Media Molecule's Dreams has a hell of an elevator pitch. It offers players an expansive toolset to help transform their wildest fantasies into a playable reality. The studio's ambitions are huge and we've seen little like it on console before, and after getting a closer look at Dreams and everything it has to offer, we can't imagine that this is going to be the first blotch on the studio's otherwise spotless record. We've been eagerly awaiting this one for a while now (for four years to be exact!), and we can't wait until it makes its way into early access this Spring. Armed with that context, we were recently invited to Media Molecule HQ in Surrey to take a behind-the-scenes look at the project and while we were there we were able to meet some of the key figures behind the game's development.
You may already be familiar with the studio's work pre-Dreams, (Little Big Planet is perhaps the most notable example), but first, please allow us to delve into a bit of background. The team was formed by a group of former Lionhead Studios employees back in 2006 and have been busy over the last decade developing three original IPs that are exclusive to the PlayStation platform. Dreams is arguably the studio's most ambitious title to date but both Tearaway and Little Big Planet were met with critical praise and have echoed Media Molecule's philosophy of delivering interactive experiences that encourage expression and creativity.
VR, Streaming, and Crowdfunding
After passing the studio's various accolades and some Sackboy merchandise that was on display we entered the day's first session which saw us toying with the project's creation tools. With no PSVR headset in sight, we were unable to sample Dreams in VR, but we heard a couple of months back that this functionality will hopefully be arriving at launch. The creation mode feels readymade for VR - we would love to shape the edges of a sculpture whilst standing before it, or delve deeper into a world that we spent hours creating, experiencing what it's like to be there. It would be also exciting to see players create their own dreams with the mechanics of VR in mind. A Blair Witch-style horror game in VR is something that we would be dying to create, and that's just one idea off the top of our head.
A workshop ran by community manager Tom Dent followed shortly after and here we discussed the potential Dreams had on Twitch and other streaming platforms, as well as how it can extend interactivity beyond collaboration with fellow creatives. Streamers could, for example, interact with their audience when crafting experiences with the creative tools - they could reach out and ask what assets to use or where to place a particular obstacle. Each stream would be completely different and therefore it will be impossible to predict just what you might see next with the Dreamiverse being so vast.
We can see Dreams being a solid springboard for aspiring developers looking to take the Kickstarter route and secure funding for their own projects. The Dreamiverse is built for social interaction as the players can thumb up and share their favourite creations. We saw some of these creations quickly gaining a following during the beta so it wouldn't be surprising if the creators explored the possibility of expanding them into fully-fledged releases via crowdfunding. Technical director Dave Smith mentioned to us that his favourite creation was a 3D puzzle game set in a ruined temple and told us how he "forgot I was playing Dreams" and added that he "would have paid money for it." It's a great platform for this type of prototyping, allowing potential backers to sample something tangible and really get a feel for what they are pledging their hard-earned money towards.
Since blossoming late last decade, the indie scene has revived many long-dead genres and explored concepts that stray beyond the comfort zone of many AAA studios. Dreams amplifies this philosophy in one regard as it offers the toolset to anyone holding a Dualshock 4, allowing for unrestricted creativity and room for experimentation. Dave Smith told us that "Dreams is actually a really great place to discover more of those genres of games, and the professional industry are playing it a little bit too safe." He is right in that regard, as we can't see Dreamiverse favourites like Toilet Simulator and Llama Quest getting backing from the likes of EA.
Growing with the Community
The ceiling for creative potential is certainly a tall one but one concern that we didn't touch on in our earlier Impressions was the length of these creations. Everything that we played was over in a matter of moments and didn't have enough to demonstrate progress and pepper in different elements. We are unsure at this point whether it was a limitation of Dreams as a toolset or whether it's because the beta period was only five weeks long. We did notice that a couple of these did have a message towards the end saying something to the effect of "to be completed when Dreams launches."
While there's no release date planned, we do know that there is an open beta on the horizon, and that's when the ball will really get rolling and players will start working together on bigger creations. "We are really trying to foster this creative kind of network of people where everyone is really riffing on each other's ideas and sharing and taking things and commenting. We saw this work in the beta remarkably well," Smith told us. "I am just kind of excited for Early Access when there's vastly more people working for a vastly greater amount of time. Already on the beta there's more than I have time to play that's actually genuinely good."
We were curious to learn what plans Media Molecule had to expand Dreams beyond the launch of its early access period in the spring. Smith told us: "We really want to be listening carefully and seeing what our community are making as well taking the time to respond to this so that we are working with them." The focus for the team, therefore, seems to be on growing the project with community feedback, and as the team told us, they are still unsure what players have the potential to do in the software. Split-screen action and first-person shooters were once deemed impossible but five weeks into the beta and they were already proved wrong about what could be achieved. The next few months appear to be a learning experience both for the audience and the studio, then.
How long Dreams will spend in Early Access is still unclear but as we have yet to see anything really in a similar vein attempted on consoles since Project Spark on Xbox One (and that was during the console's early days), it's understandable why Media Molecule have opted to test the waters first before readying for a final release. We're still awfully excited for Dreams and can't wait to dive into its infinite universe of user-created content and start making creations of our own. We will be sure to update you with our thoughts on the Early Access build in spring - but for now, you can check out our initial impressions from EGX and our hands-on with the Dreamiverse and creation tools to find out more about the studio's uniquely creative endeavour.