The big problem with PlayStation 4’s Dreams? Ownership

I’m just going to come out and say it, we have some screwed up notions of ownership in the video game industry. Now I’m not a lawyer so take everything I say here with a big “entertainment purposes only” stamp, but it’s arguable that we don’t own anything at all when we purchase our games.

If you actually read through those 50 page long terms of service that you skip through when you first boot up a game, you are waiving a ton of legal rights away just to press a few buttons. You aren’t technically allowed to mod your game without permission, copy your game without permission, create let’s plays or streams without permission. What exactly do you own? It’s more like you are leasing the game but with only one payment. You can play the game, but the game is still owned by its publisher. They get to decide what you do with it.

Mutually ignoring each other

And you know what? We all sort of decided, as a community, that we were OK with this. Every so often we raise a stink, like when Microsoft tried to disable used game sales of physical copies in the early days of Xbox One marketing, but on the whole we are comfortable with giving up ownership rights to our games for, quite frankly, convenience. I’m sure there is a legal case that someone, somewhere could make that would go to court and grant them actual ownership rights over their game collection, but it would involve a long and expensive legal battle with multiple companies and, frankly, it wouldn’t grant them much.

Both we and game companies just kind of look the other way and exist in a symbiotic relationship. Let’s Plays and livestreams still exist, and while it’s annoying that publishers can take them down for basically no reason, they usually don’t. In fact, sharing content based on games has now become baked in to most consoles, although once again many publishers simply lockout this feature.

And it’s not like mods don’t exist either. Many developers support their modding communities and those that don’t usually don’t do much other than push out update patches that are very quickly cracked by the modding community.

Just look at Beat Saber. The ability to play community made tracks with songs that, quite frankly, neither the track’s creator or the track’s player owns is super dubiously legal. So every new Beat Saber patch breaks mods and then in a few hours a new mod pack comes out that breaks the new patch. It’s an endless tug-of-war that we are just sort of OK with.

But all of this is applies to games we play. What about games we create? What if you made a game in Unity or RPG maker, and the people who made that engine said “that game isn’t yours.” You can’t sell it. You can’t redistribute it. You can’t choose what platform you or others can play it on. In fact, the creators of the engine own it and they can do whatever they want with it. They can shut it down if they want, or distribute the assets you made to other game creators, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That sounds pretty shitty right? It also sounds like something that would never happen. Owners of creative applications never exert ownership over the creations made in them. Microsoft doesn’t come around looking for creative rights to the fanfiction you typed in word. Adobe doesn’t control who you show the pictures you edited in Photoshop to.

So then why does Sony and Media Molecule get to decide what you get to do with your dreams?

Dreaming anything

For those of you who don’t know, Dreams is a new “game” made by Media Molecule, the guys behind LittleBigPlanet. I put “game” in quotes, because it’s arguably not a game at all.

Its premise is that you can create your own games in Dreams, much like you could in LittleBigPlanet or any other “maker” style games, like Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker or Xbox One’s short-lived Project Spark. The big innovation here is that you can create anything. ANYTHING!

Want to create a 2D platformer? You can do that. Want to create a 3D point and click adventure? You can do that too. What about a multiplayer fighting game? You can do that. An online shooter? You can do that. Anything you can dream up you can create so long as you are willing to put up with some finicky motion controls and long tutorials.

Then, once you’ve created your creation you get to put it out into the “Dreamiverse” where people get to play it, rate it, remix it, and help it grow! You can be put in contact with play testers who will give you constructive criticism. You can be put in contact with artists that can make models for you, builders that can create stages for you, and composers that can make music for you. You can even be put in contact with voice actors who can voice your characters! Then after hours, days, maybe even months and years of hard work, you too can post a full game experience to the Dreamiverse, one that rivals many indie releases and heck, even some AAAs.

And what do you get for it? Popularity. That’s it.

The dream of getting paid

You sure aren’t getting any money for it because you don’t own your Dreams. Sure, your name (and the name of everyone else that contributed an asset) is listed in the Dream’s credits, but you can’t sell your Dream. You can’t redistribute your Dream on another platform. All you can do is watch the likes come in, because you don’t own your Dreams. Media Molecule does.

This is not a problem that is unique to Dreams. Frankly, it’s a problem for every “maker” style game, but there’s a much better argument for giving up ownership of your creations when you aren’t making everything from scratch. Just look at Super Mario Maker. Sure, you are doing a lot of work when you make your cool shell powered gadgets, but you are also using Nintendo’s characters, physics, enemies, items, level themes, and more. You are just playing around in a Mario themed sandbox and while it’s still pretty exploitative for Nintendo to essentially count on the unpaid work of tens of thousands of amateur level designers for their game to succeed, it’s also pretty clear that you don’t, and never were going to, own Mario.

