09 de junio, 2016

Mini Metro
Dinosaur Polo Club
Mini Metro
Mini Metro and Robert Curry: «The minimalism was one of the things that made the game hard to make»
Mini Metro and Robert Curry: «The minimalism was one of the things that made the game hard to make»

If we were talking about train simulation games, Train Simulator (Dovetail Games, 2009), Railroad Tycoon (MPS Labs, 1990) or Transport Tycoon (Chris Sawyer, 1994) would come into our heads. Games that are complex and full of interesting features, however Mini Metro discards the massive 3D environments, physics simulations and complicated economic systems to keep the essence only: there are some stations and we have to connect them the best way we can. And it’s addictive and gratifying. In today’s episode I’ll try to explain all the goodness we get from the game, we’ll learn its story and we’ll chat with one of its developers. Ready? Welcome to indie-o-rama! [Enthusiastic music is played and fades to black]

It’s April 2013 and many developers meet up at the Ludum Dare No. 23. We all know at this point, how game jams work. Sleep deprivation, problems, stress that accumulates when nothing works and is freed explosively when everything fits into place, or when all fails epically and it’s time to give up. From that weekend whose theme was minimalism, here in indie-o-rama we remember very well its second place: Gods Will Be Watching, a difficult, hard to chew, sci-fi adventure game that was released as a complete game in 2014 by Deconstructeam, and we dedicated a complete week to it. However, just a bit down the ranking (in the 7th place to be precise) there was another completely different entry: Mind the Gap. A very simple game about building suburban railway networks, and the basis of the game we have today at hand.

It’s not a coincidence that we see full games being born in game jams often. The most common executioner of game projects is overscoping: There are many games whose development gets overly complex, stretches out and finishes depleting all the energy and resources of the developers, forcing them to cancel it, descend to a world of madness, or both. But developments with such a tight deadline force the developers to focus on the essence, to discard disproportionate ideas and find efficient and elegant solutions to any issue that pops up. The jam itself acts as a filter, where games that reach a state of completion have been squeezed to the maximum to get that concentrated juice of playability, otherwise it is unlikely the project will be ever finished. We could say that one way or another they have to be minimalist, especially if the theme in question is minimalism itself. No wonder why two successful games (if I remember correctly) came out of that Ludum Dare.

Mini Metro

Mini Metro is a delightful user experience. The visuals, the mechanics, the interface, the sound (Disasterpeace’s work), everything fits into place with elegance. The keys: Familiarity, simplicity, personalisation and imagination. The ordinary citizen doesn’t necessarily know what takes part in a subway system, how much does a locomotive cost or the number of passengers that are transported every day. But by using the simplified transit map that everyone who has lived in a city with a subway system will recognise, Mini Metro simplifies the game and brings it closer to the player. Is in that proximity and accessibility where Mini Metro’s design outstands. There is no need to learn complex button sequences, or doing one hour tutorials: being able to connect two points with the mouse is enough to play, the game does the rest. And it’s fun! Mini Metro appeals to that inner kid who likes to draw coloured lines, personalising the experience: It’s not London’s subway map anymore, it’s my subway map. The polishing of the game in this simple premise turns it into an organic phenomenon where everything is reactive and feels alive.

The game’s information comes as geometric shapes: Triangles want to go to a triangular station, and squares want to go to a square one. We don’t know what they mean, probably nothing, but it’s impossible not to perceive a city in movement behind, people with different needs and different neighbourhoods to connect. Our imagination fills the remaining gaps.

All this that looks so easy when we are playing it’s not as simple when we are talking about development. So we contacted Robert Curry, programmer, designer and founder of Dinosaur Polo Club with his brother Peter, to ask him some questions about the development and Mini Metro design process.
Let’s start with a bit of your background. If I’m correct, you studied computer science and joined Sidhe Interactive to work as a programmer where you worked in several titles for console and PC before parting away. Those games are very different from Mini Metro, and the technology has changed a lot since those days. How did that experience shaped the developer you are now? Can you tell us what are the most important lessons you took from AAA games that can still apply to the indie games development?

