The Gravity of Dots

While working on a story about technology design studio, Betaworks for The Business of Fashion, I wound up talking with Dots CEO, Paul Murphy, about homescreens, caring about aesthetics and the play between fashion and technology. I was a bit shy to admit that I hadn’t stopped playing Dots since the launch of the game and went on to compare my feelings to a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “The Game” funny enough. Since then they have released a second game known as Two Dots. Now I spend most of my spare time playing that game. And I’m not the only one. I was so curious to know more about the design approach and the philosophy in the same way we might examine any designer’s process. Paul gave me a peek behind the scenes and into his very guarded designer’s mind. 

Debra Scherer: Tell us the story of how Dots came about?

Paul Murphy: So when Patrick Moberg started creating Dots, the first thing he actually did was create a very lightweight storytelling application. I think he would probably look back on it and say that he over-engineered it, but what he wanted to do was create this really flexible system that he could program, and sort of send the person or the viewer down different paths, based on how they’re interacting with the application. And the thinking was that there would be words, sort of different paths of the story, almost like “choose your own adventure” but one where you’re not actually choosing, it’s choosing for you.

And so he built this flexible system and then he started creating the interactions for the user to go through the story, and it was at that point where he started experimenting with these buttons and these dots that drop and making that the thing that takes you through the story. And when he showed me an early version of that we both said, “Wait! This is really fun! Just to play with the dots and the buttons. So let’s just experiment a bit more with this.” 

We basically set down this path over three months where he would literally go away into a corner in the office and just kind of geek out on this, and try all these different animations and interactions, and every week we would sort of meet, and tear it apart. Then, we got to a point where we handed this thing over to different friends and some family members, and even though it wasn’t actually a game, people had a lot of fun interacting with it and it just got better and better and better.

And so, about halfway through the process, about maybe a month, month and a half in, we realized we were building a game and not a storytelling application at all.

So that’s how Dots was formed. What’s interesting for us now is we are actually trying to apply not quite the same randomness to our process, but the same flow. So we don’t sit down and sketch out a massive storyboard. 

DS: That’s really surprising, so it was all just an accident. A beautiful accident. What has happened with the Dots team since we last spoke?

PM: We are working on more games. We’ve launched a second game, Two Dots, we’ve got a third game under development and we’ve even got an idea for a fourth game. So we’re not creating this complex storyboard and then trying to figure out what all the pieces are and backing into some mechanic that you do with your phone and your fingers. Instead we’re just focusing, just like Patrick did with that first game, on that basic interaction between you and your phone.

DS: Yes, last time we talked a lot about the relationships people have with their phones.

PM: So it’s like, what are you doing every half-second or every second in this experience? Once we feel like we’ve created something which is really fun and addictive, then we’ll start thinking about the broader experience and asking, what are you doing every minute or every three minutes? And then, what are you doing every day or every three days? Then kind of trying to build the game out like different layers of an onion. That’s basically our process, and it stemmed from how Patrick came up with the first game.

DS: I know he is also an incredible illustrator too. Does he draw everything out first? Does it all start with pen and ink and then go digital?

PM: Patrick really thinks in code. But he spends a lot of time doing animations and illustrations, but he will always start in code because that’s truly how his thoughts are expressed. Then he’ll switch over to Illustrator and draw something, and sort of see if that feels right, and then put it back into code. So that’s his process. We have another game designer who is a much more pencil and paper kind of a guy, so he sketches, he’s got a whole sketchbook full of ideas and he’ll start that way and then he’ll code a little bit of the interaction and then go back to his sketchbook. When he feels like there’s something there, at that point he will elevate to Illustrator and actually create an illustration. So we expect as we find more game designers we’re going to find people who have their own approach to it, which we think is cool.

DS: It sounds a lot like the difference we keep talking about in fashion, where some designers start with references and shapes and come from a ready-to-wear approach, whereas, the art of truly designing on the body, right there in the rawest form is becoming a lost art.

PM: It is really interesting because I think some people, when you ask them to explain themselves, they’ll do better by drawing a picture, or painting something on canvas or just designing something. I think that for Patrick, the easiest way for him to explain a creative concept is to get into the program and start writing code, and then show you. What’s really amazing watching him work is, you see this person creating this amazing thing right in front of you. His entire creative process is reflected in writing software. 

So, it is really interesting and I haven’t seen it before. Even the most creative sort of developers that I’ve worked with before, typically the way that they work is they’ll sketch everything out. They’ll create the visuals and then they’ll figure out how they get it programmed. He’s the first guy that I’ve worked with that really mixes the creativity and the programming together. And the concepts form through that, as opposed to being formed on paper or in Photoshop first.

DS: So, of course I’m not a coder, but at its most basic level, it seems like it is simply giving one of two commands. IF, THEN. IF, THEN. IF, THEN. Is more sophisticated coding just a more complicated version of that?

PM: I think where it gets interesting beyond the “if, then, if, then” is where if I’m speaking, I’m going to lay out a set of logic, “follow these steps” sort of thing. Where code, especially if its visual, starts to really, really do magical things is when you have things like recursion, when you have something that’s happening to infinity. What that does to objects, or when you’ve got particles in a game or on screen and you’re trying to manipulate them so that they fall on the screen the same way that they would in real life and in gravity. 

So there’s wind resistance pushing up and then gravity pulling down and then the angle of the phone introduces randomness, so that’s where it gets beyond the declarative statements “if, then.” You’ve got this notion of “I want this to feel real, I want this to feel random.” You program that and it happens. That’s an example of the kind of thing that’s really hard to put down on paper or into a drawing, because you have to see it before you can really experience it.

DS: So the game is based on physics? On theories of gravity?

PM: We actually use a physics engine in all of our programs. So it helps us do things like gravity and acceleration, and change those things on the fly, that sort of thing. 

DS: It seems like you guys have a little bit of a DIY spirit, an analog approach in its PURE digitalism. Good to know it's alive and well in having a good time in the no paper zone as well.