The PS4's Spectacular Dreams Game Is Hurting From A Lack Of Players

Screenshot: Martin Nebelong / Media Molecule
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When LittleBigPlanet creators Media Molecule launched the game-as-an-engine PlayStation 4 exclusive Dreams into early access in April 2019, I remember feeling a cautious optimism. The technology behind the game was impressive, letting people make their own music, games, and artwork with its robust toolset, then share it for others Dreamers to play within the platform. Hugely impressive projects were frequently added. But at the same time, I couldn’t help think about its future and how Media Molecule would attract new players once the novelty had worn off.

In the 10 months since Dreams’ final release in February 2020, hundreds of thousands of creations have been published on the platform. There’s no shortage of incredible creators, producing mountains of excellent artwork, music videos and playable games. But when I recently spoke to members of the Dreams community, it was clear something was wrong. There just aren’t enough players. For all the great work, getting exposure has been very difficult. The community is reacting, with YouTubers (here, here, and here) and on community threads on sites like Reddit trying to raise awareness for the issue.

When you consider the quality of some of the creations being released on the platform, this is a real shame. Dreams now has everything from near-photorealistic walking simulators to side-scrolling platformers and arcade shoot-em-ups, a huge array of fantastic projects for a potential audience to play through. But at the moment it seems the community is weighted heavily toward creators, with Dreams failing to secure a captive audience who simply want to play. I contacted several creators and curators from across the Dreams community to find out why the game has struck such a chord with creators, and what might be preventing it from reaching a broader playing audience.

Image for article titled The PS4's Spectacular Dreams Game Is Hurting From A Lack Of Players
Screenshot: Media Molecule

Martin Nebelong is a freelance illustrator living in Denmark. He’s been one of the game’s biggest advocates since its early access, and has started using Dreams in his day job as an artist, thanks to Media Molecule’s commercial beta program. This allows creators to apply to Media Molecule for the rights to monetize some of their Dreams creations, and benefits professionals like concept artists and directors who want to use the software for commercial purposes. At the moment, this only applies to video and photos, the only two options currently available for exporting Dreams. Which means you still can’t export assets or sell your games elsewhere.

Dreams came at the exact time when I needed it most,” Nebelong tells me over email. “I had come to a point in my career, when I was doing quite advanced VR 3D modeling and I felt like 70% of my time was spent on optimizing polygon models, doing UV unwrapping, and exporting and importing between various programs. But in Dreams, everything is collected in one single package, and close to 100% of my time is spent on what I love the most: creating images and telling stories.”

Nebelong has been creating in Dreams for over a year and has managed to make some jaw-dropping scenes, including an impressive recreation of the Unreal Engine 5 tech demo, and several remarkable demonstrations of the potential of Dreams for artists and creators. When I asked why he prefers Dreams over more traditional software, he argues it’s because it offers a less technical and “more fun” path to creation. Although he’s the first to admit it still has a little way to go before it can become more widely adopted as a more professional tool.

One necessary improvement would be the extension of Media Molecule’s commercial beta program to allow others to monetize their creations. At the moment, many of Dreams’ best creators rely on Patreon and other external sources of income to support their work. Media Molecule have previously expressed their support for creators to monetize their creations, but progress in this regard has been somewhat slow, with users encouraged to to submit their enquiries about monetization on a case-by-case basis. (We attempted to reach out to Media Molecule through Sony PlayStation PR to hear more about this process and their future plans for it, but have heard nothing back.)

An example of Martin Nebelong’s extraordinary work in Dreams.
An example of Martin Nebelong’s extraordinary work in Dreams.
Screenshot: Martin Nebelong / Media Molecule

Besides Nebelong, there have been a number of other creators who have been developing impressive tech demonstrations for Dreams. These include YSLedbetter10 and their incredible piece Paddlin’, a recreation of a photo by Media Molecule game designer John Beech that resembles photogrammetry; Iansane Artist and their fabulous series View Points; and BadRobo82 and their realistic walking simulator through Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. But Dreams don’t necessarily need to be photo-realistic to be impressive.

Recently I’ve been just as in awe at some of the other styles. From the synthwave-inspired art of Angelotje’s shooter TRIA-GONE to the pixel-art aesthetics of Amenjo1’s Boulderdash remake, shadow124900’s Pixel Dash, and Genesis80’s superb run-and-gun platformer Cyber Trigger. Given that Dreams was created with 3D graphics in mind, these last two creations have particularly impressed me, showcasing a unique style you might not expect to find in the game.

“I think anything is possible in Dreams with a lot of work and clever tricks,” says Genesis80, the creator of Cyber Trigger. “Pixel art is a very clean visual style, so to achieve that look I basically had to get rid of all the effects that Dreams, as a 3D engine, offers standard. I turned off lighting effects, shadows, materials, depth of field, etc. All the pixels also had to have the same size from the player perspective, so all parallax layers had to be rescaled so their pixels match the size of closer ones.”

What’s encouraging about Genesis80’s creation in particular, is that prior to purchasing Dreams they had never experimented in a game engine before. Something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from looking at the quality of their creations.

