Everything has an origin story, but not all origin stories are created equal. Sometimes things begin without much fanfare–but sometimes the story of how things came together is one of those stars-aligning journeys full of pure kismet that feels exciting and almost surreal.
Recently, I got a chance to talk to Matt Tesch of Liquid Bit in Chicago about the origins of Killer Queen Black, an adaptation of an amazing 5v5 co-op arcade game called Killer Queen that took the arcade scene by storm when BumbleBear Games, its creators, put out the first cabinet in New York City in 2013. Its frenetic action and unique 5 man team setup made it an indie darling, and inspired more cabinets at more locations across the US, including one at Chicago’s own Logan Arcade.
Enter Matt Tesch and his associates, Mike Chorak and Adam Walters. Matt and Adam, longtime colleagues and friends, were at the time both part of the team at ÄKTA, now Salesforce Experience Design, a company that, as Tesch, who was ÄKTA’s head of engineering at the time puts it, “built for anything with a pixel.’ At the time that had a lot to do with mobile applications, since the app boom was, well, booming. But it afforded them the opportunity to engage with a diverse bunch of tech. “It was a really interesting career,” says Tesch. We got to poke our nose in just a ton of different technologies.” Eventually,ÄKTA was sold to Salesforce, which meant that there were other opportunities afoot. And while they pondered those opportunities, they would often also hit the Logan Arcade to blow off some steam, where Adam first encountered Killer Queen.
“[Adam said] Man, you’ve got to go try this game Killer Queen” Matt recalls. “It’s awesome, and it’s over at Logan.” So, he went. “I went, and I played, and I was like ‘this is revolutionary.’ There’s a crowd of people gathered around the machine, and they’ve got a big screen TV right above it that’s broadcasting the game to everybody who can’t get close enough to see the actual screen, there’s a ton of hooting and hollering and it was just a blast.”
“And for me to be able to walk up and play it, you know–I’m not saying I could compete on the same level as someone who’s a more experienced player could, but I could get it. If you played Mario you can get it. It looks so simple, but I quickly learned it is incredibly deep and there’s a ton of different strategy to it…it really resonated with me, and I went back and played it a bunch more times. I really fell in love with the concept and as we were exiting ÄKTA and exiting SalesForce, it was like, ‘Man, we really want to get into the games industry, Killer Queen or not, because it seemed like something really interesting to do and to applied our technical abilities too.’ So they banded together as Liquid Bit.
But Killer Queen stuck with them. “We played around with a few different concepts for a few different types of games, but we would get frustrated, and then we’d go to Logan and just play Killer Queen to just blow off some steam.” Tesch says. “After some time, I was like, ‘I’m just gonna call these guys.”
So he did. Making the call meant talking to the folks at NYC’s BumbleBear Games who created Killer Queen–specifically, Nikita Mikros and Josh DeBonis. “So,” Matt says, “I pitched them. And they had received a bunch of pitches in the past to bring the game to the home market, but from what I understand from them talking to me, those pitches were always like ‘Here’s some money, why don’t you go ahead and do it.’”
“Our pitch was, ‘Hey, we can build this with you, as partners.’”
And that was key. “The initial call went very well. They were interested in it because of the approach” says Tesch.
It wasn’t just lipservice. After that call, and after agreeing to talk to BumbleBear in a few weeks, they set to work. “We ended up just building a prototype of Killer Queen really quickly, because we already knew we wanted to do multiplayer, so we had a lot of multiplayer infrastructure set up, and we were able to take what we had prototyped other games on and put Killer Queen on it in a very rudimentary form. You know, boxes moving around the screen, but it had three ways to win, it had workers, soldiers and queens–it was the core very basic gameplay.”
Next, they scheduled a playdate with BumbleBear. “So from Liquid Bit in Chicago to BumbleBear in New York, we played the prototype, and I think that mitigated a lot of their concerns about how the game would perform over a network environment.” And an agreement was made. Liquid Bit would take the home version and run with it, while Josh and Nick at BumbleBear would work with them as game designers, on art and on the production side.
