How two designers transformed their field game into part of New York's homegrown arcade scene.
Bleeps, bloops and sword slashes echo around the New York University Game Center, where the world's only Killer Queen arcade cabinet currently resides. It's a sleek, symmetrical machine. From top to bottom, the blue and gold sides each sport a backlit logo, an HDTV and five joystick and button stations. It looks like it just rolled off an assembly line, not something cobbled together in an upstate New York barn.
Three hung-over contenders shuffle out of a nearby elevator, gravitating toward the dual-sided arcade cabinet in the middle of the room. They'll have to wait their turn.
Team Chicken Over Rice — five hardcore StarCraft players who've been practicing for the past two hours — occupies one side. The hastily organized group of challengers opposite them can't keep up. High fives and disappointed groans signal the end of the match.
It's July 5, and the Killer Queen Independence Tournament starts in 10 minutes.
At a small, round table 20 feet away sit Killer Queen creators Josh DeBonis and Nikita Mikros, who are too busy working on the game to glance up from their laptops. The pair of developers is rushing to finish a new build, which includes a second map and updated sprite art for the worker characters.
Mikros leans over his MacBook Air, its blue glow bouncing off his black Atari jersey. "Motherfucker," he mutters under his breath. There's a bug: the wrong animation plays when a worker enters a blue power-up gate. He furrows his brow and takes a deep breath.
More people pour out of the elevators, exchanging hugs and hellos. The crowd around the cabinet swells.
Five minutes to go.
A smile works its way across Mikros' face — bug squashed. He saves his work onto a flash drive, walks over to the cabinet and transfers the new build onto the PC inside.
DeBonis stands up and clears his throat.
Two screens, two teams
It's tough to pin a genre to Killer Queen; "real-time strategy platformer" probably comes closest. Describing it to new players, DeBonis and Mikros stick with "half Joust, half StarCraft."
"I think the Joust description is really helpful for people who know video games," says DeBonis. "They understand that you're flying, and that you kill opponents by hitting them from behind and above. Joust is a big influence on this game. But [Killer Queen] also has elements from real-time strategy games, like different types of units and a very simple economy."
Killer Queen pits two five-player teams against each other. The gold and blue forces each start with four workers and a queen, who can fly and slay opposing players with her sword. Workers can collect nectar and return it to the base, upgrade to soldiers or ride the giant snail.
The game is weird, visually charming and addictive. But right now, the only way to play it is to attend a games festival that features it, like fighting tournament Evo or classic arcade convention California Extreme, or participate in a monthly tournament at NYU's Game Center.
That's likely to change. The question is when.
A game design utopia
DeBonis and Mikros met when the Wii was codenamed "Revolution."
They were contracting for a now-defunct company called Gamelab, founded by Eric Zimmerman and Peter Lee in 2000. Located in the heart of New York's Chinatown, the studio grew to about 30 employees at its peak — not big by game industry standards, but huge for New York City, where space is scant and rent is high.
Known for games like Diner Dash and Arcadia, Gamelab was a designer-heavy company that worked hard to foster an open and inclusive culture, even among its freelancers.
"Everybody was encouraged to contribute to the design of all of the games," says DeBonis. "I think it led to a great creative environment, and probably to better games, although it may have partially led to [the company's] downfall. It's just not practical to have everybody working on everything, but I loved having the opportunity to just go in, sit in on some other game's meeting and critique the game.
"The school of thought there influenced me heavily. I was never an employee, but I felt like part of the family."
While Mikros worked on the sequel to Arcadia, a quirky PC game with four Atari-style minigames running simultaneously, DeBonis investigated the Revolution. At that time, nobody really knew the capabilities of Nintendo's GameCube successor. Gamelab handed DeBonis a development kit and told him to look into it.
He built a prototype where players controlled a blind samurai, swinging the Wii remote like a sword in response to audio cues. Unfortunately, after four months of development, Nintendo pulled the plug. DeBonis was devastated.
But it wasn't a total loss. As DeBonis worked on the game, Mikros would stop by to chat. He came for details on Nintendo's next-generation box, and stuck around for DeBonis' affable demeanor and game design chops.
The two have been fast friends ever since.
Come out and play (if you can)
A Killer Queen field game player
DeBonis and Mikros have a habit of making games that are hard to play. They're not overly difficult or poorly designed; they're just impractical.
"It's our curse and our blessing," says Mikros. "I'm sure we could do a conventional game just fine together, but we'd rather do something really fun and different."
To play Pigeon Piñata Pummel, their first collaborative effort, you need 20 piñatas stuffed with candy, poker chips and bouncy balls. Unsurprisingly, it's been played a grand total of three times.
