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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Inside <i>Killer Queen</i>, the addictive arcade sensation that’s spawned its own subculture

Inside Killer Queen, the addictive arcade sensation that’s spawned its own subculture

Photo: Ezekiel Ornelas

It’s Saturday afternoon at Logan Arcade, and all eyes are on a blue cartoon bee in a stripped sweater, slowly riding a snail past a goal line. This isn’t an unusual spectacle at the Chicago arcade bar, whose large selection of classic coin-ops, pinball machines, and licensed light-gun blockbusters all seem to lead to two large, colorful cabinets pressed back to back in the back room. The game is Killer Queen, a madly addictive, fast-paced, 10-player strategy sensation that dominates Logan Arcade like a queen bee nestled into the center of its hive. Killer Queen almost always draws a crowd, because it’s nearly as fun to watch as it is to play. Which is maybe surprising, because what you’re sometimes watching is a bee sitting on a snail, inching to victory.

On this particular weekend, the last one of June, the whole bar belongs to the bugs. A couple hundred players, divided into groups of five, have traveled from all over the country to compete in KQXXX, the 30th national Killer Queen tournament. Some teams wear matching shirts; others look like they walked out of the music video for Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” Many of the usual cabinets that sit side by side against the far wall of the arcade have been stored away to make room for a row of tables—a makeshift control booth from which a team of fellow enthusiasts live-stream the action to Twitch, offering color commentary on every match. The coffee is free, but almost nobody seems to need it. They’re already, ahem, buzzed on the competition.

The first Killer Queen tournament, held in 2014, pitted just four teams against each other. This time around, organizers capped participation at 42 teams. It’s a reflection of how much the indie game has exploded, in popularity and visibility, over the past five years. Whereas Logan Arcade once housed the only public cabinet, Killer Queen can now be found in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Baltimore, and several other major American cities. Each of these “scenes” has its own community, its own league night, its own reigning champs. In Chicago, the latter includes Helen Lau, who’s been playing for almost five years and is featured on the interstitial gameplay videos that run on the cabinets themselves. “I was immediately hooked,” recalls Lau, who’s all but mastered the game’s chief offensive position of “speed warrior.”

Illustration for article titled Inside Killer Queen, the addictive arcade sensation that’s spawned its own subculture
Photo: Ezekiel Ornelas

Two teams assume control of opposing color-coded colonies of vaguely humanoid bee creatures. Whether you’re on the blue or gold side, the routes to victory are the same. You can fill your hive, a.k.a. home base, with berries piled around the map. You can kill the opposing team’s queen—a lanky, flying, wasplike character controlled by a single player. And there is, of course, the trusty snail, which sits at the middle of the map, waiting to be slid into a goal on the right or left side. All paths to a win depend on some degree of cooperation, and the sheer volume of players required assures that you’re often teaming with strangers. “You would have to try to not make friends,” insists Aaron Goldberg, who organized KQXXX. Indeed, a belief in the importance of social interaction is literally coded into the game; “Meet Thy Neighbor” flashes across the screen between matches, like a parent arranging a play date for their shy kid.

Many of the diehards have answered this call to bond and then some. For them, Killer Queen has become more than just a game. “People have found jobs and made lasting friendships,” says Belia Portillo, director of PR and marketing at BumbleBear Games, the company that makes Killer Queen. “I’m going to my first wedding for people who met playing the game!” Like some of the staff of BumbleBear, Portillo was hired straight out of the Killer Queen community, and she seems to know everyone from every scene. Despite a close relationship between the game’s makers and its fans, the company isn’t directly involved in the marketing or planning of the regional events, nor does it sponsor the league nights. (Only BumbleBash, the largest annual gathering of Killer Queen fans, is officially organized and promoted by BumbleBear.) “Bar owners just buy a machine, put it down, and a community forms around it,” says Portillo.

Killer Queen was originally conceived as a field sport, not an eSport. Its creators, Nikita Mikros and Josh DeBonis, who met while both were working at the New York studio Gamelab, eventually folded elements of that early version into the video game, while incorporating principles of European board games and mechanics from some of the classic arcade and 8-bit console titles the two grew up playing. “We were designing it as we were building it,” admits DeBonis, who put together the first cabinet with his father, his brother, and Mikros over a few weekends, before debuting it at NYU’s indie-game showcase No Quarter in 2013. The two knew pretty quickly they had something special on their hands, and soon merged their respective companies, Tiny Mantis and Sortasoft.

