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Dot Arcade And The Fading Art Of Relying On Player Imagination



Andrew Lim and James Montagna recently released an unusual game on the Wii U called Dot Arcade. It’s not unusual in its content, exactly, but in how it’s presented. As Dot Arcade’s title alludes to, it’s a game played as if upon an 8×8 grid of LEDs – and, in fact, that’s how Dot Arcade was originally prototyped.


How Dot Arcade went from a physical game played with a wooden box to a digital game that you can purchase on Wii U is one of the subjects of Siliconera’s interview with one of the team, James Montagna. He also explains why the Wii U was the pair’s console of choice and why they decided to keep the feel of the original LED games.



Could you first explain how you prototyped Dot Arcade in a wooden box? Was it complete coincidence that yourself and Andrew both had these wooden box prototypes?

James Montagna, designer: Dot Arcade technically has two separate histories between myself and co-creator, Andrew Lim, with the coincidence being we both created an 8×8 game. However, only Andrew had gotten far enough to build the prototype in a wooden box (Mr. Snake); my 8×8 game was entirely digital, and began back in 2007! I created Dodge Club for a curated game exhibition. I was exploring ways to share the 8×8 concept again here in 2015, including building hardware. Seeing Andrew’s wooden box prototype for the first time, I learned the difficulty of manufacturing and producing physical devices would be prohibitive to sharing the game widely.


Why did you decide to retain the look of the LED prototypes when making the video game version?


Seeing the lights of our prototype is a sight to behold, so we wanted to preserve that beauty in some form with Dot Arcade! Incidentally, presenting the LED bulbs seemed to help players register what exactly they were viewing on the screen. I’d like to mention that the idea was never to purposely make something that feels old just to make a play at nostalgia. For us, it was more to find a way to present the simple fun of an 8×8 game in modern day, and in a relevant way. The somewhat vintage wrapper helps the concept be both digestible and justified.


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Now, Dot Arcade isn’t one game, it’s three. Could you give us an overview of what these three games are and how they play?


That’s right! The three games included in the Dot Arcade set are Mr. Snake, Dodge Club, and Rally Driver. You could say each of the games studies a different emphasis in gameplay.


Mr. Snake requires players to be methodical about their moves under pressure, re-inventing the classic game of snake with an addicting twist! Dodge Club is all about the simple thrill of navigating around the screen and trying to project the movements of hazards for as long as possible. In a run for the top score, every close call gets adrenaline pumping! Finally, Rally Driver focuses on pure twitch reaction! It gets increasingly faster the longer you can go… For some, this seems to also be a recipe for getting players to grit their teeth and clench the controller with a monster grip.


You’ve also added characters to the game when bringing it to Wii U. Why was that? And how did you arrive at their designs?


Some of the great joy of a game with minimalist visuals is the imagination provided by the player. We’ve helped facilitate that in Dot Arcade with special cabinet art and characters for each game. This element of gaming is maybe a bit of a fading art form with current visual capabilities, but there is something magical about it.



We’ve imagined Mr. Snake as a galactic snakeback rider, zipping through space and collecting cosmic gem fruit… whatever that means. And in our minds, a raver girl is dancing around a fenced-in stage, avoiding a fireball and electric spark in the future underground sport of Dodge Club. As for Rally Driver, that’s clearly a heated race, wherein you’ve taken the wheel of the fastest Formula-D on the road.


It’s all stuff that Andrew and I came up with, through the filter of the fantastic artists we’ve been honored to collaborate with: Jeremy Hobbs, Jordan “meeks” Canales, and Robert Porter.


The soundtrack plays different but complimentary audio on the TV and Wii U GamePad. What does this add to the game? And why do you think it hasn’t been more widely attempted?


To not disrupt the ambiance of the dot games, our theme music plays exclusively in the menu, and is slightly different on the TV and Wii U GamePad. They each play different parts of the song, creating an atmosphere between the player and the TV. Each part stands on its own as well. For instance, the GamePad music is more mellow and relaxed, a good fit for playing the game in bed with off TV play. Our goal with every component of experience was to pay extreme attention to detail. I suspect both the composing and implementation is a bit tricky, but I’d love to see more games experiment with this!


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How have you tried to encourage competition between Dot Arcade players?


Absolutely! The physical prototype was a big hit around the office of Andrew’s day job. The simple game had an entire company competing with each other for top scores on their lunch hour, and it became a part of their corporate culture. We aspire for Dot Arcade to do the same on a grander scale with the Wii U release, and hope comparing scores between friends and on Miiverse becomes fuel for great competition!


Lastly, in your “Developer’s Story” video Andrew says that Dot Arcade is the “perfect fit” for the Wii U. How so?


There’s something intimate and special about holding the dot games in your hands on the Wii U GamePad. But our goal is to be a social experience too, despite technically being a single player game. Since the game visuals are projected to the TV as well, Dot Arcade can become a party game. Players take turns competing for the high score as viewers watch in anticipation of their chance to give it a shot, or cheer on their friends. This experience could only be realized on Wii U, so it felt like the perfect fit to us! We hope players will agree, and add Dot Arcade to their Wii U game collection.

Chris Priestman