with and had respect for the entertainment medium I was creating for because of my love for games.


Q: How has your job changed now that you have a company to run? Do you find that you have less time to spend on a certain area and more is taken up by business duties? And do you think this helps make a better game or that it doesn't change things too much?

JT: As I mentioned earlier, working as a developer outside of a large company is extremely difficult in this industry. I do have business duties that I have to contend with but we try to structure things in a way so that we can continue to devote time to the actual games. I think that ultimately it helps because I'm able to see the big picture of game development.




Be also sure to read Troy Roberts' review of TAO FENG that's online in our Games section, as well as check out this month's Cinescape for another article about TAO FENG and its lead designer.

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think at feedback@cinescape.com.

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