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Media Molecule took us for a great ride in user-generated content with the LittleBigPlanet series of video games. But that’s nothing compared to what the United Kingdom game studio has planned for Dreams on the PlayStation 4.
Dreams is blank slate, where you can use Sony PlayStation Move controllers to craft your own video game space with a minimum of effort and some very cool visual effects. Media Molecule is creating a series of easy-to-use tools, design inspirations, and reusable content that will enable anyone to create their own video game level.
The only common link between the various virtual spaces — some created by Media Molecule’s expert designers and many to be created by users — is that they are all dream worlds where pretty much anything can happen. You can make a full-fledged video game inside a virtual space, or create something that is cool to look at, as you can see in the videos below.
I interviewed Alex Evans, technical director at Media Molecule, as well as Kareem Ettouney, art director, during a demo of Dreams at the recent PlayStation Experience event in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
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GamesBeat: Tell us about what you are doing with Dreams.
Alex Evans: There will be a story mode, a bit like in LittleBigPlanet. Toward the end of next year we’ll be going into detail about it. When you boot the game, you can play a kind of adventure platforming game. But today we’re showing more about the kinds of experiences, rather than the specific story we’re going to do. This is an example of the environments and characters that are possible.
This is our PS Experience hub level. The little skinny-jeans bear can run around. The cool thing is, the story is that everything is in a dream. You’re helping these characters solve puzzles and go on adventures. But because it’s a dream, any time you see a doorway or a portal or a hatch, you have no idea where it’s going to lead. You open a door in a bar and suddenly you’re on the beach.
With the puppeteering, we use all of the capabilities of the controller to give you a real sense that it’s you. When you play online, that’s a lot of fun. Some of your body language gets translated into the character. There’s non-verbal communication in the performance.
This is an example of a portal. Follow the lights. Who knows where it’s going to take us? In this example, we’re just showing vignettes of gameplay. In this level we can use our imp. The orange guy is the imp. It’s the first thing you can get in the game. You can customize the color, change the expression, things like that. Using the touch pad you can draw a sad face or a happy one.
GamesBeat: I haven’t seen that before. That’s pretty cool.
Evans: You can possess characters, which is a lot of fun. There’s a ton of gameplay based on that. This level was built in a day by the designer of Sackboy. He’s gone light and dark, basically. In levels you’ll also find these collectible items, which allow you to modify the world. The owner of the level can choose what scope you have for creativity. Some levels are wide open sandboxes. Others are a locked-down narrative.
One of our artists has been learning how to redo impressionist paintings. Then he recreated this famous Cezanne painting and made it playable. Then another artist came in and remixed it. He added the little pear. We have high art at the same time as slapstick humor, messing around with the fruit or jumping into the character and acting out around the world. We discover that the painting isn’t just a painting anymore. Cezanne never painted this bit. We imagined the rest of it.
You can share anything online with the community in Dreams, whether it’s a single asset or an entire level. For players, we think it’ll be an exploration of a beautiful series of lucid dreams. We’ll weave it all together in our story. But the beta trial next year will be an opportunity for creative types to build all sorts of experiences. It’s wide open, what they can build with it. You can build stories, make movies, make music, record voice acting, create animation….
GamesBeat: Will it ship with a lot of these custom levels?
Evans: Exactly. We’re the first users, the super-users at the beginning. But we don’t actually have any special powers. We have the same powers as any other users. If the beta runs for six months or a year, by the time the final game releases there should be tens of thousands of assets out there.
One interesting thing about how we do creative in this game is we introduce it to you through gameplay. Rather than there being tutorials and so on, instead you just play a level like this, where the story might be that you’re stranded on a moon base and you have to get past here. You use your imp to grab stuff and clear that area. That’s creative. It doesn’t have to be about making a piece of art. It can just be about building a stairway to get out of the level.
You can go on over and pilot the mech over there. The guy who built this level loves mechs. He’s a big gamer. Everything you create here can be exported to a 3D printer, too.
This will work for multiplayer. The level we’re about to stomp into, it was built for deathmatch or capture the flag sorts of experiences. That’s not going to be the focus of our story, necessarily — we’re focusing on adventure and platforming — but we wanted to show the breadth of experiences you can get from the community. Going through portals and linking them together means you can boot up the game, start playing a sequence of levels, and an hour later you’ve gone on this journey to completely unexpected places.
Kareem Ettouney: We can show you a few of the create tools now. I have a simple module here that I made out of a bunch of colored cubes. I want to quickly make a level out of that. Our system allows you to copy it several times and build a bigger flow. Also, if I raise it up like so, I get an interesting aesthetic. We like playing with that to make some of our spaces.
