Dreams – don’t just play games, make them (pic: Sony)

GameCentral reviews the new game creation tool from the makers of LittleBigPlanet and talks to creative director Mark Healey about its future.

Dreams is not a video game. It is the means for ordinary people to make their own video games (or art installations of varying degrees of interactivity). It’s the latest release by British studio Media Molecule, creators of LittleBigPlanet, and it’s so ambitious and open-ended that it seems almost impossible that it could exist at all. But it does, and it works extremely well, to the point where the only real restrictions come from the amount of time and effort you can devote to it.

We’re not going to give Dreams a score, because not only is it not a game but it’s a continuously changing platform that is likely to evolve into something even greater over the course of the next few years. As a tool for others to make whatever kind of virtual world they want it’s an astonishing achievement, especially as according to creative director Mark Healey his team is comprised of only 50 people. You can read the entirety of our interview with him at the end of this review but in the meantime, Dreams is a surprisingly easy thing to describe, despite its seemingly endless applications.

Dreams is split up into a few main sections, with Dream Surfing being where you can play the creations of others – including the option to offer feedback on their work. Then there’s a sort of hub area where you can create your own ‘Homespace’ and the Community Jam, which is a themed contest on a specific subject that changes every few weeks.

Dream Shaping is where you get to create things yourself, using a variety of tools for sculpting worlds, creating 3D (or 2D) objects, adding music and sounds, and dictating game logic and mechanics. The initial tutorials are very good at coaxing you along in a very friendly way, although once you learn the basics there are plenty of other more in-depth lessons to work through.

If you’ve ever seen anyone designing 3D objects before the tools in Dreams look like simplified versions of professional software, which is all the more impressive because you’ve only got a DualShock gamepad to control them with. But this works remarkably well thanks to some intuitive use of motion controls to move what is essentially an onscreen cursor, combined with the normal analogue sticks and buttons.

You’re able to create in tandem with other players, via what is essentially a co-op option, as well indicate to others whether they’re allowed to use or change the things you create in their own work. Media Molecule have been working on the game for years but even so, it’s hard to say what’s more impressive: the depth of the options or the fact that they remain so surprisingly easy to use.

There is a downside to Dreams though, even if it’s not one we expect to last for long. Although Dreams has been in early access for months already the quality of the games available so far are not very impressive. We don’t want to name and shame creators that are far more talented than we are, but there’s nothing that we’ve come across so far that we’d ever feel the urge to play more than once.

Dreams – stunning visuals are surprisingly easy (pic: Sony)

Healey himself seemed to acknowledge this in our interview, when he talked about the learning curve people go through when experimenting with Dreams, not just in terms of getting used to the interface but the much more difficult task of how to make an enjoyable game.

There are attempts at driving games, 3D platformers, and even survival horrors but despite the work put into them the mechanics and controls fall flat and nothing is nearly as much fun as it probably was to put together. The best example of this is Media Molecule’s own Art’s Dream, a two-hour long story campaign that tries to showcase as many genres as possible, including everything from rhythm action to graphic adventure.

It’s a tiresome slog though and really not much more fun than most of the user-made games. But then apart from Tearaway, Media Molecule don’t really have that much experience making traditional games so perhaps that’s not surprising. We’re certain that in the weeks and months to come though, as people get more experience using Dreams and are able to refine their own game-making skills, we’ll begin to see some truly impressive creations.

Giving everyone the ability to create video games is a wonderful thing and Dreams is far easier to use, and adapt to your own requirements, than you might imagine. Although the one thing that it teaches above all is that no matter how easy the physical act of video game creation becomes, making a game that is enjoyable to play is something else entirely. That shouldn’t put anyone off though, but instead inspire you with the knowledge that, thanks to Dreams, all that is stopping you from becoming a world-renowned video game creator is hard graft and a vivid imagination.

Formats: PlayStation 4
Price: £34.99
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Media Molecule
Release Date: 14th February 2020
Age Rating: 12

GC: I think we’ve met before; you’ve been at Media Molecule since the beginning, haven’t you?

MH: Yeah, I was one of the co-founders. I don’t know how long it’s been now… 15 years? Some scary amount. [laughs]

GC: I think it must be.

