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Raising a Ruckus: Creating Hit Games in Dreams

by Dylan Woodbury on 09/10/19 11:15:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

What is Dreams?

Dreams is a Playstation 4 game with a radical concept - instead of giving you a game to play, developer Media Molecule gives you all the tools you need to make your own games. Players use these tools to animate, sculpt, design, and code whatever they want. The game is a celebration of human creativity and a powerful outlet for imagination. The tools alone justified the game's purchase to many of the 100k+ players who have picked up the game since the “early-access” version became available on the Playstation Online Store in April 2019.

The Argument Against Dreams

The tools are innovative, but for Dreams to connect with a broader “gamer” audience, Media Molecule needs its players to create compelling experiences in order to persuade new customers to buy the game. In a recent video, David Jaffe, developer of hit console games like God of War, explains the inherent competition between the Dreams engine/platform and the commercial games industry. “It’s not that I think (professionally developed games) and games made in Dreams should be equatable,” says Jaffe, “but the fun factor, the engagement factor, the worth-my-time factor… those are absolutely competing.”

Jaffe agrees that players have released games in Dreams that are technically and aesthetically excellent. However, he says the games are mostly unfun and don’t yet stand up to traditionally made games. “As of now, Dreams is coming up extremely short.” He claims that this is because creators are not currently compensated for their efforts. “Why would you take the 6+ months to be super proficient at this if you actually have talent?” asks Jaffe. “Ultimately, they’ve made something that nobody really wants… if you are so hardcore into video games, or want to be, go learn Unity. You can get a job, you can sell your game.” 

Raising a Ruckus

While game journalists have shown a major interest in Dreams, the projects which get coverage are usually gimmicks, not compelling, complete games. That all changed on August 27 with the release of the game Ruckus: Just Another Natural Disaster, made primarily by Dreams creators Mori Shiro and HeartfactoryKW. Ruckus is a game about a Godzilla-like salamander that destroys a city. The player uses the creature's various abilities to earn points by attacking buildings and vehicles. The game hilariously depicts the world's rapid descent into chaos. It is both adorable and adrenaline-pumping.

Ruckus: Just Another Natural Disaster

by Mori Shiro (morishiro1935), HeartfactoryKW, AzraelSeventh, Bella__Iris, Mandelbo
Social Media Link      Dream Link    

 

The developers of Ruckus weren’t anticipating mainstream interest in their little side-project. The game was made in their spare time, for fun, from the comfort of their couches. And yet, on the afternoon of the game’s release, the game was featured by Polygon, and by sites like Kotaku and IGN soon after. In the days leading up to the game’s launch, videos of the game exploded on Twitter, despite the developer’s previously small reach. Even Dreams critic David Jaffe retweeted the game, “This looks so cool and fun!”

How did this happen? How did a couple of hobbyists playing a video game manage to stir up such a commotion? I reached out to the developers of Ruckus, and also to the developers of popular Dreams games Pig Detective and Ommy Kart, in order to learn more about the making great Dreams games.

 
 

 

3 Lessons from Top Dreams Creators

Lesson #1: Set yourself apart from commercial games.

David Jaffe made an excellent point when he said that games in Dreams need to be able to compete with professionally-made games. Currently, many dreamers focus on replicating experiences of popular video games, with projects like Metal Gear Solid Remake and Final Fantasy 7 Remake gaining a lot of attention. Projects like these are impressive, but they aren't going to convince new players to buy and play Dreams because they are gimmicks that don't actually provide value to players. In order to give players a reason to play Dreams, more dreamers should focus on creating novel experiences instead of replicating popular commercial games and trends. By creating different kinds of games than the industry, dreamers can turn Dreams into an essential gaming platform.

The Ruckus team accomplished this by making a game in a genre mostly unserved by the commercial games industry. “There are very few kaiju games on the market, so we were able to tap into an untapped market.” In this way, Dreams serves as a sort of democratic branch of the games industry, one which serves as a direct check on commercial game design. Games of commercially outdated genres will find new life on Dreams, and they’ll be resurrected by passionate, life-long fans. These resurgences of genre and style, along with the introduction of totally new kinds of interactive experiences, could affect the kinds of games players demand from commercial developers. Mori has already used the success of Ruckus to direct attention to similar kaiju games in development.

