Welcome to NetherRealm: What FAB Can Learn from Mortal Kombat

Growing up, I played a lot of fighting games with my brother and our mutual friends (I shared most of my male friends with my brother). I think my first ever match was Chun-li vs. my brother’s Blanka back when I could still reliably beat him at fighters. Although I drifted to fist to Soul Calibur and then, after SC II, to ArcSys games, Mortal Kombat is a franchise that I still find myself peeking back in on periodically. I don’t pick up every game, but I do like to see what’s happening from time to time (Steam claims I played MK11 for almost 94 hours, which I hope is due to me leaving the game open over night or something.) Mortal Komabt is notable among fighting games because, while, let’s be fair, it was never the best fighter on the market from a gameplay perspective, but it usually had a ton of engagement. This might be partially due to the focus on the sensationalized violence during the 90’s, but a big part of MKs ability to attract people’s attention was due to the plethora of secrets, both the real ones and the urban legends, that circled around it. People would tell you the wildest stories of how to fight against or as secret characters, only some of which actually even existed. Beyond the hidden characters though, the game was just packed to the gills with Easter eggs and little hidden nods for attentive players. There were so many, and some were so well-hidden that they weren’t discovered until years or decades after the games’ releases.  

These secrets became a core part of the franchise’s identity, but they were also fairly emblematic of video games in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. This was the last era where in person word of mouth and print publications were a big part of how people experienced video games. While the internet was just starting to really take shape as a resource, tons of totally made up bullshit video game secrets proliferated –I can’t even begin to recall how many fake methods for resurrecting Aerith I heard during Final Fantasy VII’s heyday. The time before the Internet was ubiquitous was a perfect era for Mortal Kombat’s early brand of hidden information. It was easy enough to spread rumors but still fairly hard to definitively confirm anything. We were still years away from the time when you’d be able to easily record and share video proof of your professed discovery. However, time moved on, and the ability to foster that sort of speculation was somewhat attenuated as people actually started to be able to produce video content and online hubs became more populated. Now days, the big secrets in most games are data-mined immediately and you can look up most hidden information on the same day a game releases, if not days before launch, thanks to pre-loads. Sure, small Easter eggs still endure, waiting to be discovered in the weeks, months, and even years that follow some releases, but the atmosphere of whispered rumors has long since drawn to a close, with only occasional and notable exceptions like Frog Fractions 2 waiting to delight ardent secret hunters.

Why am I talking about video games? Well, I feel like LSS treats its new releases a lot like the old-school style Mortal Kombat games’ treated theirs. Every set releases with a whirlwind of rumors of variant printings and some outright lies and misinformation spread by various attention-seeking elements of the community. Often times, we don’t know exactly what’s what until a week after a set’s release, and some information is still being speculated on literally years later. In this article, I want to interrogate these practices. What are their pro and cons, and what lessons can LSS take from how NetherRealm evolved their approach over the decades?

Surprise!

At the big picture level, the most obvious positive argument for having secrets is that a lot of people like surprises. Opening a pack of cards and finding something you didn’t know existed is exciting. For LSS, this also means buzz is created. When someone finds something new, social media activity gets an uptick, which drives engagement with the game. This can then build excitement for the new product, which is what you, as a company, want. There is also the surprise of new card reveals during spoiler season. These acclimate people to the new set via a series of planned reveals. We saw this with Monarch in terms of how classes were revealed sequentially, building each one up slowly and inciting community speculation on what might be coming next.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get preview cards for Monarch, Tales, and Everfest, and, in general, I love the spoiler season. I think LSS is doing a good job of tuning their approach with each release. The lead into the set allows them to draw attention to the release in advance of the actual street date. It gets the community engaged in speculation, which means more people are talking about Flesh and Blood. It also gives creators, particularly new or smaller ones, a chance to get more eyes on their content. All-in-all, while I could think of ways I might tweak the spoiler season, the process as a whole is good for the game and LSS continues to iterate positively on it. In fact, it seems they’re doing some of that with Uprising, as we suddenly got Isylander spoilers out of nowhere today (Note from Freyja, the editor: I guess let’s you for when I started writing this.)

Defining Our Terms

I want to briefly lay out what I am talking about specifically when I say “secrets” in the context to FAB. There are three broad categories of things I’d consider “secrets”: what’s contents of packs, the frequency at which those contents appear, and, the big one, all the many Easter eggs LSS slips in. In terms of secrets surrounding pack contents, we get the standard official tease of the actual cards that appear in spoiler season, as well as the trickle of information surrounding variants (cards like full art Twinning Blade or extended art Herald of Erudition). Beyond what’s inside of a booster, there is also the question of how rare certain cards are. “What’s the pull rate of a CF Starvo,” for instance. Easter eggs, to me, are things like the blood stains on the Alpha foil Razor Reflex Red or the lack of reminder text on first edition foils: little secrets that don’t impact gameplay or pull rate and have to be discovered organically by the community or via the Collector’s Center. They’re things someone needs to spot or figure out, and many of them may be in plain sight waiting for people to connect the pieces (we’ll talk about this in reference to Dousing Talisman later). I think two of these categories of secrets are mostly good for the game, and one I find to be kind of a problem. We’ll talk about them all here individually in a moment, but first, we have a little more framing to do.