BumbleBear remains a small operation, with just seven full-time employees, most of whom wear multiple hats. Killer Queen’s main market is arcade bars like Logan, though plenty of private companies have purchased cabinets. (As Mikros puts it, “It’s literally team-building.”) Besides its sleeper smash, BumbleBear has a new game slowly creeping into venues: the single-player Black Emperor, inspired by Japanese motorcycle movies. (It looks punishingly difficult, at least to this casual gamer.) The company is also gearing up for the release of Killer Queen Black, a kind of home-console reimagining of its flagship title, set to hit the Nintendo Switch this fall. When asked how an online-play version squares with Killer Queen’s guiding get-off-the-couch-and-make-friends philosophy, everyone is quick to insist that it’s a different game.

“There will never be a true home-console version of Killer Queen,” says Matt Tesch of Liquid Bit, the Chicago-based game development studio Mikros and DeBonis have hired to loosely port their baby (or grub?) to the Switch. “Trust me, we tried! It didn’t work. The tap rate is too high. The mechanics with the joystick, as opposed to a controller or a keyboard, are so totally different. Not to mention that we’re introducing some sort of latency with playing over the internet.” Instead of faithfully recreating Killer Queen, Liquid Bit has fashioned a slightly more complicated interpretation. It’s four on four, instead of five on five. There are six maps, instead of three. The queen, who in the original can strike only with a vertical dive-bomb motion, has a horizontal attack. And there are a variety of new weapons, including a throwing star and a laser gun.

“It’s going to have its own community around it,” says Mikros, and one can understand his desire to preemptively distinguish—or maybe even protect—the thriving, inclusive Killer Queen culture from the much larger group of online gamers that will soon have instant access to Killer Queen Black. After all, the impossibility of anonymity is probably why the KQ community has remained, according to players and creators alike, so positive. That, and diligent self-policing. “I think we have one of the strictest community policies surrounding any instances of homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and sexual harassment,” says Portillo, who notes that players have been banned from tournaments for such behavior. “We’re very strict, because generally gaming environments are male-dominated and not places where women always feel safe.”

According to Portillo, this zero-tolerance approach has resulted in a much more diverse community. Reportedly, about 30% of those who signed up for KQXXX are women or femme-identifying—a much higher percentage, Portillo claims, that what you’ll find at many competitive video-game events. “At [Super] Smash [Bros.] tournaments, there’s one girl, and everyone’s asking who she’s there with.” And of course, the fact that Killer Queen is played mostly at bars only increases the importance of identifying problems quickly. “It’s a social game,” admits Portillo. “You’re standing right next to each other. Everybody’s drinking. We need to be very fucking careful with that.” By most accounts, the community has managed to keep abusive behavior to a minimum. “It’s a really good culture of self-regulation and communication,” agrees Dexter Chacko, BumbleBear’s official Arcade Technician. It seems to be working; at a glance, the most toxic thing about KQXXX is the Malort, the truly repulsive Chicago liqueur everyone downs at the end of the tournament.

On Sunday, the second and final day of KQXXX, the gameplay gets tighter and the ranks get thinner. Teams have begun dropping like, well, a different species of winged insect. Among those knocked out of both the main bracket and the second-chance losers’ bracket are, to my surprise, Mikros and DeBonis. “It’s a disadvantage,” the former answers when I ask if actually having designed the game gives them any kind of edge. “You have a certain vision for how you think the game should be played. It’s hard to see it objectively.”

They’re too close to their creation, in other words. Those who have truly mastered Killer Queen have learned to rethink its mechanics, to find loopholes in its physics; take, for example, the “backwards dive,” a queen attack that top players essentially pioneered a couple years ago. When I ask if the community ever goes easy on them out of reverence, the two break into laughter. “I don’t think they know how to take it easy,” says DeBonis. “I see them play against beginners, and I’m like, ‘What are you people doing? You’re just destroying them!’” It’s one of the funny paradoxes of the community: The veterans are endlessly welcoming to new blood—and absolutely merciless about spilling it.

