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Introducing Killer Queen: The world's first 10-player arcade strategy game

How a team-based strategy platformer is rejuvenating the arcade scene.

Conventional logic dictates that when one creates a product, they should make it available to the widest market possible. How else can one explain the popularity of mobile games being produced in the modern era? Yet Killer Queen developers Nikita Mikros and Joshua DeBonis have gone the opposite route by creating an arcade cabinet-exclusive that very few have the opportunity to play.

It's a quirky proposition for an even quirkier game. Killer Queen's concept of a five vs five strategy game/minimalist platformer eschews conventional arcade game design in a lot of ways that seem ludicrous, but are secretly brilliant.

On the surface, Killer Queen has everything stacked against it. Besides being currently limited to five public locations across the United States, it requires a minimum of eight people to really get a good game going. That's a lot of people to round up! Furthermore, it's a completely new IP with no familiar template from which to draw from. And finally, it's just plain confounding to play - at least at first.

Here's how it works: Up to five players square off against an opposing team on a 2D terrain. Like Quidditch before it, there are multiple ways to win Killer Queen. The simplest is to collect a slew of berries and bring them back to your base. The second is to ride a slowly moving snail towards your goal. The entire point of this is to subtly creep to winning status while your opponents are lost in the commotion. And the third win condition is to slay your enemy's queen three times.

This is easier said than done. You see, each team has four grunts and one queen. The queen has wings allowing her to flutter about like the avatars in Joust. The grunts, however, merely run around on the ground and need to level up before they have any offensive capabilities. This requires them bringing berries to gates tagged by your team's queen.

Confused yet? Maybe this gameplay video will demonstrate it better, but the point is this: Killer Queen is not an easy game to grasp... even if its controls are limited to a single button and an analogue stick.

Cover image for YouTube video

Initially, when the game first premiered in a San Francisco arcade in Jan 2014, it didn't take off.

"That location we determined was just not a good spot for it," said DeBonis in an interview with Eurogamer. "There wasn't enough foot traffic and also the game wasn't as developed as it is now... It was the first time we had charged for the game and maybe an audience that was maybe not quite as savvy about indie games. So we learned a lot from doing it."

Yet this curio's luck changed dramatically last July when Mikros and DeBonis brought the game to Logan Arcade in Chicago. At this location it quickly became a spectacle, raking in two-to-three times as much as any other cabinet.

"That's when we started realising that there was a lot of commercial potential for the game," DeBonis said. "It took a little time to build, but it then built quickly and it built this energy that's now huge. And we realised that it was making a lot of money. It had very, very avid fans. Passionate fans. And the cool thing to us is they were building this community without us."

Sure enough, Killer Queen has experienced a similar trajectory in my part of the world, Portland, Oregon, where it's quite the attraction at the arcade/bar Ground Kontrol. Event manager Art Santana couldn't disclose how much money Killer Queen makes, but he said it's been more than justifying its gargantuan real estate, which he estimates could hold six or seven other cabinets instead. Ground Kontrol now hosts regular tournaments and league nights devoted to Killer Queen.

At a regular league night I meet a group of 10 or so Killer Queen fanatics who are diligently honing their strategies. When I explain why I'm here, I'm introduced to a young gaunt man named Mathew "Metsumat" Herring, who founded this merry band of Killer Queen enthusiasts.

Actually, Herring founded a Portland-based fighting game league (PDXFGC), then roped his cohorts into adding Killer Queen to their roster. "We found this and were seeing a lot of similarities to fighting games," Herring tells me. "You can outmind your opponant to a victory as opposed to doing the basic physical stuff that the game presents initially.

"We had a lot of fun for one night, but we didn't really have a lot of organisation or people to play with. So we went home, we looked it up online and we found that a little bit of tournament footage from Chicago. I then just spent hours and hours and hours analysing this tournament footage and fell in love with the game.

"So we've really come together to try to bring people in hoards down here and try to strategise and work together... We continue to grow as players and [will] hopefully grow this scene as it's an amazing game and it's one that we'd like to see blossom in arcades."

It's certainly blossoming at Ground Kontrol, where it's the only Killer Queen cabinet in the western half of the US. Only one tournament has occurred so far at this location, but it's managed to draw in nine teams of five a piece. That's not a huge number by most standards, but given its seemingly niche appeal, lack of marketing, and that it had only been around a few months, that's not a bad draw - especially given that its first place prize was only $50. Split that five ways and it wouldn't even begin to make up for the amount of quarters these diehard Killer Queen fanatics pumped into the machine to practice. But playing Killer Queen was never about making money for these folks. It was about having fun.

Killer Queen cabinets cost between $11,500 and $14,000 depending on what bells and whistles are included in its presentation.

