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Photo by Renzo Adler
Currently running at the Museum of the Moving Image, Indie Essential: 25 Must Play Video Games, features unique examples of how independent developers that are taking gaming in new and daring directions, such as Quadrilateral Cowboy, Gone Home, and Spaceteam. The exhibit is presented in conjunction with the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games, an annual festival in LA and New York City, which awards new and innovative indie developers.
Also featured at the exhibit and a past festival winner, Killer Queen Arcade, developed by Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros, harkens back to the golden age of arcade gaming with it’s massive cabinet with two screens and the ability to support ten simultaneous players in a strategy game evocative of Joust.
Along with an appearance at The Museum of the Moving Image and the NYU Game Center, Killer Queen Arcade has been touring the world, spreading the good word about the simple pleasures of arcade gaming. I sat down with Josh and Nik to discuss what got them to make Killer Queen, where they come from in the world of gaming, and where they want to take it.
J: We’re getting the game ready to be shown in an arcade in San Francisco called Free Gold Watch and we’re going to experiment to see how profitable it can be. …It’s always been a festivals or museums, places like that where it’s free. So we want to see how it reacts in a more commercial environment. We really don’t know what to expect, we got nothing to base on.
Q: How did the two you get started making Killer Queen?
J: Nik and I are both game designers and game developers, and in our sorta day jobs we don’t work together, we have our own studios. We started to collaborate together because we liked working together and we feel we complement each other well. We got started collaborating on a series of four different games that culminated with Killer Queen Arcade. That was actually the first purely digital game we’ve done, most of our games are physical.
Q: How did you meet?
J: We were both doing work for GameLab who also has a game at the museum called Diner Dash. That was back in 2005 or something like that. We weren’t both employees there but we were doing some contract work for them….
We are both programmers. I consider myself a game designer first. I learned program so that I could make the games that I wanted to make. I did the programming on Killer Queen Arcade, Nik did the art, and we both did the game design. And I did the music.
N: Josh has a music background.
Q: What kind?
J: Jazz, mostly. I play saxophone. For Killer Queen I did chiptunes for the first time, which was really fun. I actually built it and did the music in… it’s called Famitracker, and basically it writes the codes to be played on the NES and emulates the playback. . …It’s a limited pallet of sounds but it’s great.
Q: Nik, do you consider yourself a programmer first, an artist, a game designer?
N: I just make games. I don’t think of myself as a programmer, per se. If I think about my brother, he’s a programmer. I went to art school.
Q: So how did you transition from art school to games?
N: Well I’m sorta self-taught and I’m from the generation of kids that grew up with Apple IIE and basically if you wanted to do anything with it you had to learn some programming.
J: We want to be as good as possible at whatever we do. And I think we both have the similar philosophy. We both enjoy learning new things and that attracts us to game development.
N: It’s always in the surface of the design. I don’t know if I’d ever program again if I wasn’t going to make another game. Unless somebody was paying me a lot of money to do it.
Q: Are a lot of developers coming from art, or programming, or is it mixed?
N: It’s mixed. Honestly, there are a lot of people coming from music.
J: It’s a mixed bag, and it always has been. A lot of people come from creative writing …Depending on what your background is, you bring different things to the table.
Q: What lead to making Killer Queen Arcade
J: Nik and I wanted to work together, that was the impetus, and there was this festival called Come Out And Play, [which was] a street game festival. We wanted to work together and we both wanted to do something for that. We made a game called Pigeon Piñata Pummel that was a game with piñatas, baseball bats, and the piñata were filled with bouncy balls. We enjoyed working together so for the next year of that festival we made another one called Pitfall Live at the Tank.
N: That was like a live-action Pitfall game. There was a rope and you could swing on the rope. It was like a weird fusion of digital and physical games.
Q: Did Activision give you any problems?
J: We weren’t even a blip on their radar. It was more of a performance than anything else; it was a one night only thing. Even if we wanted to do that game over it would be so hard. It was this whole elaborate setup for this one night only thing.
Q: Did you want to make a traditional arcade game because you’re used to working with things in public spaces?
J: We made a field game version of Killer Queen [Arcade] called Killer Queen first. It was a solid game, but it was so hard to set up. It was so big and you needed a field and foam swords and all kinds of crap. So we said we make video games, wouldn’t it be cool if you could play this game on something in your pocket and download it? So we said yeah, let’s make this video game version.
It sort of evolved into what we consider to be the best version of it and, yet again, we made a game that is completely impractical and there’s no way you can download it or put it in your pocket. We’re just seeking the form that fits the game we’re making.
N: We have been working in public spaces and arcades are public spaces.
J: We try to make a spectacle of our games. All of our games are team based, they create a spectacle, they’re all fairly easy to get into, and some of them more or less have strategy. They share a lot of the same aesthetic.
Q: Would say you're more aware of the spectacle when you make an arcade game?
J: Those things are always at least a minor element in any game. You’re thinking about the spectacle even when you’re making something like Super Mario Bros. It’s not as important in some games, but it is a factor in everything.
N: I’m sure even when they were making Super Mario Bros they wanted to make something that’s fun to watch because your friend would come over and then watch you play and then they’d want to buy their own copy or whatever.
Q: How did you become part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Indiecade exhibit?
J: We were at Indiecade out in LA earlier this year and we were chosen for the Developer’s Choice Award, which we were honored by because that’s chosen by all of our peers. It meant a lot to us. Then, I assume, because they’re having Indiecade East at the museum in February, for this exhibit they want to include all the Indiecade winners which are also at Indiecade East. They asked if we wanted to come and we said we’d love to.
Q: Is there an emerging scene in the East Coast for developers?