The Age of the Internet

Sometimes the process of the spoiler season gets disrupted. While I can think of individual small leaks in previous spoiler seasons, Everfest had the awkward situation of a bunch of leaks filtering out of Europe and then ChannelFireball started a box break a week early -supposedly due to a miscommunication (James White talks about this situation a bit in his 983 Media Interview.) These sorts of situations suck for the content creators who have their thunder stolen, and they suck for LSS who clearly spends a lot of effort planning out the sequence cards will be revealed in. To a degree, this sort of situation is somewhat unavoidable. With the ease of sharing information widely and the ability to do so anonymously, we’re just going to have to deal with this happening from time to time. I don’t think that the fact it can happen is a good argument against having a spoiler season, which is still a big net positive experience for the community, even with these occasional wrinkles. 

What these cases do make me wonder about is the question of, “what information is good to keep the community in the dark about and what sorts of hidden information can hurt the community.” For example, information on variants is very rarely revealed ahead of time (or, often, ever). LSS doesn’t tell the community much of anything about them prior to a set’s release. Instead we learn about them via Kiwis posting pictures to Discord on release night or sometimes from leaks via singles sellers breaking product early to get their inventory prepped. I am much less sure of the value of the community getting no information on the existence these cards before buying product. You know what, this feel like a good time for a Mortal Kombat analogy.

In the original Mortal Kombat, you can fight the secret character Reptile if you meet certain conditions. This was absolutely mind-blowing in the 90’s. Being a kid at the time, if you found out about him at all, it meant you often went through two phases. First there was someone claiming to have fought him, which you called BS on because most people who made this claim either didn’t know or couldn’t reproduce the steps they’d taken to fight him, and if you were a cynical kid like me, this all sounded like some “my uncle who works at Nintendo”-type shit. But then, someone you trusted convinced you it could be done, and you fell down the rabbit hole of following rumors of how that actually worked.

At this stage, you had to actually find the correct method and replicate it. It ended up being a major journey that most people (myself included) abandoned before completing or only returned to years later once it had been well-documented online. By contrast, if you want to know how to unlock a specific thing in the modern Mortal Kombat Krypt (a side game/mode with a massive set of secrets and unlockable content), you can just pull it up on Google. Certainly someone had to discover these things to document them, but the community no longer experiences this collectively; the normal experience for the vast, vast majority of the community is the Googling one. This is more or less how variants work. Someone in New Zealand finds one, posts it to the internet and it’s no longer a surprise. LSS positions this process as a value add for the game -“the thrill of discovery,” but I feel like this fundamentally misrepresents what they’re doing. Anyone who has chosen to plug themselves into the online Flesh and Blood Community will be spoiled almost immediately when something is discovered. For these people, in terms of the experience of discovery, there is practically zero functional difference in terms of discovery between the reveal coming from the spoiler season itself as opposed to someone posting the information on social media.

This isn’t to say that there is no potential for the thrill of discovery, but, for it to be a thing that the community in any meaningful number gets to experience, there is only one way to achieve that. You, as an individual, can opt to avoid spoilers and just stay away from online FAB communities for a few weeks until you have product in hand. And that’s a totally valid way to engage with the game. If you personally want to experience the surprise, you just take a little social media vacation and wait until you can open product on your own and discover all sorts of thing. But this fact also has an important implication: if you opt out of spoilers, then the whole conversation of how information circulates is entirely irrelevant to you because you’re intentionally avoiding it. Thus, there is no real function advantage to the current approach LSS takes with variants. Is the current approach at least value neutral? Yeah, about that…

The Cost of Secrets

Here’s the issue: Variants are an increasingly large portion of a given set’s financial value, and the quantity and quality of variants has changed with every set from WTR forward. Given the FAB 2.0 news about Marvels, I don’t think this is changing any time soon. That means that you can’t make any assumptions about what LSS is going to put into a given product. And without that knowledge, it’s hard to know if a set if worth opening (financially speaking). While I would say that I currently remain optimistic that LSS will iterate and strive to produce products that are both exciting mechanically and also maintain some financial value for players and collectors, I do think that obscuring information related to variant can do some harm.