But no game on Dreams does a better job of setting itself apart from commercial games than Pig Detective, a hilarious adventure game series by the dreamer duo Lotte and Sebastian. Neither is an experienced game developer, yet both are using Dreams to create games that commercial developers are not providing. “We are creating the game we would like to play,” they say, “without paying attention to what is currently being made.” Pig Detective puts the player in the shoes of a world-famous detective pig. The player explores unusual 3D worlds filled with quarky characters to talk to and puzzles to solve, in attempt to solve the underlying mystery of the game.

Pig Detective 1: A Little Trouble in Cologne

Pig Detective 2: Welcome to Cowboy Town

by Lotte (Lotte_Double) and Sebastian (SdeReu)
Social Media     Dream 1     Dream 2

 

Classic adventure games like Space Quest, Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango were foundational for Sebastian, who designs and creates the logic for the games. But these games fell out of favor with most game developers following the rise of 3D graphics and action games. Humor in general is a rare trait of modern video games. But because Lotte and Sebastian aren’t motivated by profits, they can explore these rich pockets of gaming that developers are ignoring. “That for us is the true charm of Dreams,” they say. “You can create whatever you want, even something that is horribly out of fashion.”

Lesson #2 - Keep experimenting.

Experimentation is the core activity of applied game design. Unfortunately, experimentation is often stifled in commercial game development. The lack of experimentation in the industry is due to the high cost of wasted work and a need to schedule a game's development months in advance, among other reasons. Many games' designs are completely hammered down before designers even get a chance to see the game in action. These are not ideal conditions for creating art. Dreams solves this problem by allowing players to rapidly develop new features using an integrated set of tools and a giant library of user-generated content. And the moment you are ready for feedback, there will be a swath of hungry Dreams gamers waiting to oblige. Therefore, you should be taking full advantage of this and experimenting with all aspects of your game in order to make the coolest game possible! Speedy experimentation is one aspect that gives the Dreams platform a major edge over platforms like Unity.

The developers of Ruckus experimented with many features, including all kinds of weather and alternate mechanics, before settling on their final product. “We weren’t trying to make a hit,” said Mori. “We were just adding interesting ideas to each other, trying to make the game as interesting as possible.”

Another example of a game born through experimentation is Ommy Kart, which was recently released by Diesel Laws (PSN: ManChickenTurtle). This sophisticated game is reminiscent of professionally-made kart racers like Mario Kart, but it all began as a simple experiment. “Dreams really lets you play with physics in a way that is much quicker to experiment in, compared to Unity,” explains Diesel. One day, inspired by another dreamer's work, Diesel quickly threw together a working hoverboard in Dreams. “It was fun to play with, but it needed a track to go around. Very quickly that grew into needing AI, powerups and more.”


Although Ommy Kart is similar to games offered commercially, there hasn’t been a compelling kart racer on non-Nintendo consoles in a while, and Diesel now has the opportunity to redefine the genre to his liking. He’s already working on more features, including the next stage for the game set in a cluster of asteroids. “I use Dreams as an experimental development environment,” he says, explaining his open approach to development. “If something really resonates with players then I’ll keep pursuing it… I don’t have plans to ‘make a hit,’ I’m just enjoying having fun and giving other players enjoyment too.”

Ommy Kart

by Diesel Laws (PSN: ManChickenTurtle)
Social Media      Dream

 

 

Lesson #3 - Use social media to effectively portray the “character” of your game.

“I actually think the character design of Ruckus was a big contributor to the success of the game,” said Ruckus creator Mori, speaking of the adorably giant salamander protagonist. At the beginning of the project, Mori spent a lot of time evolving and polishing the character because the team knew it would be critical for gaining attention. “The most popular promotional videos on Twitter feature characters,” explained Mori. The developers got much of their original traffic by experimenting with videos of their adorable monster on social media. “I spent a lot of time getting the videos right. Our best-performing videos were instantly interesting and immediately exhibited our unique character,” said Mori.

