Fixing Mortal Kombat 11’s economy

Mortal Kombat 11 had the potential to be one of the best reviewed games of this generation. Game critics universally praised the core gameplay, HDR graphical flourishes, story, training mode, and overall polish. But MK11 hovers at a solid but not stunning 83 on Metacritic given the long, frustrating grind required to unlock cosmetics through the Tower of Time and Krypt single player modes. NetherRealm, the studio behind the game, apologized and promised to improve the situation.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to NetherRealm’s ambition (though this comes with an uncomfortable caveat given troubling reports of rampant crunch and other issues at the studio.) MK11 takes a bold step forward to generate a long tail “endgame” of single player content. You can blow through most fighting games’ solo modes in a matter of hours. MK11 wants to entertain you through randomized Tower encounters and the Krypt for months. But there’s a fine line between a grind that’s rewarding and one that’s tedious; NetherRealm has veered too far into the latter.

As of this writing, a patch increases currency wins from battles to make the grind less abrasive. But the fundamental problem with MK11 remains: it takes too long to unlock cosmetic gear for characters you care about and difficulty spikes abound on the Towers of Time. The difficulty remains frustratingly opaque until you’ve already devoted time into the towers. There’s a few actions NetherRealm could take to improve the experience:

Change up the character specific towers.

MK11 only unlocks two out of 60 skins per character at the beginning. Cosmetics are unlocked randomly across all 25 fighters, so it’s a slog to get the cosmetics you want for any specific fighter.

There’s an easy way to balance fast unlocks with long run progression: bump up bonuses from the character specific Towers of Time. Today each Tower requires a significant time sink (two-plus hours), and the end reward is just a handful of new equipment pieces and skins. Instead, completing a character specific Tower should unlock a big slice of a character’s customization — 15 or 20 of the skins, half of a character’s equipment — with remaining content doled out at a slower rate. Revamped Towers give players who don’t want to invest in the grind an easy way to at least have some decent customization with just a few hours of investment. Dedicated fans can continue the grind for rarer cosmetics with extra effort.

Provide more transparency into individual Towers of Time and smooth over difficulty spikes.

Today each tower has an overall AI difficulty (easy, medium, hard) combined with a few icons referencing potential “modifiers” to battle that will make a player’s life difficult (e.g., electrocuting floor, additional flame damage). You can also scan most or all of the stack of fighters you’ll be battling. Higher AI levels and more modifiers translate into higher difficulty, but the real challenge is hard to guess until you dive into individual battles. Frustratingly, many towers have difficulty spikes where the combination of fighter and modifier can make specific battles taxing.

NetherRealm should provide more details to expose every fight modifier so players can browse the entire tower and judge for themselves if it’s worth the time. I, for instance, can’t stand battles with multiple stacked modifiers (e.g., targeted rockets and punches that instantly freeze my fighter), so if I could see that up front and just bail, I’d do so.

Tower difficulty spikes are easy to address through playtesting; in general, most Towers would benefit from far less gimmicky modifiers. The worst modifiers feel like a deck stacked against the player in a way that doesn’t give room for high skill level play; the only way to get through is to white knuckle through a fight on good luck and the right consumables.

It’s unclear what actions NetherRealm will take from here. Strong initial sales could incentivize MK11 to be left unaltered for a while. But given the backlash against the studio for both MK’s grind and the reports of its crunch-heavy culture could force a change in gameplay and its approach to future updates. Considering MK11’s strong foundation here’s hoping we’ll see that happen.