While the rest of the world has been losing its collective mind over Pokémon Go, I've been playing a different game, the forthcoming Dots & Co from the company that makes (you guessed it) Dots and TwoDots. It's coming out later this summer on both iOS and Android as a free-to-play game.
I really like it.
Lately, I've noticed something about mobile games that I enjoy: they're very chill. I like my games relaxing, and nailing that is as much about the aesthetics of a game as it is about the game mechanics. Dots & Co has the kind of super-chill vibe I tend to like: the artwork, music, animations, and general pacing of the game all feel designed to calm you down and let you zone out.
The game mechanics do the same thing, for the most part. It's a basic puzzle game where you draw lines between same-colored dots to connect them, and if you can complete a full square you'll get a little boost of board-clearing before more dots fall into place.
That's no different from its predecessors. What's new are some extra mechanics: there are dots that need to be unfrozen, slightly vexing turtles that wander around the board, special triangle dots that enable in-game bonuses, and blocks that need to be broken. There are also characters (hence the "& Co") designed to help you out with little board-fixing power-ups: so most levels will have something like a penguin that clears colors or a buffalo that puts water on the board when you need it (So, a water buffalo. Get it?).
Yet, at its core, the gameplay is not all that distinct from TwoDots. There are a lot of levels to clear (with more on the way via future updates), some random luck in what the levels present to you, and a bunch of little power-ups to learn. What's really new, as I said before, is the vibe. It's considered and consistent throughout — and things that you and I would think are minor apparently have a lot of deep thought behind them.
I spoke with game director Margaret Robertson for a solid hour about these little things. The board map is in landscape instead of portrait because it's meant to be a "place where you go." Which sounds like marketing fluff and maybe it is, but it's also clear that Robertson takes this stuff deadly seriously. Those helpful characters all have backstories which Robertson insisted be created but never inflicted on the player. There are zones thematically based on the arctic, on Montana, in the woods.
Take randomness: in any Dots game, there is a mix of specifically placed dots and then random dots. That’s super important, Robertson says, because it allows the player to not get into a mode where they’re trying to map out five moves ahead. Taking away the randomness would suck the fun out of the game for hardcore players — they’d literally end up diagramming levels.
Games, for Robertson, requires "an interesting problem" that is "interestingly difficult" to solve. "If I gave you a dartboard with an infinite number of balloons and an infinite number of darts, it would very quickly get boring." But if you add scarcity, she says, by limiting time, or darts, or balloons, or whatever, then solving the problem of popping those balloons becomes "interestingly difficult." Hence, Dots & Co only gives you a limited number of lives (like other free-to-play games, or, of course, like many arcade games).
It's all a lot of thought that isn't all necessarily going to the core gameplay of creating challenging levels. Instead, a ton of work is being put toward making this game feel like an okay place to be, a place for adults. Robertson calls it "the subway test." Would you be slightly embarrassed if somebody saw you playing Candy Crush on the subway? Clash of Clans? Maybe, yes, a little (for me, it's a lot).
'Dots & Co' passes "the subway test"
More importantly, do you really want slot-machine-style plinks and cutesy explosions flying across the screen when all you really want to do is wind down? Dots (the company) seems to be a company dedicated to the proposition that no, you do not, but you still want to play a pretty simple puzzler that doesn't require a ton of brainpower or fast arcade-style fingerwork.
In fact, it's a company dedicated to the proposition that you'll probably end up paying to play its games, via for-pay power-ups. Free-to-play games used to have a bad reputation, because many of them (and the worst among them today) feel like a kind of scam. The bad ones give you the game for free, but then set it up in such a way that the only way to progress or even remotely enjoy yourself is to start laying down some money.
Dots & Co has all the standard tropes of free-to-play games: a limited set of lives, an in-game currency, and plenty of buttons you can press to spend it. But each level, Robertson stresses, is obsessively tested and tweaked by humans to ensure that it's beatable (and, of course, enjoyable) without having to use power-ups. That in-game currency might feel icky to some, but it's there so that Dots can let you spend amounts smaller than $0.99 (the minimum in-app purchase) on the little items you'll want to use from time to time.
I don't know if many people feel like free-to-play games have a scammy reputation anymore — Robertson thinks the overall industry is way better about it now than it used to be — but I will say that I don't find the way it's implemented in Dots & Co to be all that infuriating. I played for a week before spending any money — and even then I only did it to see how it worked for this story.
There are lots of people who played Dots' last game, TwoDots, without spending a dime. And some of those people are superfans. But plenty of people also seem to plunk down money without feeling any remorse: TwoDots is getting more profitable over time, according to Dots' CEO Paul Murphy, and it's not going anywhere. That's happening even though the company isn't aggressively advertising it on television or trying to jockey its way back up the leaderboards in the App Store.
Dots probably (hopefully) will never be gobbled up by Zynga
That's good, because Dots (which spun out of Betaworks) is approaching 50 employees in its New York office with no signs of slowing down its growth. All are working on creating three (and someday more) games where you drag your thumb across color-coded dots. They have a sound studio with two full-time guys and a bunch of random instruments for the custom sound effects and music. Murphy says that the company is profitable (though perhaps not wildly so) and hanging on to its investor cash. "Gaming companies should make money," he says, and has no desire whatsoever to be another one-and-done-then-sell-to-Zynga company.
For you, as a player, that business background is important only insofar as it instills a sense of trust: trust that these games won't pivot into something crappy, trust that when you open it up next time it won't bombard you with anything garish.
There's something inherently lonely about most mobile games, especially so-called "casual" games (a term that Robertson rightly thinks is patronizing bordering on offensive). You're sitting by yourself, doing something a little mindless, not talking to somebody on Facebook or in person. It's a little world you enter, by yourself.
A tiny measure of tranquility
The best games recognize that sometimes gaming is an inherently lonely experience. They don’t try to distract you from that loneliness — they let you inhabit it. They make a world that's not just inviting in your time of stress, but forgiving. It's okay to be a little lonely, a little frazzled, to need a small escape that won't feel embarrassing later. Alto's Adventure does that, Threes does it, Prune does it, and there are a (surprisingly) few others.
When it comes out in the coming month or so, Dots & Co will do it, too: here, it says, is an Eskimo to guide you, here are some dots to draw lines on, here's some music that won't turn into a hellacious earworm, here is a tiny splash of ocean spray to notice before you take on the next level.
Here is a tiny measure of tranquility. It's okay to take it.