A couple years back, Margaret Robertson, the director of game development at the mobile game company Dots, fell in love with a screensaver. It was scrolling across the desktop screen of Dots’ art director, who sat in front of Robertson at the company’s office in New York City’s Meatpacking district. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of design from the last five years,” Robertson said recently, from Dots’ well-appointed Scandanavian-style conference room.
The screensaver in question—“Saver Screensson” by the Icelandic artist Siggi Eggertsson— is a hypnotic sequence of 340 stencil-like images that slide over each other to reveal new color combinations and patterns. It’s work that’s equal parts in debt to Josef Albers’ color studies and Matisse’s cut-out montages. “It’s a thing that slides a shape on top of another shape. That’s it,” says Robertson. “Yet, it’s funny, and it’s storytelling, and it’s surprising and imaginative, and it provokes curiosity and uncertainty.”
For Robertson and the rest of the team at Dots, evoking emotion from simple mechanics is at the heart of what they hope to achieve with their games. Over the last five years, Dots mobile games have become known throughout the industry as games designed for “non-gamers.” This is moniker is not by accident. When Patrick Moberg and Paul Murphy founded the company in 2013 while part of the Betaworks incubator, it was a way to scratch an aesthetic itch.
Moberg had recently travelled to Japan, where he saw a Yayoi Kusama exhibition for the first time. He found Kusama’s work inspiring in its powerful simplicity. Yes, she more or less worked with a single shape (dots), but those dots expressed so much. When he came back, Moberg, who studied interaction design in school (and illustrates on the side), decided he wanted to make a game inspired by Kusama’s work.
“We started with ‘what would this look like,’ and then let the gameplay happen out of that,” he says. If that sounds like the opposite of where most games start, you’d be correct. Games are complicated pieces of software that are wrapped in narrative and metaphor to ensure they’re comprehendible to the people who play them. “The systems underneath are usually pretty abstract,” Robertson explains. “Game designers spend a lot of their time in spreadsheets and modeling numbers.”
Robertson says designers rely on metaphors like combat, card games, and chase sequences to create shortcuts to players’ brains. Dots, and its follow-ups Two Dots and Dots & Co., don’t rely so much on narrative as they do interactive intuition. When Moberg sketched the first screen of the original Dots game—four dots that formed a square—it didn’t take him long to figure out what the finger wanted to do. “What do you instinctively want to do?” he asks. “You want to connect those two dots.”
Six years, three games, and dozens of employees (including a team of six visual artists) later, Dots has evolved its design-forward breed of gameplay into a fully fledged studio. Its downtown NYC office space feels appropriately startupy with an open floor plan, stocked kitchen, and private phone booths. Its neutral color palette is punctuated only with pastel chairs, stacks of games, and the occasional patterned pillow and rug. Even its sound room (Dots has on-staff musicians) is organized just-so.
In other words, games are no longer the domain of sticky fingered kids. They’re a design medium in their own right, and one that’s reaching more people (read: adults with taste) than ever thanks to smartphones. Robertson perhaps put it best when she interviewed for her job back in 2013. “I told them this is a place that makes video games I would wear,” she recalls. “It’s a goofy thing to say, but it’s true.”