Mini Metro took 72 hours to create - and 10 years on, the Wellington-created game has millions of users

Imagine spending hours stuck in a nightmare commute and then coming home to play a game that essentially puts you back into the commute but offers you the chance to improve it.

That's what it's like playing Mini Metro, a game developed by Wellington gaming studio Dinosaur Polo Club 10 years ago which has entertained somewhere in the region of 6.5 million players to date and is still going strong.

Mini Metro burst out of Ludum Dare 26 Jam - a three day gaming brainstorming session in April 2013 - and became a hit thanks to its simple premise and execution. All players do is build an underground metro system to transport people from one point to another; but as the maps grow, so do the number of people boarding your transport system, meaning things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

But Dinosaur Polo Club's Studio director and CEO Chantelle Cole says it was anything but simple to start off with and became a "passion project" for those involved at its inception.

"It was inspired by a visit to London going on the tube, seeing the London Underground that was designed by Harry Beck in the 1920s, and it has been iconic ever since," she told Newshub.

"At the end of that weekend, they felt like they had something that was really fun. It just clicked. It worked really well. It was really engaging and it developed quite a cult following and ended up getting nominated for a BAFTA [Game award].

"I think because this game is inspired by an everyday concept that people can relate to public transport, it's inspired by concepts that they want to see to get their hands on and make better!" 

The game has been a smash hit since its inception. It is now localised in over 20 languages and with 27 real-world cities to design subways for including London, New York City and Paris.

Cole believes that success came because "the idea behind the game is that you play it to the level that you like", but that its simplicity hides a complexity that gamers become addicted to.

Chantelle Cole and Niamh Fitzgerald of Dinosaur Polo Club.
Chantelle Cole and Niamh Fitzgerald of Dinosaur Polo Club. Photo credit: Supplied

"We want our games to be ones that people can pick up and put down easily in the times that they have available or times that they're wanting to unwind after work.

"It's definitely those beautiful aesthetics, the way all of the systems interlock so smoothly and so cleverly [that suck people in.]. It's often a game that's described as being really simple, but under the hood it's incredibly complex. Every time we add something to it because it's a systems-based game, we have to update every single piece that's connected to that thing. So yeah, it's actually an incredibly complex game - in spite of what your initial impression of it might be from the outside."

Game designer and Dinosaur Polo Club COO Niamh Fitzgerald said the game's success developed through word of mouth.

Mini Metro's simple and clean design belies its fiendish pull.
Mini Metro's simple and clean design belies its fiendish pull. Photo credit: Dinosaur Polo Club

"Every time, whenever they find it, they start playing it and then they keep playing it and they come back and talk about it later on saying things like 'I'm just on this level of on this map, I've just unlocked Osaka and the Shinkansen, the bullet trains' and all these things. There's something about it that I think people really latch onto and kind of just get a lot of fulfilment and enjoyment from," she laughed.

The game recently celebrated its 10th birthday with a massive "Mini-versary" update to thank players for their ongoing support. 

Community has been massively important to the Mini games (a second, Mini Motorways launched in September 2019, giving people the chance to develop motorway systems) and there is a dedicated Reddit forum r/MiniMetro discussing tactics on how to cope with the sublime subway simulator.

For the team of 30 who work within the Dinosaur Polo Club walls, it is a hard - but rewarding job - to service the community, and their constant feedback throughout the game's 10 year life cycle.

"Because the game is so wholesome and accessible, our community is very much the same," Cole said.

"So for us, part of this 10 year celebration has actually been reflecting on some of the ways in which our community has reached out to us and shared their stories. It's really easy when you're working in the entertainment space to undervalue your work and how it affects people in their lives.

"But during the pandemic, we had a lot of people reach out saying that our game was the only thing that helped with their anxiety, and we had another person propose to their partner through it and we produced a special level built for them."

Mini Metro has been a success abroad.
Mini Metro has been a success abroad. Photo credit: Dinosaur Polo Club

"It was a good thing that the answer was yes," Fitzgerald added, laughing. 

Cole said most of their interactions from around the world have been "humbling".

"We had a person reach out to us saying that this father, during the last few months of a terminal illness, played the game every day and he got really good. It was one of the few things that he could do well and that I suppose helped. So those are the times when you stop and realise how much these things that you do actually become a part of peoples' lives and experiences in the world."

But as the game grows and continues to develop in its 10th year, the company is also adapting how it works and juggling its community's needs as well as those of its own staff.

"We're trialling the four day work week at the moment. Part of that journey was planning essentially for a year how we would do things like communicate with people if we had an extra day where we weren't essentially online."

As for the game's future, it's something the Dinosaur Polo Club team are actively considering now. While understandably coy on the future of any "Mini Game universe" entrants, both Cole and Fitzgerald reveal they're "currently working on prototyping in the Mini space" as well as looking at developing something outside of their traditional digital playgrounds.

However, after a major update for the game's 10th anniversary, Cole knows they need to be clear on any roadmap for the future as well as understanding and working to the concept that older games can't be maintained forever.

"We're always looking at what the future is for the mini franchise of games. Bringing Mini Motorways to life was a very interesting journey of us discovering more than Mini Metro. At some point we will be looking at as the games get older, what does that lifecycle look like? What does that sort of retirement age, I suppose, of our games look like and how do we support that?

"But I think we've sort of been looking at it as a whole mini collection of games and how we could kind of be bringing on new exciting things while also making sure that we're allowing our older games to sort of live and grow up, not having the same sort of frequency of updates forever."

One thing they're not going to be doing, Fitzgerald said, is heading down the path of what people expect from them - especially those who believe their Dinosaur Polo Club titled company is actually related to the sport of polo.

"We have had a few people reach out from actual polo clubs to apply for jobs or to inquire to register. We've had to really respectfully sort of say that that's probably not quite our area of expertise, but we appreciate it!"