“This has been said many times, but I see Dreams as the perfect social media for creative people,” Genesis80 says. “Few other gaming engines, I believe, offer such a complete and seamless experience. It has the advantage of being an all-in-one platform. I can create a game, music or sculpture, share it with the community, and receive/give feedback without having to jump between apps and programs.”

Cyber Trigger by Genesis80, an extraordinary retrograding of Dreams’ 3D engine.
Cyber Trigger by Genesis80, an extraordinary retrograding of Dreams’ 3D engine.
Screenshot: Genesis80 / Media Molecule

Speaking to these creators, they specifically pinpoint the introduction of VR as one of the most exciting developments, as well as an incoming update that will hopefully address musicians’ complaints about changes to how much music could be imported. Importing audio has been a point of contention within the Dreams community, with Media Molecule reducing the length of audio that could be recorded to 15 seconds in April, in an effort to prevent people from abusing the system to publish copyrighted music.

Meanwhile, when asked what they’d improve, most singled out the way in which the ‘Dreams’ are curated. Besides MMPicks—Media Molecule’s personal selection of the best creations to play—the Dreams home page is often dominated by low quality and unfinished meme creations, which typically receive far more attention and likes. There are a few reasons why these might be so popular, but it’s mostly because of their use of established intellectual property. People are far more likely to click on something featuring characters from Shrek, Fall Guys, or whatever else is popular in meme culture, than trying out something new by an unknown creator. This can obviously be pretty demoralizing for other creators who spend weeks and months working on original projects.

Alexa Wignall, better known by her screen name LadyLexUK, is a YouTuber and a content curator within Dreams. She’s been tracking the number of likes given to new creations since the early access, and was among the first to identify the drop-off in engagement for new creations. “I think the big problem in Dreams is who is playing,” Wignall tells me over a call. “This [fall in engagement] was something I identified really quickly because I’ve been doing a chart since early access and I can tell how many likes are normal for people to get on their games every week. And that has got lower and lower and lower.”

She believes this declining popularity for quality creations originates from the lack of people going into Dreams to play and like new releases, with social platforms like Twitter being a much more popular way for creators to engage with each other’s work. But this lack of engagement has a knock-on effect as to what content is highlighted within the game, and gives the false impression there’s nothing to play bar low-quality joke pieces, or the few creations Media Molecule has highlighted.

Wignall’s most recent list, released as a video on Christmas, showed that the most popular original Dreams creation from the prior week had received 250 thumbs up reactions from the community.

Iansane Artist’s photorealistic Himalayan View
Iansane Artist’s photorealistic Himalayan View
Screenshot: Iansane Artist / Media Molecule

Another problem with Dreams may be how it has been marketed. For those put off or intimidated by creation engines, it’s hard to know what the game offers without already being embedded in the community. This makes it hard to justify the cost for non-creators, even in spite of the game’s now-discounted price (It’s going for $20 at many retailers). After an initial marketing push, it appears Sony has deprioritized Dreams, leaving it to Media Molecule to grow its community organically through updates and social media posts, as opposed to advertisements or sponsorship deals. A situation that seems guaranteed to reach the creators and not the players.

“People often refer to Dreams as the YouTube of games,” says Wignall. “But they don’t have that audience of people that don’t make things in Dreams and just play [...] YouTube has a huge audience and not everyone who uses YouTube is a creator by any means. For Dreams it is the exact opposite. It’s a huge number of creators and a very small number of viewers, and that is why Dreams doesn’t really work. And I’m not really sure there’s anything Media Molecule can do about that other than incentivizing people coming in to play these games.”

As a result, there’s been some momentum within the community to champion the best of what Dreams has to offer, in the hopes it might convince people to take a more active role in supporting and boosting the work of other creators. Wignall, for instance, assembles her own weekly collection of other people’s creations. But this isn’t a silver bullet, with curators facing the exact same problems as those who create.

“People who make collections are also invisible,” Wignall claims. “There is no feed for the collections. I’ve sort of designed my own idea of a home page and that’s my collection, but that isn’t in front of people. People have to know that it exists. I have to advertise it like crazy on my YouTube channel, I have to try and encourage people to go look at it because it’s not visible in Dreams anywhere.”

Many within the community agree with Wignall’s central point—that there should be a better way to find and experience quality creations within Dreams. The YouTuber Project Genesis (not to be confused with Dreams creator Genesis80) has also argued in the past for changes to this system, calling for a like-to-dislike ratio to help prioritize the good creations from the bad.

abrain’s driving sim, City Streets
abrain’s driving sim, City Streets
Screenshot: abrain / Media Molecule

As a follower of Dreams, I understand how this schism has occurred. Although I found no shortage of things to play, I discovered many of these not through Dreams itself, but by following creators on their personal Twitter accounts. It would be interesting to see what Media Molecule can do to redress this balance in order to make the experience more enticing for players, whether that’s giving more prominence to curators, redesigning how Dreams’ creations are presented to the audience, or better promoting what’s already there to a potential new audience of players.

In the meantime I suggest checking it out. Once you push past the barrier of rushed and incomplete creations that seem to take precedence, Dreams has so much to offer players. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing scene to walk around in and take screenshots, or an addictive arcade shooter, it’s all in one package. You just might have to put in a little more of an effort to find them.