Interview with Mark Healey, creative director at Media Molecule, about Dreams VR

After several years of development, Dreams released in 2020 to almost universal praise. We gave it an amazing 9.5. And with the launch of the VR expansion just around the corner, we got a chance to sit down with Mark Healey (creative director at Media Molecule) to talk about what Dreams is all about, what we can expect from the ‘Inside The Box’ VR expansion and even a little on what we can look forward to in Media Molecule’s next Dreams phase…

SA Gamer: Dreams encompasses so much that it can be quite hard to explain to someone. How do you describe Dreams?

Mark: It’s different things to different people. I think if you’re a creative type it’s essentially (in very dry terms) it’s a set of creative tools that actually work on a console. So you’ve got a complete development suite to make movies, games, music… you know all of that stuff. And, crucially, I think the thing that’s unique about that is that we’ve got all of the tools in the one place. Which makes a big difference in terms of how you get the different areas to talk to each other. So if you want to make a music video where the animation is synced to the music – it’s just in the nature of Dreams, because it’s all in the same place. So I think that’s really cool.

And I’ve always talked about how when I started in the computer games industry (way back in the eighties when it was the Commodore 64s and the Spectrums) the thing that struck me about those, and what I loved about those, is obviously I could play games with them… but I could also make games on them, you know? And that was really important because I think I would argue that’s what started the games industry really; It was the fact that people at home could make things. So when the consoles hit the market… (Mark smiles and interrupts himself…) I know this is not a short succinct answer by the way, but this is my personal view on it)… when the consoles came out, obviously I loved that. It was like, “Wow, a step up! We’ve got arcade-quality stuff here. But how do I make something for it?”. And that kind of made me feel sad. It was like suddenly a whole bunch of people had suddenly been shut off from this world so… for me, on a personal level, Dreams is very much about that. It’s like you’ve got this amazing piece of technology that’s sitting in people’s living rooms that they can consume things on. Let people create on it, as well. You know, why not? It’s got the power to do it.

It’s like you’ve got this amazing piece of technology that’s sitting in people’s living rooms that they can consume things on. Let people create on it, as well. You know, why not? It’s got the power to do it.

So that’s the ‘Create’ side of it, if you like. But on the ‘Play’ side. I just love the idea that people can come and find all these things that are made by ordinary people. And it can be very personal. And some people make things that are incredibly epic and beautiful-looking, And other people will do things that are just really silly… and personal. And I just love that. And I love the idea that the people that make those things can potentially have a bigger audience, as well. That really excites me. In my most optimistic moments, I like to think that someone will make something that… almost creates a new genre; Or bring fresh ideas to the industry. Because it’s very easy for developers to get stuck… It’s scary to take risks sometimes, because of the nature of business and things. Some of my favourite things are things that people have done that are really personal. So I really love that.

SA Gamer: It’s actually a perspective that really resonates with us here in South Africa. Because we’re a smaller community, our creators may not get the opportunities they would in other places because of the barriers, like you mentioned, of needing to be a ‘big business’ and/or needing a lot of money to develop a game… so we really love that about Dreams.

Mark: Yeah, and one thing I’ve always been really excited about, and I’m hoping it is going to happen is that we’ll find something that’s so good, its like, “Right, we should pluck that out and put on the PSN Store as a standalone game.” That would be such a cool story. I’m really hoping that we do that.

SA Gamer: We’d like that too. And you’ve actually mentioned (in another interview) something like that happening before – How some people from the LittleBigPlanet community were now working in your team because you could see the skills and that sort of thing…

Mark: Yeah, exactly. Anything that can help people make their ‘dreams’ come true, feels like a worthwhile thing to be spending time on.

SA Gamer: Of course, we also have to talk about the upcoming VR expansion. So at what point in the development process did you know that you wanted to include VR support and why is this addition important?

Mark: I think that moment would’ve been when Sony came out with the PSVR, really. It was like, “Cool, they’ve got that so our ‘thing’ should support that now.” If you look at it in terms of it being a development suite and opening up technologies to people…then, great that’s got to be part of the mix, surely. And you know we talk about the sort of ‘barriers’ to getting your ideas out there and things, and I’d say with VR – I’d say they’re even higher. Because obviously people can download things like Unity and Unreal Engine and stuff like that, but there’s quite a technical curve there. And especially if you put VR in the mix… you know you’ve got to get this other thing connected to this thing and blah blah blah – that’s beyond most people. I struggled with that myself to be honest with you.

It’s just great that you can have this thing in your living room and have a headset and turn it on and you’re there. And you can just start sculpting in virtual reality… ordinary people. It’s just that, really. And obviously, there’s a finite catalogue of software for VR on the console. So this is really exciting. It’ll just open it up. It’s like crowd-sourcing what VR can be in a way. Just let people go wild and try out crazy ideas that a publisher wouldn’t even blink at in the real world. That really excites me. It could potentially push the boundaries of what a VR experience could be. (Mark smiles) And it’s certainly going to be a never-ending stream of madness in the very least…

SA Gamer: Always a good thing too. Two of the features we liked when playing Dreams was discoverability and the tutorials. We noticed that other platforms that we also enjoy, suffer from the fact that we struggle to find some ‘developer-made’ games. Even really good stuff. And we found that, in general, Dreams has done a really good job of highlighting really good stuff…

Mark: I think we’ve got a long way to go there though. We can do a lot better. But it’s nice to hear that.

