A conversation with Matt Tesch, Josh DeBonis, and Nik Mikros about the upcoming ports
Killer Queen is one of the best times you can have at an arcade, but right now it’s pretty hard to find a game. It’s a lot tougher to distribute arcade machines around the country than it used to be, so you’ve probably never had the opportunity to play it unless you live near a major city in the United States. Developer Liquid Bit is aiming to change that with Killer Queen Black, a total overhaul of Killer Queen that will release for the Nintendo Switch and PC later this year.
For those who haven’t played, each match starts on a single symmetrical screen, and teams get one Queen and four Worker bears. You can win the game by one of three possible victory conditions: Military, Economic, or Snail. A military victory comes when your team manages to take out the opposing Queen three times in a single match; no small feat because she’s far faster and more deadly than anyone else. Economic victories involve bringing a specific number of berries back to your home base. Berries can also be spent at upgrade stations called Gates to make your Workers into Warriors, so you have to decide early on whether it’s worth spending this currency or saving it. Upgrade stations can be flipped by the queens, locking out bears that aren’t her color. Finally, there’s a slow-moving snail somewhere on each map, and managing to ride it all the way to your team’s side will result in victory. The player riding the snail is largely defenseless, though unwary players can be eaten by the snail if it’s being ridden by someone on the other team. The snail becomes a focal point for both teams and can’t be ignored forever, but getting it all the way across the map is probably the most difficult way to win.
As you can imagine there’s a lot going on in a match at any given time, but Killer Queen manages to keep players feeling like they’re in control even when chaos is going on all around them. The single screen and simple mechanics make it feel like a retro title, but the large HD screens and high player count couldn’t have been done in the arcade’s heyday. Killer Queen‘s arcade version pits two teams of up to five players against one another, and a good competitive match can easily get all ten people involved hollering at the screen. With so many moving parts and three potential victory conditions, games of Killer Queen always require players to adjust their strategies on the fly.
I had the opportunity to speak with three of Killer Queen Black‘s developers a few days ago, and they let me know more about the upcoming PC and Switch versions. Read on for the transcript of that interview.
Destructoid: Thank you all for your time today. Before we begin, could each of you please explain what you do?
Matt Tesch: I’m the CEO of Liquid Bit, and working in the capacity of producer on Killer Queen Black.
Josh DeBonis: I’m the president and game designer at BumbleBear.
Nikita Mikros: I’m the CEO and game designer at BumbleBear games, and I’m acting as art director on Killer Queen Black.
D: So I’ve only played the arcade version, and I’ve only played a couple of times since it is kinda hard to find right now. It’s sort of like a mythical arcade game because it’s hard to play, hard to find. How excited are you guys to be getting it in front of more people?
MT: Super excited!
JD: Where did you play it?
D: I tried it out at California Extreme a couple of weeks ago, they had the big setup there.
JD: Oh, we love California Extreme. We’ve been there several times.
NM: I wish I could’ve gone this year.
D: The game has only been in arcades and barcades so far. How many units have you guys put out there?
MT: There’s about a hundred out there now.
NM: It kind of depends where you are, right? Like in Seattle it’s quite easy to find. But then, there’s a lot of places in the country that don’t have any. Like, Southern California currently doesn’t have any, but they’re about to get five. Red Bull just bought a bunch, and they want to seed them all over Southern California.
Image via Videoamusement.com
D: When I was playing I kind of noticed it’s more important to be observant than skilled to win, there’s kind of a tradeoff between watching what your opponent is doing and trying to achieve victory yourself. Everything is right in front of you, but it’s up to the players to notice if the enemy team is close to one of the three victory conditions. What percentage of winning would you say is dependent on watching the other team rather than working on your own goals?
MT: Depends on what position you’re playing. I think if you’re Queen, then it’s super important that you be able to read the board. Like, you need to be able to scan the entire screen very quickly, process that information, and know where exactly you need to be.If you’re a worker or warrior, it’s more task-oriented. So it’s less about… well, you need to be cognizant of what’s going on on-screen as well, but not as much as the Queen.
JD: And at the highest levels, certainly all the players know everything that’s happening, and they’re all yelling at one another, what the enemies are doing, what they’re about to do.
MT: And some teams even have coaches. Like, a sixth player who’s just basically monitoring everything.
D: Just kinda standing behind them and whispering in their ear?
JD: Yeah. But I would say that at the highest level, rarely is somebody surprised.
NM: Oh yeah, no one is surprised.
