One moment I’m in a haunted mansion, being chased by a giant ogre. The next, I’m playing billiards. Afterwards, I find myself in Van Gogh’s bedroom–I drink a bottle of absinthe, float out the window, and watch Starry Night appear in the sky. Then I’m a fox on the streets of Paris. Then I’m flying a starship in an intergalactic dog fight. Then I’m Mario playing the first level of Super Mario Bros. Then I’m alone in a house, walking past a bottle of pills. The radio says a man has killed his family . . . is that man me?
These experiences happen in rapid succession, and each is its own microworld, teasing the possibility that I could see a million different places, created by a million different people. That’s when it dawns on me: Dreams is one of the most important pieces of gaming software made in the past decade.
What Uber did for ride sharing, and what Instagram did for the selfie, Dreams is doing for creating and consuming the ever-blurry boundaries of experimental media. It’s a place where you can create your vision for a Pixar short, remix other people’s creations like a meme, or just sit back on the couch and absorb the rich, varied worlds of countless video games as easily as flicking through channels on a remote control.
Technically speaking, Dreams is a video game coming to Sony’s Playstation 4 console later this year. It was developed by Media Molecule, a European studio of 50 people, owned by Sony. But it’s less a game than a game that lets you make games. Or 3D models. Or music. Or movies. Dreams has two basic modes: An editor mode lets you draw objects, program physics, animate the walk of a character, and more–and a feed mode lets you try what others have created.
If it sounds impossibly ambitious, that’s because it is. Dreams is a prototype of the way we may all one day consume digital content in a world where art, movies, music, models, and games mix. Dreams is like the internet we always wanted but never got.
Decades in the making
“Dreams is the most ironically titled game I’ve ever worked on,” says Mark Healey. “Because it’s been a fucking nightmare.”
Healey is creative director and cofounder of Media Molecule, and his quest for a game creation engine has been in the works for decades. “I’ve always been obsessed with game creation software,” he says. “When I first got into the concept of making computer games in the ’80s, with the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, I was desperately hunting for something that would make it easy, when I was learning to program in Basic.”
Despite that the software didn’t exist, Healey learned to code, and sold his early work to Codemasters. He later worked alongside the game design legend Peter Molyneux on landmark games through the ’90s and early aughts, like Dungeon Keeper (which somehow made the prospect of being a demon trapping people in permanent torment fun) and Black & White (which gave gamers the power of gods over a worshiping populace). These titles were unique in that they tried to break fresh ground in what a video game could be, rather than rehash profitable tropes like shooting or racing cars.
In 2006, Healey cofounded Media Molecule, which Sony bought in 2010. Its first game was a platformer–a 2D sidescroller in the vein of Mario–that featured a beanbag man called Sackboy and his friends. The world was full of rich textures, and it made good use of HDTVs. It had a family-friendly tone that pleased parents. And its controls made it feel like you really were saving the world with the equivalent of a Beanie Baby in your hands. All of that made the Little Big Planet series a success for Sony. Not only did it sell 8.5 million copies and drive 60 million digital downloads of costumes and other add-ons by 2012 (which likely represents, in back-of-napkin math, $300+ million in revenue for Sony), but Sack Boy became a much-needed mascot for the Playstation brand. Nintendo had Mario. Xbox had Master Chief. Now Sony had a face, too.
But to anyone who played Little Big Planet and its sequel, it became obvious that the game was less the perfect platformer, and more a showcase for the game inside the game–using in-game tools that let you reshape levels and create new challenges. So the team doubled down on those creation tools, built them even more prominently into the game, and pushed the mantra of “play create share,” which would define the work of Media Molecule.
“People start to abuse it and do things you’re not supposed to do with it, which is fantastic. We embraced that. With Little Big Planet 2, I was in the state of mind that we needed to create a really user-friendly game creation package on consoles,” says Healey. “Dreams was an opportunity to do that but, remove the baggage of Little Big Planet.” Which is to say: Anything the player created in Little Big Planet was essentially a riff on Little Big Planet. It used their characters, levels, and aesthetic. Dreams was a fresh slate.
Dreams has been a game wrapped in public intrigue–some of it seemingly intentional, the rest of it the natural by-product of building something that’s just very difficult to describe. Development began with a skeleton crew in 2011. Its first announcement came four years later, in 2015, with a video that opened with a mysterious man playing the piano whose head is replaced with that of a polar bear.
At the time, most people interpreted this surreal demonstration to mean that Dreams was literally about dreams. “To be honest, Dreams was just [a case of] ‘we need a name,'” says Healey, who reveals that an earlier iteration of the design featured a dream journal, but it got axed. “The game is not actually about dreams in the act of sleep. It was the broader.”
The truest dream in Dreams was Healey’s goal of a game creation engine that’s easy enough for anyone to use. He was surrounded by like-minded colleagues. Half of Media Molecule’s design team was recruited from players of Little Big Planet–the super users who created fan favorite levels for fun, and then took that job pro.
Healey won’t reveal much about the last eight years of development, but he’s outspoken about the challenges. “Everything in that game has been redesigned about ten times,” he says. “That’s version two you’re playing. The whole thing was scrapped once. We got to the point where we were like, ‘We know what we’re making now, but we need to restart, because the whole thing is a technical mess.'”
The core challenge is that Dreams has outsize ambition. Little Big Planet was a simple game, built from the core the vision of just two people. Dreams had so many nooks and crannies that it needed more visionaries and decision makers. “There are a lot more people with their fingers in the design pie, which is great, but it’s tricky to manage sometimes,” says Healey.