A 20-second video Mori tweeted on August 17 demonstrated a bug in the game, ending with Ruckus incinerating flying boats with his laser breath. That tweet took them from 600 to 3000 followers in 24 hours and sparked the initial excitement for the game leading up to its successful launch 10 days later. 

The trailer for their game was shared over eight thousand times on Twitter, and a gameplay video posted by IGN on YouTube was watched 200k times. One major element of the trailer which raised eyebrows is the alternate camera angle through which the game is made to look like an urgent news broadcast. When seen in videos online, this moment conveys the game’s polish, originality, and dedication to theme.

Ommy Kart developer Diesel (aka ManChickenTurtle) also regularly shares videos on social media. His trailer for Ommy Kart was also incredibly received by the community and shocked viewers who assumed the game was for sale on PC. Releasing a polished video trailer, currently most popular on Twitter, is one of the best methods for convincing more players to get into Dreams.

 


 

3 Non-Monetary Reasons to Make Games in Dreams

David Jaffe argues that Dreams will fail because Media Molecule doesn’t financially incentivize professionals to use the platform. However, the success of Ruckus appears to prove this theory wrong. Mori had experience developing games with Unity and Unreal Engine. The Ruckus team could have made a game using one of those tools, and sold it for money. But they didn’t care about the money. “It is just a hobby,” explains Mori, “so I am satisfied as long as we can make what we want to make.” Ruckus's success proves that Media Molecule doesn't have to pay creators to attract talent.

Despite the lack of payment, there are still very tangible reasons to create content in Dreams. Here are 3 reasons professional developers should be making free games in Dreams.

Reason #1: Speed

The fact that Mori's team was able to complete Ruckus in their spare time should inspire more independent game developers to use the platform. Ommy Kart creator Diesel Laws praises the speedy development cycle that Dreams enables, compared to tools like Unity. "It allows me to create my thoughts in 3D rapidly," he explains. The ability to quickly receive feedback from players also speeds up the development cycle. "Dreams has an incredible instant audience to play your game as soon as you launch it, without worrying about marketing," says Diesel. The speed both of creation and of receiving feedback makes Dreams a miracle tool for game designers, who could theoretically use it to lay a game's foundations before switching to a tool like Unity.

Dreamers like Dreams with LadylexUK and NeonTheCoder constantly upload YouTube tutorials which give you the skills you need in order to create content in Dreams efficiently.

Reason #2: Content

Video games take a long time to make, and often aren't marketable for a significant period of their development. Dreams serves as an alternate channel of content to keep your players engaged while they wait for your larger projects. Developers could make small, regular additions to their games in Dreams in order to continually entertain fans, while also exhibiting their unique design sensibilities to new potential fans. Whereas artists, filmmakers, and musicians use photo, video, and music-sharing sites to engage their audiences in their natural form of expression, game developers have had to resort to sharing visual representations of their interactive work. Finally, Dreams allows developers to release micro-content in their own medium. In addition to game content, these projects also provide developers a constant source of content for social media.

 

Reason #3: Audience

The final reason professional developers should make games in Dreams is to build an audience. For most independent developers, the odds of getting even a moderate following are slim. The creators of Ruckus have developed and published games online in the past, but received marginal attention for them. After posting the first images of Ruckus the monster salamander, Mori received hundreds of likes. “That’s so cool,” commented one Twitter user, “Dreams has so much potential.” Being a Dreams developer puts a spotlight on your game, as exhibited by Ruckus’ virality on Twitter and in the mainstream games press. Within the game, it also exposes thousands of gamers to you and your work, without requiring you to spend a dime on user acquisition.

 


 

The Power of an Intrinsically Motivated Community

If you want a job done well, you should pay someone, right? Contrary to common thought, psychological experiments conclude that the opposite can be true. Sometimes, extrinsic motivations like money actually diminish creative performance. Author Dan Pink, in his massively popular Ted Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation”, refers to psychologist Karl Duncker’s 1945 "Candle Problem" experiment, in which participants were given a candle, a box of tacks, and some matches, and asked if they could attach the candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t drip. The trick of the challenge is to realize that you can actually use the box holding the tacks in order to hold the candle. On average, participants who were offered a cash prize actually did worse than participants who were offered nothing.

