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When you're in a room where other people are playing Killer Queen, there's a palpable sense that those folks are having the most fun. From my experience, it's the same no matter the setting. I've seen the twinned five-player cabinets magnetize people's attention in arcades on both coasts, and I even wished I had played more during my own birthday at a brewery where I did not plan on crossing paths with any dedicated Killer Queen players.
Killer Queen, for those who haven't stepped up to the blue-and-gold cabinets, is a five-versus-five 2D arcade platformer. Both teams consist of four Workers with infinite lives and a Queen, a deadly unit with a weapon and a dive attack. There are three ways to win a round in Killer Queen: military victories are achieved by killing the other team's Queen three times, economic victories come when a team's Workers manage to bring enough of the berries in the arena back to their team's hive, and snail victories are awarded when a team can manage to move a slow-moving snail at the screen's center to a goal on their side of the screen.
It's simple enough—each of the 10 stations only have a single joystick and a jump/fly button—to be a good time for newcomers at a barcade while having enough depth to encourage an almost absurdly dedicated fanbase that's been growing since 2013. Killer Queen's creators, BumbleBear Games of Brooklyn, NY, estimate that there will be over 200 cabinets scattered across public and private venues by the year's end.
But Killer Queen's being joined by a spin-off that may reach more players than the arcade game ever could. Killer Queen Black, a four-versus-four game designed by BumbleBear and developed by Liquid Bit, is out on Nintendo Switch, Steam, and Discord as of October 11. Speaking with members of BumbleBear, Liquid Bit, and a few devoted players from New York City's Killer Queen arcade community, it's clear that everyone has high hopes for both games to thrive. That said, not even Killer Queen's creators can imagine what that'll look like in a few years' time.
Don't Call Killer Queen Black the 'Home Version'
"I've designed a ton of games," says Joshua DeBonis, co-designer of Killer Queen. "Many of them have interesting things, and I'm proud of them in different ways. But there's something about [Killer Queen] that's really magical, and I don't know why."
DeBonis, co-designer Nikita Mikros, and BumbleBear programmer Jyro Blade take turns chatting with me during a Tuesday night Killer Queen tournament at Wonderville, a Brooklyn bar and arcade that specializes in indie games. Between rounds on Wonderville's cabinets, they muse about the incredible success of Killer Queen and the difficulties of making a new follow-up for a different audience. As much as we're discussing Killer Queen, though, we also end up talking about the people who love to play it.
"The thing that I'm super interested in," says Mikros, "is what does the intersection of communities look like? There are certain arcade players that are super into the idea of Killer Queen Black, and then there are some who will never play it, or they play it once or twice. I'm sure that on the Killer Queen Black side, the vast majority will never play the arcade game. Like, 'Oh, I gotta go all the way to an arcade? Forget it.'"
That "something magical" DeBonis feels about the Killer Queen arcade experience surely has something to do with how social it is by necessity, and it's part of why Mikros wonders how the arcade audience will actually take to Killer Queen Black and vice versa. As the arcade scene for Killer Queen has grown, it has maintained a sense of closeness and inclusivity, two traits in short supply in online communities. "There's already a mature community of arcade players, and there are community standards that have kind of been set," Mikros continues. "They're very much not the internet's standards. They're about being in a room together. You have to act like a human being."
Even at Killer Queen's generously sized cabinets, you're still standing shoulder to shoulder with your team in front of a 50-inch screen, an experience that Killer Queen Black wisely isn't trying to replicate. Though it enables good communication and draws on the core of the arcade game—which itself was based on DeBonis and Mikros' original Killer Queen outdoor field game—Killer Queen Black has been consciously designed as its own experience. Chasing a 1-to-1 translation of the arcade game would be folly.
"We had said for years we're never going to make a home version of Killer Queen, and I'll stand by that," says DeBonis. "It's a different game. Liquid Bit approached us in the right way, they had the right team, the right attitude, the right skills. We basically all agreed it's better to do something that's custom tailored for the home environment."
The Challenges of Designing Another Killer Queen
Setting aside the idea of replicating Killer Queen for a home audience means tackling a different question: if you're making a new Killer Queen, what does it need to have to truly be a Killer Queen game? For Killer Queen Black, a primarily online experience, there's an added hurdle: before moving on to high-level questions about design, BumbleBear needed proof that network play could really work for a Killer Queen title.
Solving that issue is how Liquid Bit made its introduction to BumbleBear. Liquid Bit was founded with the intent of working on multiplayer, cross-platform games, and once the company had a functioning engine, it mocked up a Killer Queen demo and approached BumbleBear. "This is a single screen game, and when you bump into somebody else it needs to feel like you're playing local multiplayer," Liquid Bit's founder and CEO Matt Tesch tells me over voice chat. "That's a very hard technical hurdle, but we had put together a good enough demo that they said 'wow, this actually plays a lot better than we expected it to.'"
Even with Liquid Bit's multiplayer engine nearing that local multiplayer feeling, a core tenet of Killer Queen's arcade mechanics had to be rethought because of latency: how you attack. As with Joust, in Killer Queen arcade your attacks are determined by making contact with an enemy: if you've got the height advantage you kill the other player, if you're level you bounce off each other. If there's any lag, then the precision of that system goes out the window. It's less an issue of "that shouldn't have killed me" and more "I wasn't attacking, and I got a kill." So BumbleBear and Liquid Bit added an attack button.
