Ever since its announcement in 2013, Dreams has always been an oddity in the games landscape. A wonderful oddity mind you, redefining creativity, reinventing the very definition of what games are and what players can do within them and oh, so ambitious – so ambitious in fact that when the early access release date was announced, it felt like a relief: Dreams was well and truly coming.
Dreams is one of these industry stories for which you really hope for a happy ending because it’s been ongoing for so long that you feel personally invested in it. Dreams’ story is far from finished of course as there are hundreds of amazing things coming to the title (a full release being just one of them) but we couldn’t help but feel, once again, very relieved when we asked Media Molecule about how the early access was going and creative director and co-founder Mark Healey answered that things were “as good as [they] could ever hope for.”
Dreams’ community of creators is key to the title’s time in early access, as this version doesn’t include a campaign. So Media Molecule’s Dreamers, as they’re called, are currently shaping what Dreams is, using the title’s creative toolset, from sculpting to painting, animating, composing and much more, to make anything from silly character drawings to fully functioning games and everything in between. Is Dreams a game, animation software, a graphic design suite? Well, it’s all those things and more, with the community size growing slowly but surely – and in line with what Media Molecule planned for.
“We want to do a bit of a slow build up so that we can iron out any obvious problems before we put it in front of too many people’s faces really,” Healey says. “And the quality of the community is amazing, which was something we’d really hoped for and something that we put particular effort into, targeting certain people that we knew would be right for Dreams – primarily a lot a LittleBigPlanet creators for example but not just that. My experience is that it’s very good-natured, lots of people [who] are willing to help each other out and collaborate. So I think there’s a nice happy feeling in the community we’ve got so far.”
“The biggest challenge is to maintain the particularness and not turn slowly into a bit of a vanilla product which does a bad job on everything rather than a good job on a few things.”
The community at the moment is massively skewed towards creators rather than players – but Healey reckons that eventually players will take over, especially when the full release launches.
“The big challenge that we already knew we’d face, and it’s already become quite evident in my opinion, is how you help people find the good content,” he continues. “So we’re slowly chipping away at that and adding more features to make it easier for people to find things.”
Curation is also happening organically within the community as Kareem Ettouney, Media Molecule’s co-founder and art director, touches upon: “We tried to blur the lines between creation and playing by having curation features – Collections, as we call them in Dreams, is a huge feature in the project and you can be known for your taste rather than your skills in animation. So we also want that side of the community to prosper and enjoy their experiences… I have been finding people’s Collections so thrilling,” he enthuses. “I call people’s Collections ‘Weird Dreams’. Weird is a very hard word to have an algorithm for. So it’s got to be a human taste that puts together things like that and we’re starting to see that kind of user also in Dreams.”
Ettouney’s enthusiasm is very infectious and, alongside Healey’s dry sense of humour, the duo is a delight to listen to.
“Me and Mark have been best buddies since the previous job, so we’re like an old couple,” Ettouney laughs. The “previous job” being Lionhead Studios, where they also met other Media Molecule co-founders Alex Evans and David Smith, before now studio director Siobhan Reddy joined a few months later.
The team’s passion is palpable in everything they say and do, and that’s what makes Dreams so unique as well. And they very much intend to retain that aspect.
“In an ongoing project like Dreams having a particular vision is very important,” Ettouney says. “Once you open something up to be a community service, the biggest challenge is to maintain the particularness and not turn slowly into a bit of a vanilla product which does a bad job on everything rather than a good job on a few things. So the important thing to try to straddle is making people happy by responding to trends and requests while still continuing building that particular skyscraper.”
Another side of the community service coin is moderation – working on a product that thrives off user-generated content means you need to have the resources so everything remains nice and polite. That’s where the support of publisher (and parent organisation) Sony is highly valued, with a moderation team working around the clock. Some mature content is inevitable on a platform that gives so much freedom to its members so different approaches are being considered to deal with that aspect.
Communications manager Abbie Heppe chips in as she works directly with Sony’s moderation team: “We’re an art game, so there will always be things that fall into a grey area but [Sony’s] been really helpful in sorting this out. We want Dreams to be a safe place for families and younger audiences and we’re working with them to develop what we do going forward. So maybe that’s putting mature tags on content and allowing people to self sort the kind of things that they’re making.”
Healey adds: “We didn’t want to do pre-moderation because that would just be a nightmare,” before Ettouney adds that IP infringement and all those “worst case scenarios” actually happen very rarely.
