Dinosaur Polo Club on Indie Success and the Challenges of Making a Sophomore Title
Even though planning an entire rail network is one of the most important, most difficult jobs an engineer could think of signing up for, Wellington, New Zealand-based indie studio Dinosaur Polo Club was able to turn it into a successful video game: its debut release, Mini Metro, saw players designing a rail transit system for a very rapidly growing procedurally-generated city. With beautiful, minimalistic visuals and a fantastic procedural audio system, Mini Metro was verywell–received, and saw enough success that Dinosaur Polo Club was able to release it on Android/iOS in 2016, Nintendo Switch in 2018 and PlayStation 4 last year.
The ever-growing studio followed Mini Metro up last year with Mini Motorways, which takes the same core concept off the rails and onto the bitumen, asking players to design a road map — instead of railways — for a fast-growing, procedurally-generated city. Mini Motorways is currently exclusive to Apple Arcade, but Dinosaur Polo Club is hoping to bring it to Steam this year, and we recently had the chance to sit down with co-founder Robert Curry and Community and Engagement Manager Casey Lucas-Quaidfor a chat about the team’s influences and development process, the games industry in New Zealand and how COVID-19 has affected the studio.
You’re well known for your game Mini Metro, and your latest title Mini Motorways is coming soon to Steam. Can you tell us a little about the idea behind Mini Motorways and how it expands on what you developed with Mini Metro? Sure! I know that Mini Motorways looks like it was the natural follow-up to Mini Metro, but actually it took a very long time to settle on it being our next game. We tried a lot of other things first — games about family history, architecture, ski fields, gosh, even archaeology. In the end, it was us looking back at Mini Metro and trying to dissect what makes it tick (it’s as much an enigma to us as to anyone else!) and playing games like Justin Smith’s Freeways that got us on to exploring what a Mini Metro-style game about building roads would look like. This led to the team spending months prototyping manydifferenttakes on the idea until we found what eventually became Mini Motorways.
Our programmer Tana Tanoi has an incredible talk prepared on the evolution of Mini Motorways and how it captured the spirit of Mini Metro while growing into its own. He was due to give it at GDC this year before the wave of event cancellations and we hope he finds a new home for it soon, because it’s a fantastic breakdown of the process. Keep an eye on our social media and his to see when it’s finally released out into the world!
Both games utilise quite a minimalist art style — what was the reasoning behind that decision? The art style came about because Mini Metro started as a game-jam game made by two programmers with zero art skills (our co-founders, brothers Peter and Robert Curry), and squares, circles, and lines were all they had the ability to do. The theme of the jam was “minimalism” too, which was another little push in that direction. So, embrace your constraints!
Another benefit to working in a minimalist art style is that it allowed our art team to develop a distinctive visual identity. We hate to use the term “branding” because it sounds so corporate, but there is a certain Dinosaur Polo Club look. People who had no clue Mini Motorways was called Mini Motorways or that we made it were able to glance at it and say “huh, this reminds me of Mini Metro.” Even, memorably, a few people on social media and Reddit saw screenshots for Mini Motorways in the initial marketing material for Apple Arcade and tagged us to let us know that someone was ripping us off!
As with Mini Metro, you’ve gone to Disasterpeace for Mini Motorways’ soundtrack. What is it about his music that works so well with your games? We always knew we wanted to have a procedural audio system. When we got serious about making Mini Metro we made a list of musicians that we knew had played around in that space and started at the top. We only had to send one email because Rich Vreeland was first in line and he loved the idea right away! We handed him the keys to the game and asked him to turn it into an instrument, and he threw himself into the project. I can still remember putting on the headphones, listening to his work for the first time and just being blown away by how calm, elegant, and interesting it sounded, and how it responded so wonderfully to the on-screen action. It was like no game I’d heard before! There’s something special about audio that is that reactive, that is entirely determined by your own actions, and is something that only an interactive medium like video games can accomplish.
What lessons from Mini Metro were you able to utilise in Mini Motorways? Was there anything you regretted not including in Metro that you included in Motorways, areas where you feel you made significant improvements, or any ideas that you wanted to change up between the two releases? Oh wow, we have learned so much about Mini Metro during the development of Mini Motorways. We realised pretty quickly during Mini Metro’s development that we had discovered it rather than designed it, and we see ourselves as gardeners carefully tending to this unique plant and we do what we can to make it thrive. We set out to make Mini Motorways with a set of features that we felt made a “Mini” game, and during development we’ve had to adjust that list many times. Because of that, we feel that by building the second Mini game, we have a much better understanding about Mini games in general. The main takeaways are that it’s fun to watch busyness that you have helped create, that nothing can ever be too simple, and that we don’t need to force a toy to become a game for its own sake.
We also learned a lot about how to build these games too, so the underlying framework is much more sophisticated than Mini Metro‘s and will be able to support updates for a long time to come. We can even take a save game from a bug report and replay it perfectly on our development hardware, which lets us find bugs incredibly quickly! It’s a huge leap from debugging Mini Metro, which would require people to send us screenshots and then we’d have to puzzle out what could have caused the bug. As for feedback back into Mini Metro — well, we have a ton of ideas now! We know the design space better and will be able to make more bold and informed decisions about what kinds of updates or features would be enjoyable.
