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Dinosaur Polo Club Interview – Mini Metro

We recently previewed Mini Metro on the site. We were delighted to have the opportunity to interview Peter Curry, one half of Dinosaur Polo Club – the independent New Zealand studio behind the game.

The industry is coming out with a varied selection of transport management games at the moment, but Mini Metro offers us something quite different. Where did the inspiration for Mini Metro come from?

hard-at-workI wrote about this a little in our devlog. The two of us that make up the Dinosaur Polo Club – Robert and I – have been in game development for yonks. However, outside of our work at Sidhe Interactive (we left in 2006), we haven’t shipped anything much. We’ve poured countless hours into projects that, realistically, could never have been completed. We’ve always had our heads in the sand.

It took the birth of my son last year, and the corresponding massive reduction in my free time, for me to realise that if I ever wanted to make my own games, let alone make a career out of indie game development, I had to make some serious changes in the games I attempted to develop.

We looked next at our strengths, and thought about what we could do with them within our constraints. Code wasn’t a problem, so levels could be procedural. A simple, abstract visual style would be possible. Consistent game rules wouldn’t be an issue once we had a concrete idea.

As often occurs, it was ironically liberating working within constraints. We were freed from considering so many choices that the ones left to us were so much clearer.

A number of ideas came to the fore, among them an abstract wargame, and a subway travelling game (almost Mini Metro in reverse). We decided to develop our first prototype during Ludum Dare 26. Doing so during a game jam was the ideal way to force us to produce a playable product, and the theme (which turned out to be, perfectly for us, minimalism) would hopefully spur some creativity.

Out of Ludum Dare came Mind the Gap, which was a direct product of playing to our strengths. Even before the end of the jam we had all-but decided to continue development, and here we are!

The design is so clean and simple. I love the way the lines are drawn and can be dragged around and hooked onto stations like a piece of string. Did you go through a few different designs, or was this the idea from the outake?

Mind-The-GapThe core mechanic has always been drawing the subway lines. It’s been in place since the Ludum Dare prototype, Mind the Gap (you can play it here). It’s been improved since then (removing stations, editing the middle of a line, etc.), but it’s very similar to the original.

One of the most difficult design problems we’ve had since the prototype (back in April 2013) has been how to augment the line drawing with additional systems to make it more meaningful, but not distract from the core mechanic. The complexity of the upgrade system ebbed and flowed throughout development as we got carried away with adding options, then pared it back again to put the focus back on the lines.

I see you are keeping Auckland to the last level, and I’d say London, Paris and New York were obvious choices, but how did you go about deciding which cities to use for your maps?

The selection of the initial cities was trickier than we expected! We want Mini Metro to be accessible, so asked players for their opinions on our forum. We tried to pick a good geographic spread of cities to complement the famous subways we had to include (the métro, the London Underground, etc.). There are some glaring omissions in our list of cities still: we don’t have any mainland Chinese city, no German city, and Tokyo should be there. We’ve had a ton of requests for Istanbul. The list goes on! What we’re emphasising at the moment however is diversifying how the existing cities play instead of just shovelling new cities in.

Auckland was us being a little parochial. There’s no subway system in New Zealand, but as Kiwis we felt compelled to include at least one New Zealand city. :) We’re actually from Wellington, but Auckland’s much bigger and has just had their public transit system revamped with a shiny new map.

You’ve used Unity for the development of the game. Why did you make this choice, and how has it helped you in development?

dev1I love to develop engines, to the point that every last line of code I’d written in my spare time before Mini Metro (and that’s been a lot of code over the last decade) has been engine code. For Mini Metro we forced ourselves instead to use an off the shelf engine. As painful as it was to give up all that control, it was definitely the right decision to make. We got geometry up on the screen immediately, and then got right in to gameplay coding. No faffing about with vertex buffers, requesting OpenGL extensions, etc., all that boilerplate busywork that I unfortunately like architecting and writing far too much but gets us nowhere.

The biggest timesaver has been the mature cross-platform support; Unity is amazing at getting your game onto a wide variety of platforms with a minimum of fuss. There are a few little issues that rankle me and I’m annoyed that we can’t fix (lack of proper Retina support, awkward multi-monitor support, etc.).

Did you use any assets or plugins for Unity?

Mini Metro uses Futile by Matt Rix for rendering and CSteamworks.NET by Riley Labrecque for integration with the Steamworks API.

Futile is a well-written 2D toolkit that Matt wrote for his own games and open-sourced, and now sees a fair bit of use. It’s a funny way to use Unity as it’s entirely code-driven, so you don’t touch the editor. Seasoned Unity devs find that aspect of it a bit silly! It was great for us as we’re very comfortable with pure code, and I didn’t want to learn how to use Unity’s game object system before we began development.

When can we expect to see Mini Metro on iPads?

The date we’re giving out now is end of 2014. It makes a lot of sense for us to have Mini Metro available on the iPad and Android tablets by Christmas. We’re going to try hard to make that happen. We’ve had a few builds running on the iPad already, and it’s evident there is a lot of UX work to do to get it playing nicely. You don’t realise until you’re playing a game like Mini Metro just how imprecise touch is compared to the mouse, and how much we rely on that precision.

Currently there’s no audio in the game. What can we expect to hear?

I don’t know exactly! We’ve given Disasterpeace a loose brief with just a few pointers: mellow, dynamic, responsive, in-tune with your network and representative of how well it’s serving the city. We don’t know the first thing about audio so we’re letting him take the reins, have a play, and come up with something great that suits the game. When we were looking around for an audio engineer Disasterpeace was the first guy we asked because of his track record and his interest in procedural audio (see January).

Thanks again for answering our questions. We’re really excited to see Mini Metro in it’s final format, as I’m sure you are too!

Thanks for the coverage!

You can follow Peter on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest Mini Metro news.

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