‘JUST’ MAKING NICE TOOLS
Even if Dreams’ campaign mode is not out in the public eye yet, Media Molecule has been very much hard at work polishing it, and had collections of mini-games readily available when the early access version launched, demonstrating what its creative toolset is capable of.
But when we ask Healey and Ettouney how the process of developing tools while developing games differs from traditional games development, Healey replies: “Compared to other games I’ve worked on in the past, it’s not actually as different as you might think.”
He goes into details: “Traditional games that aren’t creative tools will have a set of creative tools that are made for the team anyway. It’s just that they’re not usually public facing so there’s always some bespoke software that gets written for assembling worlds and things like this. But traditionally that stuff is a nightmare to use because it’s not public facing. So the [developers] just normally suffer essentially,” he grins. “So the only big difference here is that we have to actually polish and make those tools really nice.”
As we’re busy thinking about how that still sounds like a ton of work, Ettouney echoes our thoughts, exclaiming: “Which is a huge deal!”
And Healey continues in his very relaxed tone: “I mean obviously you’re still making console, sit-on-the-sofa-friendly, tools. But my point though is that those kind of tools do get made anyway for traditional games but they just tend to be really horrible to use.”
So for almost a decade, the ‘only thing’ Media Molecule had to do was to make very technical tools very user friendly. Then use those tools to make a few video games. Healey’s detached tone does not fool us: this sounds like a huge challenge – which he does admit.
“One of the tricky things to deal with when you make something like this is we’re making new tools but then we’re also making an example game. The important point is that the story itself is a genuine example of what you can make with the tools.
“But because you’re developing the tools at the same time, if you make a fundamental change to them and change what’s possible to make with those tools then you have to change the content too, because that content has always got to be a reflection of what you can do with those tools,” Healey points out.
“So the thing that really suffered the most in terms of starting again or going back to scratch was the actual content of the story that we’ve been making. That’s been through more iterations than you could possibly imagine and the first version of that is completely unrecognisable from what we’ve got now.”
Ettouney takes this opportunity to highlight that Media Molecule very much remains a game development studio though, and not an engine maker: “What Mark said is crucial to make us not become academic tool developers. We are not Adobe or that sort of company that’s 100 per cent tools makers. We are a game developer and we like making worlds and characters and fun stuff and stories. So I think the change of heart that designing software, designing tools and then in the same day going and making a character and environment and a level keeps it real and makes us second guess what the tools will do – we literally are very practical in our design side. So I am very grateful we made that choice even though it’s been more work and you have to iterate a million times.”
Healey continues Ettouney’s thought: “Yes, and that’s certainly contributed to the length of the development process I would say. I think at the beginning of Dreams the only thing that you’d probably recognize now is the sculpting to be honest with you! So right from the year dot, we always knew that we weren’t going to be using a traditional polygon engine. We needed something that was more bespoke and it always kind of grew around that really. But in terms of what the tools look and feel like now – we never had any of that in mind at the beginning I don’t think. It’s very much evolved rather than being designed from scratch.”
“Halfway through development we got to the stage where we felt like we finally knew what it was we were trying to make…”
And this evolution went through some drastic turnarounds, with Healey telling us that “the current version of Dreams is actually Dreams mark two.”
He explains: “Halfway through development we got to the stage where we felt like we finally knew what it was we were trying to make… I remember there was a distinct point where Alex [Evans, technical director] said: ‘Right, we’re starting again from scratch’ with the build literally set to zero.
“We used the old version as the design document if you like and it just meant that we’d end up with a much cleaner code base that was much more geared towards exactly what we wanted to do. So at that time there’s a kind of like: ‘Oh do we really want to start again? Is this the right thing to do?’”
Ettouney interrupts with a big laugh: “We love starting again!” Healey bursts out laughing too, before continuing: “The decision was mainly driven by the fact that we accepted we would want to do multiplayer online. To get that to work was going to be a technical nightmare because nothing was deterministic. So the main factor was building it again to be more friendly towards the future being multiplayer online.
“For example, in the first version every asset was live. That means that let’s say you’ve sculpted some trees and I’ve used those to make a forest. If you somewhere else in your original tree change it, I would have literally seen those changes happening in my forest to your tree, live. It was kind of fun and an interesting thing to look at but was very impractical because you couldn’t really make anything, because anyone could break it really easily. So it was an interesting idea but it just wasn’t really what we needed for Dreams.”
‘WE WENT CRAZY’
Dreams is a perfectly logical next step for Media Molecule after the already creatively-supercharged LittleBigPlanet (LBP) franchise.
