When Alex Evans, co-founder of Sony PlayStation first-party studio Media Molecule, announced Dreams onstage at E3 this week, there was a lot of confusion in the audience and on social media. And that's okay, according to Evans. "What we wanted to do was get it out there and get people talking about it. And your staff are right to be scratching their heads. ... If it's on your radar, fantastic. Because it is hard to take it in. The main confusion I've seen reading on the net does seem to be that people are like, 'Is it a movie maker? Is it a game maker? What is it?' The communities will probably define that. But it's absolutely a game. We are making games with it. What you will choose to make with it, what the community will choose to make with it -- that's the cool thing. We don't know."
It's clear from chatting with Evans and studio creative director Mark Healey that, much like the nature of dreams themselves, development of the title took on a stream-of-consciousness approach. Although the sculpting and animation tools were created first, Evan explains that the game engine is actually what ultimately ended up influencing its design. "If you watch the PS4 announce ... it's a very different engine than the one that we showed yesterday," he says. "The visual look of the game actually changed drastically and improved what people were making when the engine changed. Weirdly, what you'd think is like where did the game idea come? Where did the mechanic come from? Actually, the engine's ended up influencing that, the look of it. So it's very kind of like [an] eat-your-own-tail sort of thing. It's awesome, though."
This E3 wasn't even Dreams' debut. Evans actually demoed the puppeteering aspect during Sony's first-ever PlayStation showcase back in February of 2013. "That was early Dreams right there," he says. "In fact, we've still got those assets kicking around. I mean, they're all in the server."
Evans continues: "We didn't want to confuse people and kind of reference [that showcase] too heavily. But it's totally the same lineage. And our process is sort of 'explore to find the product' kind of vibe. It was half tech led, half make it up as we go along... kind of find-the-game-within-the-game thing. So that was a stage. And if you rewatch it now, it's 100 percent legit."
Production on Dreams has been underway for four years now, but Sony and Media Molecule are staying tight-lipped about any release date, saying only to stay tuned for more news at Paris Games Week this October. That said, there is a possibility the title will be released in beta, as Healey says the studio wants to get it out "as soon as possible because we want the community to be really foundational in what it becomes."
"Our process is sort of 'explore to find the product' kind of vibe. It was half tech led, half make it up as we go along." -- Alex Evans
In a way, Healey says that Dreams embodies the spirit of game jams: sessions where different artists and developers come together to brainstorm the creation of a game within a 24-hour time limit. "That sort of collaboration and that live aspect to it is really catered for in Dreams," says Healey. "So if you're a specialist; if you're someone who thinks, 'Well, I'm not just going to sculpt,' you're going to find people to team up with and make something. Or, if you're more of an auteur, you can sit there."
"You can be a game director," adds Evans. "You don't have to do anything. Because it's all live, connected online. ... We're pushing collaboration as much as we can. So if you want to be in your bedroom on your own for three days and work on your magnum opus, that's cool. That's legit. But actually, it's a much more welcoming world if you can go in and it's like, 'Hey! This dude over here is building skyscrapers.'"
"We've seen this with our previous project, LittleBigPlanet," Evans continues. "There's an important part of any community [and] that's the sort of curators and editorializers and the people who are tastemakers. And this YouTuber generation ... the world of Dreams is going out into the world of Twitch streaming and YouTube and live PS4 streaming with share. And so we tried to build a lot of the creation sort of vibe into that world so people who are familiar with that world of streaming and Twitch and YouTubing and Let's Plays and all that will be right at home. And if you wanna get your boss made, you could probably just go online and find someone who is good at that and be like, 'Can you make this for me, please?' So it's collaborative."
That underlying focus on community and feedback is a strong theme for Dreams. It's an approach to game design that you don't often see outside of Kickstarter-backed projects, like Keiji Inafune's Mighty No.9. Both Evans and Healy freely admit that they're not quite sure what final form the game will take upon release and so they hope legions of YouTubers and Twitch streamers will help mold its direction. As Evans explains, "I think doing the beta, when we finally do it, it'll just allow us to shape [the game]. So some of the questions we're being cagey about is because I think we can allow the community through feedback to actually help us shape some of our stuff. We have a plan and we're doing it, but it may be that we have to kind of turn 20 degrees to the left."
"Dreams is going out into the world of Twitch streaming and YouTube and live PS4 streaming with share. So we tried to build a lot of the creation vibe into that world." -- Alex Evans
Evans and Healey weren't quite so cagey when I asked them if Dreams would be a Morpheus VR launch title. Though the pair wouldn't outright confirm it, Healey admits, "It's an obvious thing to do." Adds Evans: "Let's just say Anton Mikhailov, who helped build the first-ever Morpheus prototype, is at Molecule now. ... So I'll leave it at that."
Now about the mysterious gameplay: There's a reason why Dreams' visual design shifts between the solid and the gauzy -- an effect Healey likens to an impressionist painting -- and that's because progression through the game will mirror that of actual dreams. Healey says that players "can go from experience to experience in a very dream-like way." It's an effect he hopes will spur the community to experiment quickly with the create tools and stumble into new modes of play.
Evans elaborates on this: "You might be an FPS [first-person shooter] guy, so FPS is your entry. But as you're playing the FPS, you open the door and it's a fucking desert and you're in Journey. You walk out and then you're walking through the desert and then you see ... a spaceship and you climb into it. ... It sounds mad, but when you've framed it all as dream-like, actually you just get into it. The same way that when you're in an actual dream in real life, you don't question the fact that you walk out your house and you're in the middle of the beach. ... You know what I mean? That feeling."
"You can share everything from an entire level to the smallest asset." -- Mark Healey
As for more traditional gameplay modes, Evans says that players can expect to see those bundled into the final product. Both he and Healey referenced the bubbles shown off at the end of this year's E3 demo as a tease of what that "game-like content" could be. "At Media Molecule, we're game makers so we're making games with it. So there will be Media Molecule content there. The scope of that is to be announced. But it will be there and it will be good," Evans says.
With LittleBigPlanet serving as the game's spiritual predecessor, it should go without saying that Dreams is heavily focused on amassing a shared online library of user-generated content. "You can share everything from an entire level to the smallest asset," says Healey. "You can make a pebble if [you] like and it could end up in everybody's game or 'dreams.' And your name will be attached to that, however remixed."
If there's any major takeway from what PS4 gamers can expect from Dreams when it's finally released, it's that Media Molecule is building a title for today's connected culture of remixing, streaming and sharing. "Dreams is difficult to explain," stresses Evans. "But I think once the community gets a hold of it, it's really going to flower."[Images: Sony PlayStation/Media Molecule]
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