MH: We’ve been making this project for… seven years I think. It started off as an R&D thing with a few of us, but I’ve been on it from the start. So I’ve spent most of my forties on this game. [laughs]

GC: So when you started it was a PS3 game?

MH: No, we announced the project at the same time as the PS4 was announced. We showed a demo then…

GC: I remember, with the band playing. I forget how long the PS4 has been around now!

MH: [laughs] But I would argue though, that that’s a short amount of time to do what we’ve actually done. Because we’ve got a full-on sculpting CAD [computer-aided design] package in there. A digital audio workstation, world-building, animation, scripting, social platform… all of these things. By a pretty small team really, so that’s a lot of things to do in that amount of time.

GC: How small a team?

MH: We’re about 50 people now.

GC: Wow, that is small.

MH: That’s including HR and office managers and things.

GC: Really? That’s incredible. That’s nothing by triple-A standards.

MH: We like to try and stay nimble. [laughs]

GC: It is a strange position you’ve ended up in though. Because you described yourselves as video game developers on stage just now, but you’re not really. You’re video game developer developers.

MH: [laughs] Yeah, yeah! I’ve worked in the industry for a long time. I started off in the 1980s as one of the bedroom coders when home computers first hit the market, there was the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 and all those. I had a Commodore 64, it was my first love and I just taught myself to program, started making games – at first I sold a few copies to my friends at school and then I got a game published by Codemasters, who used to sell pocket money games.

GC: So did you play Shoot-‘Em-Up Construction Kit?

MH: Absolutely! That was a big inspiration for me.

GC: I wondered whether it might be.

MH: I was always on the lookout for stuff that made it easier to make games. I’ve always loved making stuff more than playing stuff, myself. So I was a big fan of Shoot-‘Em-Up Construction Kit. And Sensible Software, just in general, seemed just like really cool dudes.

The thing I loved about the home computers back then was they had a keyboard and you could make stuff on them, you know? Obviously you could play things on them but they also came ready for you to make things and I would argue that’s what built the games industry really. And then the consoles came along… fantastic, arcade quality graphics and all that but how do I make something on this? Suddenly there’s this wall that’s been put up and I have to go work at a company or find several thousand pounds to buy a development kit. That’s wrong, as far as I’m concerned.

GC: So that’s been driving your career all this time, it seems.

MH: I think it has, yeah, subconsciously. It did really annoy me and I thought, ‘No, this is not right’. ‘Cause a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to go to university or whatever, so if you’ve got a PlayStation at home you’ve got this potential thing you could use to break into the music industry or the games industry or whatever.

Dreams – Art’s Dream is nothing you’ll want to play twice (pic: Sony)

GC: So who is Dreams aimed at primarily? It would clearly go down very well with the Roblox and Minecraft crowd, but I think your intention is broader than that?

MH: Roblox is a good comparison, yeah…

GC: But kids have got the time needed to make something good, whereas adults with jobs are always going to struggle and really have to set aside time for it specifically.

MH: Yeah, of course. But the same analogy applies to something like YouTube. I always spend hours watching things on YouTube but not everyone makes videos to put on YouTube, do they? So the point is you can come to Dreams and just play. There’s so much stuff there to play already and the crucial point is you’re playing stuff made by other PlayStation people.

So people are doing obvious genres – shooters and things like that – but then you get these really left-field, wacky things that would never normally see the light of day on a console. And that’s the stuff that really excites me, ’cause from that sort of environment that’s when you get genuinely fresh ideas and the sort of thing the industry is always hungry for. So if you like playing stuff just go there and play, and that’s it. But maybe you’ll be tempted into the creative side.

GC: Do you also see Dreams as an educational product? Because it seems to me it’d work great in the classroom.

MH: Yep, absolutely. We’ve had a lot of schools and universities already get in touch with us about wanting to use it the curriculum.

GC: So even a university would use it?

MH: In a game design course or something it’s perfect, because you can prototype stuff so quickly. That’s the thing, it is genuinely a full-on, comprehensive set of tools to make games or films… and there’s a learning curve to that but I would argue it’s much quicker than trying to learn all the other software you’d have to learn.

And crucially you’ve got all these different tools in one place. They’re not separate packages that you’ve got to work out how to get them to communicate with each other, it’s all in the same place using the same interface.

