Public transport is a complicated thing. I’m sure it’s hard to design, and I know from the perspective of the passenger it can be hard to navigate. Having grown up in London, attempting to understand the logic behind bus routes and the numbering system has been a monumental task. So having a game like Mini Motorways to zen out to feels like a real treat.
Mini Motorways is an incredibly simplistic but stylish game that sees you creating roads for buses to travel to bus stops, picking up passengers along the way. Originally released on the Apple Arcade, it’s a game where more and more depots and bus stops crop up, all in different colours that need to connect to one another, with a procedural soundtrack from Disasterpiece bringing life to the motorways. While it is, for the most part, pretty zen, there is an amount of stress that comes with it.
“It’s a very relaxing game, but then it does get progressively, progressively more and more stressful,” says Robert Curry, co-founder and designer at Dinosaur Polo Club. “It just kind of builds and builds and builds, and you never really realise when it’s kind of become a hard mode.” In my own experience of the game, I found that to be incredibly true. You have a limited number of road tiles you can use, and you’re only given more after a certain amount of time has elapsed. There are ways to mitigate traffic through traffic lights and roundabouts, but over time it can be quite overwhelming when there’s so much happening on the screen at once.
Interestingly, though, failure in the game doesn’t always result in players wanting to give up. “I think then once you hit that point in losing the game, it’s actually the thing that makes you want to… then begin the game again, because then it’s a nice ease back into it, which of course just ends up becoming a stressful experience at the end again.” That’s absolutely something I found when playing the game. Failure didn’t feel like I messed up things so bad I had to abandon everything, it felt like a fresh start.
Starting up a new round was even calming at times. I wouldn’t feel the stress of managing all the different routes that I ended up with, it could just be a casual experience. I knew of course that eventually things would get stressful again, as Robert says, but I could forget about that for a little bit at least.
Mini Motorways isn’t Dinosaur Polo Club’s first attempt at making a game surrounding public transport. Motorways is a follow up to 2014’s Mini Metro, although having a series of games on public transport wasn’t always the intention.
“We were having a look at lots of things: ski maps, architectural drawings, museum maps, we were looking at family trees, just all kinds of sort of simple things that most people would have some understanding about,” says Robert of when they were looking to develop their next game in 2017. It’s an interesting look at how game development is often just a series of happy accidents. Dinosaur Polo Club weren’t set on making games about transportation, but here they are now with two. Although that doesn’t mean there will be three. “We haven’t decided on what the third [game] is going to be. But it would be weird if it wasn’t transportation.”
Luckily for the team at Dinosaur Polo Club, the last year, where much of the world has been struggling with responding to COVID-19, the New Zealand based developer hasn’t faced as much trouble. Work stayed much the same for the team, with the country only recently having its first lockdown. But the responses to the game are definitely something they all have appreciated. “We do just get folks who do get in touch to just say how much they appreciate the gentleness of the game and it just gives them gives them a nice kind of space to relax.”
It, of course, doesn’t mean that game development is always easy. For the most part, it exists in a vacuum and, for all intents and purposes, the game doesn’t exist until it does. It’s a series of disconnected pieces that eventually will flow together, but it can be hard to see the bigger picture. “It can be easy to forget when you’re building a game for years that it actually is an important thing in your fans’ lives…” says Robert on the subject.
It’s great to have a game like Mini Motorways around to play when I’m spending so much time at home. It’s a weird sentiment that I honestly can’t explain, but I have looked at buses and thought “I wanna get on you just to go somewhere,” which certainly says a lot about the last year. For now though, I can at least mitigate some of that want by laying down some roads and watching the buses go by.