Simple gameplay doesn’t have to limit itself to a barebones presentation. Tetris Effect proved that in 2018, adding pulse-pounding music and psychedelic visuals to the tile-matching classic. Similar to Tetris, indie title Hyper Dot features gameplay which is fairly straightforward but incredibly satisfying. The game, developed singlehandedly by Charles McGregor, is impressive based on those mechanics alone, but the high productional level serves to enhance the core gameplay.
Eager to learn more about the making of Hyper Dot, I spoke with McGregor about the development process. Read our chat where we discuss the indie dev scene in Minnesota, the game’s strange origin story, and how it landed on the Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
Matt: Is there a big video game development scene in Minnesota?
I remember us [dreaming of publishing games] 5 years ago […] and now we’re releasing our work on Steam, Itch, Xbox, Switch, all these different platforms. It’s really cool to see how the scene has grown in that time.
Matt: Is Hyper Dot coming to other platforms, or is it exclusive to Xbox?
Charles: Right now, it is console exclusive to Xbox. I want to get it on other platforms, but the pandemic definitely affected plans. It would mostly be down to me to port Hyper Dot over. I did the bulk of the work myself for the Xbox port, with some additional help from another local dev, Andy Korth, who’s part of Howling Moon Software.
Matt: Did you handle every aspect of Hyper Dot?
Charles: Yeah. I did all the art, music, programming, design, things like that.
Matt: The gameplay obviously is great, but I’m also really impressed by the presentation. Hyper Dot could have easily been more minimalistic, but the presentation takes it to another level.
Charles: Thank you so much. It was a goal of mine to make sure the game was as polished as I could possibly make it. It’s a game about circles and triangles, but I wanted to make sure that it’s not necessarily a just a game about circles and triangles, you know?
Matt: I’d enjoy the gameplay regardless of the presentation, but you don’t normally see a game that’s so minimalistic in the design have such high production quality. Where did the kernel of the idea come from for Hyper Dot?
Charles: It started as a research topic in a class. The topic was antipiracy techniques in video games. The teacher said we couldn’t create PowerPoints, which was always my go-to. I decided to present the research as a video game.
The original version was a four-player game. Each player had to avoid all of the pirates, which took the form shapes. There was a normal mode with occasional shapes flying at you because it was that represented what it was like to deal with piracy with some kind of piracy protection in place. Then there was a hard mode, with a ton of objects flying at you, representing what it’s like if you don’t incorporate any sort of piracy protection. The two modes actually made it into the game. Classic and free play use the normal mode, and the swarm option incorporates the hard mode.
That was the origin story. I only had four days to make the game for the presentation so the prototype was a barebones version of what is now Hyper Dot. The Friday after the presentation I went down to Glitch, and people were playing Hyper Dot for hours. A lot of people encouraged me to keep working on it.
Matt: Did Glitch help connect you with Microsoft to get Hyper Dot on Game Pass?
Charles: Yeah. Glitch flew south to Pax West and at one of the offshoot events, Chris Charla, the head of [email protected] Live, was speaking. We asked if he had some time to talk with us and Chris, being the amazing person that he is, said sure, no problem. We set up a meeting for the next day, which went great. Partway through that meeting, while we were pitching him the game, he was like, “Listen, you guys are saying some really interesting stuff, but I just really want to [focus on beating] this level.”
Matt: Seems like a good sign that he was interested! What was it like when Hyper Dot came out through Game Pass? I imagine the user base exploded.
Charles: Oh, yeah. Even to be considered on Game Pass was insane, since it’s not an opportunity everybody has access to. There was one moment where I saw my name next to Gears 5, which felt surreal. Once Hyper Dot arrived on Game Pass, a ton of people reached out to say they played the game because it was available through the subscription. And it’s great that, when I talk about Hyper Dot with someone, I can mention that, oh yeah, it’s also on Game Pass.
Matt: That’s a great calling card. I’ve heard developers say that offering a title through Game Pass has actually increased sales for their games overall. Did you have a similar experience with Hyper Dot?
Charles: It’s definitely increased visibility. Attention has been through the rough and I really love how many people have immediate access to the game, but I don’t know how much I can talk about sales figures since I signed an NDA.
Matt: Are you working on Total Reliable Delivery Service full-time?
Charles: Right now, yeah. I’m contracted to work on Totally Reliable Delivery Service for a couple of months and am working on Hyper Dot at the same time.
Matt: It must be a pretty big transition to go from working independently on Hyper Dot to working as part of a team.
Charles: It’s been interesting. I’ve only been working there for 3 weeks, but I already knew the people there so it’s been [pretty smooth so far].
Matt: When did you start working professionally in games?
Charles: I would say around 2015. My first very first paid job was writing an article on one of the co-founders of Glitch. I already knew the Glitch team, and later worked for them as a developer.
Matt: It sounds like you’ve got a really wide breadth of experience in a short amount of time, working on all kinds of different projects.
Charles: Yeah, I’ve worked on a number of platforms. I developed a browser game and also worked at a VR lab in college, where I gained experience with AR and VR. The projects weren’t technically video game-related, but we used Unreal Engine so it [tied back to video game development].
I even got to use the HoloLens, though it had a really narrow field of view.
Matt: What are your long-term ambitions as a game designer? Do you want to join a large team to make the next Skyrim or would you prefer to focus on smaller projects like Hyper Dot?
Charles: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now. I’ve been trying to position my studio Tribe Games in multiple ways. It can serve as a huge portfolio of games that I’ve worked on to appeal to a AAA developer like Naughty Dog or even a smaller studio like Super Giant. I can also use Tribe Games to show that I have a good track record in order to persuade publishers that I can handle a big project. I ultimately want Tribe Games to fit somewhere within those plans. I know that I always want to have a personal project on the side, which is what Hyper Dot was designed as initially.
So right now I’m trying to figure things out. I’m definitely at one of the crossroads in my career, looking into the fog of the future to see where life takes me.