For PPP's 2008 premiere at Come Out & Play New York, a festival of street games, DeBonis and Mikros made all 20 piñatas themselves — a reportedly hellish experience. The next two times they ran the game (at Come Out & Play San Francisco and IndieCade 2011), they smartened up and crowdsourced the piñata production. Still, it's not really feasible outside of a festival setting.
Apparently unfazed by their earlier experience, DeBonis and Mikros doubled down for their second game, Pitfall! Live at the Tank, a live-action adaptation of the classic Atari 2600 game. To generate a dynamic play space, the creators require an even more specialized setup.
"You need a theater, you need a projector, you need somewhere to hang a rope from, and you need a guy to come and install the rope so that people don't kill themselves," lists Mikros, ticking off each item with his fingers. "Oh, and a stage large enough that people can run, jump and swing."
Pitfall! Live premiered at Come Out & Play 2009 in New York. It hasn't been played since.
In 2010, DeBonis and Mikros took a break from Come Out & Play, but decided to return the following year with another entry. They began work on a physical sport for 20 players inspired by real-time strategy games.
They called it Killer Queen.
"If you give somebody a foam sword, they just have fun playing with it."
"In the beginning, Killer Queen [the field game] was inspired by ants," recalls DeBonis. "The initial idea was that you'd create scent trails by leaving these trails of string as you moved. Unsurprisingly, the string didn't work. The moment we started playing, everyone just dropped their string and completely ignored it."
DeBonis and Mikros quickly abandoned the ants concept, but kept the parts that worked: the caste system (workers, soldiers, queen) and the other props.
"If you give somebody a foam sword, they just have fun playing with it, even if they're not playing the game," continues DeBonis. "Props are just inherently playful, and people immediately know what to do with them and want to run around with them."
The original Killer Queen closely resembles the later arcade version. Like the video game, there are three ways to win: return a certain number of food pellets to your base, kill the opposing queen three times or bomb the other team's base (instead of riding a gastropod to your side, the third victory condition in the digital game).
Come Out & Play attendees loved it — and so did the festival's judges, who doled out "Most Strategic" and "Best in Fest" awards to Killer Queen.
"I really like the physical experience of Killer Queen," says Nick Fortugno, co-founder of Come Out & Play. "We give those awards to games that are exemplars of what Come Out & Play is all about, and what we really rewarded that game for was the quality of the game design. We just thought it was such a well-balanced game, and street games rarely have that kind of careful balance. It's really tight; it just works every single time."
Bees don't ride snails?
The Killer Queen arcade credits screen sports logos for Sortasoft and Smashworx, DeBonis' and Mikros' independent game studios, but the game is a passion project: there are no investors or contracts, just two developers and one local multiplayer game.
They started working on the digital version in early 2011, developing it alongside the physical game. The goal was to make Killer Queen more accessible, to allow people to bring the experience home — no need for a field, foam swords or two dozen players.
"The way that we really playtest [the video game] is by playing the field game, because the iterations are just easier to implement."
"In our minds, it was way less difficult to play, because you could boot it up on your iPhone or PC," says DeBonis. "But as we started developing it, we realized that actually you do need to come to a physical location, and you need 10 people to play it. We playtested it right away and knew it wasn't going to be a conventional video game."
By working on the two versions simultaneously, Mikros and DeBonis can take what they learn testing the field game and implement it in the digital game, which they view as Killer Queen's "flagship product."
"The way that we really playtest [the video game] is by playing the field game, because the iterations are just easier to implement," says Mikros. "We just change it, no coding involved."
Although they've both been programming for decades — Mikros started on an Apple IIe — DeBonis writes all the code for Killer Queen. DeBonis says he's not a great programmer, but Mikros disagrees, saying he's excellent at getting his ideas working and quickly iterating on them.
Killer Queen is built in Unity 3D — a bit ironic considering it's a 2D game. But regardless of game type, the user-friendly and platform-agnostic Unity engine is rapidly gaining traction in the indie community. DeBonis thinks it's nearly as ubiquitous among indie developers as the Unreal Engine has become for triple-A games.
"I love the asset store and the Unity community," he says. "I'm constantly buying middleware. We're using 2D toolkit for Killer Queen. Today, I bought three different things for client projects for $100, and that probably saved us 500 hours of work. It's unbelievable; it's almost like cheating. I'm making games faster than I ever have before."
Mikros creates all the art for the game, which has been a gratifying experience for the veteran developer. "I never get to do the art these days," he laughs. "Originally we were going to give the workers really tiny wings, but then nobody could tell what they were. And the little things on the side of the ears started off as antennae. I was like, 'That doesn't really look like antennae, but they're so cute!'"
The workers look like bear–raccoon hybrids, while the soldiers and queens seem more like bees or flies. It's far from consistent, but the disparity between the creatures gives the Killer Queen world personality.
"It's not some generic bee world," says Debonis. "Bees obviously don't ride snails, but it makes sense in our world for whatever reason."