It’s an amazing story already, and one that’s very reflective of Chicago’s games scene–from working extremely hard but making time to blow off steam at Logan to the collaborative spirit Liquid Bit showed from the beginning when approaching BumbleBear. It’s an attitude that seems to extend to the Chicago dev scene at large–a scene where people aren’t bored with ideas, and aren’t satisfied taking the money and figuring it out later.
Photo: (LtoR) Killer Queen creators Nikita Mikros and Josh DeBonis.That said, taking a smash hit arcade game and creating a home console version is no small feat. Some of the intensity and gameplay aspects of Killer Queen simply couldn’t be replicated on a home console.
“I mean obviously, having the arcade and having the designers of Killer Queen arcade working with us on this project is an incredible advantage, and it’s something that was very attractive to us at the start of the project, because this was our first video game…we wanted to stack the deck in our favor as much as possible by bringing Josh and Nick in.” he said. “Plus, it was just the game we really wanted to work on–there was passion behind it…so all the stars aligned but there were and still are massive differences between Killer Queen Black and the arcade.”
BumbleBear and Liquid Bit prototyped an arcade version of the game to be played on PC over a network prior to arriving at what turned into Killer Queen Black, but, says Tesch, “It just didn’t translate well. The arcade has a 60” flat screen TV that you’re standing 18 to 36 inches away from, so you’re really close to that TV which gives you this incredible illusion of space and speed that does not translate very well when you have a smaller screen.”
This would especially be a problem for LiquidBit since they had their sights set on Nintendo Switch from the get go. “We knew Switch was going to be a launch target and with that we were taking a look at handheld mode…the game just didn’t translate well onto that environment. Characters were too small, the movement didn’t translate very well–there was just a lot of things, plus we had to essentially rework the game. Killer Queen Black does not have a single line of code from the arcade in it. It’s all brand new, because we had to build the game in a network environment.”
And of course, networks mean things like latency. “We had to build a game to be able to work over the internet and compensate for latency” says Matt. And latency can be a huge hurdle. “One player will be seeing something and another may be seeing something different because their latencies are different, so all that network architecture has to be built into the game and it didn’t really work well with a joust style, height attack, height advantage system like the arcade has. Latency could be a really big factor there, so we had to design around that as well.”
“Our other big constraint was that the arcade version was great for an arcade, but if you really look at it there’s no content there.” Indeed, Killer Queen on the arcade cabinet only features a few maps, with some bonuses, and one weapon. “Working with BumbleBear we talked about that. We started thinking about different ways to introduce content and that actually eventually evolved into the weapons system.”
The weapons system turned out to address both the content and latency problems. Aside from adding a mace and laser rifle to the mix, as well as a new move for the Queen. There were also new powerups for runners. As it turned out the weapons system also addressed the network latency issue.
Matt explains: “We wanted to have a lot more of these kind of game components to increase the content of the game, but the attack system that we had to design around the weapons we would choose also helped with latency, so we could absolutely tell when the attack was fired as opposed to what we would have to do with the joust mechanic.”
As well, team size was reduced from 5 per team to 4 per team. This was in large part because in handheld mode on Switch particularly, characters would appear too small, though it also addressed the fact that consoles including the Switch tend to support 8 players for local co-op.
As Tesch mentioned, Switch was always the goal, but Nintendo can be a tough nut to crack. Fortunately for Liquid Bit and Killer Queen fans, Nick Mikros from Bumblebear knew Kirk Scott of Nintendo, who had previously been head of indie games in his role as third party developer and publisher relations manager at Nintendo. More fortunately still, Nintendo paid a lot of attention to the arcade scene, so that when they reached out to say there would be a home version of Killer Queen, “Nintendo got pretty excited.”