A major lesson learned was just how to make games. Back in the early 2000s there were very few game-specific courses, and none in New Zealand, so the three or four years at a studio really helped to take a computer science graduate that knew how to program a computer into someone able to function in a game development team. There was a lot of cross-discipline work that you had to learn on the job – how to work with artists and audio engineers and integrate their work into an engine, the requirements of publishers and the marketing department, that sort of thing.

In the lecture you did in the Victoria University (that can be found here) you mentioned that you abandoned the games industry in 2007, and you only considered coming back around 2010. What made you leave the industry, and what made you consider it back?

Ha, I suppose repeated failures and economic realities! Peter and I (and a fellow colleague) went indie in 2006, made of a go of it for a few years, but were in over our heads and nothing of note came of it so we had to get «real jobs» in 2010. I suppose at that stage I did get a little disillusioned, and wondered if making videogames was best kept as a hobby. Once I found a job at a good web development company this was cemented as I was amazed at the difference in workplaces: better pay, shorter hours, well organised, seemed like a much more sensible way to earn a living!

I myself came back into the industry as a side-effect of doing so well in the Ludum Dare that Peter and I entered, and then going to Indiecade in 2014 and being inspired there. Peter, though, had a much more solid plan to do so and was already tinkering on his own small projects.

Mini Metro Ciudades

Regarding the development of the game and specially the design process, I’m curious about the design and balancing of the simulation. The game was first prototyped during a game jam – the Ludum Dare 26, with Mind the Gap as name – and then you decided to expand it into a full commercial game. During the development or before did you do any research on the elements that take part in underground train systems or you just got down to work with the idea in mind to see what would came out?

None at all! We just based it on the style of the maps and our own experiences on metro systems in Washington DC, New York, London, and Paris. The idea we just discussed for an hour before we started work on Mind the Gap and it all just fell into place. We did very little balance testing on that, just a little to make sure the game length was about right. I often say that it felt less like we designed the game, and more like we discovered it.

Having said that, since we’ve produced more maps and added the upgrade system in Mini Metro we have spent a lot of time looking into what makes each city unique and trying to make the map reflect that.

The game also features different cities around the world (I must say I really wanted my city, Madrid, to be one of those T_T), how did you decide these locations? Did you go to these places at some point and experienced the transport system in person?

The first three were obvious, as they are the historic and iconic metro systems: London, Paris, and New York. From there we wanted to include at least one from each continent (Cairo, Hong Kong, Melbourne, São Paulo) and then filled in the gaps a little by looking at our user base and seeing which countries weren’t covered (Berlin, Osaka, Montréal). We’ve got three more maps scheduled for later on this year plus looking at a map editor so everyone can create their own and share them.

Mini Metro was designed to be minimalistic and reduce the work load, but even with that, games are very hard to make, and I’m pretty sure everything didn’t go all smoothly. What have been the challenges you had to face during the development?

Interesting you say that, because the minimalism was one of the things that made the game hard to make! We found it very difficult to take the initial game jam prototype and expand it into a full game while still retaining the minimalism that was a key part of the experience. Most of the time spent in alpha was to-ing and fro-ing over this, one build would add in a bunch of extra features, the next build would remove them all and go back to basics, and so on, until we finally settled on the formula that’s now in Mini Metro.

In the conference you said you decided to be open about the development, and listen to the feedbak. How did getting in contact with the community go? In what ways did the feedback improved your game?

The community doesn’t wait to be asked, they get in touch right away! Right from the Greenlight launch we had a ton of feedback from people that were playing the demo a lot on the website, ranging from hardcore FPS gamers through to transit academics. Our own forums and those on Steam have always been very good for listening to our players and we still check them every day or so.