GC: It’s interesting to me, what you were saying earlier, about how you were more interested in making games than playing them. To me mechanics are everything, the way a game controls the way it feels, that’s the magic for me. But of course, the one complaint that was always levelled against LittleBigPlanet was that it wasn’t that great a platformer.

MH: Yeah, a lot of people didn’t like the floaty jump.

GC: I mean… of the games I’ve played the controls don’t feel un-floaty.

MH: [laughs]

GC: Is that because people are just using the defaults or are there some limitations there?

MH: You can go very low level with this, so you can make stuff that mimics exactly the kind of games that are on sale in the shops now. We basically, in terms of controls, you have a microchip that you can open up and you literally can connect wires from the buttons, up to different… the programming’s a bit like doing electronics or Mindstorms Lego, do you know that?

GC: Intimately.

MH: [laughs] So you’ve got different components, you’ve got the sensors and a motor and people have made all kinds of stuff with that. The point is you’ve got very fine control over that kind of stuff.

GC: So if I wanted to really tighten up the controls I could do that?

MH: Totally, absolutely. The thing is, we’ve had early access open for however long it’s been – six months or something. And already you can see the improvement in people. People that are publishing stuff after a couple of weeks compared to what they did first of all. Their game is just going up and up all the time.

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GC: I like that it shows how difficult good game design is. Like, the one that’s a bit like Crash Bandicoot, you can see what they’re trying to do but the controls and collision detection are all mushy and it’s just not much fun.

MH: This is people learning and getting to that stage.

GC: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

MH: There’s definitely some stuff already that feels lovely to play. There’s absolutely nothing technically that’s stopping people from doing that stuff.

GC: It must be a difficult thing to try and teach people though, it almost feels like something you should go to evening classes for.

MH: I come from Ipswich, that’s where I grew up. I live in Surrey now but I went there a few months ago to do a talk, and there’s this guy there who got the BAFTA Young Game Designer award and he’s such a great guy because he started a computer club in Ipswich and he takes in kids that are interested in this sort of stuff and he’s teaching them Dreams. So absolutely you can do that.

And we’ve got our videos that we’ve made, and the community have been making videos teaching us stuff that we didn’t even know you could do! [laughs] And we also do masterclasses that are less about a particular tool and more of a general thing. Like with sculpture there’s, ‘These are the buttons you press to get this and that’ but then there’s a whole other level to sculpture, which is learning anatomy and things like that. And these are things we keep adding to.

GC: So will people be able to play any of these games outside of owning Dreams?

MH: At the moment you have to own Dreams to play it. Obviously, it’s not just games, people can make films and things. But the big ambition that I would love to see is that people can make stuff that ends up coming out and going onto the PSN store and things like that. That’s an obvious thing to push for really, so we’re looking into that at the moment.

GC: And could they make money from that?

MH: Of course, yeah. That’s the point. That’s the ambition. There’s a fine balance to keep there, between keeping that nice sort of sharing, collaborative thing going on and people making money.

GC: What about an option for keyboard and mouse?

MH: Not at the moment, but that has been a request. But here’s the funny thing. We’ve made a game, ourselves, with the tools, as a showcase of what you can do and we’ve been sitting in the studio using controllers to make a game. On the PlayStation 4 you can already plug in a keyboard, but we’ve had the request from the community for keyboard and mouse and it’s easy for us to do that. So it’s just a case of whether we’re allowed to do that, I don’t know if there’s some Sony thing about it, about not using a mouse.

But the key point is we’re treating this as a platform, it’s not a game. We’re gonna keep supporting and adding to it. And a lot of what we add to it is driven by what the community wants really, because they’re the lifeblood.

GC: You say that, and it’s obviously launching in the same year as the PS5, so I assume it’s going to be available on that in some form?

MH: Obviously, we’re focusing on the PS4 at the moment, but assuming it gains traction and is a success that’s an obvious next step.

GC: So it sounds like you’re not considering a sequel at all, despite there being multiple LittleBigPlanet games.

MH: There was a LittleBigPlanet 3, we just did LittleBigPlanet 1 and 2. But I can’t imagine there’d ever be a Dreams 2, it’s just Dreams gets updated and we keep supporting it. It’s not like there’s a YouTube 2, is there! It just slowly gets better and better. So that’s how we’re approaching it.

GC: Okay, that’s great. Thanks for your time.

MH: Thank you!

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