Founded in 2006 in Guildford, UK, Media Molecule has created some of the most innovative games of the last decade. Partnered with Sony Computer Entertainment, the company’s first game was LittleBigPlanet, a puzzle-platformer based on user generated content. From there, the studio released LittleBigPlanet 2, followed by Tearaway, a PlayStation-Vita exclusive that utilized the functionality of the Vita in innovative ways, Tearaway Unfolded, the same game remade for the PlayStation 4, and are currently developing Dreams, an ambitious adventure game.
David Smith, technical director and co-founded of Media Molecule, is especially proud of the studio’s diversity. “We’re proud to have a wide mix of personality types and people from very different backgrounds,” he says. “At least 10% of our company came from the LBP community and before that came from a wide variety of careers outside of the games industry. The rest of us come from all over the planet! This variety of viewpoints sometimes makes the creative process more challenging.”
He continues, “One surprising thing about our company is that quite a few people here very rarely play games. These people then draw upon ideas and media from outside the games industry. When making characters and music it’s easy for games companies to subconsciously just draw upon existing games and lead to slightly generic results. We tend to look to traditional art and musicians for our inspiration but then rely on the more game-focused members of our team to weave them into modern game-mechanics so that we get the best of both worlds.”
With LittleBigPlanet and its subsequent sequels, Media Molecule has fostered a creative, kind, non-toxic community, a rarity in the games industry. Of this, Smith says, “We make games based around creativity, so the celebrities of our community tend to be people who make wonderfully beautiful things. This contrasts starkly with the majority of games where the most celebrated players are those that are most skillful at beating other people. This naturally shifts the player interactions to be more positive.”
Media Molecule seems to have a knack for inspiring creativity in its players, as evidenced with the LittleBigPlanet titles. Smith attributes this to making what they find interesting. “I suppose it naturally follows that as we like to make art and games, that we like to make new experiences that let us make games in a more fun way. If we enjoy using the tools ourselves, then it follows that the same will be true of lots of other people!”Media Molecule has never approached user-generated content from the perspective of ‘make a tool for the users to use, but of course it’s too limiting for us to use ourselves’. Smith says that this is a limited approach to user-generated content. Instead, it is, “Far better to make something that we believe in enough to use ourselves! Every asset you see in Dreams was made in Dreams: every environment, object, character and piece of music. Our artists, level designers and musicians don’t use some external tool and then export the finished result into Dreams. They turn on their PS4 and pick up their DualShock or Move controllers and they create.”
As a games industry outsider peeking in, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sense of exclusivity presented by games such as first-person shooters, MOBA’s, other violent games, and their communities. These are games and communities build upon beating the next person, and racking up the most kills. While these sorts of games are quite fun, and invoke a great sense of teamwork and accomplishment, they can be exclusive and shun diversity. Media Molecule operates on the opposite side of this spectrum, creating content which beseeches a great sense of creativity, and community. They continue to be leaders in fostering kindness, imagination, and inclusiveness, and their forthcoming title, Dreams, is no exception.
As it happens, Dreams is not an easy game to explain, although Smith does a great job at breaking it down. First things first, Dreams is Media Molecule’s largest game to date. “The scope of Dreams is so large that it can sound a bit overwhelming to get your head around! It’s certainly our most ambitious project yet, and we have a reputation for ambitious projects!”
Smith implores one to use LittleBigPlanet, their first venture into the ‘play/create’ genre, as a reference point when wrapping their head around Dreams. “If you’re familiar with LittleBigPlanet, then you have a useful starting point. Dreams is a much bigger and bolder attempt to make a new sort of experience that contains the sort of gameplay experiences that we’re all familiar with, with the fun of creating. So as with LBP, you can treat Dreams as just a game made by Media Molecule, that you play from start to finish (in this case, it’s more in the vein of an adventure game than a 2d platform game) and then is followed by an endless amount of new games to play by the community of Dreams players.”
This creation aspect has become Media Molecules specialty over the past decade. In Dreams, the more creative players have the ability to “…create new things, whether those are models, worlds, characters, music, or even new games,” according to Smith. He continues, “We’re trying to find a balance between the extremes of pure ‘play’ and ‘create’.” Modern gamers, he says, are used to some degree of creative expression, even something as simple as customizing their characters in Fallout or their clan logos in Call of Duty.
“We’re going to be pushing this a bit further, but only so much that it’s fun. We aren’t going to force players to spend a serious amount of time using the creative tools if they don’t want to. Our goal is to present them so nicely, and make them so quick and fun to use, that everybody will want to use them to some degree. We’re betting that everybody has something that they’d love to make and show to their friends or even the rest of the world.”
While sculpting and world building have been the most advanced aspects of Dreams demonstrated thus far, Smith promises more details as Media Molecule come closer to releasing the first beta of the game.
A key thing to note, according to Smith, is that “…anything you see in Dreams, you can make yourself or remix and modify. We don’t import 3D meshes into the game, but make them using the intuitive consumer-generated content system within Dreams. You could easily spend a whole lifetime making just these 3D objects without ever investigating piecing them together to build worlds, or making music or animations.”
