John Beech, senior principal designer for Media Molecule, has never made a song before. But, for me, he's going to try – with a few caveats. First, he's on the busy show floor of GDC, it's kind of loud here. It's not exactly conducive to music-making. Second, he's going to make the entire song – from instrumentation to mixing to completion – entirely in the developer's upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive Dreams.
Dreams is kind of hard to describe. It's a game, yeah, but it's also a game engine and an art tool where players can make paintings. It's also a movie maker and recording software. It's a lot of things, and that's the point. With Dreams, Media Molecule is trying not to place restrictions on player creativity; they can make whatever they want. Every genre I throw out senior principal artist Jon Eckersley says "Yep. You can make that." From first-person shooter, to top-down role-playing game, to point-and-click adventure, in Dreams, he says, you can make it.
And that sounds complicated – game development is notoriously hard. But anyone can pick up the game and create, be them veteran video game developers or eight year old kids, Eckersley says. And no matter the player, the tools within balance a delicate act of being accessible, yet not dumbed down. In fact, they're the exact same development tools Media Molecule is using to create the game.
"I love working in the game industry, it's amazing. Our whole company does," Beech says. "We wanted to give that experience to the rest of the world in a way that was affordable and possible. ... 12 year old Charlie in his bedroom can't afford to get After Effects and 3DS Max and a high end PC, but [they] could have a PlayStation 4 and be able to buy a copy of Dreams, which is a normal PlayStation game price. Then they'd have access to all the tools in a professional platform. We're using this to make a AAA game. Anyone else could get this and, given enough time and expertise, make a AAA game themselves. We're not lying, we're not cheating."
But getting to that point has been a challenge, Eckersley adds. Dreams has been in development since 2011. It's supposed to come out this year, but no specific release date's been announced yet. It took the team a lot of time to find what works. "I guess trial and error is the best way [to put it]," he says. "But sometimes even with the greatest ideas, it might not work. Or it does work and you realize you have to carry on iterating."
They show me a game made in Dreams; a cutesy character bounces around an outdoor environment jumping from platform to platform. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like any other 3D platformer out there. But this one is a little different. Development on this game started two days ago on the first day of GDC. As part of showing off the game, Media Molecule is developing a game inside Dreams for the world to see – from the cutscenes, to the character models, level design and gameplay. They've been working on it and iterating throughout the week. The aforementioned song Beech wrote? After completion he drops it in the level and the game has a soundtrack.
"I would sit for 20 minutes [during the show], then pass the controller to John who'd add something, then Emily would come in and do something," Eckersley says about the week thus far, adding other team members would come in later adding animation and other features.
This collaborative process is an important part of Dreams, too. Not only can players make their own content, they can work with other players around the world to make games, movies, art and whatever else they want within the confines of the game. Additionally, players can make things others can use in their own work. Should they publish their level online, any work used from others will be credited. As of right now, Media Molecule can't say whether or not players will be able to self-publish their own games outside of Dreams, but Eckersley sounded open to the idea.
Talking to Beech and Eckersley, you can hear a palpable excitement in their voices. They laugh, get excited and experiment with their new creation. They've been working on the game for around seven years, yet they look as fascinated and surprised with what they're coming up with as I am. With Dreams, Media Molecule wants to introduce game development to the world, to those who may find it inaccessible through traditional means. If done right, Dreams could democratize game development in a way unseen before.