Mini Motorways is a simple game on the surface. You draw roads to connect homes with stores and businesses in an almost ASMR experience and hope the infrastructure you create doesn't fall apart at the slightest pressure.
That simplicity belies the extensive prototyping and balancing that Dinosaur Polo Club programmer Tana Tanoi told Gfinity took the development from almost a year before Mini Motorway's initial release up through it's recent launch on Steam.
Some of it was the usual balancing involved in game development, but Dinosaur Polo Club set itself a more difficult task than some: making traffic control fun and accessible.
Dinosaur Polo Club always planned on making a follow up to Mini Metro, and figuring out what they wanted that new project to be led them back to a recent favorite: Freeways, from Captain Games. Freeways puts a similar responsibility on your shoulders as Mini Metro— creating interchanges for smooth traffic flow — but Tanoi and the team wanted to take the idea further.
“We have to be making different entertainment [experiences] as opposed to like Sim City and Cities: Skylines. We want to combine that gameplay in three ways into a kind of living puzzle,” he said.
The project originally started with a grander scope. Dinosaur Polo envisioned a national network of roads where players had to connect major cities, then scaled it down to the city level, but it was still bigger than the final product. In this build, Tanoi said the team wanted players to have a set of data pertaining to the city, then draw over that to connect major points of interest.
“But the funny thing with that one was that you just kind of draw the main roads of the city anyway, just creating existing cities,” he said.
It took nine months of prototyping to finally arrive at a build the team knew would work, one based on a much simpler idea: laying roads using a tile system.
Tanoi said that’s when it “started to feel good.”
“You didn't have the same decision paralysis as when you were trying to just freely draw wherever you wanted,” he said. “One of the things we always knew was important to us is just watching an interesting system go round. So by the time we had just cars kind of ant farming their way around the city, it was like, ‘Okay, this is actually pretty cool.’”
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One crucial element that developed during prototyping is the ease of getting into the game. Tanoi said the team wanted Mini Motorways to be a “low cognitive load” experience, contrasting it with Cities: Skylines and the dozens of possibilities it presents players with immediately. Mini Motorways gives you one task at first and makes you feel good for doing it.
“We don't want to be a builder,” he said. We want to be a more relaxed and casual game. “It’s calming because it starts slow. The very first connection [you] do is very simple, [and] there's a very small number of decisions you have to make as a player. We increase the number of decisions as the game goes on, and by the end of the game, you're making actually quite a lot of informed decisions.”
Getting that balance right took even more work after the game initially released in 2019. Tanoi said the biggest challenge was getting the game’s algorithm determining “supply and demand” just right. Houses are the supply in Mini Motorways and destinations are demand. At launch, he said they had a “naïve” view of how many houses they could have load into a map and what demand they needed, and it ended up spawning too many.
“So we rebalanced every single map, which thankfully wasn’t too many at that point, entirely,” he said.
The team eventually struck a good balance between supply and demand, with a hint of deception thrown in the mix. The only way to truly “beat” the game is to draw the perfect route every time, a feat that's almost impossible on purpose.
"The game is essentially catering for suboptimal roads as much as possible," he said. "But you never notice that We always want to feel like — this sounds bad but — we want it to feel like it’s your fault [when you fail].”
Assuming you even want to succeed, that is. The team intentionally designed the game so you can play it however you want — even if it leads to utter chaos and ruin. Tanoi said they stopped and thought “Should we let them draw roads like this? It would be awful for them — but we should let them do it.”
Tanoi said the chaos route might not take you as far as if you actually considered the pressures your traffic network needed to handle, but the team wanted to make it “accessible to people who just want to draw pretty, rosy cars.”
That spirit of experimentation, combined with its accessibility options and Disasterpeace’s audio, is what he believes makes Mini Motorways a unique “minimalist masterpiece.”
Now that Mini Motorways achieved the balance Dinosaur Polo envisioned from the beginning, it’s time for the team to start looking ahead. Tanoi said in addition to weekly challenges already in the game, the team is hard at work on porting Mini Motorways to Nintendo Switch and wants to add even more features, including the often-requested endless mode that lets you create roads with no pressure.