The addition of the attack button in Killer Queen Black solves the accidental kill problem (if an attack is successful, you know there was a button press signaling intent) while also opening up the potential to add new weapons. "The weapons definitely grew out of 'well, now we're hitting a button,' so okay, if we're hitting a button we can do a lot of different things," says Mikros.
Adding an attack button, reducing the player count, changing the size of the maps—any of these changes might feel huge to a seasoned Killer Queen arcade player, but the sum of the changes also can't take away from the core of what a Killer Queen game is. "We can make Black and Killer Queen play differently from each other, but they still have to feel like they're in the same genre," says Blade. "I think the tough thing about that is asking 'is just having a jump button a defining attribute of the genre?' Yes or no question. I think that, for some people, the answer is probably f'yes, the fact that there's an attack button in Killer Queen Black makes it a completely different game,' and maybe they're right."
It's difficult to classify Killer Queen and Killer Queen Black's common grab bag of mechanics into a particular genre. Games ranging from StarCraft to Super Smash Bros. get raised while discussing the question, to the point where it's perhaps easier to think of Killer Queen as a shorthand for its own genre. "For Killer Queen, specifically, there are three ways to win, and that is always going to be the case no matter what," says Blade. In that sense, Killer Queen Black is true to the name and not merely a "Killer Queen-like."
An Accident, and Totally Not a Cult
The differences between Killer Queen Black and the arcade version, though monumental in their gameplay ramifications, doesn't worry the dedicated players I speak with. "Everyone who has played Killer Queen for a significant amount of time, all they want to do is show [it to] everyone they know and get more people to play Killer Queen," says Justin Krim, longtime New York area player.
For Krim, Daphane Love, and Mustafa Allsop, showing up for a Tuesday night tournament at Wonderville barely scratches the surface of their love for Killer Queen. All three of them have participated in league nights at New York University's Game Center (where DeBonis teaches and the arcade version was originally commissioned) since 2016, and have all traveled long distances for the official Killer Queen tournaments at the annual BumbleBash since the event began.
Watching them play in the relatively casual tournament that night, I realize not only how bad I am at Killer Queen by comparison, but how much that skill and experience is tied to intense connections with their fellow players. Teams in Killer Queen are far more temporary compared to other competitive gaming scenes; at big tournaments, there's a greater emphasis on the region you represent, and the community locals frequently give traveling players a place to stay. It seems like high level players are as interested in competition as they are in simply meeting and playing with others.
"There's a super good network," Allsop tells me. "When I think about that it kinda blows my mind. This year, I actually made two game jam games with Nik and Josh. I'd never done any game development or worked on a game project, but they just invited me like 'hey, our artist left, can you join in on this project?' Daphane's been designing things for tournaments..."
"I've gotten literal art jobs because of Killer Queen," Love adds.
"It was an accident," Krim says of the success of Killer Queen and the circumstances that brought the community together. "The fact that this all exists was an accident. You can't really recreate it. It's such a strange game and such a strange concept, yet it works so well."
With thriving groups of Killer Queen arcade players in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Portland, and more, it seems unlikely to me that the advent of Killer Queen Black will be anything but a boon to the community. Whatever community Killer Queen Black develops may or may not overlap much with the arcade scene, but what I've witnessed in interviews and while pouring over streams from past BumbleBashes is an open, thoroughly enthusiastic hive that's well-positioned to keep on growing.
"No matter what city we fly to, I'm not gonna know everyone," Love says. "I'm not gonna study their style. It's just 'how can I adapt myself to play with people I've never played with before?' For me, personally, that's the most exciting part about Killer Queen. Playing with people I admire and see playing in other cities. Obviously there's toxic people, but as whole Killer Queen people are the least toxic of gaming communities."
Hopefully the sentiment carries over to Killer Queen Black. Matt Tesch emphasizes that in-game communication is key to Killer Queen Black—cross-platform voice chat was a "first-class" priority and there's a non-verbal pinging system—but the goal is to have a healthy communal presence online. "We know this is a great spectator sport," Tesch says. "Killer Queen arcade is super fun to watch. We have features upcoming planned to allow players to host their own community tournaments and broadcast via Twitch."
"My question is 'how big is this going to get?'" asks Chris Wallace, one of the designers of Killer Queen Black. "Will it become such a large thing that it's around the world, that there are micro-communities in a giant community that's international?"
It will be a while before we know if Killer Queen Black takes off alongside its arcade predecessor, but the journey starts today. The release of Killer Queen Black coincides with the start of the fourth annual BumbleBash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where there will be tournaments for both Killer Queen and Killer Queen Black. If any players attend specifically for Black, perhaps having played its beta but not the arcade game, then I have a good feeling they'll be welcomed by veteran arcade players with open arms.
As Krim says, in his eyes, "anything that'll get more people to play Killer Queen is great."
"It's totally not a cult," Love interjects.
"No one said that it is," Krim replies with a laugh, "but it's totally not."