Collaboration, coMmunity, blancmanges and a baby: the inside story of the awards show made in Dreams
Dreams is all about the power of partying - it’s designed to bring people together in a wild, colourful, collaborative celebration of the act of creation. It’d be remiss of us not to throw a big bash now and again. With the help of the coMmunity, we’ve done just that - our in-game convention DreamsCom and All Hallows’ Dreams being just a couple of examples.
But the event of the year is undoubtedly our annual awards show, the Impys. First held in January 2020, it’s a chance for us all to come together and look back on a year’s worth of incredible coMmunity creations and happenings in Dreams. “We do the show to be a real celebration of all the people who contribute to Dreams each year - and the in-jokes and all the little fun bits that make Dreams special,” live product lead Abbie Heppe tells us. “And I think that, more than the actual act of giving out awards, is the really important part of it for me.”
It’s brilliant fun - it’s also a ton of work. While our first ever show was a live-and-in-person affair at the Media Molecule offices, the unexpected events of 2020 meant we’d have to get creative when it came to the second. But, considering that ‘creative’ is all of our middle names (the directors insist you change it when you’re hired, otherwise you get put in The Ball Pit and have to defeat each one of them in hand-to-hand combat), we figured we might be able to do it.
Not that it wouldn’t prove difficult. With almost all of the studio working from home, the solution was clear, if mildly intimidating: “It required us to take the entire livestream and put it in-game - basically, produce the entire event in-game,” associate producer Jamie Cook says, “which is a massive, massive ask of work!” The first Impys had played out in a more off-the-cuff fashion. Or, rather, off the wall - without a teleprompter to hand, “our script was basically, like, a few pages stuck on a wall behind the camera that Abbie and I kind of followed!” senior coMmunity manager Tom Dent says. But for this year’s show to be presented in Dreams - using presenter puppets commissioned from coMmunity creator AndymationB - it would have to be scripted, animated, scored and planned down to the second.
Dreamscom (and the accompanying showcase) was a useful precedent. “Doing that show let us know, okay - we could potentially do this,” Heppe says, “It’s just fitting it in with the timing of the Impys - because there’s a real timeline of getting content signed off, and nominated, and a process that needs to be followed.” Plus, everyone was determined for this show to be even more elaborate than last year’s, with a playable Impys hub featuring coMmunity-made characters and prize quests. “All the updates around that meant a lot of design resource, art resource, audio resource, QA resource, localisation resource... It was like a whole game in it itself!” Cook laughs. But it was an opportunity to involve more coMmunity creators in the event, and in new ways. “The show itself is incredible,” junior coMmunity designer Jamie Breeze says, “and such an undertaking. So I felt like having that interactive element, it just brings the event closer to the coMmunity.”
For artist Theo Hayne, work on the hub started soon after All Hallows’ Dreams, when he began prototyping ideas in Dreams. The art deco concept was the favourite: “Miguel [Sanz, UX designer] and I had been talking about for probably a week before I actually made it,” Hayne laughs, “So I probably subtly made that one the nicer one.” There was also a more glammed-up, art nouveau version of the first Impys’ stage, as well as a “cosy, wooden, soft theatre space - I think if we didn’t go with the art deco one, I would have liked to have gone with that.” But the rest of the studio connected more with the other two, and after some advice from art director Kareem Ettouney on committing to one or the other rather than attempting a mix of styles, art deco won out.
Sanz created a detailed design document that references the Game Awards and the Oscars as points of inspiration. Translating the geometric shapes and old-world elegance into the visual tone and architecture of Dreams was an interesting challenge, he says: “We had this fear of it becoming a bit spooky, because art deco can be quite haunting! So we wanted to make it warm, magical and more Dreams-y.” Hayne adds: “The easiest thing to do - it’s already part of the Dreams style guide, I feel - is don’t be in a discernible room. Like, if there’s a ceiling, break it, go into space. You can have a lot of fun with volumetrics and bring out all the bits you want to focus on, but then everything else kind of fades into purple.”
Meanwhile, Breeze was figuring out how to make the space a feast for the thumbs, as well as the eyes. “I approached it the same way I do level design,” he tells us, "because it’s effectively just a small, open world you can go and discover for yourself." A scavenger hunt where you collect Impy awards around multiple different rooms, and even small references to coMmunity characters such as Pip Gemwalker slowly climbing the staircase, morphed into much "logic hackery" to ensure persistence across multiple rooms. "You find yourself kind of overthinking everything," Breeze says, "but it’s for the greater good, because you’ve got to hand this over to QA and they’ve got to test it rigorously." He laughs. "They have some weird blessing of finding ways that you can get the puppet stuck, it’s incredible." Turn off preview invisibility in the hub in edit mode, he says, and you’d see a room filled with stuff that looks like "gigantic pink blancmange", added in according to the QA team’s notes, to repel the puppet away from problem areas. Delicious, wobbly problem areas.
QA was also tasked with recording playthroughs of every single Impy-nominated creation for legal sign-off. “A total of 267 videos!” senior QA technician Charlotte Woolley reveals, noting that this year’s new Scare Of The Year award category caused some turbulence on the team’s daily Slack calls: “You’d know when someone was recording a Scare video, as you’d hear the occasional ‘Aaaargh!’” Juggling sometimes multiple-hour game playthroughs alongside tests for the hub - which was localised to support 16 languages, as well as VR - kept them busy, especially with four different versions of the space to check as the event played out and things in this space changed, and new game updates for Dreams released. “It was cool because as far as I’m aware, I don’t think we’ve ever done that with a live piece of content before,” senior principal QA manager Jamie Pendleton says. “So there was a lot of testing lots of combinations of permutations.”