As an example, going into the final days before the Everfest dropped, the EV forecast looked very bad. This wasn’t just my take in isolation. I’m in a ton of public and private FAB finance groups across various social media platforms, some as an active participant and some as a lurker. I’ve also got individual conversations that occur on and off with other community members and store owners who spend a lot of time on the financial end of the hobby. In general, I would say that this sort of sentiment was shared in many of these spaces (though by no means was it universally). Given that, I am very confident in saying that there was absolutely a markedly different outlook on the set between finance-focused spaces and player-centric communities with the latter being much more enthusiastic than the former.  While it now seems fairly obvious that the EA chase cards that went unrevealed until a leak shortly before street date were insufficient to prop up the value of the set, the EA Majestics remain some of the most valuable cards in the set, so they did definitely help do some amount harm reduction –imagine how bad things would be without them. I know that, had I known about these cards in advance it would have altered my Rathe Times article projecting the financial value of the set. I know this because when their existence was leaked, I got a whole bunch of messages asking about how that changed my evaluation, which ultimately led to a conversation with my editor and an update was made to the article (which is something I don’t think we’ve ever done before).

I think there is a middle ground to be found here between just posting an exhaustive spoiler well in advance and keeping important information necessary for evaluating a set secret. I would put forth that some advanced notice of what is potentially in the packs could be done in a way that helps people make purchase decisions without taking out all the fun of discovery. At a basic level, I would love to see something like a product info sheets that actually tells me what’s going on in a way that matters. This isn’t even a radical change, it’s just an extension of what LSS already does only I’d like them to do it in enough detail that it’s actually useful. Let’s look at what FAB 2.0 has to say about odds. In addition to the chart we’re about to look at, there is also this bit of info, “The frequency of each marvel card varies. Some of them are equivalent to past alts such as Earthlore Bounty, and some are harder to find, like Herald of Erudition or Aether Wildfire. All cards with the marvel rarity symbol are much rarer than a normal foil version of their base rarity would be.”

Look at that – it turns out it’s not actually super helpful when some of the most important elements (Marvels and Fabled) aren’t included. If, for instance, it also said something like “Uprising contains Extended Art Rainbow Foil variants for X Rares and Y Majestics. These appear in place of the normal Rainbow Foil version of their respective card at a rate of Z%.” You wouldn’t need to tell me which cards were selected for the Majestic variants –that can be a thing that’s discovered and circulated online. This sort of approach would allow LSS to retain an element of surprise while also letting their customers know what they’re actually gambling on when they buy a booster box. Because let’s face it, that’s what we’re doing when we open product, and a Han Solo “never tell me the odds” approach is actually a really bad way to go about spending your money.

Every time you open a pack, box, or case you’re gambling. You’re hoping to open something of greater value than you paid for the chance, but you accept the risk of walking away with less. How much you can win or lose generally determines if you want to take that bet in the first place. In order to make that assessment, you need to know the odds. Yes, there is some variable “entertainment value” in opening product because gambling can be fun. I opened Tales of Aria boxes with the belief that I’d probably lose a little money compared to buying singles, but it wouldn’t be awful, and there was a chance I’d run hot and end up positive on EV like I did with Monarch (Disclaimer: I preordered most of my Monarch before things blew up, so my cost basis was only slightly over MSRP, due entirely to buying the Alpha Investments bundle). While it’s undeniable that LSS is more transparent with print run information than the vast majority of its competitors, the choice to obfuscate the pull rates of variants and Fabled cards has always rubbed me the wrong way. It feels a lot like trying to have your cake and eat it too: they tell you how often most cards occur so you could calculate the odds, but then they don’t tell you the odds on the most desirable cards. This approach is partially responsible for some of the volatility in the secondary market and often leads to people overpaying before prices crash as the supply turns out to be higher than people trying to sell you cards would lead you to believe. Essentially, LSS wants the good will created by revealing print runs and pull rates, but then they hold back all of the most important information that would help players determine if it’s reasonable to buy sealed product when it’s actually in print. Instead the information filtered out on pull rates for the rarest cards comes from big singles sellers and whales, who, as a group, have a vested interest in making these sorts of cards out to be as rare as possible. I’m not saying everyone in those categories is trying to deceive people, I think some of them are honest and giving their best projections, but there are also others who I definitely think attempt to manipulate the market in their favor with misleading claims about scarcity. None of this would be an issue, if LSS just told us the odds. I honestly don’t see what they get from keeping this information hidden.

