How Media Molecule designed a fun and robust toolset for Dreams

Media Molecule's hugely ambitious creation engine, Dreams, would be nothing if the tools of creation weren't fun to use. Here's how the studio designed a toolset worthy of play.

Media Molecule’s hugely ambitious creation engine Dreams is unlike anything else you’ll find on console. Not content with simply letting players use a database of pre-existing templates and assets, the studio wanted to give individuals the tools to record and remix their own audio, sculpt their own models, and animate their own characters, among other features typical of a standard game engine.

This proved to be a significant undertaking for the studio, though, in part due to the PlayStation 4’s limitations and the difficulty of making a fun and intuitive toolset. Yet, it is a challenge the studio has managed to overcome, arguably through its culture of jamming, combined with years of iteration and playtesting.

In Dreams, individuals are able to play through a ton of user-generated content in the Dreamiverse or make their own creations. Dropped into a new project, players have access to everything they’ll need from a menu at the top of the screen, including tools for creating animations, smearing or stamping down shapes, and retexturing and recoloring items.

Recently, we spoke to Media Molecule’s senior principal artist Jon Eckersley and communications manager Abbie Heppe to find out more about the process of how the studio designed tools for Dreams and how they plan to improve upon them following feedback.

Creating the look of Dreams

Dreams initially began life as a sculpting tool, created by the programmer Anton Kirkczenow, and was born out of one of the studio’s many game jams. The sculpting tool uses a technique called CSG (constructive solid geometry) to piece together a collection of very simple shapes and edits to create more complex sculptures. This forms the basis of how objects are created in Dreams. But Media Molecule initially struggled to find the ‘painterly’ art style that they have today.

“For a long time, when we first announced Dreams, all we could do was the tight end of sculpture,” explains Eckersley. “Kareem Ettouney, the art director, was always wanting to push and push the fact that the concept art that we were painting in-house and the concept art that you often see for games is usually marginally more compelling than the actual game. And he was like, ’I want it to look like that.’ And we tried and tried and tried to do that with our original sculpting engine and we had many tests.”

Alex Evans, one of the technical directors at Media Molecule refers to this tighter engine as the Brick Engine in an Umbra Ignite 2015 talk, named ‘Learning from Failure.’ In the talk, he recounts in great detail the numerous modifications that the sculpting engine went through, and how it seemed better fit for artists than the average player.

To solve this, Evans and the team tried a number of different solutions, before finally coming up with a splats-based engine -- later renamed to the BubbleBath Engine. This new engine allows players to easily achieve Dreams’ smoky, impressionistic art style, regardless of their experience with the tools and gives the game an identity distinct from other more technical engines, like Unity or Unreal.

Developing outwards

Dreams pretty much developed outwards from this sculpting tool. A notable example of this in the game is that players are able to use the same primitive shapes to paint objects as they do to sculpt them, providing players with straightforward manuevers to memorize.

“It kind of holistically grew out of that,” says Eckersley. “Things that we’d used in one tool ceded another tool. And there was kind of a back and forth between the different suites.

“The MO from the very beginning was we wanted to create a suite…where absolutely everything was made using Dreams,” he adds. “Which was obviously vastly ambitious for such a small team of people to work on. And I guess in a way the sculpting tools were the first kind of hitback. And after we realized it was entirely possible to create all of our art with our own thumbprint. It was always the plan to do it with audio. Always the plan to do it with animation. Always the plan to do it with logic, but they certainly did come after.”

This back and forth between the tools was possible for a number of reasons, with the main one being that members of the team would often shift across to other departments, bringing with them their own expertise and ideas. Alex Evans, for instance, who worked on the graphics engine for the game, also contributed ideas to the audio engine, working alongside the rest of the audio team at Media Molecule.

Demystifying the idea of creation

A big consideration that weighed heavily upon the team while creating Dreams was accessibility for newcomers. With Dreams, Media Molecule wanted to try and demystify the idea of creation, encouraging those who don’t usually create to pick up the tools and make something new. What this meant was designing a toolset that didn’t require a technical background to use.

“It was about how can we empower people that are creative to make things that aren’t necessarily technical,” says Jon Eckersley. “For the longest time, you’ve had to be quite technical to use tools. And we were really pitching it as something where we don’t want that at all. So, we’ve had some people that had very little experience with 3D tools and that kind of packaged suite thing that historically has been in the industry for twenty/thirty years and they have made some of the best things that you can see in Dreams. And that was, again, always the ambition.”

To achieve this, the team strayed away from excessive menus or sliders, opting for a more gesture-based control scheme. As an example, players can press both move buttons simultaneously and then move the controllers apart in order to zoom in or press both move buttons while an object is positioned between their two imps (the game’s equivalent of mouse cursors) to increase or decrease their reach within the 3D environment.

“We want to empower people,” he says. “You want to give them the options. The things that, for me, make traditional tools really intimidating are endless menus, and endless sliders, and endless settings…That does make it very powerful, but it shrinks the amount of people who can use it. Because most people will open that up and immediately balk at it.”

Stealth creation and tricking the player

Another philosophy at the heart of Dreams is the idea of “Stealth Create”, as Eckersley calls it. It’s a concept the team at Media Molecule originated for games like Tearaway, and is all about encouraging players to go deeper with the creation tools.

Eckersley points to a particular challenge from Tearaway as an example of this. In this challenge, players are tasked with customizing a pumpkin, only for that design to then reappear later in the world on different items. The idea is to present players with a relatively simple task, to then subvert their expectations and show them that -- contrary to their own beliefs -- they’re capable of creating some great art. The hope is they will then become more confident in their abilities as a result and be more willing to create.

How this represents itself in Dreams is that the game and its tools are all designed to lead players down a path towards creation. To give an example, a novice at the game may simply create a scene with items they find in the Dreamiverse, to begin with, before moving on to alter and transform those pre-fabs and models using the tools. This will then hopefully encourage them to have a go at making own models and sculptures over time.

“Audio is [another] great one,” says Eckersley. “At the very highest level, you can find a track that someone else has made and place it in your game, your film, or whatever. The next part of that is finding individual stems and putting them together in the sequencer. Then you can go down a level and perform that instrument. And you can go down a level and you can create the instrument. And you can go down a level and make that instrument, you know, procedural or hook it into hardware. And we tried to approach that for absolutely [everything].”

Clone repeat and finding the fun in tools

Sculpting wasn’t the only idea that came out of a game jam. The studio continued to jam throughout the development of the game, producing features like the clone repeat function that lets players quickly copy and paste objects in an environment to build platforms and staircases.

“It was to make fractals, I think,” explains Eckersley. “I can’t remember who suggested it. They said, ‘Why don’t we actually clone it to a point?’ So if you start with the top stair, then repeat it, you can create a perfect staircase every time. And that just came out of one of those little game jams. And it was a constant, ‘Oh, that feels really good. That feels really fun that it always goes to the right height.’”

A lot of these ideas were implemented in order to add some fun into the toolset and give players tactile ways of creating. The color tumbler, for instance, was another idea to emerge from a game jam and lets players select a bunch of different colors from a menu to then cycle through them as they paint.

“Rather than just picking a color…we were trying to think of a way to make that more playful,” says Eckersley. “So a way we did that was our color tumbler…and that was a way of being able to manipulate color in an interesting way for people. Because a lot of the time color can be kind of intimidating.”

Addressing community feedback

With the game having been released in early access, the team have also had the benefit of community feedback in order to shape the tools. Already, they have received tons of suggestions for features, alongside tweaks to make the game easier to access.

“It’s been really interesting,” says Heppe. “Because there’s like a lot of things that we wanted to add in support to Dreams and it’s really helping us prioritize what some of those things are.” She continues, “So, on one hand, you have very very specific instances of tools or feature tweaks like for the most hardcore of creators. You know, the people who have like really gotten into the tools you know deeply. And then, some of it is for people who are coming in probably from more of an angle that I came into it, where [it is] helping to onboard them and helping them find their pathway in.”

As an example, one important piece of feedback they’ve received, particularly around accessibility, is the game’s reliance on motion controls. According to Heppe, the team are already working on a motion-free alternative for players in order to address this problem. However, there is no timeframe currently available on when this will be released.

To close the interview, I asked Eckersley what advice he would offer to developers planning on making their own creation tools. Here’s what he had to say to those daring enough to take on the challenge.

“It’s really hard is probably the first bit of feedback,” he says. “But it is incredibly satisfying to empower people. You’ve got to iterate a lot. You’ve got to get people to try it out, try it hands-on. Get feedback and listen to it, and have confidence in what you’re doing. But it is really hard and it’s just – I can’t say anything more than that.” He continues, “I admire anyone who tries to do something in a similar way. And I think we all do it for the same reasons. That we all love creating and the idea that we can allow people that didn’t think they could create to create, especially on the PlayStation 4. That is the bit that makes it worth it.”

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