How two brothers gamified the everyday commute.
Mini Metro, an interactive subway game coming soon to PCs, Macs, Androids and tablets, simply and beautifully emulates problems with public transportation, mostly by accident.
Even in its early Alpha stage, it nails the key components that make for a great puzzle game. It has a clean and simple interface. It asks you to perform a simple task at first; then it asks you to play faster and faster, under increasingly difficult conditions, until you lose. Like Tetris, the grandfather of all puzzle games, Mini Metro is not so much about winning, but how long you can hold off inevitable failure.
Mini Metro starts as a plain, mostly empty subway map. As new stations pop up, you simply pull subway lines to connect them and transport commuters where they want to go. As you progress, more stations pop up, requiring you to draw more lines efficiently to meet commuter demand. Rivers, intersecting subway lines, and out-of-the-way stations make things more difficult later on, while faster trains, bigger cars, and other bonuses help relieve pressure.
Since Mini Metro is essentially a public transportation manager, it makes familiar puzzle mechanics so much more meaningful. Suddenly, they’re not just abstract concepts, but truthful representations of every city dweller’s familiar problem: the successes and failures of public transportation.
“That’s the funny thing,” said Peter Curry, who’s designing the game along with his brother Robert. “People relate to that — they always see the problems of their own public transport in the game. We hear that a lot.”
Curry said that players will send links to the game to people who complain about their city’s public transportation system as a kind of explanation.
“We know our public transport sucks,” he said, adding that building a transportation system is hard, often under-funded work. “Everyone sees their own transport’s failings and they connect to it to Mini Metro.”
Videogames are often about power fantasies, and Mini Metro’s is allowing users to build a subway system without having to worry about money and politics. Like a transportation god, you simply draw the lines and they appear instantly.
But it’s still impossible to get right. The better you do, the more stations appear. The more stations appear, the more people use your system, which strains it further and further until it breaks.
That’s not all that different from the real world problems in places like the San Francisco where the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system connects the East Bay to San Francisco. It made cities like Oakland a cheaper living alternative to San Francisco, allowing people to easily commute in and out of the city. But now so many people commute by BART that it can be overcrowded, and the slightest hitch in the system causes mayhem.
Mini Metro is such a perfect marriage of form and content — you’d assume that the Curry brothers did a ton of research on public transportation in a major metropolitan area. Neither is true. Peter lives in Wellington, New Zealand, a town of 200,000 people. It has buses, but there’s no subway in the entire country. His commute into town is a 15-minute walk.
“That’s the embarrassing thing,” he said. “People think we did all this research, but really there’s no hardcore simulation under it at all. We have our list of stations, the number of stations we’re going to spawn, so all we do is pick a random spot on the map.”
Peter said that he and his brother came up with the idea for Mini Metro while trying to figure out what kind of game they could make with a limited amount of free time and only two programmers.
When Robert was on vacation in London, he enjoyed studying the Underground map, and figuring out the best way to get from points A to B. It was Peter’s idea to make Mini Metro about building the system.
The prototype, which will eventually become a proper iPad game, was inspired by the “Minimalism”-themed Ludum Dare 26 game jam (a gathering of game developers to plan, design, and create games in under two days).
Mini Metro makes for a great, infinite puzzle. And it just so happens that the public transportation we use every day is an infinite puzzle as well, but one that’s not nearly as fun.