Dreams started life as a sculpting tool.
Many years later, and on the brink of a full disc release, it’s also a self-contained game development kit, an animation studio, a synthesiser, a series of games about a detective who is a bipedal pig, a short film about how good oranges are, a speculative PS5 concept art showcase, and whatever the hell these are.
Dreams’ performative toolset is responsible for everything you’ve just read about, and can make for much, much more besides. Which makes one key question about it pretty hard – how do you even describe Dreams? When I ask developers at Media Molecule who have been working on it for the best part of a decade, even they struggle.
It’s something of a cliche, but Dreams really is something you need to get your hands on to begin to comprehend – and it’ll likely click for you at a different point to anyone else. For some, it’ll be when they realise that this is a free-form creation machine, allowing you to create a sculpture, paint it, animate it, even compose a backing track without leaving a single screen. For others, it’ll be when they play a game, enjoy a character design in it, and realise they can use that same character in their own creation.
But for me, it was when I realised the act of searching through the Dreamiverse – dropping down rabbitholes of unexpected art by clicking related tags, searching creators’ histories, or seeing how a single piece of music have been used across multiple creations – was most reminiscent of idly clicking through YouTube, riding the algorithm into unexpected creative corners. Except Dreams isn’t just for videos. It’s a YouTube for visual art, music, games, and things too weird to have a proper name yet. It’s a YouTube for, well, everything.
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That begs another question – how did something this open-ended ever get dreamt up in the first place? Usually when you ask a developer how a project started, it’s because they had a story they wanted to tell, a genre to experiment in, or a mechanic they liked. Media Molecule came at it from a different angle. It might feel to you like Dreams has been in development forever, after an initial tease in 2013, but for creative director Mark Healey, it kind of has:
“I come from the ’80s scene,” he explains during a day we spend with the upcoming release build of Dreams. “When I first got into making computer games, it was home computers. And the thing about those is they had a keyboard on them and you could make stuff on them, you know? Then the consoles come along and, great, but how do you make something for this? Oh, you have to go and spend a lot of money on a dev kit or something, which I thought is, you know, not cool. So it’s been a lifelong mission to make sure that consoles come ready to make stuff for them. So empowering people that maybe don’t have the opportunity to go to university or anything like that, that’s the thing that’s close to my heart.”
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I’d never really thought about how sensible it is that a console should come with tools to make more games for that console. And so Dreams emerged with the virtuous goal of breaking open that closed loop, letting anyone make whatever they’d like to for their PS4. It’s a lovely idea, of course, but there’s a difference between telling people you want to disrupt the traditional gaming business model and asking executives from a traditional gaming business to give you the money to disrupt it. Thankfully, Media Molecule were pitching to the right people:
“Shuhei Yoshida – amazing – and Michael Denny [were] our two people that we’ve always presented to up until recently,” enthuses studio director Sibhan Reddy. “They were just completely supportive from day one. I think that they understood the ambition of it more than we did.”
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Once it became clear that everyone was in favour, the work had to begin. But where do you start when the end product has to be ‘anything’? In Dreams’ case, that was with sculpting. Healey tells me that, once the vision had been approved, the first practical part of the project was in creating a sculpting tool that didn’t use polygons, but sign distance fields, which – to strip out a lot of technical talk – essentially meant that sculpting could happen in real time. Sculpting didn’t just inform how Dreams would look, or what it would do, but how it would feel to use – it kicked off a philosophy that carries through every creative tool created.
Art director Kareem Ettouney puts it well: “With Dreams, the pitch was ‘What if we can make a tool [where] creating in it is a performance in its own right?’. Creating itself is the end, not the creation. And that is a very new goal.”
Technical director Alex Evans explains that performance became the guiding principle for development. Tools were developed as the team worked out how to make using them as fun as what was made with them.
You can see that principle in full effect in the earliest public showing of the project. “[Performance] was why,” Evans explains, “when we did the original PlayStation 4 announcement, which is like 300 decades ago, you can see that it was all based around performance. We did literally – very on the nose – but we did a performance, right? We did a band playing.”
Evans now sees it as more than a development philosophy, however. It’s a wider thought about how games, and digital art as a whole, can be envisaged and created: “We’re basically a studio of game developers. If we wanted to, we could go off and use our own engine or somebody else’s engine and just go back into that world of polygons and all that rubbish. Not that it’s bad rubbish, it’s just we could choose to do that. Or we could choose to try and look at things differently in a fresh way. Otherwise we just end up in a world where everyone’s using the same kind of tools. Our analogy is that everyone only plays the piano when there are no guitars in the world. And I love that Dreams is, you know, a different instrument.”