“The foundation of Media Molecule was around creative gaming,” Ettouney confirms. “We wanted all our products to celebrate user expression and use the power of the consoles to bring thousands of people out, make the community contribute to the big R&D of making games and join the party. So that was our genesis. In LBP, we tackled the appeal and accessibility aspects of content creation and tried to make it familiar and pick-up-and-play. But that still ramps up and allows you to do triple-A quality experiences as well. When we approached Dreams, we went crazy,” he smiles.
“We were like: ‘We not only want it to be appealing to the users and accessible for gamers to be able to make games. We want some of the package to be even better than the PC, off the shelves, maker tools’. It’s quite an arrogant ambition to try to do better animation tools than Maya or Mac or to do better painting tools than Photoshop but I think we at least had that dream, had that aspiration of quality, and we didn’t let go of it…” he pauses before taking a step back.
“It’s quite an arrogant ambition to try to do better animation tools than Maya or to do better painting tools than Photoshop but we at least had that dream and we didn’t let go of it.”
“LittleBigPlanet, with all its might, still looks like LittleBigPlanet, no matter what. Unless you are the one per cent of the community who can hack that and get it out of that shell. While Dreams allows users to really create in their own style and their own tune and make music that sounds like their own jam, their own flavour. So it’s quite deep and versatile and matches off-the-shelf professional tools out there.”
Dreams is certainly one step up compared to LittleBigPlanet but the studio kept some aspects of it and learnt a lot from its development, Ettouney continues: “We carried some of the solutions that we did in LBP forward in Dreams, like for example our logic system,” he says. “But one of the things we knew we wanted to depart from, from the very beginning, is that there is a growing style of user friendliness in CG in some competitive products we’re using, which I think are very dependent on procedural assembly and materials and things that look right from the very beginning.
“But we wanted to go deeper. So we tackled deep modelling tools, deep animation, deep music, while a lot of projects like this start from the assembly of pre-made elements. For instance, the elements in LittleBigPlanet were not made in LittleBigPlanet. They were made externally and assembled; Dreams started more atomic.”
And because the elements in Dreams are made in the game, that means Media Molecule had to nail the controls as well, with the studio supporting both the PS4 DualShock and PlayStation Move controllers. And that’s another aspect of the project that went through many iterations, Healey tells us.
“When we first started the project, in the R&D kind of phase, it was really all centred around the Move controllers. But then at some point during development Sony stopped making Move controllers. VR is the sort of thing that made them desirable and relevant again I think. But at one point we were like: ‘Hold on, we’re making a whole game here for a device that Sony won’t make anymore, this is a slightly mad business plan’.”
Ettouney was very fond of the Move controllers, he says: “The Moves were one part of the project that I personally connected with. Even in the darkest hours when Mark was saying that it became commercially very risky and it wasn’t being made anymore and stuff… I was clinging onto it still,” he smiles.
But Dreams’ ambition has always been to appeal to a large audience, to democratise game development and creation. So Media Molecule needed a plan B as it was becoming more and more obvious – at the time at least – that the Move controllers might not be readily available for much longer.
Healey continues: “So we just got one prototype for how we could use what we’d already got using the DualShock, which was a really important thing because that’s the thing that everybody’s got. It was like: we have to make this work with the DualShock because otherwise we’re only going to sell about five copies. But then because VR happened, the Move controllers got a lot more love again. So it’s good that we’ve carried on supporting both things I think.”
Healey and Ettouney agree that the Move controllers still remain better for some aspect of Dreams, such as sculpting, but that “the point is you can do everything with either.” Looking back at it, Healey admits that now it’s kind of obvious that they had to support the DualShock in a way, as it’s the PS4 primary controller.
But as the team is currently hard at work to make Dreams PSVR-compatible, with Healey saying he’s “had the envious position of being able to surf the community content in VR,” the Move controller support is as relevant as ever. PSVR support has still not been dated though, with Healey adding that it “already works” but that they’ve “just got to make it presentable to people.”
THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE
On top of VR, there’s another aspect that still remains a bit of an unknown in Dreams: monetisation, with some voices out there asking for remuneration for creators.
As we start chatting about this, it’s clear that it’s something that the team is keen to explore and adopt, but they’re also keen to find the right way to do it before they commit to it – hence not being able to confirm for certain that monetisation is coming. Some aspects are completely out of Media Molecule’s control to start with.