When it comes to making significant improvements, honestly a lot of the biggest improvements have been to our processes. We’ve worked with some incredible producers over the last couple years that have brought a wealth of experience to our team, and we’re so lucky to have been able to share their knowledge and experience. We’ve also streamlined our beta testing processes in a way that will benefit every title we release in the future. These changes may not have happened if Mini Motorways hadn’t been such a game of constantly-moving interdependent systems.
Mini Metro was not only a success with players, but it was nominated for a number of awards — including a BAFTA. Was there a lot of pressure to live up to expectation after such a great debut? Definitely. The next release after a big hit is always nerve-wracking, hence why we tried making a different style of game first! There is a lot of pressure to improve upon a previous high-profile title, and of course everyone has a different idea about what “better” means. We just spent our time iterating on what we felt made Mini Metro special, but made it different enough that we were exploring a new space rather than making a direct sequel. We’ve been blown away by the response which has been very heartwarming.
Did Mini Metro’s success open up any new opportunities for Dinosaur Polo Club? Did you find any unexpected fans or any particularly rewarding feedback? Oh yes. Success is ironic in that it opens up the very doors that would have made it much easier to be successful in the first place. We do all that we can to do exactly that for others within our community — we figure that if we strengthen our community by sharing resources and information instead of hoarding it, then everybody wins. It’s not like we’re ever directly competing with other game development companies, so why bother acting like we are?
If I had to pick one opportunity, though, it would have to be the offer to submit a pitch for the Apple Arcade launch. We feel that came about because of Mini Metro’s success on the Apple platforms, and we were thrilled to get that chance. Being able to be there right from the start of such an exciting platform was a phenomenal opportunity.
We’ve had a lot of memorable pieces of fan feedback, too. We get a lot of parents thanking us for creating a game that they can enjoy with their kids, and that’s so lovely for us to hear! We’ve had someone say that their grandparent, who couldn’t speak English and hadn’t played any games before was totally hooked on Mini Metro — yay for minimal UI! The one that really sticks out, though, was when we got an email from someone whose father had recently passed away. Their father loved Mini Metro and played the daily challenge every day, often getting in the top 10. They wanted a screenshot of their father’s final high score, so we engineered a development build to pull old high scores down and sent them a screen capture. That felt pretty special.
More recently, it’s been touching to see the many messages of thanks and support from players around the world who have been enjoying our games during quarantine and lockdown. We feel so fortunate to be in a position to help people pass time during scary periods of their life, to provide even a brief distraction.
What are your thoughts on the future of New Zealand’s games industry, particularly for indies going up against larger companies like Weta Digital and Grinding Gear Games? New Zealand’s game industry is in a very strong position. We have many long-lived and successful studios such as PikPok, Grinding Gear Games, and Ninja Kiwi. As well as representing the bulk of the industry’s output and revenue, studios like these also offer great entry points for people just starting their careers. Many developers who have gone on to release their own work had their start at one of these studios — for example our two co-founders got their break at Sidhe Interactive (now PikPok) back in the early 2000s.
As far as competing goes, we actually have a really lovely camaraderie with our fellow developers. There is of course some competition for local staff, but that’s a healthy thing for the industry and it’s all done respectfully. In general, though, we’re all very open with each other and help out with advice or contacts where we can.
How has COVID-19 affected development, the workplace or just the vibe in general at Dinosaur Polo Club? Have there been any unexpected positives or changes to process? It has, for sure. There was a fair amount of disruption as we went into lockdown, adapted to remote working, and then came back to the office again. It has caused some delays but overall we’re settled back now – we’ve been back in the office since mid-May. However, we had hired two people based in Europe earlier in the year with the hope of having them able to join us by now. That obviously got put on hold, so we’ve had to adapt to having team members not only work remotely but also in nearly the opposite timezone. That’s definitely been a big learning curve for us.
Any insider info on when we can expect to see Mini Motorways releasing on Steam? We’re very excited to launch on Steam as it’s the original home of Mini Metro! Unfortunately, we haven’t got any more details that we can share yet. The COVID-19 disruptions have affected our timelines, but we’re all still hard at work on Mini Motorways.
What’s next for Dinosaur Polo Club? We’ve got plans! Lots of plans. Mini Metro and Mini Motorways support is obviously key for us; we love to give back to our community with more content and we have a lot in the pipeline. However, we’re not prepared to rely on our past successes and will be looking at kicking off new titles in the near future — stay tuned! After all, sitting on your laurels and refusing to evolve is how you go extinct, right?
We’re super thankful to Casey and Rob for taking the time to chat with us! If you’re interested in Mini Metro, you can find it on the App Store, Google Play, Steam, the PlayStation Store and the Nintendo eShop; Mini Motorways is available as part of an Apple Arcade subscription, and you can wishlist it on Steam to keep up to date with its release. You can also follow Dinosaur Polo Club on Twitter if you’d like to keep up with the studio’s future projects. For now, though, we wish Casey, Rob and the whole Dinosaur Polo Club the very best with Mini Metro, Mini Motorways, and everything else that’s to come!