That performance-led approach helped form another of Media Molecule’s goals – that Dreams should let people create anything they want, not just something the developers have allowed for. Media Molecule’s previous series, LittleBigPlanet came with creation tools but, by design, everything created with them felt like something that belonged in LittleBigPlanet. The team wanted a Dreams creation to come out exactly how the creator envisaged it. The ideal is that, once it’s done, you play or experience something so immersive, so complete, that you forget you accessed it through Dreams in the first place. It’s a goal that started to make sense as soon as the developers began making their own first creations using the tools.
Team members’ creations went in wildly different directions. Some made animals, others made architecture (that’s still being remixed an reused in the latest versions of Dreams). Senior principal designer, John Beech recreated the venue for his upcoming wedding using the tools, and then decorated it, passing on the designs afterwards (“Everyone who came from the studio were just like, ‘I’ve been here before, what’s going on?’”).
It’s not just that Dreams has allowed Media Molecule developers to keep making what they’re good at, either. Principal audio designer Ed Hargreaves, for instance, has used Dreams to give himself a crash course in games development well beyond his normal job. By day, he makes Dreams sound good, but by night he dives into experimental projects to help him understand the work of other designers around him in the office.
It became clear that the idea of individualism worked in principle, but it’s one thing for a small group of jobbing game designers to get to grips with some new design tools. It’s another for a community of amateurs to understand its full potential. Some wondered how new users would take to the tools during a closed beta and Early Access period, but technical director David Smith was a little more confident:
“At no point have we released Dreams to the community and said, ‘I hope it works.’ We know it works. We spent a long time using it. When we released it, especially the Early Access, we were thinking, ‘How long will it be before there’s anything that’s good?’ From day one, we were seeing a lot of people taking models other people had made and just making simple environments that you can run around, but no real gameplay. Lots and lots of reusing – that was great to see. I think it was by day three, we were starting to see things that were genuinely really exciting.”
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It was from there that Media Molecule started to see its intentions reflected back at it. Early Access hasn’t just introduced people to the tools, it’s allowed a community of artists – with wildly different approaches – to emerge. “People are presenting their own techniques, their own personalities, their own methodologies,” explains Ettouney of what Early Access has shown the team, “and that’s timeless. When you’re looking at a musician and you’re talking more about the musician than the instrument, you know, you’re going in the right direction.”
Perhaps most heartening of all, Media Molecule saw people take the tools, and push them in directions the developers didn’t even know they could go. One of Healey’s favourite creators, TannicAlloy, has been taking an almost engineering approach to the toolset, creating a working snooker table out of his TV and Move controller, a synthetic violin, a DualShock trumpet and more. “All these crazy, crazy things,” says Healey through a face of amused bemusement. “I’d never expected anyone to do that.”
If it wasn’t already clear, Media Molecule pays attention to its creators. Everyone I talk to in the office speaks about their own favourites like we’re discussing a music collection. There are all-time classics that everyone has to check out, hidden gems, outsider artists. If a staff member hadn’t played Haus of Bevis, I can imagine a very Jack-Black-in-High-Fidelity situation taking place. At one point, we sit in a meeting room, and six developers loudly swap favourites around me – “BukkoroChan! SlurmMacKenzie! Awesome_David!” – and we completely forget what we’re here for. Again, just like YouTube, surfing Dreams will inevitably lead to you picking favourite channels, to which you’ll return again and again. In fact, one creator was so popular among the developers that the team went ahead and hired him.
“When I went [into Dreams], I just sort of expected it to be a game design suite, which it is. And then I just found out that I could do everything else in it.” This is Jamie Breeze, a seasoned LittleBigPlanet creator under the moniker of j_plusb, who made the shift into Dreams to see how much more he could do with it. His first creation was The Rake, a comedy high score game in which you play a man who repeatedly hits himself in the face with the titular gardening tool. It got a good response, and he set about making much more.
“I just kept making things every week. I knew there was a community creation stream, they had them on Thursdays, so I just started making things for that. And I saw that my Rake game was showcased. And then they showcased a golf game I made in it. And then it was a llama game, which was really cool. And I saw there was a job opening for a Community Content Creator. I sort of left it to the last minute and then I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to apply to that.’ I’m so glad that I did it.”