Healey comments: “We definitely want to be able to reward creators somehow. We are just currently exploring all the possibilities,” with Ettouney adding that “it’s a lot of design work.”
Healey continues: “We’re just looking into the different ways that we can possibly do that and at the same time preserve the sort of delicate nature of wanting to keep the community very sharey and collaborative. So it’s something we want to do, for me that’s just a no-brainer ambition, but we’ve just got to do it right.”
Sony obviously has to be on board with everything here, and “you can imagine how much that entails,” Abbie Heppe points out.
Healey adds with a big grin: “It involves talking to lawyers is probably all I need to say.”
Heppe settles the matter: “[Monetisation] would be a very very big thing. It’s absolutely something that we want to explore but nothing that we have any update on for now.”
We can feel it’s time to change the topic so we go back to talking about other aspects of the title that are expected to evolve. One of them is the tutorials and how the community can learn the ropes of Dreams’ creative toolset, with Media Molecule wishing to go further with that aspect, involving the creators even more.
“The tutorials that we put out so far clearly don’t cover everything that you can do in Dreams,” Healey clarifies.
“Because of the way social media is now, we’ve always known that there’d be some people that were interested in just teaching anyway. So there’s already a whole bunch of community lessons and streams and things like that. So we’re kind of looking for ways to engage with those people as well.
“The sort of approach that we’ve got with the current tutorials is teach people enough so they can do something and get rolling, but the more detailed stuff we’re going to let that be discovered and we slowly educate on those things.”
“When the guitar was first invented, the person that made that guitar never envisaged Jimi Hendrix doing what he does.”
Ettouney adds: “There is another type of education that is very separate from that, from the ‘how do you do art’ or ‘how do you do a game’ – what makes a good game? What makes a successful character? What is a nice recipe for making a catchy song in a horror genre? It starts getting very specific and that stuff takes a whole planet to build up. YouTube now is full of knowledge, but it took the world population to reach that level of knowledge exchange.”
Because Dreams can not teach all the gaming knowledge in the world in one place, Media Molecule does have to rely on external support, on its community, on other resources. Especially because even the team has its limit concerning its own creation.
“There are things about Dreams that we ourselves don’t know,” Healey points out. “What I mean by that is that already we’ve seen examples of people teaching or explaining stuff that we didn’t even realise was possible or was a thing. And that’s really exciting. We always had the aim with the tools to sort of…,” he pauses to think, looking for the right way to explain his thought. “You know Kareem would often use the analogy of a pencil for example or a musical instrument like a piano. I’ll go with a guitar – I love guitars! And you think when the guitar was first invented, the person that made that guitar never envisaged Jimi Hendrix doing what he does. So really we want to get the tools taught in the genuine sense, so that people can learn their own techniques and teach each other.”
Dreams is a very ambitious project that it’s been in development for a while, but Healey reminds us that it really hasn’t been that long considering everything that’s in it – a full sculpting package, a full music creation package, digital audio workstations, animation tools, programming, a publishing platform, and I could go on.
But as the pair pointed out, there’s been dark times and as I ask them if they ever doubted themselves and their ability to deliver on their Dreams, Healey’s tone gets very serious for the first time of the conversation.
“I mean absolutely,” he answers immediately. “I doubt myself every single second of the day to be honest with you. But Sony has been really supportive, that’s been the sort of foundation of it I think – they have given us the sort of support we need to carry on doing it.”
Having a tight-knit team at Media Molecule also certainly helped when times were hard, with Ettouney adding that it’s also all about keeping in mind what they could do better.
“One of the strengths of Media Molecule is, you know, we go through all the drama of creation and the torture of it all, but we always improve. Every mindstorm that we ever had is going to be better than the one before, I can guarantee that 100 per cent. It’s very very rare that people would come and go: ‘Oh my God last time was so much better!’
“So I think that pursuit of evolution and improvement is something that kept the project alive and kicking. Every update we had, people seeked progress and developed something that was not there and is now there. So I think the march was always upwards.”
And whatever happens, even in the days of doubt, we get the feeling that Media Molecule won’t forget its grand ambition: it’s all about providing great tools for creators, for would-be developers, for people who only want one thing – to become tomorrow’s game makers.
“I’m confident there’s going to be people in the Dreams community now that are going to be big names in the future,” Healey says. “I’ve got no doubt about that. Half the people that work in Media Molecule were plucked from the LittleBigPlanet community for example. If anyone wants to get into game development, for sure it’s a great place to go because you’re going to learn a lot and meet some great people.”