JD: No one is surprised by the strategy, they never don’t realize what’s happening. Now, at more causal levels, surprises happen all the time. Especially with the snail. It’s interesting, casual people see the snail as a really sneaky victory, but at a competitive level it’s not at all. I like how there’s that difference depending on how you’re playing and who you’re playing with.
MT: Yeah, I mean on a competitive level snail is the primary way to win at this point.
D: Really? That surprises me.
MT: Well, because it can force a lot of military victories. And there’s a lot of players who’ve gotten really good at military at this point. So the meta has kinda shifted in that direction, where early on it was all about economic victories.
D: Interesting. So, Killer Queen seems to work best when your team coordinates with one another and communicates, assigning roles, that kind of thing. One of the platforms you’re releasing on, well, Nintendo online is difficult to use right now, and it’s difficult to communicate at all if you’re not using their app. It’s much easier if your team is all standing right next to you. Is there anything to help compensate for that in the new version, stuff like alerts only your team can see?
MT: Yeah, well, that’s something that we’re obviously aware of, and I think we agree with your assessment. Yeah, we’re prototyping out ways for non-verbal communication. So how can we do the common kind of cues that players at the arcade do verbally, like where they’re yelling out “Snail!” or yelling out “Econ!” or “I need a gate!” or something like that in an environment without voice chat, specifically on Nintendo? So we have every intention of building mechanisms for non-verbal communication to enable some of the more common kind of alerts that players may be yelling at each other when they’re sitting at an arcade.
D: That’s great, glad to hear that. Another thing, since the game has been cut from ten to eight players, are there any other changes for balance, like less berries? Or does removing a player on both sides pretty much leave things the same?
MT: I’ll let Josh take that one, but no, there’s not less berries, and Josh can go into the specific reasons we cut it from ten down to eight.
JD: Sure, so the entire map, or play area has been scaled down accordingly. I don’t know if it’s exactly 4/5 the size, but it’s approximately 4/5. And in the way that it plays, everyone has about proportionally the same amount of space per player. As far as the number of berries, it’s interesting because we don’t really think about it exactly that way. It’s more like, we design a map… Huh, let me count. Looks like on this map we’re working on right now there’s eight flowers worth of berries and in arcade there’s like 11, maybe 13. So this is all fully subject to change, and this is one map, but it looks like yeah, there are proportionally fewer berries.
NM: But there’s the same amount of berry holes.
JD: That’s true, that’s a good point. Even with fewer players, you still need to get the same amount of berries to win an economic victory. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One, when you’re running for econ, no matter how many people are playing, the optimal point from a game theory perspective is to have one player delivering berries and the other players fighting the other team as soldiers. So that’s true whether you have four people on your team or five. And then the other thing is, it’s faster to deliver berries in Killer Queen Black, largely because you can throw berries in this version. Especially early in the game where there’s a lot of berry holes available, you can throw them in pretty quickly as opposed to Killer Queen where you have to actually run them in and hand-deliver each one. Towards the end of the game it becomes harder to throw them in because it’s tough to aim, and you can waste a lot of time trying.
NM: I think we also tend to balance the game more around the snail speed, too. That’s what we kinda keep tweaking all the time. That relationship to the berries, the berries always stay constant, and then the snail speed kind of shifts. They’re kind of interdependent in a lot of ways.
MT: All win conditions are interdependent. It’s very difficult to separate out and say, “Oh, it’s easier to get a military victory in Killer Queen Black than the arcade, or economic, or snail victory” because, as we’ve seen, the more pressure you put on one objective, it usually forces a different objective to come to pass. If you’re close on berries, the Queen’s gotta commit to defending their base, now she’s out in the open, and that can lead to a military victory. Or they’re pushing the snail, and you’re kind of committing a player to do that and not running for an economic victory. So you can try a snail strategy, but the outcome of that will be a military victory because it’s forcing the other team and the other Queen to commit to defending it.
D: Interesting. Will you be able to make alterations to the code if one of the strategies ends up being dominant, or is that something you don’t want to mess with?
MT: No, absolutely. We’ll fine-tune this thing up to an hour before we actually submit for release, and afterwards indefinitely. This game is heavily instrumented, so we get a lot of data, everything from the percentage of specific victories per map to which weapon is more powerful against a different weapon, and we’ll be constantly tuning this to enable the most balanced experience.
D: Great. Now, the arcade version is strictly a multiplayer game. Do you have any plans for a single player mode, like bots, or practice, or is there any plan for a story mode?