“If you want people to perform better, you reward them, right?” asks Pink. “These contingent motivators… work in some circumstances, but for a lot of tasks, they either don’t work, or often, they do harm.” Making a game in Dreams, Mori was guided mostly by intrinsic motivators. In this way Mori is unlike commercial game developers, whose desire for profits inherently affect their creative decisions. The cost of game development creates risk, which creates an environment that pressures decision-makers to simply fit the mold. This is not true of Dreams creators. Mori's team was just following what seemed “cool”. The final product feels organic and unique, well-rounded and personal as result.

Ruckus is obviously not the only labor of love to come from the unpaid gamer community. Thousands of hobbyists over the history of gaming have sacrificed hundreds of hours in order to make jaw-dropping content in video games. One should never underestimate the power of an intrinsically motivated community. Those who have played games like Minecraft or Little Big Planet have witnessed the power of intrinsic motivation at play. As a game designer myself, I have personally been humbled by user-generated content in my own game. The experience of realizing that the quality of user-generated content can rival or even surpass that of professional designers led me to realize - game design is a highly instinctual art that doesn’t require professional experience or certification. This is why I believe Dreams is entrusting gamers, not profit-driven professionals, to create experiences which blow people's minds.


 

We Need Dreamers

The reason I’m discussing the benefits of intrinsic motivation is because the challenge of making successful games in Dreams is a very difficult creative hurdle that requires a fresh mindset to comprehend. I don’t think the profit-driven professionals are going to be any better at solving that problem. 

You see, Dreams is a microcosm of the entire console games industry. Both Dreams and the larger industry are grappling with the same question - What do players want from console games? In the modern landscape of mobilized, instant entertainment, what exactly can traditional games like the ones made in Dreams offer to attract eyeballs, to provide value? That is something that independent developers are struggling with as much as creators in Dreams are.

So, the community of dreamers needs to figure out how to make more compelling experiences like Ruckus. I believe the advice I've relayed above from Dreams creators will prove highly effective, but I think the community needs to have a greater dialogue in order to establish the core principles of game design in Dreams. From there, more experimentation is needed to discover additional strategies for making games that players care about.


 

3 Core Properties of Dreams Game Design

In order to design hit games in Dreams, we need to establish the properties of Dreams which define its design space and set it apart from other game platforms. These properties involve the technical capabilities of Dreams, along with the expectations of the audience.

Property #1 - The Technology

One essential aspect of game design in Dreams is the physical and technical configuration of the game. For starters, Dreams games are commonly played with a PS4 controller, and the game engine is intended to create physics-based 3D experiences effortlessly. These are the kinds of experiences most players will be most expecting, as they are also the norm for console games in general.

There are certain restraints due to the nature of the engine. It’s not as easy to build sprite-based 2D games from scratch, but it’s definitely possible, as exhibited by some standouts like Wildfire (by j_plusb), which is reminiscent of games like Mega Man. Dreams also imposes certain memory restraints, which limit the scope of creations in some ways. You can’t build a giant open world game which rivals the scope of games like Grand Theft Auto, for instance. But creations like the recently released open-world experiment Magic Acorn (by MadPropz101) continue to push the bounds of what is possible. Also, dreamers will continue to make tools which make these game styles easier for newcomers to utilize.

Media Molecule is planning on releasing both mulitplayer and VR capabilities in the future. Multiplayer functionality especially has a high potential to breed successful games in Dreams. While most uploaded single-player games are often not very replayable, the feature of multiplayer could allow static game designs to still be endlessly entertaining. The rise of lightweight competitive games like Agario on mobile platforms could foreshadow the rise of similar games in Dreams.

