A Developer Review of Dreams

I’ve been developing video games as a career for the past 11 years, working on well-known franchises like Total War and Sniper Elite, to more niche games like Girl’s Life: Sleepover Party and PDC World Championship Darts. Most of my career was spent working in AAA as the Lead Technical Artist on fantasy epics Total War: Warhammer and Total War: Warhammer II, then as Technical Art Director on Total War: Three Kingdoms. As of late 2018, I work at Teazelcat Games, the independent studio I founded to create narrative games exploring the kinds of gameplay and stories I wasn’t able to tell working in AAA.

14 Community Creations Made In Dreams

I’ve been a video game developer for a while, in a nutshell, and the idea of creating something like Dreams, a game in which you can create your own games, is incredibly daunting. It could so easily go sideways: there’s a classic game developer mistake of trying to make a game but making a game engine instead, neglecting the player’s fun.

But the fact is, Media Molecule has not only succeeded in making something as incredibly complex as an accessible game engine, but the studio has also created an experience where even someone like me who makes games for a living wants to spend their free time playing around in Dreams.

Can You Make Actual Games in Dreams?

Video games are incredibly complex, so my assumption when starting out with Dreams was that no matter how cool it was, there’s no way I could make the kind of game I want with it. However, as I moved from beginners to intermediate and then advanced tutorials I was gradually filled with a sense of fear – what have I been doing for the past 10 years?!

I’ve spent most of my career developing tools and pipelines to help other game creators, primarily artists and animators, get their work into the games we’ve been creating. Many of the people I’ve worked with have been amazing artists but haven’t necessarily understood the technical side of what goes on in the background to make the game work. Part of my job has been to hide all the technical parts of development that artists don’t need to see and provide them with an easy way to get what they want to do done. With this in mind, Dreams feels like an ideal toolbox and a culmination of this goal.

Dreams presents art, gameplay and music creation in a way that makes sense. It still involves a lot of complex systems and it’s easy to feel a bit daunted when you’re starting out. But it constantly encourages the player, and ultimately convinces them that they have the skills and understanding to create something cool.

In order to make Dreams accessible, some concessions have been made from traditional game development methods. Art, for example, is created and edited in Dreams very differently to how you would create art in a game studio. Creating art in Dreams feels a lot more organic and playful; it’s less about precision and more about being able to quickly get something on the screen that looks interesting and exciting. Making a river of water can be done in a few simple steps: draw where the river should be, set the color and style properties to make it look wet, and tell it which way to flow and how fast. While you are more limited in what you can fine-tune with this water, as opposed to a traditional game engine where you can control everything with programming, you’re able to get something usable and that looks good enough for a finished product in a much shorter span of time. It’s wonderful for newcomers.

There is some trickier stuff in traditional systems that still exists in Dreams, too. Game animation is a big passion for me, but parts of CG animation can be complex. When making an animation system it’s usually simplest to focus on making it easy to animate humans and other bipedal creatures, as this is what’s required for most games. But on the flip side, this focus can make animating other animals, machines and fantasy creatures much more difficult. It’s certainly not impossible to make an animated character with more than two limbs in Dreams, but it’s definitely a lot more technical to work out how to do and involves a lot more work to get animation looking good.

But really, there’s so much depth to Dreams that it’s hard to pin down exactly what the limitations are right now, and at what point any concessions made for accessibility l might block more advanced features that game creators might want.

From my experience, the biggest constraint in creating the kind of games I want to in Dreams is the sheer amount of data you need to store for large games. For my current project at Teazelcat Games, we’re working on a narrative exploration game that has hundreds of lines of dialogue. In my previous role as the Technical Art Director for the Total War franchise, I would oversee games that featured battles rendering hundreds of characters all animating at once. As a massive strategy game, Total War also required a lot of AI coding to define how non-player controlled teams act during their turns.

There are limits to the size of the games you can create in Dreams. Storing all the assets for a single large game like the ones mentioned above would fill a PS4 hard drive, and there’s a limit to the amount of CPU processing and RAM available for running a Dreams scene. Animated characters are one of the most costly asset types in Dreams, as calculations need to be made for each connection between moving parts. And the AI available, while very impressive as to what you can control and how quickly you can set it up, is limited.

But there are so many other types of games Dreams can create really well. Platformers, puzzle games, experimental games, emotive experiences, graphic adventures, and simple shooters can all be made with this toolkit. Basically, if you can break your game down into smallish levels then Dreams is a wonderful game engine to use and is probably a lot faster to set up something that’s playable and looks very good than using a traditional game engine and lots of different asset creation software.

The playful nature of Dreams and the more carefree way in which assets are made also lends itself to creating more comedic games, which is something I feel is fairly lacking in our industry as a whole.

Dreams also feels so vital in 2020. Other storytelling mediums such as books, comics or film, are easy to understand the skills required to get started writing a book, drawing a comic or grabbing a smartphone and creating a film. Games are made up of code, art, audio, design, writing and many other skills. Until Dreams it’s felt like there hasn’t been a tool that allows you to create all the necessary elements in one piece of software. Sure there are free game engines online and Dreams isn’t the first game that lets you create a game level or animation. But it’s the easiest and fun transition between having a love of games and trying to make one yourself. Because it’s like having an entire toy box at your disposal.

You don’t have to have prior knowledge of how games work, there are plenty of tutorials to help you set up a game from scratch, or you can take an existing creation and change anything in it to make it your own. And the sense that it is a big toy box brings out the creative side in us, makes us fearless and free to make something silly or serious, but most of all fun.

If you’re looking to make a game that requires the storage of a lot of data, display lots of animatable characters at once, or you want to have a high level of granular control, then Dreams probably isn’t going to be sufficient. But there are absolutely games that you can create in Dreams that are as fun and polished as something you’d pay for. I’m sure that we’ll see remarkable games from casual players, hobbyists and professional game developers alike.

Jodie Azhar is the CEO and Game Director of Teazelcat Games, working on an upcoming 3D narrative exploration game. Follow her on Twitter for the game’s announcement and developer insights.

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