Some games impress by their simplicity, and make a long lasting impact on the industry as a result. Mini Metro is one such game.
It's now been ten years since the first steps of the indie hit, with developer Dinosaur Polo Club celebrating the anniversary next month with a big crossover update between Mini Metro and its similarly successful successor, Mini Motorways.
This is a big milestone for Dinosaur Polo Club co-founders, brothers Peter and Robert Curry. Celebrating ten years of Mini Metro was important to them because it's the "seed that formed the studio," as Robert puts it.
Conceptualised during 2013's Ludum Dare game jam, Mini Metro has been consistently updated over the past ten years; a journey that has seen the title go from Steam Early Access in 2014 to Apple Arcade in 2021, with several platform launches and six million copies sold in between.
"We didn't even set out to form a studio, that wasn't the goal"Robert Curry
The initial team comprised the Curry brothers doing programming and design, soon joined by Jamie Churchman handling art, and Rich 'Disasterpeace' Vreeland to head audio.
"It was the four of us who worked through to the Steam release [in 2015] and then the AppStore release [in 2016]," Robert recalls. "It was in late 2016 that we sort of saw how sustainable this success was going to be. So that was the point at which we made the decision to have a studio around this game.
"We didn't even set out to form a studio, that wasn't the goal, but it was like, okay, we now have this sustained success, we want a studio to sort of help us with it. Because I remember at the time we just couldn't respond to all the emails. And we were like: we got to hire someone just to answer the emails!"
The brothers say they were quite "financially conservative" at the time so it took the AppStore launch coming through for them to realise this was bigger than they anticipated and "commit to hiring somebody," as they wanted to make sure they could provide a sustainable environment for people to work in.
The first hire happened in late 2016/early 2017, and since then it's been a slow and linear progression for the studio, Robert says, as they decided to stick to self funding (though Peter clarifies that they did get funds from Apple to help finance Mini Motorways).
Dinosaur Polo Club remained at around eight to ten employees until Mini Motorways' launch in 2019, after which it saw a big jump. Now at 26 employees, the studio is on a structuralisation journey as it continues to grow with – and beyond – the Mini franchise.
"The big thing is to provide enough support for the team," Robert says. "Our CEO Chantelle Cole and COO Niamh Fitzgeraldy went to a whole bunch of studios in Canada and the US – I think it was in 2019 – just asking them everything: what were the pinch points that you had while expanding? How do you support your team? Things like that. And that trip is still paying dividends. That really helped us to know when to bring in support staff to help out and where the pivot points are [in terms of] team size.
"What we aim to do now is to bring in people who can help run the studio a bit more smoothly. Producers, head of departments, HR, operation support, finance."
We mention that these are usually the areas of building a company that indies don't think of at first.
"[We just want] to make sure the teams have enough support and get to do what they want to do"Robert Curry
"Yes, you do kind of jump to 'We need a programmer, we need a game designer, and quality insurance' and things like that," Robert says. "So we just want to make sure that we've built the support staff first, and then we bring the team in. We didn't always get that right; last year was when we kind of forgot to focus on the needs of the [team] so it was a [priority] for us. Since then things have become a bit more balanced out."
He adds that they just want "to make sure the teams have enough support and get to do what they want to do." One challenge they've encountered is when staff's tasks exceed their job description, so they've recently tweaked job descriptions for some employees.
"It just relieves the stress of things, to know that the work you're doing should have been in your job description all along, so you don't have to feel bad for not doing stuff that isn't in your old job description," Robert continues. "So even things like that we realised can help."
This might seem like a trivial thing to discuss, but it's rare to have insight into the mundane pain points of growing a healthy studio – especially when you never quite intended to create one in the first place. In addition to figuring out a structure that supports everyone, Dinosaur Polo Club moved to a new office late last year, going from a 130 square meter space with two meeting rooms to a 550 square metre office with seven meeting rooms.
It's in this new space that the studio is eager to not only continue supporting its hit franchise, but also explore life beyond the Mini series. It's currently in the pre-production stages of a "PC-first management simulation [title] that is not in the Mini franchise," Peter says. And it's working on more content for the Mini games, with the brothers happily handing over the reins to the rest of the team.
"We do have further updates at least for Mini Motorways [after the anniversary update]," Peter continues. "We'd love to keep supporting Mini Metro as well, we'll see how things go. It'll stay around, definitely, it's not going anywhere.
