Catherine Woolley had a big hand in designing Dreams. Not, like, a single-hand, of course, that would be absurd (and ridiculously impressive). But as a senior designer at Media Molecule, she was part of the team that helped create the concepts and systems that brought Dreams to life. Here, we chat to Catherine about the methodology behind good game design, the importance of user testing, and the squishiest desk panda in the world.*
* Well, probably.
Hi Catherine! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I'm a senior designer, and I've been at Mm for five years in approximately two weeks' time [at the time of the interview]. During that time, I've worked across many different parts of Dreams; when I started I was working on Art's Dream, then I moved over to the tutorials team where I worked on the tutorials and master classes. I also worked on the 'How To' videos, which were all about trying to teach people how to create in Dreams.
I also designed a variety of kits, including Welcome Home, Welcome Garden, Ancient Temple, Ancient Times, and Ancient Dangers. I worked across the kits themselves, and then created some levels and elements. Then I stepped back to teaching, and worked on the DreamShaping Reshaped update alongside Kevin and the 2D Platformer template that we created along with the Dungeon Crawler template.
Now I'm working on Tren as the designer of the Tren kit, which involves organising it so that it’s as good as it can be for players, and that we take the best photos and write the funniest descriptions for it. There's a lot of elements in that kit so it is a lot of work, but we're getting there and it looks great. I suppose once the tutorials shipped for Dreams Early Access and the final game, I wondered, "What’s this team gonna do now? Do we still need to teach stuff?", but the transition to the kits team was really nice, as we could make things that were easy to use for people in their games.
Do you have a favourite aspect of Dreams that you worked on, or that you really liked designing?
A highlight was definitely helping to come up with Cuthbert. We needed an imp for Cuthbert specifically, because that would then be Cuthbert's face, so I designed some of those and then Francis worked his magic on them to make them look, like, 100% slicker. I love Connie and Cuthbert's dynamic, as you’d think that Connie's mean to Cuthbert, but they love each other really.
I also really enjoyed working on Welcome Garden and Ancient Dangers. But teaching is quite an enjoyable experience, especially with how excited everyone was when we showed off the Reshaped update on Twitch and it made things more accessible for people. But at Mm you do one cool thing and then you move to another cool thing. And I think that's how it is with Dreams.
Given that you have so many things on your hands, what does a typical day look like for you?
I mean a typical day straight up doesn't exist. But it drastically depends on what I'm working on at the time. I've constantly got a chat going on with my team, because as someone working from home, it's super vital to keep in contact with everyone. Then I'll probably see if there's anything immediate or in danger that needs some fires putting out. If I have bugs assigned to me, I'll see if there's anything awful to fix.
Otherwise, I'll probably delve into a collection of new elements for Tren, and see if there's anything new in there that I can get ready to go into it. I'll have a play around and get some cool photos. What I quite like doing with some of them is framing up examples of using it as well as just the element, so if people look at the screenshots, they'll think "Oh, okay, I could do that, I could combine this with that". If people have put in some new levels or updated the game, I'll jump in and play to give feedback.
So is it gameplay design that you work on more, or level design? Or a bit of both?
On Tren, I'm not necessarily doing the deep design side of things. I suppose I specialised more over the last few years on gameplay design, whereas prior to Media Molecule, level design was probably my key focus. In Ancient Dangers, though, I was working on the combat system and the Berserk system alongside everything else there. With all the kits work I've been doing, I'd say my focus has shifted a little bit towards curation, but then I still jump in and fix bugs or make tweaks to things that are more gameplay design-focused.
Is there a particular methodology or way that you go about designing something for a game?
It definitely does depend on what I'm making, but usually I'll make a mind map of any ideas that I have on paper. I'll drop down the thoughts I have about the thing I'm trying to create. Then I'll think of any positives and negatives that could come from it and any gaps where it might not give enough information to the player. For example, there might be something that would drastically break if I didn't include it. Thanks to Dreams being so quick and easy to use, I can prototype it quickly, or just test it with the default puppets or template. I'll demo anything that needs testing, like special abilities, to see how they work and make sure that they work in its prototype stage.
And then I might start making it look a little bit prettier. The most important step would be to show it to other people before showing it to everyone. I think this is vital to figure out if your design works well, and you can get feedback early on to iterate on it. Design is all about iterating, so you should always be open to feedback because that will only make things better. You need input from others, because you might think an idea is perfect, but you might not be aware of certain implications or issues.
How challenging is it to make a system that teaches people how to use a game like Dreams, which in itself can be used to make other games?
