Find out what happened when Media Molecule teamed up with the creative people behind the John Lewis Christmas adverts.
What heralds the start of the Christmas period for you? Is it the onslaught of chilly weather? The sight of Christmas movies when you turn on your TV? Or perhaps it’s hearing your favourite Christmas tunes being blasted at full volume in busy shopping centres? Well, for many people in Britain, the start of the Christmas period is marked by the arrival of the John Lewis Christmas advert. Each year, the retailer produces a short but powerful Christmas story that people across the country talk about over the water cooler the very next day (or they would if we weren’t all still working from home). This year, Media Molecule had the opportunity to be part of that exciting moment by teaming up with John Lewis and Yahoo to create an interactive experience using Dreams, which expands on the adorable tale presented in the advert of a young boy called Nathan and his festive visitor from another world, Skye.
Available between November 4, 2021 and December 31, 2021, The Unexpected Guest Interactive Experience was playable on the John Lewis website(s'ouvre dans un nouvel onglet) for My John Lewis customers. It was the culmination of a collaboration between Media Molecule, John Lewis, and Yahoo, allowing the player to explore locations from the advert such as the crashed spaceship, house and street. The idea began when the team at Yahoo were approached by John Lewis to make this year’s advertising campaign a bit more interactive. Yahoo's Executive Producer Luke Harrison and Senior Project Manager Melanie Ballantyne then approached Media Molecule to collaborate in Dreams to quickly create a vivid interactive experience matching the style of the advert. The versatile and easy to use creation tools within the game allowed Dreams Specialists Martin Nebelong (aka Martinitydk), alongside Media Molecule Business Development Manager Sarah Brin, to quickly build a 3D concept framework with Harrison and evolve it into an engaging interactive experience. Later on in the process, Matt Bergasse (aka mBergs), joined the project to help make Christmas decorations and some of the elements of the house.
But the original plan wasn’t even a Dreams project at all. According to Harrison, the brief was to create an augmented reality experience which would be accessed through phones. The project tied into the theme of a Starry Sky through the idea of manoeuvring your phone to look up at the sky which would transform your phone into something interactive like a book or a telescope. Harrison recalled that the storyboards for this part of the project “conjured up memories and feelings of (his) childhood”. And it was from there that it became clear that for this experience to be truly immersive and on the scale that they wanted, it would need to be running on a more powerful platform. The flexibility and speed that Dreams offered was well known by the Yahoo team, after a few internal projects where Dreams was used, and the concept for the Dreams powered interactive experience was born.
The experience itself, while created in Dreams, was hosted on the John Lewis website via Yahoo. But the process wasn’t as simple as just designing a generic level. The look and the tone of the experience had to match the overall style of the advert in order to blend seamlessly between the live action advertising and the experience itself, which was spread across three locations: the street outside the house, the internal house set, and the woods with the crashed spaceship. As a result, it meant that during the creation process, the team had to conduct an online search for the location of the actual house and street, and try their best to re-interpret the exterior, whilst also matching that to the interior of the house which was filmed in a TV studio miles away (not an easy task)! Making the connection between the location of the house and the crashed spaceship in the woods, whilst providing a consistent style across multiple locations to create one unified world was a logistical challenge, but one that Dreams Specialist Martin Nebelong relished having the chance to work on.
As a Dreams Specialist (yes that’s a real job title!) Nebelong spends his time perfecting his skills with the varied tools available in Dreams, and supporting projects with the Outreach team and the Dreams coMmunity. As a freelance 3D model artist before joining Media Molecule, Nebelong relished the opportunity to use simple and dynamic creation software like Dreams, and he was the perfect person to lead the work on creating the interactive experience. Having received a briefing document from the Yahoo team, Nebelong began to play around with the “painterly quality” of Dreams to create something that was stylised with elements of realism.
According to Harrison, there was a challenge in striking the right balance between interactivity and narrative exploration for this experience. As the experience was pitched at anyone exploring the John Lewis website, there was no guarantee that they would be experienced gamers or even familiar with the language of video games, so any game elements had to be immediately simple and accessible. However, they were able to retain one of the original ideas of blending together the real and digital worlds through the ability to download and print out your own paper folding creations inspired by characters from previous John Lewis Christmas adverts that can be put on your Christmas tree. On top of being a bonus addition to the experience, it is also reminiscent of another classic Media Molecule adventure set in a papercraft world, Tearaway.
“One of the best things about creating the experience”, Harrison says, “was including a variety of Easter eggs for fans of the John Lewis Christmas adverts. In total we referenced around nine years’ worth of content, from Monty the Penguin, to the Snow People, to Edgar the Dragon”. These little references became a treasure trove of additional content for avid watchers of the Christmas adverts, and provided another interactive element to exploring this world. And it didn’t take long to create these assets, as Nebelong reveals, “Each one only took minutes to make, because I didn't have to worry about all the technical steps you normally go through in other 3D workflows".
Even more impressive is the creative way that Nebelong manipulated the variety of features in Dreams in order to add different effects and some extra dynamism. “For the dog bouncing on the trampoline, that bounce was created by waving my Move controller up and down to simulate the bouncing effect. The best thing about Dreams is that, unlike other 3D creation software, there is no need to go searching on the internet for how to guides or visiting forums to figure out how to use the tools. It’s a very simple and playful creation process”.
Harrison was similarly impressed with the speed and versatility of the Dreams experience. Having worked on multiple interactive advertising campaigns in the past, he was “used to spending a lot of time in pre-production, waiting for people to finish building 3D wireframe concept models. But within one day we had a loose level design structure for the house and the street around it”. As a result, the team were able to show this much more advanced proof of concept to the advertising agency and “their minds were blown” by how much progress had been made so quickly. Not only that, but due to the real-time editing nature of Dreams, they were able to manipulate the scene and make changes on the fly in response to feedback whilst they were presenting their idea. Now, Harrison is convinced that Dreams is the best platform for creating these kinds of experiences, stating confidently that, “Anytime I need to create a 3D world for a campaign, I’m using Dreams”.
Sarah Brin, who produced the project, also sees the potential of Dreams as a tool for creating elaborate interactive experiences that blend between the real world and the game. “We’re always looking forward to collaborating with interesting partners and producing extraordinary experiences for people to explore”. In the future, Brin is keen to “showcase the power of Dreams to other potential partners that might be interested in creative collaboration within Dreams”. It makes sense, given how much can be created in the platform. “Storyboards, illustrations, music, animation, concept art and so many other things”, Nebelong says, “Dreams can do it all in one program”.
The freeform nature of Dreams has led to some unique collaborations with well-known companies, and the potential for what can be created is almost infinite. And it’s that infinite creativity that keeps people coming back. As Harrison says, “I have tons of triple-A games on my shelf, and a big backlog. But whenever I start any of these games, I often think to myself, I’d much rather be Dreamsurfing…"
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