Feedback did cause us to rethink decisions a few times, the most notable being a change to the city select screen in which we removed the map and replaced it with colours dots representing each line. We thought it was a really stylish change but didn’t realise how much people loved the maps! So after a short while we stopped being stubborn and backtracked, much to everyone’s relief. :)

Success can mean a lot of things, but we can say most certainly that Mini Metro is a very successful game in terms of polishing and final result. Has the game been a success on sales and economic viability too?

Mini Metro has been much more successful than we ever had anticipated! It’s allowed us to work on it full time and travel to conferences, plus the launch in November has left us with enough extra to rent a small office space and starting bringing on a couple more developers.

What do you think it helped to reach this success among all the other competitors that are constantly coming out fighting for a small piece of the pie?

I think a large part of Mini Metro‘s success comes down to two main factors: relatability, and uniqueness. Relatable in the sense that we’re not relying on anyone being familiar with typical genre tropes, like an RPG or an FPS would. Anyone who has been on a bus or a subway before sees the game and they understand enough to start playing. Unique in that if you want to play a game in which you build a subway network that looks like a map, we’re the only show in town! By not competing in an existing space we get to carve out a new audience. Not quite as easy as that, but it’s easier than making another dungeon crawler or platformer.

Mini Metro Ciudades

The game is completely suitable for mobile devices and it’s coming soon to iOS. Was this something you took into account early in the development, or did you decide to port it later?

Initially we were only going to release it as an iPad game, however after speaking with a successful local indie (Antony Blackett of Rocket Jump) we decided to go for a desktop-first approach. This was based on the reasoning that it’s much easier going from desktop to mobile than the other way around – the Steam audience doesn’t like to see mobile games on their platform, and Apple likes to see premium games that have made a splash on desktop coming to iOS.

The PC and the mobile markets are quite different in audience, play session length, discoverability… How are you trying to ensure the same level of success in the mobile market? Are you adding social features or considering some of the free-to-play common practices?

Steam‘s discoverability has been amazing, and is only getting better. I can say without a doubt that without their great efforts at putting games in front of gamers that we wouldn’t be able to be doing this full-time. Going to iOS and Android, we know that discoverability will be an issue. So we’re hoping we can count on a mix of featuring and word of mouth to do the work instead! I don’t think we’re being too unreasonable, we’ve seen after the Greenlight launch how quickly news of the game spread, plus we have a 200,000-strong audience which will hopefully help on launch day.

We tossed up whether or not to go free-to-play but after talking with several other indies with successful premium titles we decided to stick with what we know, which is premium pricing. Still seems odd to call a $5 product «premium», but it’s all relative I suppose!

After the port to mobile, what will be the next steps of Mini Metro and Dinosaur Polo Cub? Do you consider to keep expanding it, or will you move into new ideas and new games?

We have certainly got more ideas for games, but we’re focusing on Mini Metro for the foreseeable future. I mentioned earlier that we’re planning on a few more maps and a map editor for the desktop release, plus maybe ports to more platforms after that.

Finally, we hear (and read) a lot about the indiepocalypse and how the situation might not be sustainable in the long term, with so many independent games being released. What is your view in this subject? Where do you think the indie games industry is leading?

I think the indiepocalypse is a myth caused by a few games unexpectedly having poor releases coupled with naïve assessments of SteamSpy data. Yes, there are many more indie releases on Steam than there ever have been. However, all that’s happened is that the barrier to entry into the marketplace has been removed. The barrier to success is still the same as it’s ever been: you have to make a good game, market it well, then cross your fingers and hope for a good launch. So we’ll be seeing a larger number of indie games fail, but most of these will be titles that previously wouldn’t even have been able to break into the market. And some of those games will be surprise runaway successes that will have otherwise not had the opportunity at all.

Acerca de Enrique Hervás

Humano Nivel 32. Diseñador y Programador de videojuegos Nivel 6. De esos a los que sus padres prohibieron jugar a "las maquinitas" por estar demasiado enganchados. No sabían lo que les esperaba. Actualmente trabajo como Game Designer en Exient, e intento no olvidarme de mi pasado indie de Game Jams y jueguitos con Join2 Games

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