It began with Dots, a minimalistic puzzle game with simple lines and squares of dots. In 2014, the makers of Dots released a sequel to their first game—Two Dots.
Two Dots and Dots are both essentially about connecting dots. Two Dots has other things besides; levels, worlds, prizes, treasure hunts—a mix of strategy and luck. David Hohusen, the game’s creator, says that the team’s initial aim was “to create a game that visually spoke to us, taking cues from motion graphics and illustrations that we found enticing. We wanted a simple adventure narrative to motivate players. Sort of a Wes Anderson meets Indiana Jones vibe.”
Emily and Jack, the game’s characters and the two dots in question, and their journey form the game’s foundation. The game is split into different worlds: the dots begin their adventure in a ship’s cabin, then to stormy seas, then to the tundra, and so on. Each world is about twenty five levels long, and at the end of each world, the player is rewarded with a postcard. Each world has different elements, or board mechanics; the sea levels have anchors, the desert levels have fire dots, and the latest levels—the sky levels—have thunderclouds.
At the very beginning, Two Dots was only a mode in the Dots game. Eventually, the makers decided it was too big to be a part of Dots, and a separate game was devised. Initially, a team of only five people worked on this new game. “The first hires we made to build Two Dots were two amazing developers, Ksusha Zito and Ryan Wang, who are still with us today,” David says. “All of the illustrations are done by the fantastic Owen Davey. We also picked up a graphic designer, Jak Horner, just in the nick of time to put the finishing touches on the game’s branding and aesthetic. So the core team was only six people for the original game. Obviously we’ve grown a great deal since then.”
Owen Davey is a freelancing British illustrator who’d done work for all sorts of big brands, and was commissioned to work on the game’s design. “They contacted me a little over two years ago asking me if I’d like to do some pitch work for the follow-up title to their first game, Dots.” he says. “I was super busy at the time so although it sounded really fun, I had to say no. But they said they really wanted to work with me and extended the deadline for me, so I gave it a go. I came up with a concept for a story and some characters and title screen and everything and they really liked what I did. They went in a totally different direction in the end, but they decided to take me on board for the proper project. I’ve been working with them ever since.”
As the game’s primary illustrator, Owen handles colour schemes, character design and illustrations. He still has guidelines to follow, though. “Initially I had loads and loads of freedom. I was given a bit of art direction, such as ‘underwater world’ and let my mind go with it. Now, we have to make sure that it’s in keeping with the original work I did, so there’s a bit more back and forth to make sure the tone is right and everything, but it’s still great fun working on it all. They’re an awesome client that really seem to appreciate that putting those extra details into a product make it so much better.”
It takes the team about four to six weeks of work to design a new board mechanic. “If you’re wondering why they take so long, most of the time, making a new level is actually not coming up with or implementing the idea for a level,” Toby Sarnelle, Two Dots’ lead game designer says. “The lion’s share of the time is spent play-testing, balancing, and refining the level to provide the proper challenge and make sure it’s fun to play.”
Some of the questions I asked Eric Glover, Two Dots’ community manager who also helped deal with and sort out this three-month-long interview muddle, were in large part inspired of curiosity. For instance, Two Dots players have five lives; every time they lose a game, they lose a life as well. “The primary reason for lives is it provides a good sessioning mechanic for players,” Toby explains. “Keeping players’ session lengths controlled can help prevent burnout, plus it gives us more time to make sure we can get new levels to people at a somewhat reasonable rate.”
Another thing that puzzled me was what the treasure hunts were based on. Every week, Two Dots releases a new treasure hunt—a set of seven levels, with a prize and a worldwide rank at the end. The treasure hunts usually celebrate something or the other. “We have a bunch of people that work on our events, who all meet every couple months to talk about what we would like to do in the coming weeks,” they write. “It’s a diverse group with a variety of interests, so we generally catch a lot of good stuff.” And in response to vague surprise about a Holi-themed treasure hunt, they write: “And yes, we do know about Holi in New York! Our CEO actually worked in India for a while and told us some great stories about Holi over there.”
Two Dots’ music is something that sets it apart, too. Each world has different music to it. People besides me (non-Two-Dotters at that) have commented on its impressiveness—the music in the Northern Lights levels was an especial favourite. The music is composed by Two Dots’ own sound designers, Cody Uhler and Ross Wariner, who also handle their sound effects.
When I asked whether there were going to be any more games besides Dots and Two Dots (this was before Dots and Co. came out), Toby wrote, “We’re always working on more games! I’m not really allowed to go into details about what we are doing right now, but know we have multiple teams working on new and exciting things.” Part of the “new and exciting things” was no doubt their new game Dots and Co., a sequel to Two Dots.
Two Dots has more than seven hundred and eighty levels now. When I asked whether they’d ever stop making more, they wrote, “It’s hard to say we will never stop, but right now there are no plans to. People still really love playing Two Dots; our dedicated players smash through new level packs in a matter of days. So long as we have dedicated players playing the game, expect us to be supporting it with new content.”