JD: Yes, there is. I wouldn’t call it a story mode, but definitely a single-player mode. At launch, our goal is to have a single-player tutorial which teaches you how to play the game without having to… so you can learn it without getting in the way of other players in a multiplayer environment. That’s going to be very short. But our goal is to use that same system post-launch to release a bunch of single-player content. More like challenges that you have to play through. Not really a story per se, but it’ll be new content that’s meant specifically for that style of play. And one of the really exciting things about that to me is, in the multiplayer maps everything has to be symmetrical because it needs to be balanced between the teams. With single-player content, we can make some very different types of maps with asymmetry between the teams, in the actual level design, the layout of the platforms, or whatever. There’s a lot of possibilities there, we’ve only really started scratching the surface of what we can do with that. I’m curious to see what we can come up with, it hasn’t really been our priority or focus since we want to get the multiplayer right first. But we’ll start prototyping some of that stuff pretty soon.
D: OK, great. So going back to multiplayer, some other Nintendo games like Splatoon 2 have supported LAN (Local Area Network) play, and obviously so do PCs. Is Killer Queen Black going to be a game you can play in a LAN setting?
MT: Yeah, on Nintendo Switch we’re going to have the wireless networking mode built in, so if you have two Switches connected to your LAN you’ll be able to play eight players local.
D: Fantastic. I see that you’re describing Killer Queen Black as being built from the ground up. I noticed some of the art is different, like there’s an outline around the sprites in the new version. Is that to make things easier to see on the Switch version?
NM: So on this version, we redid all the art. Nothing carries over from the old game. I mean, the concepts are the same, the characters are the same, but we re-rendered all the art and it has a really different art direction than the original game. I’d describe Killer Queen as D.I.Y. Punk, and this is much more like, Metal. That’s the way we’re thinking about it, and when we were originally thinking about, “Well, what does this game look like?” we put together a mood board, and we’re like “Yeah, it should be a little bit of Glam Rock, a little bit Metal” and that’s the direction that we took. And there’s no information about the audio yet, but we’re kind of exploring those avenues in the audio as well.
D: I read on your Twitter that Killer Queen was originally inspired by an actual field game, could one of you tell me a little more about that? Was it kinda like a Calvinball thing, or how did that come to be?
NM: So, me and Josh used to do a lot of these field games for this festival called Come Out And Play. We did that for a few years where you would kind of make these physical games for people to play. The last one that we did of that style was the Killer Queen field game, which then we decided the year after to make a digital version.
D: I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the other inspirations. There’s a lot of classic arcade games that seem to have some of their DNA in Killer Queen. Like the vertical and side-to-side movement, is that kinda inspired by going through tunnels in Pac-Man?
JD: You’re talking about the wraparound, right?
D: Yes, exactly.
JD: Yeah. I don’t think it’s Pac-Man exactly, it’s kind of inspired by a lot of those classic arcade games, it was a technique used in a lot of them, and certainly that was an influence.
D: Is it just more of a function of being a single-screen game, that you wanted to have that kind of mobility?
JD: Yeah, exactly. We wanted to increase the size of the map without adding scrolling or making a bigger screen. So it basically gives us more space in practice without actually changing anything. And it adds to the weirdness of the game, and the retro feel of it.
NM: There’s also some really nice mechanics that come out of it. Not only does it make the map feel larger in whatever direction it wraps, but if you’re a Queen floating towards the bottom of the map and you dive down, wrap vertically and kill someone at the top of the map who never sees you coming, that’s incredibly satisfying.
D: (laughs) Right.
NM: So that adds a specific nuance and strategy to play, then. It works really well.
JD: And Nik and I, for whatever reason, it seems like we really like wraparound. We design a lot of games that use wraparound and a lot of which are prototypes and unreleased. Even ones we’ve released though, we really like wraparound.
NM: I mean, for me, it’s the kind of thing where most modern games don’t have wrap, but I grew up on a ton of games that wrapped. Like it’s just kind of in my brain, that’s part of the toolbox. Most people now grew up on sidescrollers, or whatever, and just never had that so it seems very foreign to them. But for me, it’s very familiar. It’s not weird at all.
D: Yeah, that does make it feel like a retro game to me, so I definitely see your point there. I haven’t actually played as a Queen before, but how about the Queen controls? Seems like there might be some Joust in there maybe? What were some of the other inspirations?
