What I learned making a spy game in ‘Dreams’

How 'Dreams' helped me turn a love of 'James Bond' into my very own game

Media Molecule’s Dreams on PS4 is, aptly, something I’ve always dreamed about. A 3D game engine complex enough to let your imagination run free, but simple enough it’s not overwhelming. After tinkering around during its beta phase in 2019, I decided to use Dreams to fulfil a life goal: making a rip-off of the late ‘90s/early 2000s James Bond games like Agent Under Fire and Nightfire, featuring my own agent, 0000 (Four-Zero).

I started with a vehicle inspired by Agent Under Fire’s DB5 fitted with rockets, missiles, machine guns and even a smokescreen before pitting you against plenty of enemy cars to unload on. I then built a level called “Summit Fever”, in which the player drives the car around a mountainous area, taking out enemies and having fun.

That was only the (relatively easy) step one. Apart from a novel, my pandemic project became a full Nightfire-style FPS level called “Hit or Stay” which features gambling mini-games, gadgets, stealth, and multiple firefights. It took much longer to make than “Summit Fever”, but was so much fun when it all finally came together.

I recently put both levels in a new Dreams game called NightShade with a fancy main menu system, and was lucky enough to see “Summit Fever” featured on Media Molecule’s official Twitch stream, a huge boost for my ego. So what did I learn over NightShade’s development?

You collaborate – even when you don’t

Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.
Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.

While you can officially “collaborate” with other players in Dreams, working on versions of the same level, mine were “officially” done alone. But approximately 99 per cent of stuff in my levels – logic, assets, music – was made by other players. Each “Dream” becomes a collaboration, even if it isn’t official. My “Summit Fever” car was based on one by Wise-Ollie, the blackjack minigame comes from EvilKimau, and Agent 0000 herself is a modified Lara Croft model by Orionvalentine.

The collaboration doesn’t stop once you release your game either. Along with the official Media Molecules spotting my game, enthusiastic fellow-player curators, streamers and tweeters helped out a lot too.

Start simple, stay simple

Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.
Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.

“Summit Fever” began with a blocky test arena, and “Hit or Stay” began with an FPS hand throwing remote mines. I built up a template for each before I began any “real” levels, with the FPS template taking a lot longer. But each building block was relatively simple. When I added a stunner gadget, I added “stun” animations to my enemies. I figured out location hit damage, autoaim, random outfits. Where I stumbled slightly was overly complex enemy AI. Enemies could follow the player around a level, but it turns out having static enemies that pop out from cover are just as much fun in a real level. Who knew?

Likewise, keep your levels tidy. With my complex human enemies, I could only have about four loaded at once. But by properly portioning off my levels, it’s a lot harder to notice this limitation. “Emitters” with attached Trigger Zones are your friend, spawning enemies in when you’re in the area and removing them when you’re not.

You can’t copyright vibes

Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.
Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.

Copyright is a huge issue in Dreams, and Mario and Five Nights at Freddy’s games proliferate. While MM is generally not too vicious with their ban hammers, any copyrighted material won’t be featured in MM streams or collections. And yet, you can get away with a lot with little changes. NightShade is clearly inspired by Bond games, but I never tried to recreate an existing level, and my 0000 logos and camera-aperture health logos are clearly original creations. Everyone is inspired by something, but don’t be direct. Identify what you love about your inspiration and capture its vibes, instead of just ripping it off directly.

Passion is the best motivator

Dreams
Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.

It took me months to finish “Hit or Stay”, but even after occasionally losing motivation and leaving it for a while, I drifted back, because I simply love those old Bond games, and wanted to recapture their spirit. That style of game – an FPS with vehicle levels and gadgets instead of just shooting – is sadly dead, but it brought me a lot of fun over the years. And using that laser watch is still satisfying, even after all the hours of playtesting.

Likewise, you should know when to stop. A passion project like NightShade could really go on indefinitely. I have ideas for levels set on a train, up a mountainside, in a castle, and a skiing level, but it would take a long time to make them. The downside of Dreams’ ease of use is it can take over your life!

Dreams can only be a hobby – for now

Dreams
Dreams. Credit: Media Molecule.

Dreams is the best game engine of all time. There, I said it. With all the previous engines I’ve tinkered with, even if the engine itself was powerful, there was always some capital-O Obstacle: a lack of free assets, a complex interface, having to learn about Blender. The idea that one person could make a game in those engines quickly evaporated. Dreams combines a game engine with animation, modelling, and music/audio creation in a single package. It makes even an amateur like me feel like a professional game designer.

But, unless you want to make a sprawling RPG or a game with online multiplayer, Dreams has two big limitations: any game you make is playable only on a PS4 (or PS5, with backwards compatibility), and there’s no way to sell your game. If there was a way to have Dreams on PC – even to just export your finished games from a PlayStation and have them be playable – along with some kind of profit-sharing scheme for asset creators in a way (in a way that still left Dreams assets free for anyone to use), we would see a revolution in game creation. We’d probably also see a huge rise in Five Nights at Freddy’s rip-offs. But it’s a small price to pay, isn’t it?

Dreams is available to download on PS4 and PS5. 

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