Dreams has been out since February, and ever since, fans have been patiently awaiting the arrival of support for PlayStation VR. That day is very nearly upon us, with the expansion hitting the PS4 title tomorrow, 22nd July. If you're curious about the thinking behind this update, and how Media Molecule is expanding the already enormous scope of this create-'em-up, you're in luck. We've spoken to David Smith, co-founder of the studio and technical director on Dreams, to discover what the PSVR update has in store.
Push Square: Dreams' big PSVR update is almost here. Could you elaborate on what it brings to the game?
David Smith: So, if we're talking to the creators, we're basically saying: "All the stuff you were doing, all the things you've made, will work in VR. But you can go in and make things work much better in VR, and make things that are very much designed for that VR experience."
We know there are certain things that make sense in VR but don't outside of it, and it's exciting that our creators get to explore that. In the industry, we're trying to figure out what VR games or experiences should be, and it's very exciting from the perspective of a player that you get to see all of these experiences and experiments. There are going to be lots of bizarre and beautiful failures, but there will be some things that are really eye-opening. That's what makes me excited; I'm gonna log back into Dreams in a few weeks, and see the response from the community. They'll be saying, "We know you think you know what the rules are on how to make games, but we just don't care."
To players, it's exciting, seeing the bleeding edge, the very best (and the very worst!) of what can be done VR. It's gonna be something really exciting to experience.
This is Media Molecule's first foray into virtual reality development. How have you found it? VR is obviously a very different beast to designing for a flat screen.
Yeah, it's funny because, in some ways, Dreams always wanted to be in VR. We really wanted VR to be there at launch, but we got to a point where we realised, we think our community would rather we release something early and add [PSVR support] later.
In a way, it's been a very natural fit, because one of the foundation stones has always been... If you want to do the best, most accurate sculpting, Move controllers -- direct 3D positioning -- that gives you the most possible control. But it's not quite enough, because it's hard to judge depth. So being able to go into VR, we knew that would let you get past that barrier. From the point of view of creation, it was a very natural fit, and a lot of the tools natively work in 3D, so it was natural to migrate that stuff.
But it was interesting seeing that some things don't need to migrate [to VR]. Because we've designed it so you can switch controllers between Moves and [DualShock 4], you can take off your PSVR headset and be back [on the flat screen] -- there's like a half-second delay for the trackers to switch over. So, as an artist, I have these different tools, and I use the right tool for the job. If I'm doing really deep 3D stuff, yeah, I wanna be in VR. But if I'm, say, making music, or if I'm doing logic, I don't want to be in VR. That's distracting, actually. So we're really finding that, in the studio, people kind of move in and out of different tools for different jobs.
Making standard things in Dreams is one thing, but with PSVR, there's far more to think about. What steps have you taken to make sure the things people create are comfortable to experience in PSVR?
One of the big challenges is that I really wanted to make sure that lots of existing content would just work nicely in VR. But you have to really consider all the issues of comfort. If you naively say, "Here's a game that's been made, you can play it in VR"... For some people, that'd be fine, but for most, they think it'll be fine, but they'll be very uncomfortable, they'll have regrets. So the approach that we've taken is that, by default, we give people a very controlled experience to begin with. We have a comfort vignette and the standard teleportation-based camera that retroactively work on existing content.
But to begin with, when you're in VR, you're only going to see or play content that has been marked by the creator as saying, "This is good for VR". But that's just because we want to start you off with this very safe thing. As a [more] experienced person, if you want this, you can say, "Show me everything. Turn off the [safety measures]." So we start you off in a safe, controlled experience, but we respect you enough -- and we give you warnings -- so that you can get the unadulterated, full experience, and just try anything.
So every creation is technically playable in PSVR?
Technically. Here it's a question of, is it gonna feel good, though? Because of course there's issues with frame rate, where some experiences really push the thermometer. Those can then have a worse frame rate that can feel bad, but it depends on the experience. If you're making a game where you're supposed to be moving very quickly, a low frame rate is gonna be a real problem. If you're making a slow paced game where it's more about a beautiful environment -- and actually, a lot of VR experiences I'm seeing that excite me personally are much slower -- a lower frame rate there just doesn't matter.
Again, we try and empower our creators and players to make those decisions. We could handcuff them; we could say, "you can only do things that are guaranteed to be totally safe and never be a problem". If we do that, you'll never be able to make things that are beautiful. You'll never be able to make things that truly push the limits. We at Media Molecule, when we're [making content in Dreams], we'll push the limits as hard as we can, and so our creators will as well. And if people don't like an experience, they'll rate it down.
Is Art's Dream playable in PSVR, or are there plans to convert it?
