A sleek, minimalist game about something we do daily – riding metro routes – Mini Metro is a breakout hit currently in development by Dinosaur Polo Club, an independent game development studio based out of Wellington. Mini Metro has both enjoyed sustained success through Early Access on Steam, as well as gained international notoriety by receiving acclaims from international events such as IndieCade and the Independent Games Festival. We sat down to talk to Dinosaur Polo Club about their journey through Early Access – a process which is currently hotly debated in development circles – and their learnings from it.
DPC: Dinosaur Polo Club is a silly name for the two of us, Peter and Robert Curry, to make games under. Dinosaur Polo Club has only been around since we started developing Mini Metro in May 2013, but we’ve been working in games for a while now.
We both worked at Sidhe from 2001/2002 until mid-2006, then we left to go indie and formed Wandering Monster Studios along with Lloyd Weehuizen. We called it quits after a few years and went our separate ways until a game jam kickstarted the indie dream again.
What kind of game is Mini Metro, and why did you choose to go the Early Access route?
DPC: Mini Metro is a game about building an efficient subway network. The visual style of the game echoes the famous London underground map designed by Harry Beck. You begin in a small city with three stations. Connect the stations by dragging a metro line between them. Passengers appear at stations and board the trains they need to get to their destination as quickly as possible.
As the game progresses, the city expands, more stations open and passengers appear more quickly, but you also get more resources (lines, carriages, tunnels, etc.) to deal with the increased demand. Eventually the stations will overcrowd and your network won’t be able to deal with the load, ending the game. A typical game takes 10-20 minutes.
Mini Metro was prototyped as Mind the Gap, our entry into Ludum Dare 26 back in April 2013. It was well received and did quite well in the competition—ranking first in innovation and placing #7 overall among the 700 or so entries. We decided to continue development and turn it into a ‘real’ game. We were inspired by the way Lucas Pope developed Papers, Please!, with a frequently-updated devlog on TIGSource and free alpha builds, and decided to emulate his model. We went one step further and had the alpha builds playable in the browser using the Unity webplayer.
We decided to go this route for a number of reasons:
- Games like Papers, Please! proved that making a game freely-playable during development don’t necessarily impair financial viability.
- Mini Metro suited open development well as it is has no fixed narrative and the levels are procedurally generated.
- A free, web-playable game is easily shareable and could lead to increased awareness.
What is the biggest learning you’ve taken away from putting Mini Metro through Early Access?
DPC: Any game in open development needs to have clear design goals. As a designer, respect those goals, but be open to ideas on how to achieve them. If you don’t have a clear idea on what you’re trying to achieve you risk veering off track. Every player forms their own idea of what they want the game to be, and their feedback will steer you all over the place without design pillars to guide your decisions.
It took us a while to realise this, and on at least one occasion came close to derailing the game because of it. During the open alpha we were struggling with the design of the weekly upgrade system. We couldn’t figure out how to make the choice of upgrade an interesting choice every single week. By this point we had a number of enthusiastic players who were keen to see a more complex solution to the problem, and by the ninth and tenth alpha we’d turned it into an ungainly Byzantine behemoth of a system that was out of keeping with Mini Metro‘s style.
Faced with comments from other players who hated what we’d turned the game into, we took a step back, had a look at the system, and realised it didn’t weigh up against the minimalist concept of the game. Since then we’ve held every decision up against that core concept.
How has Early Access benefit Mini Metro?
DPC: It’s been a huge boon financially. Though this was a big risk (more on this later) it has been enough for both of us to work full-time, pay for collaborators, attend GDC, and exhibit at IndieCade and two PAXs.
The community testing has been good too. We don’t have the capacity to have a professional testing team rigorously thrash our game every update so it’s inevitable that a few bugs will slip in when we’re adding features. Every time we do we get a few bug reports on the forums and people emailing in their Unity logs. We’ve put in a bit of effort into making it easy for players to give us the information we need, even so far as embedding saved games into animated GIF exports.
We’ve had a lot of people offer to help translate Mini Metro into their local language, so we set up an account on Transifex and now support 23 languages fully! Something we’d never be able to achieve without that community support.
What is something you’d do differently next time? Would you use Early Access again?
DPC: While we’d made the early decision to develop Mini Metro openly, it wasn’t until we hit financial constraints that we actually began selling the game before release—first taking pre-orders on our website, then later as an Early Access title on Steam. This worked out well, as the pre-order income helped cover the last few months of development before we launched on Steam, and since then it’s been selling well enough that we can both work full-time.
In hindsight, we’ve been lucky. Given the reception to Mini Metro at the time we were confident that it would sell reasonably well, but of course we had no guarantee. Sales could just as easily have been miserable. Yet, the moment we started taking peoples’ money we were committed to finishing the game. That’s been a scary thought.
I would have preferred to keep developing the game in open alpha until we felt it was ready for a paid, non-Early Access release. We didn’t think about it at the time, but when people financially commit to your game it removes your freedom to explore where the game’s design can go. Even if you feel the game is better served by going down a different path, is it fair to do that when people paid for your original vision? For example, Mini Metro has always walked a fine line between being a crunchy simulation and a more casual experience.
When we started taking pre-orders we still hadn’t found the balance we were happy with, and over the next few months we veered one way, then back again, then settled somewhere in the middle. It wasn’t the ideal scenario to be selling a game that hadn’t yet found its feet.