Smith claims that some people simply have an itch for one particular thing, and Media Molecule wish to empower those players to be able to do that one thing and get quite savvy at it.
“The flipside of this is to make sure that they feel really rewarded by having this focus. This is where the power of the community gets really exciting. Anything you make can be shared and used by other people. If you really enjoy making trees, then those trees can be used by anybody searching for trees to put in their levels or movies. But the fact that you made the tree is carefully tracked!”
You see, at the end of any level that contains a players’ creation, that player will get credit. That way, if lots of people using your tree in their own creations, and lots of other people played those creations, you’ll receive a message telling you your tree went platinum. This way, “…players will feel rewarded for their contribution to other players’ Dreams.”
A project of this scope, with such a large focus on player creation, and player driven content, comes with its fair share of design challenges. The team’s trickiest challenge, according to Smith, has been how they themselves make the game. “We need to divide our time between making the tools, and making the big Media Molecule game that will ship with Dreams.”
“Therefore, our creative team needs to keep jumping between using the tools to make wonderful things, and then critically evaluating the tools to see how to make them more empowering or more fun. It can be very hard for individuals to hold these two points of view in their heads at once! But by struggling through this, we know that we’re ensuring that our creative community will get the best experience possible.”
Another design challenge, found in all games, though especially in games of this stature, is how to approach tutorials. Dreams will have a mixed approach to tutorials, as explained by Smith. “When you first start the game, we’ll present you with a fairly linear experience and drip feed the most fun bits of create. The game will teach you some of the basic aspects of how our creative tools work, but without making any heavy demands of you. The way you grab a box to push it off your path is the same way that you move objects when building your own Dreams.”
Smith lauds the importance of the community as a teaching tool – users teaching each other. “When it comes down to creative techniques, as opposed to how to use the UI, there is a limitless amount to discover and learn. We’re only just beginning to truly discover what creative techniques are most successful with our unique rendering and creative tools. So we’ll be looking to empower out community to share their discoveries about how to use the tools, whether that’s through videos on the web or creative workshops within Dreams.”
Just as a LeapFrog can teach math, reading and literacy through gamification, Dreams seems to be on a path to teaching art and level design, and inspiring generations of artists and game developers to come.
Equally as important to Media Molecule as creativity and community is communication. Smith likens communication in games to UI (user interface), and claims it’s one of the trickiest areas to get right. “When we look at the UI in a traditional 3D or game creation package, it’s very intimidating. Worse than this, it’s ugly. Whether you’re playing or creating, we really want you to feel present in the beautiful 3D worlds that we’re creating in Dreams.”
To do this, Smith states, UI is necessary, in order to allow the user to make creative choices. However, Smith and co want most of the player’s time to be spent with no UI on the screen. “The idea is to make the UI melt away and for the creator to feel a direct connection with the thing they’re creating. We’ve invested a few years in finding ways to create this feeling.”
Creation with other players is almost as important as the communication between the player and the game. The goal of this player interactivity is to build a community among players and creators. After Media Molecule’s success with fostering such a creative community in LittleBigPlanet, they intend to push this area further. “Players that are creating together can simply wave their imps around and change their imps expression with a quick swipe on the touchpad. This allows quick and fun emotional communication. For more detailed communication, there will be an integrated messaging system so you can keep track of what your friends are making and creating.”
This communication will become more important as larger groups of Dreamers collaborate to make more elaborate creations. “We are keen to do whatever we can to support this sort of group work as it creates a sort of symmetry between the process of a professional game studio, and the things that our community can make. We’ve spent a lot of time making our creative tools be very intuitive, powerful and fun, but the most empowering ‘tool’ is teamwork.”
Media Molecule continues to innovate with PlayStation accessories, such as the Move controller and PlayStation camera. They’re “inspired” by the new interactions afforded by different peripherals. Being that Dreams is, according to Smith, “…the most powerful and expressive creative system we’ve made to date…” the team want to allow for as many ways for creators to get their ideas into the game as possible.
“If you have a standard PS4 setup, you can play and create with the full toolset of Dreams. If you have a PlayStation camera, then this allows for full 3D tracking that makes 3D placement more powerful. If you have Move controllers, then your sculptures will naturally become a bit more fluid and expressive. The DualShock tends to be better for layout of environments and making tweaks. Your phone is of course a powerful peripheral because you carry it with you wherever you go. So for player communication it’s a natural fit. Tablets may be useful for certain sorts of in-depth technical tweaking. Our goal is simply to make Dreams as fun and empowering as possible. If there are peripherals that make any of this easier, we’ll support them.”
Clearly, Media Molecule’s Dreams is shaping up to be one of 2016’s most innovative and interesting games. To summarize Smith’s statements, Media Molecule seems to take into account three important C’s: community, creativity, and communication. These aspects seem to be at the heart of each Media Molecule title, and with Dreams, they’re taking each of these facets and amplifying them. For more on Dreams, follow Media Molecule on Twitter. For more interviews, stay tuned, and follow The Wayfaring Dreamer on Twitter.