Evans: If you’re a beginner and you want to put something in your level, there will be millions of creations from the community and from us. We have a text search, so you can search for, say, a tree, and you’ll see hundreds of trees people have made. Imagine you’re a beginner. You don’t necessarily feel able to make actual sculptures. But you can search for anything you want — elephants, trees, houses — and you’ll find something someone’s built.
Ettouney: Then you can expand your environment. If you decide that you like it, you can make it bigger. I can go to this collection of pieces I have and find a piece of rock I can place around the world quite intuitively. One thing we support in Dreams is motion capture creation. That allows the act of placing objects to be much more intuitive.
Evans: That’s the origin of Dreams. If you want to think of it as one idea, we were imagining — there are all these amazing creation tools, LittleBigPlanet included, which are great, but they get very tech-ey very quickly. So what if we could reimagine game creation as sketching, something that fast? The impressionistic look is part of that, part of having a loose way of making stuff very quickly and being able to get an idea on the screen very fast. Of course, if you’re not into creating, you get the benefit of playing all the stuff people have made.
We have amazing character creation tools. You can create gameplay. You can create logic and goals in your levels if you want to do that. You can make races or time trials. Almost anything is possible. Everything here was made with the Dual Shock or Move, by the way.
One interesting thing we’ve discovered is that Dreams is effectively a creative social network. You can follow particular people and see what they’ve been creating. Twitch Create has come at a perfect time for this game. People will stream the stuff they’re creating. The guy who created this is phenomenal at anatomy, so you follow him and you know you’ll have cool stuff to make into rock formation.
The game has this idea of “tight” versus “loose.” Tight is a very crisp, defined, traditional computer graphics look. The skull is very detailed there. Then you have loose, which is more like painting. The cool thing is, you can mix the two styles in a single scene. Loose is fun because you don’t have to be exact. It’s like sketching. If you want to make a forest, you don’t have to carefully make every leaf. You just put some green down and sure, it looks like a forest.
Sculpting is the most powerful part of creation. Everything in Dreams is made out of these basic shapes here. You place them and that’s how you make a new sculpt. But then you take that sculpture and change bits of it to be more tight or loose. You can change the texture to be more like grass, or other texture sets. You can very quickly change the look of a model.
Ettouney: You can just paint with this brush. This is the loose side of 3D. Most 3D tools are very precise, which allows you to get these kind of tight results. But there are no tools that do this part, where you move your hand and create shapes as if you were drawing or painting, but in 3D volumes.
Evans: Imagine you’re standing in VR in the middle of a creation and suddenly they start building the world around you. You might say, “I want a skyscraper here!” It’ll be possible to build the world around you, in and out of VR.
GamesBeat: Which parts build on top of what you learned in LittleBigPlanet?
Evans: It’s a tapestry. We’ve learned a lot from there. The way you build the sequencing of logic – if this happens, then that happens – is an extension of what LittleBigPlanet did. But remember, when we first made that, it was before the iPhone. When we pitched it we referred to MySpace without irony. “This is like MySpace for games!”
Now we have Twitch. We have so many sandbox games. Gamers out there are familiar with all this stuff. They understand where we’re coming from without any explanation. It’s just part of their world. The immediacy of it — LittleBigPlanet laid the foundations, and now we’re going hundreds of times more ambitious.
Ettouney: I love this tool. You can drop in a lot of objects that you got from the community, and maybe you like everything about them except that the colors aren’t what you want. “I really like this tree, but I wish it was purple.” I can pick this tool, pick a new color, and now it’s purple. You can choose the level of creation that suits your interest. If you just want to change the color scheme of a level, you can do that.
Evans: Everything is a remix. You can take a level, and if the person who created the level allows it, you can modify it. We track crediting automatically, so it’ll always credit the original creator and any people who remixed it.
Over here we have the character creation tools. All the same tools you learned building environments are what you use for character creation as well. We’ve created this lady character here. Using this simple tool, you can quickly change the shape of the character. At any moment, you can test a character in the game. It’s not a long process. If you want to jump in and walk it around, you can. If you want to put it in Kareem’s world that he just made, you can. The character is always alive. It always has AI.
These are some of the characters we’ve made. It’s crazy, the variety. It’s all since Paris, the last few weeks, that we’ve built all of these. You always have a sense of puppeteering. You can wave the arms around by pulling the triggers. When you’re online it’s really funny to play with them. And again, if you’re not interesting in building a character from scratch, you can remix an existing one.
You can change the animation by adjusting some simple things like speed. Do you walk fast or walk slow? There’s one called “sass,” how much they wiggle. It’s funny that such simple controls can lead to something that really is your own character.
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