You can apply this method of thinking to pretty much any other “maker” game in existence. Even Media Molecule’s previous release, LittleBigPlanet could be viewed in this way. Sure, you could do some amazing things in LittleBigPlanet, from crafting full RPGs out of 2D platformer mechanics to building full virtual computers, but you were never going to own Sackboy or the limited assets you could build levels from.

But this just isn’t the case with Dreams. You are making the assets from scratch. You are making everything from scratch, or at the very least making everything out of things that someone else made from scratch. Someone, somewhere, did real creative labor to make these dream a reality, and they aren’t getting paid for it.

A tool, not a game

This is why I put the word “game” in quotes earlier. Media Molecule calls Dreams a game, and we treat Dreams as a game, but it’s not really a game. It’s an application. An editor. It’s far more like Photoshop or Word than it is Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty.

The only thing that separates Dreams from other applications like this, is the neat flavor of the Dreamiverse, the wonky control scheme, and the community that it has built out of curated content. All of these things are valuable (yes, even the control scheme. Making something with a gamepad is somehow less intimidating than making it with a keyboard and mouse). Yet, are they worth giving up ownership of your creations? Of your Dreams?

Look at it in reverse. If Adobe said you could buy a copy of Photoshop that you have to control with a PS4 controller and you can never sell or redistribute anything you make in it, but by using it you’ll be put in contact with other artists that will critique your art and even help you draw, would you buy that product? Probably not.

Every part of me wants to tell these Dreamiverse creators to just download a game engine like Unreal, Unity, Game Maker, RPG Maker, and so on. Heck, that’s what indie creators have been doing for years.

But I know that just jumping into a program like that is intimidating and I know that everything Media Molecule has done to make game creation accessible has some real worth. I’m not saying that Media Molecule is evil. They aren’t some Snidely Whiplash style character, twirling their curly moustache and laughing as they exploit the labor of budding game creators. Media Molecule isn’t trying to exploit us, but they are nonetheless.

In Media Molecule’s defense, they did say that everything made in Dreams would be able to be exported into Unity so that its creator can do what they please with it. They said that in 2015 when the game was first announced. They said that in 2019 when the game first entered beta. Now it’s 2020 and Dreams has fully released and there’s still no way to export your creations. For all that Media Molecule says that they want to give creative rights to their dreamers, they simply haven’t. Frankly, this sure seems like a feature that you wouldn’t want to launch a game creation engine without. Imagine Microsoft Word without the ability to save. Not super valuable, is it?

As it stands, Dreams is a sort of walled garden of game development. Nothing ever escapes. Anything created within Dreams only serves to make Dreams better. It’s a recursive loop where all the work done on every Dream makes Dreams a better game, and makes more people more likely to make more Dreams. It advertises and upgrades itself. It’s a brilliant design benefitting the publisher, developer, and basically everyone except the thousands of amateur game designers that are actually doing the work to make Dreams a game worth playing.

A worrying precedent

Frankly, the precedent that Dreams sets worries me. We have already given up a lot of rights when it comes to video games and the idea of slowly giving up more is unsettling. However, this is the case for a lot of media that we made these days. Social media platforms like TikTok give video creators editing tools and reward them with, you guessed it, popularity and nothing else. However, these video creators can then break from the platform and head to YouTube to try and make it on Ad money, or start a Patreon and begin self-publishing their videos. Heck some people have turned their presence on social media into lucrative careers as editors, comedians, voice actors, and more.

Something tells me it will be harder to do the same with Dreams and game design. Heck, I don’t even know the face of most of the creators showcased in the Dreamiverse. I’d never know if they started up a Patreon. In a way the Dreamiverse actively obscures creator identity. While it credits you with your username, it doesn’t give you any platform to give updates about your creation process.

Most indie creators will have a home webpage, or Twitter, or Tumblr, or subreddit, or other social media account where they can be transparent with their followers about the development of their games. Sure, dreamers can create these accounts, but at that point, why use Dreams in the first place? Why not just be an indie developer like all the others that have come before you.

I just don’t want to see Dreams normalizing this act of giving up ownership for the sake of access to creative tools, that’s all. It’s not right. If there’s one thing Media Molecule, or ANY company for that matter, shouldn’t be able to own, it’s our dreams. It’s kind of ironic, when you think about it. For all that Media Molecule is saying that we can bring our dreams into reality, they are also shutting down dreams of actually being a paid game designer, at least with anything that gets published on their platform.

Still waiting on that export function, Media Molecule. Still waiting…