MT: Yeah, I mean, Joust is definitely an influence for sure. Even though if you play Joust side by side with Killer Queen you realize how different those flying mechanics are. But then the queen also has the dive, which is not in Joust. It’s almost like something I always wanted to be in Joust, you know what I’m saying?
D: Yeah, if you had like a butt-stomp move in Joust that’d be pretty cool. So let’s see… weapons are new to this version. No dynamite, but laser beams are incoming. That reminds me, how did the title come about? You guys big Queen fans? Any worries about the Mercury estate making you change the title?
JD: Nah, we’re not worried about that. Trademarks are domain specific. As far as the name, Nik and I both love the band Queen, both love a lot of music. The title came about because we had made the field game, and it was originally called Red vs. Black. That was our working title. It was inspired by ants, and one player was the ant queen, and she was the most powerful but also a liability, and that’s still part of the game. And when the game was fully designed we said, “OK, what do we call this?” And it was just obvious that Killer Queen should be the title.
NM: Yeah, it was like the easiest name… for me, it was the easiest name I’ve ever come up with for a game. I looked at Josh, he looked at me, we’re like, “Killer Queen” and then we’re like “Yep! Sounds good.”
I couldn’t NOT at least link this song, right?
D: Yep, that makes a lot of sense. So you said it was previously based on ants. How did you come upon bears as the final design?
NM: That’s kind of like a long evolution. Like for instance, they have little ears, but those things actually started off as antennae. So as the design evolved, they started looking more like bears, so I was like, “Well, let’s double down on that.” And I think it kind of adds to the weirdness of the game, like everybody calls them bees! But they’re clearly Bears! Or raccoons, maybe, because they have that band…
D:The mask, yeah.
NM: But raccoons are technically bears! So it just keeps getting crazier and weirder the more you think about it. And it is interesting how people’s minds will map the idea that this is a bee, even though it’s clearly a bear. It never ceases to astound me, especially at the beginning when scenes were coming up, how many bee memes would come out of that scene. And they just kinda took to it, and I think the name has a lot to do with that. A lot of people just call it Killer Bee at the beginning. Bees just resonate, I guess.
JD: The thing that shocks me is that the people who make our T-shirts, we sent them our design and they had no idea who we were or anything about the game. The shirt does not say Killer Queen, it just shows characters on it. And their internal name for it was “Pixel Bees.” And when we saw the invoice for it, we were like, “How did they know they were bees? There’s nothing on the shirt that looks like a bee.” Yet they knew.
D: Are there any secrets in the new version we should be looking for?
MT: Well, if we told you, they wouldn’t be a secret.
D: Heh. Well, you can acknowledge their existence without giving it away.
JD: Well, one of the interesting things about it being a competitive game is it’s tough to have secrets, at least in the competitive aspect. I’m sure we’ll have some Easter eggs and little secrets hidden once we have the single player content. But we like the fact in the competitive part that it’s all very transparent. We try to make it as clear as possible how everything works and what’s there and everyone has equal access.
MT: It’s very chess-like, it’s super open.
NM: That being said though, from a product design side we have ideas for weapons that we haven’t talked to anybody about that we’re going to continue to iterate on that, adding new weapons and levels. I wouldn’t necessarily call those, like, game secrets, you’re not going to unlock them. There’s more content coming down the pipe that is secret that we haven’t really discussed with the audience.
D: All right, cool. And last question, any tips for new players since a lot of people haven’t been able to try it out yet?
JD: Don’t assume that your skills from Killer Queen arcade will translate to Killer Queen Black. I mean, certainly the knowledge of how to play the game does, and that’s one of the beauties of it. If you know how to play either one of the games, you will know like 80% of how to play the other, and it’s really easy to pick the other one up. But it’s difficult to get good at it. It’s a different strategy, different controls, and a different way of thinking.
NM: It’s like Italian and Spanish, right? Like, if you know Italian, you can kind of understand Spanish but it also screws you up at the same time.
D: All right. Well, I don’t have any other questions, so thank you all very much for agreeing to the interview. I do appreciate your time, and I’ll be looking forward to the release. You guys are putting it out this Winter, do you have any more detail on the date yet, or is that kind of dependent on when it’s done?
MT: A little bit of A, a little bit of B. We have a date internally that we’re pretty locked into, but we want to announce that a little closer to release when we’re 100% sure, so we’re sticking with this Winter.
D: All right. Well, thank you all very much, I’ll look forward to trying out the full version when it’s done.