“I forget what conference it was at,” recalls Matt. “But they met Josh and Nick in a hotel room and we showed them a demo of Killer Queen Black, where Liquid Bit was in Chicago… and we showed them the demo of it in a very very early stage of the game, and they got excited and said ‘Hey, we want to announce this at E3.’
This was lightning striking for Liquid Bit and Killer Queen Black. For many of us, Nintendo has been a monolith of our childhoods and cornerstone in our personal gaming histories. So imagining what it was like for Liquid Bit when Nintendo expressed their enthusiasm was not so hard to do.
“It was crazy, “ said Matt. “We were excited, shocked and then totally scared out of our minds on how to put this whole thing together.” But even in their state of shock the team went to work, and made it happen.
“There was so much support from Nintendo. And you know, the game makes a lot of sense on Switch–it’s a Switch style game. It felt at home on the platform right from the beginning which was very exciting.”
The excitement is real for Tesch. “I grew up with Nintendo” he says. “I was the guy that was on the side of Super Nintendo vs. Sega back in the day when you would have those arguments with your friends…it was really surreal. Like…’holy cow, we’re gonna make a Nintendo game, and it’s gonna happen. I’ll have my name in the credits of a Nintendo game, have a Nintendo box for the game I helped build…’ Matt says with obvious glee. “I mean, it’s really neat to kind of check that off the bucket list. ‘Build Nintendo game, check!’”
As obviously over the moon as Matt Tesch was reminiscing about that moment, there’s joy in so many parts of the evolution of Killer Queen Black. Firstly, with that inclusive Chicago and indie game community we mentioned earlier as a touchstone of Chicago’s scene.
It’s something Matt has noticed as well. “I’ve found that to hold true in a large part of the indie games industry,” he says. “We share war stories, hints and tips…it is very open in the indie space as I have seen so far. It’s a lot of what you said–it’s inclusive and open and it’s fantastic. It’s a great space to work on.”
“There’s not a lot of joy these days, in a lot of different places for a lot of different reasons” he continues. “But one of the things I always do is just take a look at our community–especially with Killer Queen Black–and the amount that they help and they self organize and they promote…I mean we wouldn’t be anywhere without our community and the support they give us. They’re absolutely incredible and it’s what every indie game needs, right?”
And the Killer Queen Black community is incredibly active and creative. “We get pinged by our community all the time,” says Tesch, “and they’re like, ‘Hey, I built this really cool thing’–and I’ll give you an example. One of our players built a Discord bot that will go to IGL (Indie Gaming League) which we’re a part of and pull down all the scheduled matches for that day and who’s streaming them so they can tune in, or pull down things from our wiki page and dump them right into Discord. We didn’t ask him to do that, but he did and it’s great–and it’s a really cool feature!”
But the community isn’t just active. Especially due to the esports nature of Killer Queen Black and the competitive world around it, most players have high expectations for the devs at Liquid Bit, too. It’s something that Matt knows, but he and the team at Liquid Bit seem more than up to the challenge.
“I think our casual players are really looking at this as a party game, and when we were released that was a moniker that was given to Killer Queen Black, it was a ‘party game’ but, “it’s not what we were going for” he explains.
“This was built from the ground up to be online, and enable these interactions where people form teams and play in this competitive space, and it’s where we’ve seen the most of our player engagement and content creation and enthusiasm–all towards the organized competitive esports play.”
“Feedback can be very intense from players because of that, and you have to just keep iterating and trying. We’ve told our player base we’re not going to stop working on the game. If we think something can be improved, we’re going to go ahead and do it. Sometimes it works and it’s an improvement but we’ve made mistakes, and we’ve listened to the players’ feedback and we had to recognize that yeah, that wasn’t a good mechanic to add or a good movement change to add. It may have helped something in an area we wanted to increase but overall it was a misstep, so we’ll go back and fix it and continue to iterate and move around. Killer Queen Black is always changing and it’s always moving what we think is the right direction in terms of new mechanics, new play modes, polish, and just better movement feel, which is something we’ve really been working on. It’s a living breathing piece of work and it will continue to be that for as far as I can see in the future.”
