I recently started working on my own local multiplayer games, largely by accident. I have two games right now (PARTICLE MACE & Extreme Exorcism) that began as single-player games and transformed into multiplayer games after players expressed a desire to be able to attack one another. Fun! But something I’m realizing is how tricky it is to design competitive games in a way that balances attracting new players with keeping experienced players engaged. This is doubly true for eSports, and seemingly quadruply true for a game as big and complex as Killer Queen Arcade, a 10-player arcade game by NYC designers Josh Debonis and Nikita Mikros. These designers elegantly solve this balancing problem, making Killer Queen a game that is almost effortless to start playing, and which makes sure that players are valuable to their team and challenged according to their skill level.
Let’s look at what designers need to overcome to make new players feel at home. From my experience, the main hurdles to getting a new player to try a competitive game for the first time–especially in a public setting–are:
-Skill. This is obvious. Competitive games take skill, and a new player does not have skill with this game yet. They may feel more confident from having played similar games, but an initial lack of ability can easily make a game feel unapproachable.
-Looking like a fool. Hand-in-hand with feeling unskilled is the fear that failing the game will be embarrassing.
-Letting down the team. Killer Queen is a team game, and as such, a new player is at risk of not only looking stupid themselves, but ruining the fun for everybody on their team. Anyone who has ever been the weak link in a game of Hokra can attest to this.
That’s a lot for Killer Queen to deal with. The game is always in a public setting and requires 8-10 players. While it can often be assumed that some of the players in the space have played the game before, usually the majority have not. For each game, several players will have to be convinced to try out this public, competitive game for the first time, and it is hugely important that they not feel unskilled, stupid, or like a liability, otherwise they will not play again. That’s a lot to ask from a game.
So how does Killer Queen do it? The genius setup of the game comes from the varied roles and victory conditions. Players in Killer Queen are often doing very different things from each other, with each person having their own short-term goals that contribute to victory for the whole team. Furthermore, these roles are fluid and can be changed mid-game, allowing for experimentation and adjustment within a round. Here’s what you can be in the game, in approximate order of complexity:
-Worker riding the snail
-Worker collecting berries
Notice that I ordered them by complexity and not difficulty or importance. All of these roles are tactically important and can be performed well or poorly (something I’ll get to in a moment). What is important for new players, though, is that some roles have less to consider and are a little easier to play out of the gate.
With the exception of the Queen, all of these roles can be taken on by any player, at almost any time. This allows players to modulate their own difficulty according to how confident they feel in their ability. The two worker roles tend to require less skill and precision, and have straightforward play. The snail rider in particular does not need to do much besides holding the joystick in one direction. Once a player feels that they have the hang of the game and want to try something a little trickier, they can hop into a maiden and become a knight. And if that feels too hard, they can chose to remain a worker for their next life. Obviously competitive teams will make sure to have some aspect of all of these roles, but for players just starting out, this freedom to experiment allows the game to be approached at a comfortable pace.
These specialized roles also allow players to focus on just one part of the game. Killer Queen has a lot of moving parts that contribute to the success of a team: workers are collecting berries or trying to ride the snail; knights are attempting to kill workers, each other, or the queen; the queen is defending herself and everybody else; and teams are amassing berries for economic victory. This is a huge amount of information to take in, and it all contributes to the game state. Asking a new (or even somewhat experienced) player to track all of it would be catastrophic, but Killer Queen allows players to focus on smaller tasks. A worker does not need to worry about exactly where the Queen is, and can just focus on collecting berries. This is a huge relief, and allows a new recruit to play effectively without necessarily keeping track of the whole ecosystem just yet.
This fluidity alone, however, could not convert new players into veterans. The other genius move of Killer Queen is to place each role on an even plane of importance to the team. Workers are not less valuable than knights, even if they are easier to play, and every member of the team contributes to the victory or loss in fairly equal measure, regardless of an individual player’s level of experience. Snail victories still count, and for the player riding the snail, that victory is huge. Killer Queen is a game that allows for virtuosity from an individual player (which itself is very important in the spectatorship of eSports), but where one player cannot single-handedly win the game. It lets players pick a role that matches their skill level, but guarantees that they will not be unimportant, bored, or unchallenged.
The only exception to this may be that a single very skilled queen or knight can potentially achieve a military victory against an foolhardy queen. The queen is by far the most important and vulnerable role on the team, and it is the only one that cannot be opted into or out of mid-game. This makes sense. It would be game-breaking if a new player could decide to try out the queen, only to have their inexperience cost their team the game. Letting down the team and humiliating themselves would almost certainly result in them walking away after that round. Instead, it is negotiated ahead of time who will take this valuable role, and it will almost always go to a player with a high level of experience. In a game where many players may be new, this allows an experienced player to act as team captain before the game even begins. The player taking the queen role stands in the middle of their team at the arcade cabinet and is generally seen as the leader. Their leadership status is backed up narratively by the game as they play the matriarch of the hive. This allows for easier entry by new players, as it means they will not be left completely to their own devices to figure out what to do. At the same time, it creates a fun and especially challenging role for players who are confident in their abilities, or who at least more experienced with the game than the other players on their team.
In this way, Killer Queen is able to seamlessly support a wide range of skill levels. This 10-player arcade game thrives by creating a system where players of wildly different experience are neither undervalued nor underutilized. The game perfectly adapts itself to fit the players’ confidence in their own abilities by allowing a fluid transition between roles at any time, while guaranteeing that every player is a genuinely important member of their team. Killer Queen creates a fun, challenging, and inviting environment that manages to get new players while ensuring that veterans will stay engaged.
Image from the Killer Queen Facebook Page.