Where it Shines

We’re now set up for a sort of compliment sandwich, because I like how LSS handles spoiler season (with the exception of variants), kind of hate how they go about hiding the most important info about pull rates, and (spoiler) I think they do a pretty good job with Easter eggs. So what are these Easter eggs? Like I said at the outset, I think of Easter eggs as things that don’t really impact the way you play the game, and also don’t (often) impact the EV of a box or the price of a single, although occasionally they can (the Alpha foil Razor Reflex Red blood stain, likely makes that a more desirable card than if it had the normal art). So if, the Easter eggs aren’t important for play and usually don’t make you money, what makes them cool? Well, they, perhaps more than any of the other secrets discussed here, are truly about the thrill of discovery. What that means can range wildly. How cool any individual Easter egg seems, is going to change from person to person. For me, my favorite Easter eggs are essentially neat little bits of trivia that are discovered and, once you know them, they sort of sit in your back pocket as cool little stories you can share with other people in the community. Community is key here; knowing something that you think is cool and being able to share it with someone else who also thinks it’s cool is just a really good experience that kind of amplifies your own enjoyment and lets you share it with others. With that framework, I’m going to talk about a favorite Mortal Kombat Easter egg, after which, we’ll look at how FAB stacks up to the masters of hiding things in your games.

Ermac: Ermac, at least in his original appearance, is one of the rainbow ninja palette shifts based off Scorpion and Sub-Zero that populated the early MK games. Ermac is especially cool because he’s a kind of reverse Easter egg: the community hypothesized him, and then Midway (who was the MK Developer before they went bankrupt) created the character because of fan theories rooted in very clever but incorrect hunts for secrets. “Wait,” you might ask, “how does that work?” Well, contrived narrative device, thanks for asking that important question! You see, if you were looking at the audit menu in an early arcade release of the original Mortal Kombat the word “ERMACS” appears right below “Reptile Battles” which to early secret sleuths seemed to imply that there might be another hidden character in addition to Reptile. In reality “ERMACS” was a compounding of “Error Macro,” which was just a macro to catch errors. 

Because this is an Ed Boon joint, the development team wasn’t going to leave an urban legend just sitting there unacknowledged. So, when they make MKII they added in a little nod. At the end of the game during the credits sequence lines of jumbled text appear on the screen. One of those read “CEAMR ODSE NTO EXITS” or, unscrambled “Ermac does not exist”. Additionally, two actual hidden characters in that game (Smoke and Jade) appear periodically to give taunts or hints on how to encounter them. One of those is “Ermac who?” Needling the fans in MKII continued to keep the search for Ermac alive, because, after all, could you really trust the MK devs, of all people, when they told you a character didn’t exist? So, when Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 came along, Ermac made his debut

What are FAB Easter Eggs like? Well, let’s look at one of my faves:

Talisman of Dousing: The Monarch teaser on the main FAB site had a cryptogram using some arcane runes, which was cool. But Talisman of Dousing was the cooler iteration on this in my book. So Talisman was an innocuous looking card, not really the sort of thing people were going to pay a ton of attention to, since it didn’t seem poised to tear up the competitive scene. But, for those of you who don’t already know where this is going, take a look at the art and see if you notice anything peculiar:

How about now

“The lost kingdom awaits the treasure of the forest hidden within.” Well that’s definitely intentional, but what does it mean? I don’t want to turn this into amateur hour, so I’ll just pass you off to DeadSummer’s article from last year via the The Rathe Times (which is also where I stol- where I borrowed, those images from). I wanted to link this article in particular because it kind of hints at how much LSS likes to pack into these sorts of small, easily missed, surprises. What really shines here is the sort of trail of breadcrumbs that DeadSummer follows to reach his conclusions. He’s showing his work, and it seems like reasonable conjecture coupled with fairly concrete arguments, and all of this stuff is just lurking in the background behind the game proper.

This, more than anything else, makes me think of the success NetherRealm has had with Mortal Kombat. By fostering a sort of anticipation within the community that there will be secrets to find, they drives a certain subset of people to really comb things over. We saw that with the Ermac bit: players were taught that there are secrets out there and went hunting, which sparked conversations, theories, and wild speculation. Even in some of the cases where they were off base, that became a part of the community’s culture as well, and eventually flowed into that reverse Easter egg situation I discussed.

As it stands, their proficiency with Easter eggs is definitely LSS’ strongest use of hidden information. I feel like, in terms of the sorts of things they’re sneaking in this way, they’ve got it pretty well figured out, and the real goal should just be to get more of the community hooked into this aspect of the game. Meanwhile, I would like to see them reassess exactly what information actually improves the community’s experience when it’s kept secret. While finding which cards have EA variants could be an exciting experience, knowing that there are EA variants, is kind of a prerequisite for the community being able to fairly evaluate the product in its favor. Making a set look weaker than it is in order to surprise a couple people post-launch doesn’t seem like a payoff that’s worth the cost. And, hiding pull rates of the best cards has always been a practice that seems to make the average player more vulnerable to making bad trades/sales/purchases. We’re all gambling when we open cards, I get it. But maybe tell us the odds, if want expect us to play. If they get these other elements to the same bar of quality as the Easter eggs, they’ll really be giving NetherRealm a run for their money as masters of using secrets to delight their community.

*Header Image – Blood Tribute by Nikolay Moskvin

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