It's not. It's marked as being non-VR. Anything we release, we want it to be the highest quality experience, and we know that right now, if you play Art's Dream in VR, the frame rate isn't good enough. But also, there's things we would do differently. There are certain uses of the splat textures which make sense on the screen, but when you're in this physical world, some of that we'd treat differently. The cameras we would probably rethink.
But to contradict myself, I was still using Art's Dream as a test case. In all of the work, I was just loading existing Art's Dream content, and trying to make sure that, by default, as best as I possibly could, we'd automatically make the cameras work nicely, move the text to the right position. When you have a cutscene camera, again, how can we deal with that to focus the player's attention on what was intended? We can infer from the creative decisions that were made and try and do the best possible translation into VR.
But again, like I say, it still wasn't good enough, and we'd have needed to have spent quite a bit of time to really make a kind of triple-A quality experience there. It made more sense for us to spend that time making a new set of content that [really celebrates] what's best in VR.
Could you talk about this new content you've made specifically for PSVR?
So there's this experience we've called Inside the Box. It's this sort of beautiful modern art gallery space that you wander around, but then with very, almost traditional games branching off that. There's a set of shooting gallery games, some puzzle games with tactile interactions, there's a platform game with a sort of on-rails camera. [It all] shows ways of addressing some of those comfort concerns, or just different ways of making content [for VR]. We know that one of the things our community always are excited about is just seeing new content from Media Molecule, so I feel like that was the right strategy to take.
And we can use that as a reason to work on VR-specific features. If we're just focused on Art's Dream, well... Without doing a lot of work, we weren't going to suddenly transform that into being a VR-based experience. It was still going to feel like a translated experience. With Inside the Box, we could make something that was really celebrating that sense of place and tactility in VR, and thinking about how that experience is so different to the narrative experience in Art's Dream.
What are some favourite PSVR creations of yours or the team so far?
To be honest, my favourite VR experiences have all been existing content. Again, because I was looking at lots of existing content as a way of testing the toolset out, and there's existing games where... There's a few sort of open world puzzle games, where it's a nice environment but sort of... A bit like Myst or games of that ilk, I love that sort of thing. And it really feels like VR is the way you're supposed to experience that. So going into existing content and just enjoying being in those spaces. It's not even about the gameplay at that point, it's about just enjoying really feeling that I'm almost breathing the air of that space, and I can fully go into fantasy mode.
VR gets you in the gut. It's not just about the clever brain stuff. So the best experiences for me are the ones that just create an emotional response, and often that's just being in a beautiful place.
In a recent PlayStation Blog post, you mention that those without PSVR can make things for PSVR users. Can you explain how that works?
So it's a bit like how I said there's existing content that can be played in VR, it shows that you can make content that works fine in VR even if you're not making it with PSVR as your primary audience. But it also goes the other way as well. So for example, the shooting gallery stuff we've made. We've had to add technology to make that a really good thing to make, really empowering. At the moment, we see people in the community wanting to make first person shooters, and really the toolset wasn't designed for that. I mean, it's flexible enough that you can do it, but you need to do a lot of clever things, so it limits the audience that can make that. In making really good shooting gameplay in VR, now you can track where the camera is, where the user's hands are, all of this stuff suddenly becomes just as useful outside of VR to make great shooting gameplay.
We try and be clever, and try to do things that hit lots of different birds at once. We have such a small team that we have to be smart about how we can do one thing that helps all of our players.
How do you plan to surface PSVR content in the game? Only a small percentage of players will be looking for VR stuff -- will it be its own playlist on the Dreamiverse?
There's new tagging options to mark things that are appropriate for VR, and to give feedback on how you've found a VR experience, especially relating to comfort. And simply, when you switch into VR, by default we just switch the playlists across to something appropriate for VR. So it's the same kind of philosophies that we use already, that sort of translates nicely across to VR.
And of course, on day one, there won't be so much VR content there. There are some people using it ahead of time, but yes, again, I think it's something we'll need to respond to. We have people full time trying to think, how can we improve the algorithms and try and be clever about, "Okay, you've played those things so you might like this", and it's an ongoing thing. VR adds another aspect to that, but the honest things is, it's once the community really embraces the VR toolset and make things with it. Then we need to respond to that and surface the VR content and make it discoverable.
But even the categorisations are all probably wrong. The community will start making... Well, who knows what they'll start making, but we want to really respect that, they are the creators, so we need to empower them, to help their stuff be exposed to their audience.
This interview has been edited for readability. A huge thank you to David Smith for taking the time to answer our questions, and to Sony for making this interview possible. Dreams' PSVR update launches 22nd July -- what will you make in virtual reality? Let us know in the comments section below.