Whereas most video games stringently follow a core set of gameplay rules and a specific graphical style, creators in Dreams are free to combine different elements of different games. This freedom may give birth to new aesthetic styles or forms of collective rhetoric which haven't been possible in games using standard development tools. The feature allowing creators to integrate user-made creations into their game is also a game-changer, because it allows artists who are less-skilled in some areas to stand on the shoulders of more experienced dreamers. Developer and streamer Freako, for example, focuses on creating complex AI-controlled characters, which storytellers and artists could theoretically use to create the games of their wildest dreams.

Freako is now using these AI behaviors to create a full-blown Last of Us game engine.

Property #2 - The Audience is looking for 2 things

I believe there are two reasons why players will see value in your game based on an impression online. Players are looking for one of two things. They want either 1) something that is totally foreign and intriguing or 2) something deeply familiar which they love. Let me give you some examples.

As discussed, dreamers need to give players something unique, something commercial game developers aren’t providing, in order to provide value to the players. Ruckus is a great example of this, as Mori was motivated by the lack of kaiju games on the market. Pig Detective is another example of a game that stands apart from the kinds of games typically made today. There are dozens of overlooked game genres and styles, from classic RPGs to simulation games. Dreamers should be targeting new gaming audiences by continuing to explore different genres of game.

Besides the "stand-out" factor, the other thing players want in a game is something that they already know and love dearly. Sure, new experiences are cool, but players are far more willing to invest in games that embody a system of gameplay or a fictional world that they are already fans of. Dreams has become a breeding ground for fan-made content set in worlds that gamers don’t ordinarily have access to. Games like Batman the Animated Series and Dexter (both by culosoman) allow players to explore their favorite fictional worlds in 3D. It more importantly gives players the chance to see their loved property in an entirely new way. I’m not sure about the legalities and long-term opportunities for some of these games, but I’m sure property-based fan creations like these will continue to prosper. Dreamers should continue to explore new ways of tapping into pre-existing audiences.

Aside from setting, gameplay can also be the familiar trait which lures hardcore fans. The problem is, if you are making a game of a common genre, it needs to be substantive and polished enough to satisfy these hardcore fans. I feel empty inside after playing most of the 3D platformers in Dreams because there's so many great 3D platformers out there. As a player, I need a reason to play your 3D platformer specifically, or it will feel like a lesser clone of a game I've already played. One way to fix this is to thoughtfully modify the mechanics even slightly in order to create a whole new experience. Another way is to include allusions to the classic games of the genre, which hardcore fans will respect. Obviously, it's also important to have imaginative and polished level design. We'll discuss additional strategies for providing value in games like this later.

Property #3 -  Short session-length.

Long-form single-player games, the kind we commonly find on consoles, have a strong future in Dreams, especially if dreamers continue to substitute passionate exploration for status quo game design. However, most games in Dreams are designed to be played for short periods of time. This makes sense because Dreams is still relatively new, but also due to the audience's expectations. Many play Dreams with the intent of rotating through different experiences, and aren’t looking to invest themselves in a single game. Compelling short-session games are instantly accessible, immediately engaging, and elegantly communicated. These qualities are crucial to all kinds of games in Dreams.

One consequence of short-form, short-session games is that they aren't very engaging and don't provide the players with any long-term value. Features like leaderboards give these games a small amount of replayability, but dreamers need to experiment with more ways of creating short-session games which create long-term and give players a reason to revisit.

 


 

3 Additional Strategies for Making Successful Dreams

An understanding of the technical possibility space and expectations of the audience allows one to both critically analyze and confidently create content in Dreams. One can also use these design pillars to imagine new ways of engaging players. I'm going to list a few additional strategies for engaging players that I think dreamers should try to exploit in order to engage audiences in the long-term, not just the short-term. These strategies are inspired by trends in service-based gaming.

Strategy #1 - Creative Gaming

I’ve discussed the rise of the Creative Gaming paradigm in my previous article The Creative Gaming Revolution. Most games exist in the challenge-based design paradigm, in which players are presented with specific challenges and means of overcoming those challenge. In Creative games, the player’s core motivations are simply to make things and to experiment. This branch of games includes games like Dreams, which players use to create games or content in games. Seeing as Creative Gaming is the natural paradigm of Dreams, it follows that more games made within Dreams could aspire to create similarly creative experiences.