Many players love the snail, whose origin dates back to the field game. Bombing the opposing base didn't work in the 2D environment, Mikros and DeBonis decided, so they brainstormed other victory conditions. They wanted a tug-of-war mechanic, but had yet to decide what form it would take.
When the video game was a very early prototype, the screen was vertical. To get back to your base, you'd have to go up the wall. So, they thought, what would stick to the sides? A snail! Either team could ride it back to their base for a win. Eventually, the screen returned to a horizontal view, but the snail stayed put.
"Even in the horizontal version, the snail used to slide around the corner and go up the wall, but that was just extraneous and weird so we took it out," says DeBonis. "Now our game just has a giant, ridable snail."
It's carnivorous, too — the snail devours enemy workers who cross its path, which always gets a big laugh.
"It's funny: the snail violates everything I know about game design, because when you're riding the snail, you're doing almost nothing," muses DeBonis. "You're just holding the stick in one direction; you're not making many meaningful choices — really just judging whether to stay on it or not — but it still feels super fun and empowering."
No quarter? No problem
It took $3,500 and several weeks of hard labor, but DeBonis and Mikros finished the Killer Queen arcade cabinet in late April. Although it looks mass-produced, it's one of a kind.
"My brother Tony was an enormous help in building the cabinet," says DeBonis. "And my dad. They've got all the tools, they've got the space and they've got the know-how. And we don't have any of those."
"Building the cabinet was so much fun, we had a great time," says Mikros. "When we weren't cutting plywood, we shot guns, drove pickup trucks and drank a lot of cheap, shitty beer — not all at the same time, of course."
The NYU Game Center provided DeBonis and Mikros with a commission to help cover the cost of the cabinet. In return, the duo agreed to premiere it at NYU's fourth annual No Quarter exhibition, a showing of experimental multiplayer games from indie game developers in New York.
No Quarter games are all about facilitating social interaction. Curator Charles Pratt refers to them as "New Arcade" games, built expressly to "explore the creative potential of public play."
"We try to find people who are doing weird, interesting stuff, like a five-on-five platformer," says Pratt.
Killer Queen was a hit with No Quarter attendees, drawing a massive crowd all evening. It generated the most noise in the room, with eager players bellowing non-stop cheers and chants.
A few weeks later, in the exact same place, DeBonis and Mikros held the first Killer Queen tournament. There were perhaps 60 people — not as many as No Quarter's 300, but the atmosphere was just as upbeat. More than once, the entire crowd burst out into a "Snail! Snail! Snail!" chant as one team or another approached a snail victory, prompting grins on the designers' faces.
"It's so fun watching people yell and smack each other on the back playing Killer Queen," says DeBonis. "I can't tell you how good that feels."
Going forward, DeBonis and Mikros plan to host monthly Killer Queen tournaments. They're hoping to build buzz around the game and grow the local community.
"I like to joke that it's New York's homegrown e-sport," says Pratt. "It has a weird life, because it started as this street game and transformed into an arcade cabinet for No Quarter.
"Who knows where it'll go next, but I think they're doing a great job having a tournament every month. They built this really cool, fun, competitive game, but you never know that until you actually see people play it on a high level — and it's really held up."
Nikita Mikros and Joshua DeBonis
DeBonis and Mikros want as many people to play Killer Queen as possible, but they don't want to compromise its local multiplayer experience, which has become so essential to the game's identity.
With that in mind, they're considering several options.
Mikros thinks it's no mistake the cabinet ended up at NYU. He'd like to make internet-ready cabinets and sell them to colleges.
"How cool would it be if you're a student at NYU, and you could play locally there, but your team could also play a team at Caltech? It's perfect for colleges. The cabinets would be expensive, for sure, but if they were in a college setting — maybe they charge a quarter, or maybe the school buys the cabinet for the students up front. Either way, student unions would be an ideal setting."
They've also tossed around the idea of building custom hardware and selling it directly to consumers, like a five-player controller that houses a computer. These internet-ready devices would probably go for $100 a pop. It's a pricey proposition, but they think they could garner enough support on Kickstarter to make it happen. They'd treat it like a platform, pushing out new content on a semi-regular basis.
"It'd be nice to make some money, but we really just want to do something cool for the community."
Ultimately, they might buckle and sell the software on the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live or Steam.
"It'd be nice to make some money," says Mikros, "but we really just want to do something cool for the community. Something would be lost if we just released it as a PC game. That's our dilemma."
Whatever happens, "it's been a pleasure to work on this game," says DeBonis, smiling. "I'm excited to see what happens next."
DeBonis and Mikros are just happy Killer Queen exists. Asked to share the high point of their professional careers, both of them say "now."
Images: Josh DeBonis, Nikita Mikros, Nintendo
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan