Can Dreams teach you how to become a game developer?
The GamesIndustry.biz Academy explores how Media Molecule's creation platform breaks down the fundamentals of game design and can help you get a career in games
Ever since its announcement back in 2013, Dreams has always been a one-of-a-kind project.
Media Molecule's games creation platform ambitioned to build a bridge for its community members to go from players to developers, and ever since its release in Early Access in 2019, it's fair to say Dreams has succeeded in doing just that.
The commercial success of the game is unclear; while a critical hit at launch, Sony has kept actual sales numbers under wraps. But DreamsStats.me, a website tracking the title's users, reports over 1.8 million players have bought Dreams at the time of writing.
The site also gives an indication of how many players are online every day -- throughout February, the number of daily Dreams users peaked at 1,260 on February 12.
So Dreams is by no means the most populated community of game builders out there but, as often with Media Molecule titles, the community it does have is a very active and faithful one.
Over 5,000 new creations are published every week, Media Molecule tells GamesIndustry.biz. Over the past seven days, 25% of users spent time creating elements in Dreams. Since launch, over 150,000 Dreams, 400,000 scenes and 400,000 elements have been published.
The platform offers a wide array of tools for its members to make whatever creative project they set their mind to. This could be a game, an animated film, music, a painting, or a mix of all of the above.
The idea of Dreams is to give game development aficionados, novice or otherwise, all the tools they need to create interactive projects, as well as transferable skills they can use elsewhere and the ability to collaborate on a project as a team.
The GamesIndustry.biz Academy has previously dedicated several guides to game engines, and how to choose one that fits your needs. In the same vein, how does Dreams fare when it comes to learning game development with the goal to have a career in games? That's the question we'll try to answer here.
What are the advantages of using Dreams?
- Dreams is a wide variety of tools in one package
While some game engines geared towards beginners (such as GameMaker) could perfectly fit the needs of an aspiring developer, Dreams has the advantage of hosting a wealth of different tools under one roof.
In Dreams' editor, players are able to:
- Sculpt, modify and colour 3D models
- Create and animate paint flecks, which can be given a variety of style effects
- Modify colours, finishes, glow and other effects
- Record voice, manipulate sound effects, create music with instruments or make their own
- Define camera angles and perspective, lighting, fog and other atmospheric effects
- Introduce 'gadgets,' objects that activate each other, with players able to designate trigger zones, signal generators and so on
- Apply logic to these gadgets, using timers, counters, AND, OR, XOR and NOT gates, and other variables
- Define the output of these gadgets, such as health modifiers, text and dialogue displayers, teleporters and so forth
- Connect gadgets together to create movement
- Introduce gadgets that facilitate gameplay, such as score counters, checkpoints, doorways and so on
- Use analysis tools to test logic and optimise creations without moving to Play mode
- Take photos of their work
To sum it up, and quoting The Escapist's Phillip Moyer in his launch review: "Dreams is like Maya, Unreal, Fruity Loops, Sony Vegas, and Photoshop all bundled into one $40 package."
"Everything is done using a controller -- you're sculpting [models] from scratch, you can create all the characters, create animations, music, sound effects, really all the component pieces that are involved in making a game, from scratch," says Media Molecule's technical director David Smith. "And because games incorporate lots of other forms of media -- traditional art, and music, and everything else between that -- it has to cover all of that.
"The idea is we're really trying to give people a way in, where they can start off just playing games if they're not interested in creating and then go, 'Oh, I could have a go, perhaps I'll do some lighting'. We're trying to be very holistic about the way tools work -- from learning how to say change the colour of a light, you know how to change the colour of a sculpt, you know how to change the volume of some audio, and then gradually you can, bit by bit, branch out into other forms of media.
"This is a stark contrast to the usual game development process, where you're using very different pieces of software, which are very powerful, but there's nothing in common between them. There's tricks to make those compatible, but you're having to do a lot of search on Google, 'How do I make this work with that?', whereas in Dreams if you want to do something, it's just there."
Julian Marshall is a systems engineer for an IT company by trade, and a Dreams creator under the name Jimmyjules153 since day one. He says that having all the creative tools in one place is a huge advantage for usability.
"With the ease of jumping between music, animation, logic and sculpting all in the one interface it makes everything so much simpler and faster," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "There's tools like the Keyframe and Timeline gadgets which you can use to keyframe anything such as the brightness, size and location of an object without any programming or logic. Just press 'record' and drag what you want, where you want it, and that's it. Add a few of these to a timeline, and suddenly you've got a series of things happening which means you can animate full videos, create music, and make games."
- Dreams can teach all aspects of making games
Dreams is a great introduction to the world of making games and it goes beyond the basics to give players tools to learn the craft itself, Smith says. This will help them see whether or not that's something they actually enjoy doing before considering a career in games.
"If you want to get a job, the thing that I care about [is] to see what you can do," he continues. "Often qualifications don't tell me what a person can do. Just give me a showreel, especially something you've made on your own with a small group. That is worth so much more than any computer science degree. So just keep diligently, every day, spending a few hours learning the craft."
To that respect, Dreams is an effective way to build a portfolio of playable games. Media Molecule's live services director Abbie Heppe mentions that Media Molecule is aware of people who have started jobs in the industry based on their experience in Dreams -- including at Insomniac, for instance.
Dakota Scibilia, game designer at Blizzard, is also one such person. A graduate in computer science, Scibilia says he then "bounced from engineering job to engineering job." Hoping to make a career in games, he moved to product management and was hired at Blizzard as program manager in 2018. He then moved on to become a producer on the Diablo IV team.
"They gave me the opportunity to present a portfolio of my work to the design team, which I created entirely in Dreams"Dakota Scibilia
"But still, I knew that production wasn't my end goal," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "I'm an artistic person by nature and I knew that the real dream job would be to work as a creative on a game team. I made my ultimate goal of working as a designer known to my leadership, and they were very supportive. They gave me the opportunity to present a portfolio of my work to the design team, which I created entirely in Dreams. For a little over a year, I was burning the candle at both ends... working during the day and spending most of the rest of my time creating in Dreams, studying game design resources, and creating design journal videos to pair with my portfolio work.
"Not too long after that, I was on a temporary assignment as a designer. That temp assignment is now permanent and I've been working as a junior game designer for the last six months! Now instead of spending my time in Dreams making complete but small games, I spend my day job making one very big game."
Dreams can teach aspiring developers more than just technical skills as well, such as how pacing works in a game, which Smith considers one of the most difficult things to learn.
"So the transferable skills are some slightly higher level things and also, just say with sculpting and lighting, to understand form and colour," he continues. "Everyone wants to be creative. Perhaps I should learn an instrument, perhaps I should take up knitting. People aren't quite sure, and in a way you need to try a bunch of things to see what really grabs you. And it's fun having this kind of big play pit, where you're just given all the tools and things, and just mess around and see what speaks to you."
Marshall adds that Dreams is a good preparation for traditional game engines in the sense that it teaches you to creatively think of solutions to accomplish what you want with the tools you're given.
"You use Dreams to make games, and the more you do something the better you become at it. You can practise your art, animation, music, logical thinking and game design skills all in the one place."
- Dreams is geared towards beginners
When Marshall started creating in Dreams, he didn't have any prior development experience.
"I had a lot to learn, and this certainly showed in my earlier games and creations," he says. "I took two weeks off work when it came out. I learned so much during the Creator Beta period and ended up making a 'four in a row' style board game for my first proper game attempt. It was only local multiplayer at first, and I wanted to make it playable for people by themselves as well, so after I'd finished that, I set out to make an AI to play against.
"I managed to get a working AI for my first game up and going before the close of the beta. I had access to the Dreams Beta for around 45 days total and the fact that I was able to get a working game and AI in an engine I'd never used before was amazing and is a true tribute to the work that Media Molecule put into this engine."
"The fact that I was able to get a working game and AI in an engine I'd never used before [in 45 days] was amazing"Julian Marshall
In addition to a variety of tutorials and asset kits available from launch, Media Molecule released a big update last November which included more templates for creators to choose from so they don't necessarily have to start from a blank canvas.
"Allowing people to look at a mini golf level or a 2D platformer, and get a sense of how that's constructed, so they can start adding their own touches onto it [is very important]," Heppe says. "Or if you don't feel confident sculpting a tree from scratch, you can go into the Dreamiverse, you can say 'I like that tree, I'm gonna put it in my level' and you can start building from there.
"[Or] you might start by sculpting your tree, there's sort of clay-like sculpting tools, spray painting some colour onto that, changing if it's going to be fluffy or if it's going to have a hard surface, and building out from there. And by doing that, you are learning a lot of the other aspects of the tools that will help you when you start adding sound, when you drop a character in, when you start getting that character in action."
The update was all about giving creators "better starting points," Heppe continues.
"We collect analytics on all of these things and one of the things that really reduced was people going in and starting from a blank template. Now we're seeing a lot more people start by taking one of the templates rather than starting from scratch. It's very directed at giving people more of those jumping off points."
Obviously this all makes for a very user-friendly platform, particularly for beginners. Dreams also doesn't rely on knowing how to code, much like GameMaker or Construct.
"I think the most notable feature of Dreams is its purely visual node-logic," Scibilia says. "There's no way to write script in Dreams, and I think that's a fantastic choice on Media Molecule's part. Writing code is a whole thing, and there are infinite resources out there for anyone looking to learn to code."
However, Scibilia notes that any previous experience will be a huge bonus when making a start.
"Software experience has been a huge leg up for creating in Dreams. Having a mind for logic is pretty important when it comes to creating games, because games can be seen as a collection of rules and systems. Priority, behaviours, states... this stuff is super prevalent in game development and having a foundation of software development makes these concepts come much more naturally.
"If you didn't already have an appreciation for it, creating in Dreams will quickly help you appreciate how absolutely complex video games are. They are, for my money, the most complicated software that exists. They do what traditional enterprise software does (defines interfaces, functions, and databases), while also having a graphical component that can at times be bleeding edge for computer graphics, while also having an incredibly robust interaction component. Learning how to manage all of these components, and understanding how choices made in one area can have cascading consequences in others, is a big part of game dev and a part that Dreams exposes quite openly."
- Dreams makes quick iterations easy
When talking to game professionals for our GamesIndustry.biz Academy job guides, one of the main pieces of advice given to aspiring devs is always that they should be able to showcase finished games, even small ones. In that respect, Dreams can be a really valuable tool due to its ability to iterate quickly.
"Dreams shines brightest as a tool that translates your pure creative mind into a tangible, interactive thing on your TV," Scibilia says. "It excels at rapid prototyping: it takes very little time to create something interactive and playable (assuming you're comfortable with the toolset). Granted, this creation might have blockout art, but the time it takes to go from zero to playable is very low. I have heard of other creators using Dreams to mock up prototype ideas that they then take over to Unity or other classic engines to flesh out into proper games."
This ability to iterate quickly makes it fast to see your skills progress as well as your overall knowledge of games, Marshall adds.
"We have experience working with professionals where they just like Dreams, just the speed of it. It's very expressive"David Smith, Media Molecule
"Dreams allowed me to rapidly improve my game development skills by being able to quickly prototype and release games," he says. "The main two aspects that Dreams helped me with was my creativity, and knowledge of gaming trends. I made a few unpopular games at first, and they were unpopular for a good reason. The control schemes that I'd put together were difficult, or the gameplay in general was unsatisfying, but I was able to learn from these mistakes for my next games. I'd never used any 3D modelling software like Blender before so being able to create complex objects to use in games was great, and allowed me to try new creative things that I didn't have the time or patience to learn in other engines."
Marshall here highlights one thing that sets Dreams apart from other engines: most of them can't do any modelling.
"So you have to use Blender perhaps or something else," Smith explains. "You can learn that, [but] there's a real energy cost for a creator and it takes time. So if I just want to make a cliff just a little bit taller or something, I need to go to different software, modify some mesh, bring it back in. And that can work. [But] there's a point where you just don't bother because it's just too annoying. So you say: 'Well, it's good enough'. But a key thing in Dreams is that it's just a button and modifiers, and that creates a quickness that's very fun and playful.
"We have experience working with professionals where they just like Dreams, just the speed of it. It's very expressive."
What are the disadvantages of using Dreams?
- Dreams is a closed ecosystem
Of course, there are also downsides to using Dreams. One of the most obvious ones is that games created in Dreams can only be released within this ecosystem and can't be published commercially elsewhere.
However, the creators we talked to didn't necessarily see it as that big a disadvantage -- not all games need to exist as commercial products after all.
"I firmly believe that the walled garden approach to Dreams is a net positive," Scibilia says. "Not every piece of software out there needs to do all the things that others do. It's okay that Roblox has an economy and Dreams does not, for example. I think the walled-garden nature of Dreams is a good reminder to creators that this is, at the end of the day, a hobbyist toolset. An outlet for raw creativity. It's not the foundation for the next epic video game available on the PS4. That's just not what the software sets out to be. And that's okay!"
"I firmly believe that the walled garden approach to Dreams is a net positive. Not every piece of software out there needs to do all the things that others do"Dakota Scibilia
Marshall concurs, although he does hope for the ecosystem to open up a bit in the future: "I think this does restrict the audience of the games, but it's also created a very close community who are all very passionate, creative and lovely people. There are many things that could potentially stand in the way of selling titles outside of Dreams, but I would love to one day see a 'Dreams player' for the PC, where people would be able to browse and play the content on the Dreamiverse. In the long term, although it's a controversial subject, it would be great to be able to sell the things you made off the platform."
Media Molecule has touched upon the topic of monetisation and the likes in the past. Back in 2019, for instance, art director Kareem Ettouney said he'd want Dreams games to be published "to other devices and beyond."
Heppe tells us that the studio has investigated its options related to Dream's business model since as far back as the launch of the game.
"I think at this point there's a few things that we've gathered on that front," she continues. "One is -- and we knew this two years ago too -- it's not an easy thing to implement. From a global and legal standpoint, it is tricky.
"But it's also worth noting that it is really tricky from a community side as well. We're encouraging hobbyist development, teams that have people collaborating across the world, and there is something that is really wonderful about the Dreams community, about the people who come here to create and make things that I wouldn't want to disrupt by entering into this in a way that is thoughtless or inconsiderate.
"It may seem like a punt to say that it's an incredibly complex space, but it really is. And it's something we take really seriously when we think about the future of the game and the community, and what actually we want Dreams to be fundamentally as a product."
- Dreams suffers from technical limitations
Scibilia also notes that Dreams shouldn't be a first choice if your project is a very big game.
"It ultimately comes down to thermo, the memory limits imposed on each scene in a Dream," he explains. "And while you can be smart about how to optimise any given scene's thermo, there is still a hard cap on certain things like unique sculpt shapes.
"So let's say I wanted to make an open world game where I can collect a bevy of armors and weapons for my player character. Each of those weapons and armors would need unique sculpts. And if I want my PC to be able to find a sword in one scene and carry it to another, that sword element would need to exist in both scenes (powered off and hidden unless owned and equipped by the PC). This balloons out fairly quickly into an unmanageable set of assets that Dreams simply can't support."
Technical limitations were also mentioned by Marshall, who mentions a "lack of transparency for sculptures" and also brings up the limited number of elements you can include in a scene. He does say though that he's not run into a situation where the game couldn't handle what he was trying to do yet.
"Complex maths functions are also difficult, but there are updates planned to improve this as well," he continues. "There's currently no live online multiplayer but there are plans for this in the future.
"The way that collisions work in the engine means that fast moving objects can sometimes break the collisions and cause issues. You can make your own collision detection systems with the tools provided to you though if you do run into these issues.
"Connectors or joints can also be difficult to work with. If there's a lot of pressure on a connector it will bend out of place so you'll need to be careful with how you build your connected objects.
"There are also some UI pain points, because everything you create is in a 3D space, it's important you know where you put things, and organise your scene properly. There can be times where there's a gadget doing something and you can't find where it is. This can be said for traditional game coding as well though."
Scibilia agrees that Dreams doesn't provide many tools to facilitate creating robust UI. But he notes that "restrictions breed creativity."
"While Dreams doesn't offer a silver bullet for most problems, the engine gives you the constituent pieces so that you can solve problems yourself. This is a huge part of development.
"Many Dreams users often lament the limited thermo, [but] the best creators will learn how to leverage these limitations and allow those limitations to guide the scope of their creations."
Advice for new Dreams users
- Make the most of existing creations and templates
When asked for advice for new Dreams users, Smith notes that different people have different creative processes, but that messing around with something finished is a good way to learn.
"I love to take a game someone set to be remixable so I can go in there and see how it works and just break it," he says. "Or taking a level and just turning it five degrees and see if it still works. I love that kind of thing. It's a very fun, silly way of quickly learning."
Heppe recommends playing through and with templates provided by Media Molecule.
"They are very geared at people who are starting out but don't quite know how to get started," she says. "And then, getting involved with the community is always really good. People are really helpful. There's tons of tutorials, there's tons of advice on our forums and within other players of the game. I've always found them to be super helpful when people have questions."
- Keep in mind what you're here for
Scibilia is keen to point out that learning and improving game development skills using Dreams is in no way a guarantee that you'll be able to have a career in games. So make sure you're honest with yourself regarding your expectations.
"The mere act of making things In Dreams is not enough to constitute a path into the game design discipline. It's much more than that. And while I don't want to be a downer, I do want eager would-be-devs to have a realistic understanding of what is involved. It's not about making the most fabulous Magnum Opus creation and signing your designer contract the next day. That's not going to happen. Dreams is a perfectly capable environment to learn about and practice game design, but you need to take a mature and deliberate approach to creating content for the sake of learning game design.
"Dreams is a perfectly capable environment to learn about and practice game design, but you need to take a mature and deliberate approach to creating content for the sake of learning game design"Dakota Scibilia
"Creating for hobbyist pleasure and creating for game design study are two very different processes. The work involved and the playable experience that results from that work is different in each of these cases.
"[Hobbyist creation] can involve throwing yourself into a monolithic dream-game that you've fantasised about for years. You work on it for months and months, maybe years, and don't let anyone see the game until you release it in its full glory. Hobbyist pleasure can also look like making meme games based on whatever the latest funny community jokes are. Hobbyist creation can look like spending copious hours getting the lighting just right and never spending time working on core systems and game-feel, because that stuff is hard. If this is you, that's fine! Not everyone needs to treat Dreams as a stepping stone to professional game development."
But for those who are interested in pursuing professional game design, Scibilia says you need to be very deliberate in how you approach creating work for a portfolio.
"I gave myself a specific goal for each creation, worked to achieve that goal, released my creation to the community, actively sought out feedback, integrated relevant feedback back into the creation, and recorded a video describing this process and these choices for each creation. To me, this is the virtuous cycle of game design. It's not just about having a neat idea, or a big idea. It's about pursuing a specific player experience, coming up with systems that elicit that experience, narrowing your work down to target that experience, and reacting to player feedback.
"I encourage would-be-devs working in Dreams to think hard about what they are doing and why, and be prepared to speak on behalf of development choices on a case-by-case basis. Would-be-devs should be seeking out information and learnings in their intended discipline as they create. I didn't just wing it with a bunch of Dreams creations. I sought out educational materials on game design, level design, encounter design, anything and everything I could get my hands on!
"Not everyone needs to treat Dreams as a stepping stone to professional game development"Dakota Scibilia
"Seek out mentors or figures in the industry that are doling out advise. This tweet thread by Naughty Dog co-director Kurt Margenau is something I think every would-be dev should read and execute on."
He also advises to analyse the games you play with a designer's mindset, thinking about the choices made in games you love, and also games you don't love, echoing what game designers have told the GamesIndustry.biz Academy in a guide dedicated to the field.
"In summary, Dreams doesn't need to be a game-dev stepping stone for everyone," he continues. "In fact, the number of people that will take that journey are in the single digit percentile. But that's ok. Dreams doesn't need to be that for everyone. For most, it's an awesome creative tool that enables pure artistic expression. I love Dreams for that as much as anything."
- Reach out to the Dreams community
Echoing Heppe's earlier statement, both Scibilia and Marshall advise to make the most of the Dreams community as you're learning the ropes.
"The community is all very welcoming to new people and there's weekly events to take part in, such as the Dreams Sounds stream hosted by Itsallstar on Twitch," Marshall says. "I've logged a few support requests with the MM support team, and they've always been very helpful, quickly following up on troubles or questions and getting back to me. It's on social media that the MM team really stands out though. They're all very approachable and will respond to questions wherever they can and they're very much a part of the community."
Scibilia adds that Media Molecule's community outreach and engagement is "fantastic," mentioning its bi-weekly streaming and in-game game jams.
"Their curators also do a great job of highlighting and supporting community-driven projects that include music jams, asset jams, and a myriad of other activities. The community is small but passionate. The one thing I might caution though, is that Media Molecule team members are unwaveringly positive. This is great, as they give support and credit to creators of all skill levels. It's not just the shiniest, most-polished creations that get highlighted. Everyone's work is valued.
"With such a low price, so much content available to play or create with, it's a great place to start your game development journey"Julian Marshall
"This can sometimes be confusing if you are interested in professional criticism and feedback on a creation, if you're one of those would-be-devs. You will only ever get 'fantastic work!' from the MM community team. If you are looking for nuanced, constructive criticism, don't take MM's radiant positivity as a sign that you're ready to work on games professionally. Sometimes that can be confusing for younger or less experienced creators."
Concluding our discussion, Marshall highlights the incredible value for money that Dreams represents, which in itself is a strong selling argument for aspiring devs.
"With such a low price, so much content available to play or create with, and no prior game development or coding experience required, it's a great place to start your game development journey. You'll become a part of an active, passionate community who are all very supportive and friendly."
Finally, Smith points out that Dreams evolved to become a more and more community-centric toolset, and Media Molecule wouldn't have it any other way.
"In a way you could look back to day one and Dreams was a little bit like a toolset with some support. Now it's much more about that community building and how you nurture the creative process and foster teams.
"It's about the people working with it, it's not just releasing some bit of hard cold technology and then moving on. It's building this culture. That makes it worthwhile, that's our reason to be doing this."
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