For example, it's difficult to make a platformer that is polished enough to provide value to historied gamers of platformers. But if the creators instead released an editor-tool for designing platformers, along with all the objects in the game, then fans of the genre could endlessly engage themselves with new player-made content. Hardcore fans could also contribute totally new elements to the game, like enemies and obstacles. Instead of just making the game, the developers would manage the publication of user-made content, which ensures the game stays fresh for players, and engage the community online with updates, discussions, and events.

Strategy #2 - Live Games

The approach described above is inspired by the Creative Gaming paradigm, but it’s also inspired by the service-based models which have proven successful at habituating experiences and creating long-term player-perceived value. Games in Dreams accomplish this in their own way. Dreamers should be experimenting with ways of turning their games into live experiences, using the “update” feature of Dreams to regularly make changes to the game. Elements of the game could depend on the actions of an online community or on real-world variables. Simply rotating the in-game content would help to convert more gamers into returning players. This is one of the strategies that Epic Games employs to keep Fortnite fresh for its audience.

Creators are beginning to experiment with episodic content as a means of building an audience and regularly releasing content. Pig Detective releases content in the form of chapters to keep its fans engaged, yet always hungry for more. The developers of Ruckus have confirmed they are thinking about an assortment of new elements for sequels and/or updates to the game. If creators can find a way to create engaging content on an even smaller scale, then they could regularly release content every month or even week like a TV show or YouTube channel, which would dramatically affect audience retention. Davey Swatpaz, professional animator, recently created an animated show in Dreams, which shows the potential of regular content on Dreams to disrupt other forms of media as well.

Strategy #3 - Build a Brand

Another way of creating value for players is to establish a style or commit yourself to exploring a certain aspect of Dreams you are best suited for. Branded, regular content is a great way to create a community and engage your target audience online. One example of such a creator is TannicAlloy, whose work explores the edges of what is possible with Dreams. While most of his work is not "fun," the results are amazing and you can't wait to see what he creates next. By establishing a strong brand and promoting it online, developers are able to hook players who are intrigued by your content and know you regularly post content. As stated above, these creators who dive deep into niches are also critical for the Dreams ecosystem because they benefit other creators who will use their work.

 

 


 

Conclusion

I first argued to prove that games on Dreams could succeed in connecting to new players. I did this by analyzing the success of Ruckus, with the help of developer Mori Shiro. I also critiqued the argument of David Jaffe, who argues that the financial incentive is the biggest inhibitor of the quality of Dreams content. I believe the profit motive is somewhat trivial because the real challenge is based in creative perspective, not in motivation. For that reason, intrinsically-motivated hobbyists like Mori are as suited, perhaps even better-suited to develop successful games in Dreams than profit-driven professionals.

On the matter of making compelling content in Dreams, I discussed the different attributes of Dreams game design, which involve the technical constraints of the hardware and software, as well as the expectations of the audience. I believe knowledge of these parameters, paired with the detailed advice provided above by developers of successful Dreams, is a great guide to making successful content in Dreams. Inspired both by this prerequisite knowledge and also by the success of live-game trends, I also imagined some additional strategies which could be employed to create more engaging games that players see long-term value in.

Dreams could prove to be a watershed moment in the history of gaming. There is ample reason to think the game could fail as the potential YouTube-like platform of games many hoped it would be. However, I believe the Dreams community will succeed, given the record unpaid hobbyist communities have of producing amazing work beyond even designers’ imaginations. Games like Ruckus already show the potential of the medium, but I think it is the tip of the iceberg. The success of Dreams, and the competition Dreams might spawn, could have an enormous impact on the games industry and the state of popular game design. And fittingly, the fate of it all comes down to a legion of gamers at their TVs.

 

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom! Please comment your thoughts! I'm a Creative Gaming enthusiast. You can follow me @eldylanwoodbury. I'm currently developing a Creative Game of my own for iOS/Android called Emoji Pop which you can follow @emojipopgame.


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