A video game can be as dense as a puzzle or as expansive as a universe, but it always makes a god of its maker. The creator is, after all, responsible for the rules and boundaries of a world, everything from the force of its gravity to the color of its sky to the temperament of its creatures. In Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., from 1985, each of Mario’s jumps lasts a little over a second; he sails through the sky with the hex value #C0B1FF and evades murderous mushrooms called Goombas. Once upon a time, Shigeru Miyamoto, the game’s designer, typed the programming equivalent of “let there be light,” and, lo, in the Mushroom Kingdom, there was light.
Within the pantheon of video-game gods is a forty-eight-year-old British designer named Mark Healey. Healey has long gray hair and peppery stubble and wears a grunge-like wardrobe. In 2006, he and four friends founded Media Molecule, a development studio; Healey serves as the creative director. Media Molecule’s offices, in Guildford, a large town equidistant from London and England’s south coast, look much like those of any other studio, but its work sets it largely apart from the rest of the industry. Healey doesn’t want players to marvel at the worlds he creates. Rather, he wants to give them the power to create worlds of their own.
Dreams, which was released for PlayStation 4 on Friday, is the most powerful example yet of the genre that Healey and Media Molecule have helped pioneer. The game has no central narrative or character, no universal objectives, and no side quests or treasure hunts. Instead, it offers a suite of creative tools that can be used to create art, music, and games themselves. “We want people to go out and make stuff that we could never predict,” Healey told me. Dreams acts as both divine canvas and gallery, with players broadly working in two modes. One, Dream Shaping, is the “create” function, in which users build using a collection of gadgets, tools, and tutorials. The other mode, Dream Surfing, is similar to YouTube: users can explore, play, and even borrow from other users’ creations, either by following their favorite game makers or by browsing through various filters. Some filters elevate the most popular games on Dreams; others feature hand-picked selections from Media Molecule’s curators, who also flag inappropriate content.
Dreams began development in 2011. Last April, the game entered “early access,” the pre-release phase during which customers can play a beta version and help shape the final product. Within three months, more than seventy thousand creations had been uploaded to Dreams’ servers. The results ranged from the experimental to various forms of pastiche. (Many builders chose to re-create scenes from their favorite films or video games.) Some players built first-person shooters or pastoral landscapes, while others created Pixar-esque animations or pieces of music, recording via the PlayStation camera’s microphone. On the eve of the game’s release, one fan stitched together a trailer, backed by a stentorian soundtrack, highlighting the variety of media that had been created. Crucially, all of it had been made without typing a single line of code.
Healey’s obsession with democratizing game development began early. Born in Ipswich, in Suffolk, he spent much of his childhood frustrated by an inability to enter the industry. At the time—the nineteen-eighties—titles like Pinball Construction Set allowed players to create games but offered a limited set of tools. “I was desperate for some software that would enable me to make games,” Healey said. “But there wasn’t really anything. So I had to learn machine code. I’ve always had in my head that we should make it easier for people to make games.”
Healey eventually won admission to an art college in Ipswich. At the start of his second year, he received a check for two hundred pounds—as the child of a single parent, he was eligible for a government grant—but “spunked it all in one go” on a disk drive for his Commodore 64 computer. Without the funds to buy school supplies, Healey dropped out and joined a government training course in business programming. During his first session, his tutor recognized that Healey knew more about programming than she did. She put Healey in contact with the British video-game publisher Codemasters, who offered him a contract. Healey presented the two-thousand-pound fee to his mother, as back pay for his rent.
When he was twenty-six, Healey joined Lionhead, a Guildford-based game studio, where, in his spare time, he began working on a personal project called Rag Doll Kung Fu. The game was a simple fighting title in which comically rendered mannequins hurled one another around the screen. It also allowed players to design and build their own characters, a popular feature that attuned Healey to the power of so-called user-generated content. Three of Healey’s Lionhead colleagues—Alex Evans, Kareem Ettouney, and David Smith—helped him finish the game, which achieved significant success, and which spurred the men to leave their jobs and co-found Media Molecule. (A fifth co-founder, the studio director Siobhan Reddy, joined them from EA).
From the beginning, Media Molecule aimed to keep a small, intimate team, and to reconceive what a game might be. The studio released its first title, LittleBigPlanet, in 2008. It is a Super Mario-style platform game in which players guide a knitted doll named Sackboy through scenes built from craft materials: cardboard walls, woollen bushes, staircases made of paperclips. After completing these prefab stages, players are invited to design and build and share their own levels, uploading them to the game’s servers for others to try out. To date, more than eleven million user-generated levels have been published inside LittleBigPlanet and its two sequels, and the series has sold millions of copies. In 2010, Media Molecule was bought by Sony.
LittleBigPlanet’s success soon inspired other publishers. Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker series lets players build their own levels using a palette of approved assets; videos of the most punishing or inventive specimens are routinely shared on social media. And while Minecraft isn’t, strictly speaking, a game engine, its millions of players have constructed from Lego-like building blocks everything from replicas of the Taj Mahal to scale models of the “Game of Thrones” universe. Dreams, by presenting players with a set of tools nearly as powerful and flexible as those used by professional game makers, represents a major step change in the genre. Though broadly accessible, its software contains obscure depths. In fact, Media Molecule’s designers—many of whom were amateurs recruited from the pool of LittleBigPlanet’s level creators—built Dream’s single-player campaign mode using only the tools available in the game itself.
One of the most significant barriers to making video games is the medium’s multidisciplinary nature. Unlike a novelist, who can conjure entire worlds with language, a game maker must often be a polymath, skilled in programming, art, design, and composition. To lower this threshold, Dreams encourages artists, musicians, and designers to collaborate on projects, much as they might do in a studio. (A similar spirit is encouraged at Media Molecule, where employees sit together at a long “Last Supper”-esque table to eat a lunch cooked by an in-house chef). Scores of amateur teams have convened in Dreams, with some coining their own names, creating lavish logos, and launching social-media channels to promote their works in progress. Artists and musicians who aren’t directly collaborating can publish a 3-D chair or a two-minute composition for string quartet and allow others to use the asset in their projects—or, with the appropriate permission, to adapt or remix the work.