"It's been really neat to get other people to look at the franchise. The vision of what makes the game tick is quite collectively held within the team"Peter Curry
"We are [also] prototyping another entry in the Mini franchise. Rob and I are not directly involved in the prototype, there are people in the studio that are super good at prototyping so we sort of handed off the reins to them and we are just helping out where we can.
"It's been really neat to get other people to look at the franchise. The vision, the understanding of what makes the game tick, is quite collectively held within the team, so Rob and I didn't want to dictate from up high what a game in this franchise needs to be and whatnot. We steer it more than anything else."
Mini Metro and Mini Motorways are prime examples of minimalist games, which is a topic many Dinosaur Polo Club employees have shared expertise on over the years, at various conferences. We actually talk to the Curry brothers off the back of a GDC talk from Dinosaur Polo Club's senior technical designer Tana Tanoi about designing minimalist games.
It's a movement of games that seems to be on the rise, with titles such as Islanders emerging in recent years, for instance.
Robert says they likely "have become more aware of it because [they] are in that space," but agrees that it's a space that "has become more viable." He points to titles like Townscaper, which don't have a goal.
"We didn't want to just put so much of a game on it that it ruins the core of it, that is really minimalist. We don't like to waste people's time"Peter Curry
"It's just really cool that you can do what is essentially a toy and that's enough," he says.
We point to upcoming musical title Oddada as well, which serves no specific purpose beyond experimenting with sounds. The emergence of such experiences lead the brothers to reflect on the form Mini Metro could have taken if it was released in today's market; at the time, the team pushed for more content to make it viable, adding more game aspects to it.
"It's interesting that we have that unspoken rule that [games] must be challenging, [with] goals, and success and failure," Robert continues. "Which we do too, in the games we make. But there's nothing to say that you can't make and release a thing that is just a toy. And I think it's really nice that that space has opened up a bit now.
"When we came up with the game jam game back in 2013, it was maybe 50% of what Mini Metro became, from like the mechanics and everything. But the stress that we had was how do we take this fun toy and make it big enough to be a game that people actually buy? And it feels like we came up with the smallest possible thing [that] we could actually charge money for. But I feel like these days, we wouldn't need to spend all that time on it."
"It's interesting that we have that unspoken rule that [games] must be challenging. [But] there's nothing to say that you can't make and release a thing that is just a toy"Robert Curry
Peter continues: "I remember there was a lot of stress when we were thinking about trying to expand it into a full game and thinking: is there enough here? Is there enough of a skeleton for us to hang things onto, to actually get it fleshed out into something we wouldn't be embarrassed to put on Steam?"
Upgrades, more features, high scores: all of this wasn't necessarily part of the very first vision for Mini Metro, but did make it to the game eventually.
"[But] we didn't want to just put so much of a game on it that it ruins the core of it, that is really straightforward and minimalist," Peter continues. "And I think 'concise' is also the term that we like to use to describe the game. We don't like to waste people's time. It's one of the pillars of the franchise. It's both in the game itself, and around the game – we don't want to compel people to go back to it if they don't intrinsically want to.
"And like Rob was saying, it is great that it has broadened. It's not like any other games are going away. I sometimes think that the way we call them 'game', like 'computer game', or 'video game', is not all that helpful, because 'game' implies all of the stuff around score, winning, and that competitiveness… So I'd love it if it was more a term like 'experience' or something, rather than game. Because I think we are more experiential than just about winning something."
Looking ahead, both Peter and Robert enthuse about the "vibrant" scene for indie games developers in New Zealand, which we recently talked about with NZGDA chairperson Chelsea Rapp and is on an impressive upwards trajectory.
They're also looking forward to continuing working with Apple where and when it makes sense.
"It was a bit scary, going into a new platform [with Apple Arcade in 2021]," Peter recalls. "No one had really done subscription stuff before so how that was all going to work out, all of that stuff, was a bit scary... I've even forgotten what doubts we had," he laughs. "Even now, they are a great partner, we keep in touch and if there's anything that's happening, we can discuss things quite openly, it's quite great."
Robert adds that there's no reason why they wouldn't work with Apple again in the future.
"It's been a great supportive relationship, we're very happy with how it's gone, and I feel like they are as well," he says. "So we will always be including them in our plans for the games that it makes sense to. But obviously not every game that we will make will be a mobile-friendly game – or one that fits the subscription model for Apple Arcade. But we will talk to them [because] I think, without that relationship, the studio wouldn't be where it is now."
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