Why the World Can’t Quit Dots, the Brilliantly Designed Non-Game
More than 100 million people have downloaded Dots or its sequels, Two Dots and Dots & Co. Ask them about it, and they’ll probably say they aren’t gamers. “For a lot of people who play our games, it’s the only game on their phone,” says Ondriona Monty, who just joined the company as chief marketing officer. “And they don’t consider it a game.”
Dots is, of course, a game. But the sentiment makes sense. The minimalist, Bauhaus-meets-ball-pit aesthetic is unique in the App Store, and the connect-the-dots mechanic is easy to learn and lends itself to repeat play. Of the handful of games I’ve downloaded over the years, Dots is the only one to survive storage shortages and phone upgrades. There’s a simple reason for this: Good design.
Although the game is three years old, it remains popular and has of late appeared in everything from magazines to promotional videos to fashion shows. That’s because Dots, the game and the eponymously named studio that created it, has from the start embraced a design ethos that lends itself to the artistically inclined.
“Playing Dots is like being in the cool lobby bar at the right boutique hotel, while playing Candy Crush is decidedly not like that,” says Ian Bogost, game designer and author of Play Anything. The company is capitalizing on that perception with strategic marketing to establish its reputation as a “game for non-gamers,” and make more games like that.
All games are by definition designed, some more thoughtfully than others. Monument Valley, the Escher-esque puzzler lauded for its architectural beauty, comes to mind. So does Threes, with its remarkably elegant game mechanics. Like Hundreds and Enzo, Dots typifies the “designification” of mobile gaming to create something less like an arcade experience and more like objects representing a specific taste or sensibility.
Dots, the studio, is perhaps the most dedicated to that idea—and to expanding it. Earlier this summer, it named Monty chief marketing officer, and now the Dots motif is seemingly everywhere—on the back of culture magazine Paper, in conceptual brand videos, and at fashion events. The studio’s catchy new tagline, “Play Beautifully,” alludes toward its attempts to position its products not as games, but as an extension of a certain kind of lifestyle.
The studio hired Monty to help capitalize on a customer base that skews young, female, and affluent. “Behaviorally, these are people who have a penchant for art and craft, who love design, who work in creative industries,” Monty says. Given the demographic, it’s not surprising that people playing Dots don’t consider themselves gamers, and don’t necessarily consider Dots a game. “Games are still in the process of trying to evolve beyond their baggage as kids culture,” says Frank Lantz, a game designer who leads the New York University Game Center.
Good design is the key to this. Dots features a simple square board filled with colorful dots. Connecting dots of the same color with a swipe elicits a haptic shake and pleasant “bloop” (created by the studio’s composers). The game was almost instantly addicting. The sequels were less ascetic in design, yet retained the clarity that made Dots so compelling. “It looks like the kind of thing a grownup would want to play,” says Lantz. “It has a sophistication and adult sensibility.”
Ask Monty who Dots hopes to reach and she’ll say everyone. That’s not so crazy. Games appeal to different people for different reasons. Some see them as something akin to accessories that reveal something about you. “It’s not like were all dilettantes and dandies trying to hold our phones in a way so someone can say, ‘Oh I see she’s playing Dots. She must have good taste,’” Bogost says. “But it is kind of like that.” For others, game are all about escapism. As mobile gaming grows more pervasive, the gap between those who play games and those who play games but say they don’t will narrow. Dots is betting good design will bridge that divide by providing something for people on both sides of it.