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'Two Dots' now has a competitive mode where you can play for real money

It's now part of Sparcade, where you can plunk down cash and play against your friends.
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Two Dots is a unique, beautiful and meditative puzzle game that exudes a level of polish rarely found in mobile games. So it was a bit of a surprise to see its developer, Dots, announce that it was partnering with the recently launched Sparcade to release a competitive version of Two Dots -- one in which players can put down real money. Would the fairly chill gameplay of Two Dots make any sense in a competitive environment?

It's something that the Dots team carefully considered before moving on with the project. "We had a really good hunch that this was going to work, because we had a competition mode in the first Dots game," says Dots CEO Paul Murphy. While later games added more intricate puzzles and levels to the experience, the original Dots simply asked you to clear as many dots in a minute as you could. Comparing scores with your friends for bragging rights was a big part of the game as well. "People get really competitive with the game; in Dots people would compete for high scores and it would get really intense," Murphy says.

For those who haven't tried Sparcade before, it's a competitive gaming app for iOS that launched earlier this fall with a handful of high-profile games, including Pac-Man, Tetris and Scrabble. Players can participate in a number of different challenges and put either tokens or real money on the line. While that might sound like gambling, Sparcade VP Greg Canessa says that the service falls under "skill-based gaming" laws, which let you put money on the line in competitions where luck doesn't come into play. It's the same law that lets you put money down in a bowling league or a golf tournament, for example.

As for how Sparcade keeps things fair, you play a game board, and then you're matched with someone who plays the exact same board, with no random chance involved. In a game like Tetris, that means the falling blocks come down in the same order for both players. Similarly, in Two Dots, the falling dot patterns will be identical for each player; it's up to the players to maximize their score by making the best moves they can.

"Every participant gets exactly the same setup, exactly the same boards, exactly the same power-ups," Canessa says. "It's what you do with the circumstances versus what I do that makes this a game of skill." And all of Sparcade's games measure your skill level after just a few matches so you end up getting matched against players with similar chops. Of course, you can play against friends, but if you're matching up against random opponents, you should expect a fair fight.

The gameplay itself will be totally familiar to anyone who has tried Two Dots. For starters, Sparcade will offer a few different challenges of varying difficulties. The games are timed, so you're basically shooting for a high score -- but in true Two Dots fashion, you'll need to clear specific colors or get rid of certain obstacles in the level to progress.

For the most part, Sparcade's designers worked on the actual levels in consultation with the Dots team. "The two teams collaborated on a best design, then we manage the actual development of the skill version of the game with their regular feedback, input, assets, art and sound effects," Canessa says. In the quick demo of Two Dots I played on Sparcade, it felt exactly like the original game, just with a new, time-based challenge. The standard version of Two Dots has no time constraints, so you can spend as long as you want figuring out your next move -- but on Sparcade, you need to balance making the best move with not burning up the clock.

So while it's safe to say Two Dots has successfully been ported to Sparcade, that doesn't really get into the why. Couldn't Dots build its own competitive version of its game? Well, as a relatively small studio, making this partnership with Sparcade was a much easier way to go. "We don't have the resources to create another team to build [a competitive game], even though this is a great business," says Murphy. "We're focused on our fourth game -- that's the amount of expansion that we can have at our stage. This is an opportunity to do it right now with someone that knows the space really well." And while you may not know Sparcade, its parent company, GSN, has years of experience in the "skill gaming" business.

And while Dots is looking forward to the extra revenue it'll get, that wasn't a primary motivator for this expansion. "We love the incremental revenue, but our real driver was exposing Dots to a new audience," Murphy says. "This is an opportunity to tap into people that are more competitive but still attracted to our game style."

That said, it's also a very good test case to see if there's real money to be made here. "Free-to-play has worked well for us," says Murphy. "I'm not slamming it -- but I do feel like it's not the last business model we'll see in mobile gaming." Whether Sparcade's competitive gaming plan will be the next big thing remains to be seen. But even if you're not into betting money on a game, Two Dots in Sparcade is worth checking out. It turns out a timed version of Two Dots is a good thing, whether you're putting money on the line or not.

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Nathan is the deputy managing editor at Engadget, keeping track of the site's daily news operations and covering Google, Apple, gaming, apps and weird internet culture. He now lives in Philadelphia after stints in Boston and San Francisco.

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