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Mobile and pricing

Along with finishing the desktop build and developing the audio, we’re working on the long-awaited mobile version of Mini Metro. The build’s coming along nicely. The tablet build is mostly done; the version it’s running is barely changed from the desktop. Simply increasing the hitboxes on the UI elements and in-game objects to account for the inaccuracy of touch got us 90% of the way there. We still have some UX changes to make—for instance, the current button animations rely on a hover state, which doesn’t occur on a touch device.

We’ve decided to do a simultaneous phone / tablet launch for Mini Metro. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the tablet market is tiny compared to the phone market. Secondly, we didn’t want to have a confused launch by staggering the releases. We’d rather announce that we’ve launched on iOS than iPad.

However the phone version is rather more complicated than the tablet, which is slowing down the mobile release. Here are a handful of the additional concerns:

  • The small screen size means the UI has to be slightly redesigned, with bigger buttons and less whitespace.
  • To play more naturally on a phone (a pre-iPhone 6 phone at least …), we’re running the game in portrait. Mini Metro has been built to run in landscape, so this changes how the maps play out somewhat.
  • Those screens are tiny! We’re still weighing up whether or not we need zoom controls for phone-sized screens.


So that’s the easy part of mobile development. The part we’ve been wrestling with, ever since we started on Mini Metro, is pricing.

The thing is that, as a general rule, mobile gamers don’t pay for games. They pay eventually of course. Just not up-front. If it ain’t free to download, then 99% of people won’t even take a second look at the icon.

But you gotta pay the piper. Advertising, in-app purchases, energy. Banner ads, interstitial ads, incentivised video ads. Two-tier currencies.

Jonathan Blow did an excellent talk (“The Medium is the Message”) on the impact that the monetisation model can have on the design of a videogame. He raises the point of early arcade games vs. the console games that replaced them—arcade games had to be designed a certain way because of the monetisation constraints placed on their design. They had to have short play sessions to keep you popping in quarters. It wasn’t until home consoles appeared, with no such constraints, that games were able to broaden and mature.

With a modern mobile game, you risk falling back to the arcade model. How much of a game’s design are you willing to give up in order to have it monetise well? To some, the two are inseparable: design IS monetisation.


I’ll be going off on a bit of a tangent here, so bear with me!

From its very inception, the key design pillar for Mini Metro has been minimalism. We’ve attempted to extend that minimalism from the core design to every part of the player experience. The minimalist aspect that I feel most strongly about is player motivation.

Outside of high scores, we haven’t included any extrinsic goals to encourage repeat plays of Mini Metro. No achievements, no goals, no levels to conquer. It’s important to me that when someone decides to play Mini Metro, their motivations are unambiguous. I don’t want to encourage people to play just to chase an achievement, or to complete a checklist. I want people to play simply because they want to build a subway. We don’t want to artificially extend the life of the game—there are far too many great games out there to play!

So what does all this have to do with pricing?

Freemium thrives on two things that Mini Metro doesn’t provide:

  • A fully-developed metagame. There needs to be items to unlock, extra levels to buy, outfits, costumes, hats, powerups. Consumable, one-off bonuses. You need a marketplace.
  • A strong motivation to play at least once a day. This is why mobile games often give out daily rewards for playing, sometimes escalating when you play for several days in a row. The goal is to make tapping on the game’s icon habitual. The more natural is to engage with the game, the higher the odds that you’ll financially invest in it—or at least watch the ads.

Both of these are at odds with the minimalist ideals we’ve been trying to keep in the game. Obviously we do want people to play and enjoy Mini Metro, and have fun with it … if somebody plays it every day, that’s great! But I don’t want it to be because we’ve engineered it to be habitual.


While talking about mobile pricing, we’ve realised the decision is tied to what we as developers want out of the game.

  • Do we want to release Mini Metro as simply the best videogame we’re capable of producing?
  • Are we looking for critical acclaim? (Please note the irony in chasing awards, possibly the most extrinsic goals we could pursue).
  • Do we want ten million people playing Mini Metro?
  • Is being part of the gaming zeitgeist of 2015 a goal? Asher Vollmer commented that he thought about this during the fallout of the Threes! cloning—did releasing Threes! as a paid app remove the chance for the game to become a phenomenon instead of 2048?
  • Could we affect even a tiny part of social change? I know this sounds ridiculous, but who knows … maybe Mini Metro could take a few cars off the road. Way back in March 2014 we were contacted by a handful of transit academics, one of whom was very excited that Mini Metro could help undo the harm of SimCity’s autocentric transportation model.
  • Do we want a ton of money? There are several financially-successful paid apps of course, such as The Room and Monument Valley. But a quick look at the Top Grossing list on the App Store will quash any notions that such feats aren’t outliers.

This is something we’re constantly thinking about. We’ve talked to a number of developers and have received a wide range of advice. Recently we met with Fleur Gunn, a local mobile consultant, to discuss promotion, marketing, and monetisation for Mini Metro, and she’ll be helping us out.

We still to-and-fro. Would freemium be selling out, or merely adapting the game to the platform? Is releasing as paid on mobile idealistic, or using a dying business model from desktop and consoles? Are paid app developers the New England ice merchants of the 2010s? Are we schmucks for even considering releasing Mini Metro as a paid app, with no in-app purchases or advertising?

I’ve started a forum thread for an open discussion on mobile pricing. I’ve no idea how we’re meant to respond to Tumblr comments, so, ah, better to post on the forum. 🙂