Dreams is already a bustling ecosystem of intermittently weird, astounding, beautiful creations – so much so that it’s easy to forget that it’s only just leaving Early Access. No matter how certain the team was that it had been on the right track going in, the better part of a year it’s spent with a restless, curious, and increasingly expert community has shown off new ways to take the tutorials, tools and search mechanics that anchor its always shifting Dreamiverse.
Reddy talks about how, even after long days at work, she goes home, boots up her PS4, and can’t bring herself to boot up anything other than her studio’s work: “Under that little thumbnail, there is just a whole Internet, you know? There’s a whole set of amazing creations, everything from the sculptures and games and films and music and that whole thing – and they’ve all been made using that box. And therefore they show you what can be done.”
The team is clearly amazed and delighted at what’s already being made, but Alex Evans very much categorises this as the beginning or something, rather than the be-all-and-end-all of Dreams creations:
“I really love the small stuff, where there was no expectation on the part of the creator themselves. ‘I’m just going to make something small’, and that ends up being wonderful. And Dreams is very much like that: you start as a doodle, ‘I’m just going to make a shoe or a potato’, and then it turns into a brilliant platformer. I think in five years time, people will have started building the 40 hour epics – they could do it today, but they need to build the potatoes first. And I’m just loving the potatoes.”
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Media Molecule does want to offer some sense of what those potatoes could grow into – look no further than Art’s Dream, a short, sweet multi-genre game, made entirely using Dreams’ tools. Included in the full release of Dreams, it’a marker of what these tools can do, but it’s designed almost like an imaginative keystone, a marker for how far you can take the game’s creation suite and build on it, just like the team did:
Healey explains that thought process: “A) It’s like, we have to make something to test the tools and see that you can actually make something with them. B) You know, we’re games makers, we do like making games. And it kind of acts as a showpiece, I think. It’s an advertisement to people that come into Dreams: here’s an example of the types of things that you can make. So that’s why we’ve deliberately tried to cover a wide range of different gameplay experiences in it. But obviously we wanted to tie it together as a single story.”
Art’s Dream and the disc release are by no means the end of Dreams’ development. On the grand scale, Media Molecule is already working on VR and online multiplayer support. No one at the studio will talk about next-gen, or PC support, but one or both of those feel like very natural steps to me.
In keeping with his original ambition, Mark Healey’s somehow thinking even more grandly than that: “I mean, the big ambition I had for it, really, is that people can use it to make games that they sell on PSN store or whatever, and use it as a genuine professional development tool. That’s the thing that I really would like to see.”
When I ask other Media Molecule team members about where Dreams could end up in 5 years, what creators could be doing that they aren’t right now, the answers are predictably wild. Some want it to become an educational tool, or used in live performances, or to help make albums for bands. But no matter how varied, the truth of the responses tends to whittle down to a single, fine point: the community will dictate what Dreams does next, whether through trends, requests, or cries for help.
Some put it more effusively than others – Kareem Ettouney is definitely on the effusive end of the scale: “I think Dreams has definitely got all the potential to be the floodgate opener of potential of ‘what is a console?’, bringing the imagination of people to it and getting them to contribute to what happens in our living rooms. Instead of them being a receiving entity. They are a contributor to the direction of entertainment.”
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This idea, that Dreams will allow people at home to create what they want to see, is ultimately where Media Molecule wants this to go next. The developers’ role is more like stewards than creators themselves – they’re aiming to make it as easy as possible for you to do… anything.
“What’s that thing about Ford?” says Alex Evans, while summing this all up. “Where he said, ‘If I’d ask them what they wanted, they’d say they wanted a faster horse’, and then he gave them a car. I think with Dreams what we need to do is look at how people are making [creations] and then sort of imagine what we could do to tweak it, or change it, or evolve it, or refine it, to let the creativity of PlayStation gamers be even more – and then we get to play the lovely result. The end goal is: ‘Play fun stuff in Dreams’. And anything we can do that sort of eases that journey is going to be worth it.”
This all means that there’s a wonderful symmetry at the heart of Dreams. It’s a toolset designed to let you create whatever kind of digital media you want, always bolstering and expanding the scope of that ‘YouTube for Everything’. But by creating inside it, you’re also helping, in your own way, to create what Dreams itself becomes next. Dreams started as one thing, and it’s become quite another. But it could be something else entirely in a few years. That’s up to you.