Illustration for article titled Inside Killer Queen, the addictive arcade sensation that’s spawned its own subculture
Photo: Ezekiel Ornelas

Part of the immediate appeal of Killer Queen is its deceptive simplicity. As Mikros notes, first-time players can immediately pick up the game, proving useful as “objective runners.” But as the skill level increases, just being able to perform basic drone tasks no longer cuts it. “You can’t win a game without military, not anymore,” says Sarah Greenwood, whose team, Melissophilia (that’s a sexual attraction to bees, for those curious), gets knocked out toward the end of the tournament. “When the game was very new, you could maybe collect berries and get lucky, if you had a very good queen. Now, you need military to control your objectives.” And it’s true: Almost no one on Sunday seems to win through the so-called economic route, the hoarding of berries. It’s all relentless battles between queens and warriors. Plus, you know, the snail.

Coordination, again, is key. That’s what Andrew Quang, one of Chicago’s (and hence, the country’s) best players, tells me. His sentiments are echoed by Sam Beckman, who works for Google and “queens” for LL Sad J, the top-ranking team from New York. (Both are cagey about discussing strategy, which is probably smart, given that they’re surrounded by their closest competition.) Many of the game’s best, it’s becoming clear, play as the queen—a role that’s treated as a leadership position, freighted not just with the responsibility of annihilating enemy warriors and staying alive but also delegating tasks and devising plans. “The queen has become a defensive player,” Beckman tells me. “You can think of it like the queen in chess. You can’t just put her out there. She’s definitely the strongest piece, but if you just play your queen forward, you’re going to lose.”

“Easy to learn, difficult to master,” is how Portillo succinctly describes the game. “Every move counts at this level of gameplay,” she continues. “There’s no room for mistakes.” She introduces me to Woody Stanfield, who queens for the Chicago-based team Uh. I get his opinion on my amateur strategy, which involves alternating berry runs with snail duty, jumping to one when things get too hot around the other. That’s a “split-track” approach, he tells me, before explaining why it’s boneheaded: “When your team is running a full-fledged operation around an objective, and you have people constantly moving in that space and constantly looking to score on you, that eight seconds you take to leave is really screwing everyone over.” That’s how close games get when you’re playing at the top level: Even eight seconds can cost you a win.

Illustration for article titled Inside Killer Queen, the addictive arcade sensation that’s spawned its own subculture
Photo: Ezekiel Ornelas

Stanfield runs a YouTube channel and Facebook page called Killer Queen Flight School with Baltimore player Eric Clarkson, who’s working on a documentary about Killer Queen and its subculture. The two offer how-to videos, strategy series, and tournament predictions. Like most of the game’s leaders, they’re actively involved in the community. Despite its size, it’s very close-knit: Players trade photos on a giant, inclusive group chat, and put each other up during visits, which helps explains why all of them seem able to afford to jet from tournament to tournament. “I really enjoy traveling for this game,” says Nathan Palmer, who was on the same team as Mikros and DeBonis. “Every weekend, you’re exploring a new city you’ve never been to, hanging out with cool people from different cities, and playing video games. It’s like you’re on this mini gaming vacation.” Palmer has a plan to spearhead an actual Killer Queen vacation—he’s drumming up interest in getting a few teams together for a video-game-centric Bahamas cruise, which would officially take the game international. (So far, it’s only in the States.)

Something like a makeshift family is what the Killer Queen community seems to offer players like Stanfield and Palmer and Lau. Or “a sense of belonging,” as Portillo puts it when I ask what everyone really loves about this infectious multiplayer game. Of course, it’s still a game, and at KQXXX, a highly competitive one. If the Kumbaya spirit flags at all, it’s during the finals of the tournament, when things get a little… tribal. It all comes down to Uh versus LL Sad J—which is to say, Chicago versus New York, dividing that whole back room at Logan into two “scenes,” each with their own cheerleading chants. In the end, Chicago pulls out the victory, 4-3, with a military finish right where the game’s public life began; it’s a first, as a New York team has won every previous tournament. But if there’s any bitterness, it evaporates as the two scenes bleed back into one amorous crowd at the end of the night. They’re all part of the same hive, really. Besides, the next tournament is just around the corner. It’ll come faster than a snail ride, certainly.

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