The response around Mortal Kombat 11, on the surface, seems positive. People are praising its excellent story mode, which uses time travel to bring our favorite characters in their many forms together again. The tutorial too is being upheld as maybe one of the best fighting game tutorials—a shocking rarity. The nuts and bolts of Mortal Kombat 11, is by all measures, solid. But when you look at it on Metacritic and Steam, it's bombing in the eyes of players.
As of this moment, Mortal Kombat 11 has a low user score of 2.6, set against the critics' Metascore ranking of 83. On Steam, Mortal Kombat 11 is suffering a review bombing effort right out of the gate, so its overall result is mixed at the moment. It's all because of one thing only, something unsurprising in the live-service-skewing industry: microtransactions.
In our own Mike Williams' review, he prophesized this. He specifically cites the Krypt and Towers of Time as being particularly tedious in how they're structured to make you grind for skins and other kosmetics, and at worst, spend real money as the Time Krystals accrue very, very slowly. "If I like Jacqui Briggs, make it easy, fun, and rewarding to play Jacqui Briggs," he writes in his review. "Make it simple to keep getting stuff for the character I like. Instead, you pay 25,000 Koins to get a character-specific tower, with the same annoying modifiers of any other tower, that may or may not give you the gear, augment, or skin you want."
The endless grind of unlocking chests in the Krypt with earned Koins and taking on tedious towers has been a common complaint amongst most early reviews. Both have been in Mortal Kombat games before, but their refinements and the slower accrual of all in-game currency is what's been the central problem. Even early Tuesday morning, barely into Mortal Kombat 11's release day, NetherRealm took to Twitch to assure players that it was working on a patch to push out "ASAP" that would alleviate the need for heavy grinding for cosmetic goods.
The Krypt is an area you explore that offers chests for each player (not random, technically, but in different spots for everyone), where you only have a vague idea of what's inside. If you want, you can spend Koins to reset a chest, and then spend more Koins to open it again (like a loot box). Meanwhile the Towers of Time are tedious rounds of matches with a steep difficulty, with rewards waiting at the end of them. In a Kombat Kast stream earlier today, NetherRealm confirmed it will be lessening the difficulty of the Towers of Time, admitting that the difficulty at launch is too high. Both modes have already become controversial in the community, and to apologize, NetherRealm is offering a free currency pack sometime soon too.
That hasn't stopped fans and critics alike from being frustrated though. On Mortal Kombat's subreddit, one of the top posts is a calculation one player did of how much it would cost to buy all the skins without any grinding beyond finishing the campaign, doing every character tutorial, and finishing the basic towers. As the store rotates throughout the day, similar to Fortnite and Apex Legends' own rotating digital stores, the post also assumes that players will have perfect luck whenever they check every six-to-eight hours.
The amount it'd cost? $6440, according to Redditor AccomplishPoet8. As all 23 characters have 60 skins each, there's a lot to work towards, and that's not taking into account the Fatalities, gear, and other goodies to slap onto the likes of Sonya Blade and more. And to get all of it, it'll take about 6,990 hours judging loosely from the Redditor's 760 Time Krystals earned with four hours of play. While NetherRealm's Ed Boon took to Twitter today to dispute the $6440 number, noting that the majority of in-game skins (seemingly like those you'll earn in Towers of Time) are only earnable within the game, it doesn't change the fact that to get those items is at best a slow crawl, and at worst, a random loot box-like cycle of resetting chests.
It's become a big trend in triple-A games to be marred by practices that encourage players to either grind for content or spend money. Sports games suffer from this worst of all, with Ultimate Team in the likes of FIFA and Madden being designed for this in particularly nefarious ways; where the drive for rare players is basically never ending. You can't even play Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 consistently without the game rubbing in your face the fact that you didn't buy the season pass.
Some games have gotten flack for just having microtransactions at all, most memorably Star Wars Battlefront 2. The backlash caused EA to pull the loot boxes entirely, before reworking them to be cosmetic only rather than gameplay enhancing. Just earlier this year, even Ubisoft's Trials Rising saw itself facing backlash from fans for the inclusion of obtrusive loot boxes and grinding. Not even series we thought were safe seem to be safe from microtransactions anymore.
And it's a shame, because in some cases, microtransactions undercut the game itself. In trying to incentivize a sliver of players to spend money on top of what they paid for the game, there's almost always some form of grinding. That may be in slower leveling up and the off-chance that you don't get a loot box at all, like in Apex Legends. Or maybe it's in the currency you steadily earn through playing, but the solution can always be just spending $10, getting 1150 Tim Krystals, and calling it a day with two skins for 500 Time Krystals each. In Mortal Kombat 11's case, it's a really good game, shrouded in a fog of tedious grinding and microtransactions.
There are variants of success stories though. At DICE 2019, Paradox Interactive CEO Ebba Ljungerud assured me that the DLC and expansion model still works for Paradox, saying, "[A]t the end of the day, we will charge for developing more content. We have to, because otherwise we can't do it. They go together." As there are more games than there ever have been before, keeping a player's attention has become integral; Netflix even cited Fortnite as its biggest competitor when it came to screentime. Microtransactions are a relatively easy way to keep a player's attention and investment whether they got it on day one, or the bargain bin dive on Black Friday. The problem is: the trend has trickled into game pacing itself, making the experiences for those who don't spend the extra money a chore.
Even so, in today's stream, NetherRealm community manager Tyler Lansdown directly said, "This game was never designed to encourage in-game purchases." The high difficulty of Towers of Time, it seems, was just tuned too high to be enjoyable. In the stream, NetherRealm discuss at length how the boss health changes and other tweaks will make the experience not just easier, but less of a grind too.
Dead or Alive has long survived on its ludicrously priced outfit packs—which some players happily pay for—so it's not a stretch to say that players are down to pay money for skins, it's more the matter in how they're encouraged to pay money, and the options they still have without spending a dime where the problems often arise. At worst, it impacts the whole vibe of the game itself; the lows offseting those Fatality highs.
In Mortal Kombat 11's case, it's currently on that low path, despite the highs of its customizable fighting and excellent story mode. I imagine in the weeks to come, NetherRealm will be tweaking how Time Krystals and Koins work a lot more, or else it will continue to face the wrath of angry players, hungry like Baraka for a human brain. And even with all the drama, it hasn't stopped Mortal Kombat 11 from being the best launch in series history.