Elsewhere, Heppe, Dent and content curator Alasdair Mitchell were working to finalise and get legal sign-off on the shortlisted nominations, which would then be given to a panel of Mm experts and guest judges from the industry for winners to be decided. Alongside them was a new editorial manager, who’d just spent the past few days feverishly typing out a show script some have described as “heavily reliant on references to a mechanical whale”, and “huh”. This was divided into scenes and then, alongside recorded voiceovers, was handed over to our animators, Mike Pang, Pablo López Soriano, and David Campbell.
“AndymationB’s puppets were fantastic,” Campbell says. “They really helped in every conceivable way that we needed them to.” Tiny natural gestures, such as random blinks and even physics-based movements on the puppets’ sleeves, had been rigged to give Campbell and the rest a head-start on making performances believable. Campbell’s comedy chops came in handy for many of the show’s jokes: “What I like to do is record a small video moving my mouse around an empty screen, and imagining a motion, whether it’s a U-shape or something. It doesn't even have to be animation of a puppet - it's all about trying to realise a funny bit of timing to a bit of dialogue, and how long that takes to work. Then I'll write down how long that is, set keyframes, play some characters in the scene and animate the characters to this timing that I've created. The great thing is that you can absolutely do it in Dreams: create a sphere, record yourself doing this” - he mimes using motion controllers - “just to see how long this ball to make that arc or whatever, and how that fits in with your comedy.”
By the time he was handed the near-final animations for the later sound design passes, audio designer Ed Hargrave had already composed a mini soundtrack. He ended up riffing on what had last year become the official Impys theme - a version of the theme for Dreams platformer Dreamiverse Dash. “One of my favourite things to do is to take parts of one idea and evolve it into another that suits the little story we’re telling,” he says. While last year's show had one main theme, this year would see it used in three or four different contexts. “It started diegetically in the pre-hub,” Hargrave says, “so it sounded like the orchestra was behind a wall, and they were rehearsing a little bit to the tune, and that set it as a thing that was happening in this world. And then as you enter the door [to the main hub], it was nice to make the transition into a sort of non-diegetic, more traditional soundtrack, so it actually starts to accompany what you're doing.” The café space would see a jazzier version of the theme, while Hargrave cites Randy Newman's Pixar scores as an influence on the gallery's music. Keeping the main theme simple meant that there were endless ways to repurpose it, while still presenting a suite that felt definitively 'Impys'. “I think you could do that forever, you could just keep making variations on it,” Hargrave smiles.
Still, there was a show to put on, and in a realistic time-frame - which is where creative video editor Tom Mansell came in. “This year was quite different, because we’re not a video production house,” Mansell says. “Usually what happens is everyone does all their work, and then they move on, and the video team has to make something out of what’s there. But this was the other way around, where the actual end product was a video. Everything was a lot more planned and laid out, and so it didn’t have to go through like, 50 cuts, like we do with a trailer. We didn’t have to re-record stuff or beg for animator time - it was all there ready to go. And so it made my job a lot easier.”
The biggest challenge, he says, was working from home. Well, that and the fact that he had a baby on the way imminently. “But then she didn’t arrive. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday [before the show] I was still working on it - but by Wednesday, if she’d come that night, it would have been an absolute disaster!” he laughs. The backup plan was to ship a hard drive to Scotland for Dan Castro to take over. “I’m just so happy that your daughter turned up late, bless her!” Cook smiles. “She did it for us!” The unsung hero of the 2nd Annual Impy Awards? Mansell grins: “Should have called her Connie or something like that, really, shouldn’t I?”
Mansell’s oversight aside, the show was livestreamed across the Media Molecule and PlayStation Twitch channels without a hitch - all thanks to Dent, who was running the social media accounts from home. “It was especially weird because, like, it’s just me in this room here pressing play on the streaming software - if anything goes wrong, it’s my laptop that’s ruined everything!” He laughs. “But it was really cool, because I’d obviously seen the show - but I got to watch it along with the coMmunity for the proper first time. So it was a moment of real ups and downs, because I was worried it wasn’t going to work - but also, it was so exciting seeing the [Twitch] chat go, seeing the reaction first-hand.” This year, being behind the cameras, instead of in front of them, gave him a new perspective from which to enjoy the show right alongside the coMmunity. “And it kind of rammed home what the Impys is all about for us and for the coMmunity - people going, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this! That was so good!’” he says. “It’s an awards show, so there are winners - but it’s all so supportive. And there’s this overwhelming sense of pride for everyone in the team: this amazing thing we’ve created over the past three, four months is paying off within the space of an hour.”
Heppe nods. “The thing I’m most proud of is just seeing this whole team come together. I think everybody’s brought something unique about themselves to it, but have managed to make that into something that is really a collaborative effort. Like, these events are a challenge: we work really differently to the rest of the team, sometimes on shorter timelines on stuff that’s experimental, and really connected to the players in the coMmunity. And every time, this group manages to create something magical out of it. Seeing the way that they work together, providing feedback to each other, and using that to elevate what they’re working on is awesome. And I don’t think you can do that unless you understand the players that you’re making it for, and what makes Dreams really cool. It’s been really fun to see this in it’s second year, and to develop in a space that I think is actually experimental for this industry. There’s no straight blueprint of like, ‘Here’s how you do this’. The willingness of this team to experiment and try new things (and succeed wildly!) is really cool.”
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.