A funhouse Photoshop
The creation mode feels like a cartoon version of Adobe’s Creative Suite. You begin in a relatively blank 3D space. You wave around the Playstation Dualshock controller, or a Playstation motion-tracking “Move” wand, to move the cursor on the screen. Hit a button, and a drop-down menu pops in. It’s loaded with options. There are easily more than 100 tools at your disposal, from shaping models to adding sensors on objects (a simple way of coding behaviors without actually coding them). For example, you can drag and drop a green cube “trigger zone” into a world, which is like an invisible forcefield that you can link to any behavior. A character might walk inside the zone, for instance, and he’ll suddenly dance, or the camera will spin around him, or the ground will open beneath his feet, or he’ll grow like a giant.
The creation mode is not something you can jump into. I spend my first hour in Dreams in a tutorial. I learn the most rudimentary lessons in navigating through Dreams scenes, and how to use almost none of the tools. There are many hours of tutorials left to go. I’m as lost as the first time I picked up Photoshop.
“There is a learning curve,” says Healey. “There’s no getting away from it.” The menus in particular can be frustrating as you might find yourself in a color selector tool, and forget how to get out. Some of this is born from the fact that the Playstation controller is just a bit odd for working on 3D crafting. It requires that you almost puppet the controller in space, while memorizing the specific functions of 16 different buttons beneath your fingers.
Most of Media Molecule’s staff use the Move wand while creating. At one point during the development of Dreams, Sony discontinued the wand. Media Molecule didn’t know, and panicked. Luckily, Sony brought the controller back as part of its Playstation VR initiative, so you can buy it again. Even still, Healey himself vowed to only play inside Dreams with the standard game controller that came with all Playstations. “I was like, that’s reducing our potential market just a bit. We need to make this working with a fucking Dualshock,” he says.
To date, Healey clearly isn’t content with the game’s controls in world-building. He suggests Dreams might incorporate mouse support or Playstation VR in the future, the latter of which would make world design feel something more like Google’s VR building tool, Tiltbrush.
A few hours in myself, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the tools can do. My tasks were relegated to learning how to navigate the world, and moving around simple geometric objects. I pulled models and shapes from the menu, and resized them. I painted in 3D with a slew of brushes. But I definitely found myself having FOMO. Should I be making music instead? Why don’t I program something? Hey, I have a cinema degree–shouldn’t I be working on the camera tools first? When I mention being overwhelmed, Healey admits that’s pretty much the point. The interface piles on options so that people feel compelled, not to specialize in graphics or music creation, but to dabble in it all as an amateur auteur.
“One of the things we’ve seen happening a lot in the studio here is we’ll employ someone as an artist for example. They learn the toolset of Dreams. They start making fantastic art,” says Healey. “But because music, and animation, is one button away from what they’re using, they get tempted to dabble in other disciplines. And so all of the sudden you have artists making whole levels, or a piece of music.”
I can imagine that’s true. The most refreshing bit for me was when I pulled up a premade 3D character model. I took control of its body, hit a record button, and was able to program his movement just by running around a level. No code needed. Having spent too much of my life working inside old versions of Adobe After Effects, grabbing joints of a skeleton, and keyframing them one at a time to induce movement, it was a revelation.
The lazy person’s selling point
But I suspect many people, even most people, who eventually buy Dreams will use it in the lazier way. They’re just going to Dream Surf. It’s basically a mini social feed built into Dreams, which lets you select interesting creations that other, more talented people have created, and try them out. Imagine Twitter, but instead of endless rants about Trump, it’s endless surprising, creative things.
You can choose each experience individually in the feed, or you can actually activate a super lazy mode. It’s like autoplay. When you’re done with one experience, you tap a button and end up in another. The speed of this feed can’t be overstated. Nothing takes more than a couple seconds to load, far more akin to changing channels on a TV than downloading new apps in the App Store.
This speed is due to the engine under the hood. Each game or experience is really just a small series of instructions–a very small file–which tells Dreams what to build on your screen. If Dreams hadn’t been built from scratch, and had opted to use other technologies instead as many games do, this core conceit wouldn’t have been possible.
The resulting effect is that Dream Surfing is like cruising through experimental, digital art. You never know what you’re getting next. One moment I’m sitting on a toilet, a first person view with fart and pee controls. The next I’m a hammer with legs, running around knocking in nails. It’s not all genius work. Much is just early experimentation, people playing with the tools and figuring out how to master them. But the cream will float to the top. Media Molecule is committed to hand-selecting the best stuff if necessary. And technically speaking, there aren’t many limitations other than a creator’s own patience building each piece of the puzzle inside Dreams. “You could make a game that lasts 20 years in theory,” says Healey. “You just need time.” In fact, the Dreams commercial release will feature an upcoming single player campaign mode that was designed by Media Molecule inside Dreams itself.
The big picture
Healey has even grander visions for Dreams–detailing all sorts of thoughts the team has that may or may not make their way to market. Could Dreams have a pro version for architects? Will Dreams incorporate partnerships with organizations like Shapeways, so any 3D design could become a 3D print? And will Dreams be able to face one of its biggest challenges: potential copyright enforcement, given that so many players are attempting to recreate, or riff upon, popular games like Super Mario Bros. with corporate-owned characters (even if these clones don’t begin to duplicate the experience of the original).
“When you learn to play guitar, you learn other people’s songs before you learn your songs,” Healey points out. “It’d be a real shame to take away that concept of people remaking famous games.”
Most of all, Healey envisions a day when movies and games made inside Dreams might leave the platform altogether. Technically, you can export movies and music to YouTube or Twitter now. In the future, it’s possible that these games could be exported to Playstation’s digital store, or PC. Sony would have to relinquish or share rights to the titles for that to happen, of course; as of now, everything made in Dreams technically belongs to Sony.
I have no clue if Dreams will ultimately be a hit. So much of a game’s fate comes down to marketing and timing, and a million other things out of Media Molecule’s control. But Dreams is special. It’s an early peek at the future of pixels.