Review: Betaworks connects the Dots to score an iOS hit

Dots for iOS(s AAPL) is a simple color-matching puzzler from the folks at New York City-based Betaworks. The free iPhone-only game launched earlier this month, quickly climbing the App Store charts and rapidly racking up more than 1 million downloads.

Initially Dots seems like something of an odd fit for Betaworks. The young media incubator is probably best known for its acquisition of Digg last summer, followed by its recent gain of a majority stake in popular read-it-later service Instapaper. The company simply doesn’t have a history in gaming, and as detailed on the Betaworks blog, Dots’ introduction was, in fact, something of a happy accident.

Betaworks’ resident hacker Patrick Moberg ended up creating the game following several interaction design experiments. It’s experiments like these that Betaworks hope will help the company in gaining valuable user engagement insight. Speaking to Mashable, Betaworks’ Paul Murphy explained that the release of Dots will help the company learn “how to keep people engaged,” adding that what it gains will be applied to Digg and other Betaworks products.

So, is the free game worth your time, or is it just a bare-bones experiment aimed to help Betaworks better its other products? Well, as it turns out, it can be both.

How it works

The straightforward, visually pleasing puzzler tasks you with clearing your game board of as many colored dots as possible within 60 seconds, all in the pursuit of gaining a leading high score.

Dots by Betaworks

To clear the dots you must match a minimum of two, dragging your finger in a straight line from one corresponding colored dot to another. Once a link is made the dots promptly disappear and the board refills, replacing them as quickly as you can remove them. A point is awarded for each dot you manage to clear.

Things get interesting when you manage to connect four or more identical dots in a square formation. Doing this will clear the board of all dots of that squares given color. After a few play-throughs, the importance of making squares becomes overly apparent, as they are key to ensuring that you set a respectable high-score that linear connections alone can’t assure.

Comparing your high score to those of your friends is done via Twitter or Facebook.(s FB) You can chose to connect to just one service, or both, as a means to see your friends results. Support for Apple’s Game Center is sadly lacking, which is a shame as the ability to challenge friends to beat your tally would be a nice addition, especially considering the connections to Twitter and Facebook are underused — you can’t tap on a friend’s name to fire off a challenge via a tweet for example.

Gaining an even loftier score can be achieved by use of power-ups. Dots presents you with three choices to advance your game further, all of which add a certain degree of strategy into the mix. The first, Time Stops, pauses the one-minute countdown for five seconds, giving you extra time if you feel you’re having a particularly good run, and would like just a little longer to rack up some more points. The second power-up is known as a Shrinker, offering the ability to remove a single dot from the game board just by double-tapping it — these come in handy if one dot is standing in the way between you and completing an all-important square. Finally, the third power-up is known as an Expander — these do the same as a completed square, removing all dots of a chosen color.

Dots by BetaworksTo use these power-ups you need to purchase them with your gained dots. You soon amass a decent number from just regular play, as each high score is added to your dots total at the end of each game.

For the impatient, dots can also be bought with real cash — 5,000 will cost you 69 cents, 15,000 will set you back $1.49, whereas 50,000 are priced at $2.99. However, due to the ease of which dots can be attained from normal play, buying extra with real money is in no way essential, and instead just a nice way to add to the tip jar for an otherwise free game.

There are times during play when you’ll see a square for the taking made up of more than four dots, and yet despite how tempting it may be to take the time to join the additional points up, especially due to the delightful feedback you receive with each connection, it is a misuse of your ticking seconds. Whether you score a square of four dots or nine, the end result is fundamentally the same — all those colored dots are going to be added to the tally and disappear regardless, so chaining a larger square is purely wasted time. Initially this lack of reward for forming larger squares may seem like a frustrating omission, yet the truth lies in Dots’ clean and clear simplicity. One dot equals one point, and it always will.

Clearing dots is as simple as it sounds, at times captivating and calming, at others frantic and frustrating. The addition of a few select power-ups give this lightweight game just enough in terms of depth to make the high-score objective appealing and incessantly addictive.

Dots is a wholly satisfying pick-up-and-play game, perfect for those fleeting free moments.