N: I would say for indies, New York is really a great place to be. There’s a really good community here. We all talk to each other, we all know who each other are and give critiques to each other or support each other in a lot of meaningful ways that I think in a lot of other places in the country that’s harder to happen. The distances are greater. 70% of us live in Brooklynn. And there’s a pretty big scene here.
J: Also nationally we’re sorta seeing this revival of arcade games and there’s this certain buzz that people are excited about this style of game and I think we’re gonna see more in the future.
Q: Do you also work within more mainstream games?
N: Both of us make more mainstream games for a living for clients. I’ve done a ton of work for various clients. Like when we met, Josh was working on something for Nintendo and I was working on something for VH1 and I had done a bunch of stuff for people like Adult Swim.
J: Our client games tend to be on a smaller scale, not like big Xbox games.
N: We’re not making Call of Duty or anything.
J: I don’t have any interest in doing that sort of thing.
N: Me neither.
J: Sounds like a nightmare.
Q: Was there a moment that made you want to strike out from the mainstream sort of style of games, or is it not so much an us-and-them philosophy?
N: For me, early on I did think about possibly moving out west, but I don’t know. It just didn’t feel right. It’s not an us and them thing, it’s more like this is what I’m doing, they’re doing something else and that’s cool, I enjoy those kinds of games, but I wouldn’t want to make them.
J: The most shocking thing for me is when I talk to friends that are working on triple-A games and they mention they’re only working on that one game. And not only that, but there’s hundreds of people at that company working on that one game and that’s all they’re doing. And Nik and I are often working on many games at the same time. It’s just such a different lifestyle and development process.
N: My brother works at Blizzard but he’s like one of the two people that works on a ton of different titles at the same time.
J: Part of that idea is enticing to me. I’d love to be able to dedicate every moment to crafting on beautiful game.
N: But would you want to have to work on something for five years?
J: That’s the other thing. The work that I do for Killer Queen is completely separate from the work I do for Meriwether and I like that. I like the variety. Also, a steady paycheck would be nice.
Q: What’s the indie game community like?
J: It’s very tight knit. Maybe too tight knit, in that it’s hard to accept new people or whatever. But I definitely feel all of our peers are always willing to help us out, give us feedback, or just hang out and play games. Just this morning we got an email from Adnan [Agha] who has Slash Dash at the museum with an idea for Killer Queen. He said “hey I was thinking about this, what do you think?”
We find people doing that a lot or we bring games to our friends and say play this, what do you think? Lots of sharing of ideas. Technically Nik and I are competitors in the business with our day job, but it doesn’t feel that way. There have been times we knew we were bidding on the same jobs, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any real competition. It would be weird if we felt that way. Even people we don’t work with directly, like Gigantic Mechanic, we compete with them, [but] I’ll go hang out and have a beer with them and talk about our clients. There’s definitely this group of people that came out of GameLab that have a similar mentality about games. Maybe it’s a school of thought.
N: Why do you think that is?
J: Like what’s the mentality? I would largely say it’s an appreciation of play. ...It’s an intangible thing. I don’t think there’s a way to put it into words but I can see a parallel between the work Gigantic Mechanic does and we do and [what] Eric Zimmerman is doing on his own.
N: Is it trying to stretch the definition of what a game is?
J: I don’t know. It’s just everybody’s influencing each other.
N: I think what it’s a willingness to share. That’s probably the most important thing. None of us [are] shy about showing our stuff to anybody else.
Q: Are the big developers starting to learn from the indie scene?
N: To me, the big story there is Hearthstone. Here’s a game coming out of Blizzard, and developed by a small team within the company using Unity. It seems so out of left field, but I can almost see that meeting. “Hey, what if we tried to do something like the indies are doing?” It’s pretty good. I can see that kind of being a trend.
Q: Are the indie developers learning from the big ones?
J: I hate to sound so full of ourselves but I don’t think we’re learning anything from them other than what we already knew.
N: Me and Josh always disagree about this.
J: I love playing big triple A games, but I learn so much more about games by playing smaller independent games, largely because I can play them faster and more of them. Whereas when I spend a hundred hours playing Dragon Age, I didn’t learn a lot about games by doing it. Or about game development. Learned a lot about dragons though.
N: I feel like there is something to be learned, I don’t feel quite the same way as Josh, but I don’t see how it relates to me on a day to day basis. That’s really the key. Because I’m working on a totally different scale from somebody making Dragon Age.
Q: So have you been taking Killer Queen Arcade on the road?
N: We showed it in London, LA, San Francisco, New York, Austin, Dallas, Berlin.
Q: What kind of people get drawn to Killer Queen Arcade?
J: When we showed it at California Extreme in San Francisco, there was a lot of kids there so we got a lot of kids to play it. And I suspect there’s a lot of kids at the museum. I really like seeing kids play it. Kids react to it very positively and they’re so willing to spend a little time to figure it out, much more than many adults.
Q: Do you find people are forgetting what arcades were?
J: There’s enough. Between Chuck-E-Cheese and Dave & Busters in every city… But I think it’s gone away enough that there’s this real strong urge to bring it back. I think that’s what we’re seeing. Things go in cycles and it’s about to come back. I’m hoping it is, and I’m seeing signs of it coming back.
Q: People long for that communal experience.
J: We’ve now perfected, or at least improved, on playing games with people all over the world, and that’s great, and I love playing those games, but that has lost a lot of the social aspects that is endemic to games since we played games and people want that.Q: What’s next for you guys?
J: After the exhibit we’ll bring that [Killer Queen] cabinet back to the NYU game center. We are involved in a lot of events over at NYU. We’re building more cabinets and figuring out where to put them. So may be here in New York, some may go around the country, or the world. Basically we’re figuring it out this moment. We’re starting, very roughly, to think about our next project. We don’t want to dive into it too quickly. We still got a lot to do to tie up loose ends, but we’re tossing ideas back and forth.
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