Preview: Dreams is the most ambitious make-your-own-game engine ever, but will that be enough?

Games that give you the tools to create your own original games within their framework form a strange and polarizing genre. While a certain breed of PC gamer has been experimenting with mods, total conversions, and player-made maps for decades now, it was the LittleBigPlanet series, from the developers at Media Molecule, that really brought the "creation game" into the mainstream spotlight. And sometime in 2018, that same studio will release their most insanely ambitious entry into the genre yet, in the form of Dreams.

Dreams was on display at the 2018 Game Developers Conference, and I had a chance to witness first-hand the power it holds, and the amazing creations that it can produce in the right hands. I also spoke to some of the team involved in the game, and their enthusiasm for the title is clear and infectious. At the end of my demo and interviews, though, I was still left wondering: can the reality of Dreams, once it's in the hands of gamers, ever live up to its potential?

A World Creation Engine

The LittleBigPlanet series gave players the power to modify and create side-scrolling levels, and some dedicated creators did some really amazing things with the game. Dreams takes that idea and expands upon it in every dimension (literally). 3D worlds will be the default now, though it will still be possible to create more traditional side-scrollers, as demonstrated by this developer-crafted game, assembled on a train on the way to GDC 2018:

At the GDC demo station, I watched one of the developers navigate around a gorgeous forest environment as she created it, using the PlayStation move controllers to grab terrain pieces, modify their properties, and reconfigure them on the fly. Bushes on the ground were turned into foliage overhead. Small patches of grass became towering ferns. Fog color and opacity was adjusted, and mountains were created out of small rocks, all with motion-sensitive controls that gave the whole thing a serious Minority Report vibe.

The power of Dreams doesn't stop at environment creation. The audio side of the creation engine is just as important this time around, with a full music creation engine and the ability to record voiceover. Unsurprisingly, Media Molecule is pitching Dreams as more than just a game-making game, and expects people to spend just as much time making music or movies using the tools the game provides. Even with just the game's pre-designed characters and some basic environments, it's easy to imagine it becoming a new popular platform for short Pixar-style videos.

As the demo continued a new Dreams developer took over, this time using the traditional PS4 controller and a microphone. Suddenly, the colorful dragon character on screen became a digital puppet, in much the style of the VR game Mindshow. Motion controls came into play here too, as twisting the DualShock in different directions caused the character on the screen to twist and turn its head (a mechanic with which any player of LittleBigPlanet 3 will be familiar). Button presses caused other reactions from the character in this "puppeteer" mode, and when the developer spoke into the microphone, the dragon's mouth open and closed in response. 

Dreams will be about creating, sharing, and re-mixing, and will have a shared online ecosystem for player-created content (unless you choose to keep your precious gems to yourself, in which case you can do that). Created content will have credits attached automatically, and so it will be possible for a player to craft a complex game with characters and a soundtrack created by other players, and everyone will have their work credited. Sort of like a a tiny indie game development team made up of people who have never met one another.

Ease of use vs. Power

For anyone who has ever dreamed of making their own game (or music, or movie), Dreams probably sounds very appealing. The really important question, then, is how accessible can you really make something this powerful?

Dreams will include a story mode using three interconnecting art styles. While the LittleBigPlanet series has traditionally melded its story mode with an extended tutorial about the game's mechanics, it sounds like Dreams may be taking a different approach, letting its story stand on its own and leaving the (presumably robust) tutorial to a separate experience. Judging by the dozens of nested menus and sub-menus on display during the GDC creation demos, there's going to be a lot to teach.

I didn't get a chance to see the game's AI or objective creation in action, but I played enough of LittleBigPlanet 3 to know that this part of game creation can be very complicated, if you want to make anything more involved than the most basic "go to the glowing red X" type of experience. Media Molecule says that Dreams can be used to make anything form a point-and-click adventure game to a first-person shooter,, it really seems like there would be an insane amount of work involved in anything like that. What percentage of gamers will actually have that kind of follow-through?

When I asked about the game's learning curve, Dreams' developers described the game's systems as being like the layers of an onion. Those who want to dive all the way down will find that nearly every object in the game has individual properties which can be tweaked and managed, but young or less patient game designers will be able to see results at a much less granular level, having fun re-mixing and combining pre-made elements.

Aside from the LittleBigPlanet series, the title that has the most in common with Dreams, at least conceptually, is Microsoft's ill-fated Project Spark. That ambitious creation game failed for a variety of reasons, perhaps most egregiously because of its confusing tangle of DLC microtransactions. We have no reason to believe Dreams will make any of those same mistakes, so perhaps it will succeed where Project Spark failed, and will actually deliver on the promise of a creation game you can use to make just about anything you can imagine.

Dreams will be coming out sometime in 2018 as a PS4 exclusive. Undoubtedly, some dedicated creators are going to spend very long hours using the game's powerful tools to craft seriously impressive experiences. But what will the average player make of, and make with, Dreams? We'll have to wait and see.