SA Gamer: We’re happy that it will continue to improve. But we’ve got to say it’s already something we appreciated – especially when you see the really good stuff pop up more regularly. It helps a lot. And then as mentioned the second stand out feature – something we really enjoyed doing – were the tutorials. These are amazing. We watched a masterclass by Kareem demonstrating how to go about sculpting a torso, for example, and seeing the details and the work that go into those. Now, in a VR context – we know the PlayStation blog post announcing the expansion mentioned tutorials, how-tos, kits and that sort of thing – so what can we expect with those? We’re assuming there are some unique challenges when it comes to VR?

Mark: From memory, I know we’ve got an onboarding tutorial – which is more about just playing in VR, really, because the way that you experience the games now – there’s a couple a things to learn. And then we’ve also made a whole bunch of content… a sort of: “Here’s something to play and experience.” as a sort of kickstart and a seed-sower, if you like (for inspiration). So we’ve actually made this piece of content called Inside The Box – which is set in this big brutalist architectural space. It’s a bit like a sort of virtual gallery if you like. You can go around and there’s some interactive ‘exhibits’.

There are also a couple of extra features/gadgets that we’ve added to the Create mode – which will make making VR stuff a lot easier. So we have a head-tracker gadget – which basically makes it easier for people to attach things to the headset.

And then we’ve also put three simple games in there. We’ve got a puzzle game. A sort of shooty game (not shooting people just shooting abstract shapes) and a platformer-type game. And each of those games will also come with a modular kit so you can build your own levels off of them as well. But the big idea is like: “Here’s the stuff inside this ‘box'” and hopefully the community will take these things and start thinking ‘outside the box’. That was the kind of ‘cheesy’ thinking there. There are also a couple of other tutorials. One of them is just like “Here are some things to bear in mind when making a VR experience”, some best practices essentially.

And then, there are also a couple of extra features/gadgets that we’ve added to the Create mode – which will make making VR stuff a lot easier. So we have a head-tracker gadget – which basically makes it easier for people to attach things to the headset. So you could have some virtual horns or an elephant trunk or something. And interestingly, that also benefits the non-VR toolset as well. Because if you’re using that same gadget in non-VR, it just means you can attach things to the player camera really easily. And then the other gadget is like a hand-tracker thing. So you can track the controllers, and make your virtual hands or… (Mark gesticulates wildly) or paintbrushes or whatever… And so a couple of tutorials are about how to use those new gadgets essentially.

SA Gamer: Those sound awesome. We’ve already seen some amazing creations in Dreams that would work so well as VR experiences – you recently tweeted Bad Robo’s Canyon Cave for example…

Mark: Yeah. He’s amazing! He’s got such a fantastic eye for lighting… If I ever see one of his creations on a Twitter feed and I see one of his videos I always have to a second-take. I’m like: “That’s just somebody walking through the woods, that’s not Dreams!” And I just love how people can put their own stamp on things like that. Like you can almost see something and I know it’s his. Whereas other people will do things that just look like it’s from a completely different engine. For me, that’s one of the things where we have succeeded with Dreams is… allowing people to put their own personal stamp on things. I love that.

SA Gamer: Yes exactly, and like you said with some creations like that your immediate reaction is “That could be a VR game!” So how easy will it be for a creation you’ve already made in Dreams to be converted to VR?

Mark: So here’s how it works: In Create mode there are no additional limits or anything. So in theory, everything that’s already been made – can work in VR. And that is the default. So the default is that you’re able to just go and look at stuff and just play it in VR. Whether it’s good or not, is a different matter, especially if it wasn’t made for VR. But the one extra thing that creators will need to take into consideration for VR is the framerate. In VR it’s important that the framerate is above a certain threshold. So what it does, by default is, if [the creation] doesn’t achieve a good framerate then it will kick you out and put you in the virtual cinema mode – that is the standard Sony thing.

But you can actually opt-out of that if you like in the options and just say: “I don’t care just let me look at it anyway. I can handle it.” So that’s kind of cool. And then, like we said, the default is that all of the existing content will work in VR. But… it might ‘not work’ as in it was not designed for it. So what the authors of any content can do is that they can set some flags and they can say: “This is VR only”, “This is not VR” or “This is VR compatible” ie it works in both. And the content that we’ve made by the way (that I told you about Inside the Box) that actually works in both VR and non-VR because we thought it’s nice that people can play that experience either way, really.

SA Gamer: And as our time is almost up – we’d like to end looking forward… Media Molecule has been busy with Dreams for an extended period of time. You’ve got an amazing game (plus everything else that Dreams is). So what does the future hold? Are we looking at more expansions? Perhaps a new game?

Mark: Well, I’m not allowed to talk about it too much because I’ll get into trouble, but what I will say is VR is very much the end of a ‘phase’, if you like, end of Stage One. And the next stage and phase is going to be very much about bringing it to a bigger audience, essentially. Attacking the more casual side of things. So that’s what we’re cooking at the moment.

SA Gamer: Nice! We can’t wait to here more!

Mark: I’m really excited about it. And I’d love to talk about it but… I shouldn’t. I mustn’t.

SA Gamer: Well, we’ll wait with bated breath.

Nintendo Nerd, sharing my love of Mario with the world one pixel at a time.

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