Fierce fans are often the best fans to have though, as the loudest critics are often the ones who are logging enough hours in the game to notice when something goes wrong. In essence, the games you love the most are also sometimes the ones players are hardest on. And Matt agrees wholeheartedly. “If someone’s really vocal, it can be abrasive at times, but you have to remember that this person loves what you created and loves it with such a passion that they’re vocal about it, and that’s fantastic. There’s a million games where I think, ‘eh, this could be better’ but you know, I don’t care because I’m not invested in it. So anybody that has hundreds of hours in, it’s because they’re truly invested in your product and they’re a fan at heart. I can give you an example,” Tesch says. “It’s not video game related, but I’m a huge Cubs fan. But no one is harder on the Cubs than I am. Rizzo pops out at the end of a game and you’re like ‘this guy’s done, it’s over!” and you know it’s not true but it’s because you care so much that you react, and because you care so much you nitpick every little thing, and I think the same translates to video games.”
Luckily for fans of Killer Queen Black, Liquid Bit is as passionate about them as they are about the game. It’s clear from talking to Matt that he’s invested in making fans happy. There are all kinds of new things coming for Killer Queen Black, much of which is detailed in their roadmap, including one of the most requested adds for the game– a spectate mode, which should be up and coming in the 1.63 patch. “There’s a bunch of other little goodies in there too–you can now actually turn on and off specific rulesets for custom matches, so you can treat matches like a sandbox.” This is exciting for players and developers alike, he explains. “If you want to say ‘The queens have infinite life, or we’re gonna turn the snail off’ we’re gonna allow them to do that and put all these weird modifiers in the game–different graphic types and different speeds for the snail, and let them mix up the content. What we’re really excited to see is what formats does the community come up with, or what rules does the community come up with that make interesting games?”
Another exciting upcoming event for Killer Queen Black? A move to a whole other console. While there’s no settled date for Xbox, Matt says the team is pushing for it, and there’s a deal with Xbox to be on Xbox Game Pass when they do get there. There will also be new seasonal content. “We really want to move into what we’re calling Season One,” Matt explains. “I guess I’d say Killer Queen Black is in Season Zero right now, which I think is accurate. So Season One will be a whole leaderboard reset, new ranking algorithms, new ranking tiers, the ability to earn experience points and trade those for cosmetics. The whole Killer Queen community has been begging for that for a long time and it’s something we’re uniquely able to do.”
There’s even a few things upcoming Tesch can’t yet divulge. “It’s a bright future for Killer Queen Black” he says. “[Killer Queen Black] is our only game, it’s the only game we work on, and we continue to push changes to it and content to get more people involved and get it to as many platforms as we can, and I think it’s still got a lot of room to go.”
There’s nothing more clear in this conversation with Matt than he and Liquid Bit’s obvious passion for Killer Queen in all its forms, and that he embraces the community that has built up around Killer Queen Black–and enjoys it. “It’s super cool to be surprised” he says. “We as a team have poured years of our life into this game, and it’s great to be surprised when we see something happen on the streams. We’re just like ‘How did that happen? How did that player do that?’ Whether they’re exploiting some weird edge case in our code or it’s just something like ‘I didn’t know you could play Queen that well’–I just had no idea you could get that good at that character in the game, and it just continues to open my eyes and I really enjoy it. It’s hard for me to keep up. I don’t understand how they got so good so quick. The skill ceiling on this game just keeps getting higher and higher and that’s a good thing. You see a lot of players rise to the top.”
When you start by doing instead of letting things come to you, work within a community and really listen to them and embrace them, and continue to pour hours of work in it because it’s your passion, it’s hard to fail, and that’s why we agree with Matt when he says “We see a really bright future for Killer Queen Black, and we have all the faith in the world in it.” We can’t wait to see what’s next.
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