In the past I'd worked on tutorials, so I had taught people how to play, but I'd never taught anyone how to create, and it is such a different kettle of fish. Luckily, the whole tutorials team were really into trying to figure out the best ways of doing it. I'd say the main way we figured it out was through so many iterations of user testing. We had a lot of user tests and they helped us refine what we were doing. At one point, we kind of just threw away what we had and started it fresh, which at the time was a bit scary. However, it worked out for the best as in the end the tutorials worked really well. The trouble is you don't want to overload the player with a new thing, plus an old thing, plus a different thing. So it's very delicate work. User tests are vital, because developers expect the player to play in certain ways. But they never do.
So you really need to test everything over and over again?
Yep, and have people that would never actually think of playing it give it a go as well and see if they find it either massively hard or super confusing. It’s hard with Dreams because we created some intermediate and advanced tutorials, which is tricky because you have to take anything you get with a pinch of salt, as realistically you’d expect an advanced tutorial would be for an advanced dreamer. You'd think they’d have certain knowledge of Dreams, which you can't guarantee either.
How did you end up getting into the games industry?
My story is pretty standard I think, but I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was in school. For anyone reading this: it's okay to not know what you wanna do, because you literally don't need to figure out everything when you're 16 years old. My twin sister, Charlotte, who also works at Media Molecule, was looking at university degrees back in 2006, and noticed that there were game design ones. So I jumped into a game design degree and then graduated in 2009 with a First. I managed to start a job after three weeks, which I feel was quite lucky, but my first foray into games was something that I feel some people wouldn't wanna do. I thought it was cool, though - making interactive books for kids on the Nintendo DS. I thought "I'll give it a shot" and then it kind of progressed from there, because I've been a designer for 13 years this year.
Do you have any any tips for anyone that's looking to get into the industry, especially into game design?
Firstly, I would say, if you're between 10 and 18, definitely check out BAFTA Games(opens in new tab) and the BAFTA Young Games Designer(opens in new tab) competition, which will be reopening in November. For pre-teen to 18-year-olds, I'd say websites like Into Games(opens in new tab) are really good in terms of knowledge and information on the game industry. And it sounds obvious, but use the internet, because there's so much information out there and in my ancient days of 2006, there wasn’t that much information on game dev, so I couldn't take advantage of that.
But now you can use things like Dreams to create games or concepts. You can always tag Mm in a tweet about your game that you've made and someone will probably check it out, and you could be an Mm Pick or someone else might notice you - we've had dreamers get hired by other companies when people have seen their work, and we've also hired dreamers at Mm.
There are also a tonne of YouTube channels and blogs that help share the ideas behind game design and creating games, which you can use as a nice entry point to help get you started. If you would like to go to university, I'd say definitely go for it, it's really worthwhile. I learned a lot of ways to work with people throughout university. I got skills from it as well, but I think the main thing was figuring out how other people work and working with other people.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
This isn't particularly cool or weird, but I keep my glasses here. If you have glasses, you know you always have some glasses on your desk. But I'm really bad, as I don't wear them that often. I've also got a squishy panda, and oddly, I currently have two stacks of PS1 memory cards. I love the squishy panda, it's super cute. He's like a stress ball, and while he used to smell nice, he doesn't really smell anymore. And he's covered in cat hair from my cat sitting on my desk. So are all of these PS1 memory cards, some of which are Digimon memory cards and the other stack being official PS1 memory cards. But I always like to have cute things, cute things are a must for any workspace.
So to wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
Ooh, so I always say Definitely a Fashion Show by RbdJellyfish, and I even said it to him as well when I met him. And he's like, "Why do people always just really like the weird stuff?!" It's a really weird game as the intro to it is really creepy, but you're on a catwalk and you have to match poses with the sticks and the shoulder buttons. I just love that, as it's reminiscent of other games that I played in the past that are weird, and what I like with Dreams is all the weird stuff. That's what I gravitate towards when it comes to Dreams.
I also like Burger Flipper. See, I just like all the weird stuff! This one is from redep1994. That's a weird, silly game where you're trying to flip burgers. But over on the music and music video side, I really like "Please Stand By" by GrimPinata136. That one was made to go with the song Telepaths by SaucelessOne. There's all these people with computer faces floating up into the air and moving around. Very surreal but very good.
And one I played a while ago was Patient Patrol by danikaka, which is very reminiscent of a game that I played lots as a teen, except that it's hospital-based. I find with Dreams that my Play Later queue just keeps growing, because I play something and see something else that interests me, then I play that and the cycle continues. Sometimes I find myself scrolling through what I've liked just to remind myself of the things that I've played. But there are literally some amazing games out there and I appreciate everything in Dreams. A top tip is to keep an eye on Jen's Twitter feed and, of course, read The Impsider to see what cool stuff has been put out there. I'm always reading that to see what other exciting things I should play.
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.