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Seeing Spots

Even British artist Damien Hirst can't stop thinking about Dots.


The dangerously addictive Dots is back with a sequel

In April 2013, our commute to work changed forever. That was when New York-based startup studio and VC fund Betaworks launched the iOS and Android game Dots.

One year, and more than 20 million downloads later, Dots has spun out from Betaworks to become a business of its own and also released a sequel, TwoDots.

We sat down with Paul Murphy, Dots CEO and cofounder, to talk all things spotty.

Wakefield: The first Dots game was a surprise success. Did production of the sequel suddenly involve a lot more people offering their opinions?

Paul Murphy: The way we think about it is a lot like what Hollywood and the animation studios like Pixar or Disney have done – each game will have a specific director and a producer. The director is the one who comes up with the creative concept, they’re ultimately something like the head of product. And the producer makes sure that the trains leave on time, that product gets shipped, and the team has all the resources it needs.

W: But the stakes must have felt a lot higher with this one.

PM: I’m absolutely determined that we never get that mindset where we’re too good to fail. I saw what that mentality could do – I was at Microsoft for a while, and I saw firsthand where too much risk [means] closing up shop.

So we’re going to have a very high tolerance for failure. Which means we’re going to produce things that ultimately fail. But we’re not going to produce something which isn’t fun, which isn’t beautiful… It can be a total financial flop, but everything that we make is going to look good, and it’s going to be fun.

W: What did that process of turning Dots into a free-standing business involve? Are you still affiliated with Betaworks?

PM: We get a ton of value by working at Betaworks, and we love being there, so we’ll be there until [Betaworks cofounder] John [Borthwick] kicks us out, or maybe we’ll get too big and have to leave…But Betaworks plays this really cool role where they’re both a co-founder – because a ton of people were helpful in launching this company – and also the lead investor. So they’re very emotionally attached to helping us to grow the company, John in particular.

Once we flipped that switch and said ‘This is not just a game, this is a potential company,’ we focused on doing three things: the first was nurturing the game, because we have a very large, very active community that wants new features and improvements.

Second was recruiting the team, which is where I’ve spent most of my time in the last year. We now have twelve people on the team. But it takes a long time to get the word out. To tell people we’re trying to build a different kind of gaming company, one that values unique game play and design.

And the third was building new games. And that’s where TwoDots comes in. That project started back in November. And you know, it took a little while to figure out exactly what we’re creating.

W: Tell me about the addition of – for lack of a better term – the Candy Crush mechanics, where lives expire, but you can pay to play immediately.

PM: Candy Crush is one that a lot of people have pointed to, because it’s a very popular game. But the reality is that 99% of the games in the App Store have progression. Many of them have maps, or levels that you have to achieve.

There’s a lot of stories written about it, ‘You just put skin on Candy Crush.’ We don’t think that that’s true. They did not invent progression, they didn’t invent a map. Levels have been around for decades. That said, there’s a lot of things in gaming that inspire other game developers.

We definitely were not solving for monetization. One of the complaints we got for the first game was that you sort of lost a sense of purpose – the challenge of getting a higher score wasn’t really enough to keep people excited for a long period of time.

So, there has to be something at stake and that’s what we were trying to achieve. It just happens to be a great way for us to monetize, but it actually adds to the game because there’s risk. There’s something there.

W: How does the process of building new games begin?

PM: Right now, there’s three people on the team that are prototyping different gestures – swipes, pinches – that we think could be fun and unique. Once we find one that we all get excited about, then we’re really going to think hard about the story, the narrative that we would tell in the game. And if it feels solid, if it hits our bar of being unique, we’ll put a small team, maybe two other people on it, a designer/illustrator, and a game designer/engineer to fill it out.

W: Do you have any games in the pipeline that we can expect to see soon?

PM: TwoDots was more of a hit than we had planned. We knew it was going to do well, but we didn’t expect it to take off so fast. So that means the team that was on TwoDots is going to stay on TwoDots, probably for the rest of the year. I would love to have another game out by the end of the year. That may not happen, but that’s our goal.

The good thing about the model that we’re building is we get the right people, we can get really talented, ambitious game designers that think differently, then we can scale infinitely. We can have twenty teams, small teams working on twenty different games. So, my hope is that that number of things we produce increases, but it all hinges on getting the right people.”

Dots, and Betaworks, are hiring for a slew of positions out of their New York office. Get all the details here.

Now go forth (and spot me).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nitty Gritty

12/9/2013: Date two of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings were stolen from a London gallery

33,000: Value, in pounds, of the paintings

12/11/2013: Date Guardian art columnist Jonathan Jones declared he wouldn’t cross the road to steal one of Hirst’s spot paintings

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