That isn't to say these Killer Queen players don't take the game seriously. "The second I played it I was already looking up YouTube videos," Herring says. "In between matches I was watching the Chicago tournament footage."

"We then came down here for a freeplay night and were able to play about six hours straight," he says. That seems pretty intensely dedicated if you ask me, yet despite this rigorous training, Herring's team only managed to place third. "We were met with just an onslaught of warriors in the semi-finals and we couldn't adapt in time. It just opened our eyes to just how vast this game is and how much we can come up with."

So Killer Queen is certainly a deep game, but how does something this complex draw people in? There's a few schools of thought on that.

One is its size. It just plain looks bizarre. Comprised of two cabinets (one for each team), each the size of a police box, it's certainly eye catching.

Another possible draw is its inscrutability is to its favour. "It's definitely more complex than most arcade games. Most arcade games are just boiling things down to 'you shoot something' or 'you drive around a track.,'" says DeBonis. "In a lot of arcades period, but especially in newer ones, they just keep getting simpler and simpler. The game may not be that complex for a video game, but for an arcade game we realise it's very complex, but that's one of the things that makes it stand out. People see it and it doesn't hold your hand. There's some real depth there, but it's still approachable enough that you can figure out how to play."

But perhaps Killer Queen's most stealthily clever tactic is its innovative pricing structure. You see, the game only costs $2 for all 10 players to play. And unlike most co-op arcade games like The Simpsons or TMNT, Killer Queen doesn't add extra players for putting in more money. It's $2 or bust with a player count of 10 no matter what.

"Because it's nebulous who pays, people try it for free," Mikros says. "The more experienced players will pay and then they need more players so they [find people to] try it out for free and that's working in our favour."

"We see people recruiting players to fill in the extra spaces because it unlocks all 10 players regardless," DeBonis says. "So people will say, 'hey, come play with us. We need two more people.' The sphere of the game is really social. But also just the game growing, it's massively viral in that sense."

That's certainly the case with Herring and his rag-tag scallywags. The first night he encountered Killer Queen he arrived at the arcade with only one other friend in tow. "It would be me and him on one side paying for the whole thing just to get people to play against us, because people didn't want to pay to play," he recalls. "If we paid for them to play, we could at least get some practice."

When you actually break down the maths, it's impossible to make 10 people pay for a $2 game with quarters. So at least a couple of folks are playing each round pro bono. Ostensibly, most rounds are played with only a few folks coughing up any cash. The idea is that they'll get hooked subbing a support role on someone else's dime, then rave about it to their friends and bring them into the fold as paying customers. Killer Queen is like a gateway drug: the first hit is on the house.

Pro-tip: Evolve into a speedier character (lightning gates) THEN morph into a warrior (wing gates). You'll be fast and able to attack this way.

This sense of communal capital is likely only enhanced by booze. Sporting a flat control panel adorned with cup holders, Killer Queen hangs its social hat proudly on its head. "The game says 'hey it's okay to have a beer and play this,'" DeBonis says.

"For every dollar that goes in, it probably makes $10 in drinks," Mikros laughs. "It seems to do well in places with alcohol. I think that's due to the social nature of it."

"In Chicago really intense friendships have formed [over Killer Queen]," Mikros adds. "People have become really, really good friends because of the game. Partly due to the fact that the game demands so much teamwork. That's a win in our column."

Indeed, the league night players I see never ask each other for money. Instead they willingly cough up quarters for the kitty. Phrases like "I got some", "how much do we need?", and "let me get some more" are frequently uttered throughout the night.

Things are already looking up for this little big cabinet that could. While Mikros and DeBonis can't say much about it, they're in talks with a publisher about expanding it to other regions (Mikros says it will be in the UK "hopefully very soon"), tech firms have been buying private cabinets for their employees (the New York-based Kickstarter office has their own), and the arcade scene in general is seemingly on the rise.

"We're seeing a lot of these kind of barcades pop up," Mikros says. "So there's that market, which I think is starting to grow."

DeBonis notes that Killer Queen is in a good position to capitalise on this movement with its emphasis on retro gameplay, modern design and social interaction. "One thing that's pretty hot is retro game. The nostalgia is a big factor. But we're starting to see people getting a little tired of the same old games," he says. "There's definitely a lot of people wanting to play local multiplayer games at arcades, so that's what we're trying to fill. The multiplayer games: TMNT, X-Men, The Simpsons... stuff like that tends to be the most popular."

But really it's the fans that are growing this peculiar product into a niche sensation. "If any game has an opportunity to create a resurgence, this would definitely be it," Herring states. "Bringing multiple people together to play competitively is something you don't see outside of here. It's organic almost. It's amazing!"