How a two-year Dreams project got its creator a job at a beloved indie studio, straight from the director who hired him

A charming snapshot of Ori and friends
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Moon Studios, of Ori and the Blind Forest fame, recently hired a fresh designer specifically for design skills demonstrated in a Dreams project that took two years to make. We've seen Dreams creators produce studio-grade experiences before, but I don't think I've ever seen such a clear straight line from 'made a thing in Dreams' to 'got hired at a major studio' before. It's the kind of career path that I expect and hope to see become more common as creative tools like Dreams become more available, and as the generations who grow up with them start considering or seeking games jobs. I was instantly curious what that process looked like here, so I reached out to Thomas Mahler, the creative director on both Ori games and Moon's upcoming RPG as well as the primary person who hired this young designer, to learn more. 

From Dreams to dream job 

The Dreams project in question is Trip's Voyage, which got an impressive final update trailer from its creator, who goes by Eupholace (opens in new tab) online, a few months ago. Trip's Voyage has all the charm of '90s platformers like Banjo-Kazooie, and even some of those Rare hallmarks like googly-eyed treasure chests. Levels look varied and charming, its cat hero moves with style and purpose, and the art style is capable of cute and convincing creations. Even I can tell that this thing is well-made, and Mahler says he was also pretty impressed with the game and, not for the first time, Dreams itself. 

"Trust me, I'm as surprised as anybody else, right?" Mahler says. "I never really saw things being made with LittleBigPlanet where I was like, whoa, this is real stuff, you know? But this thing that that guy has shown is like, I don't care what engine you're using or what tool you're using, if you can make a project like that, that's real talent. 

Moon Studios working conditions

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

(Image credit: Moon Studios)

In March 2022, GamesBeat (opens in new tab) published a report citing several anonymous employees who alleged Moon Studios had become an "oppressive" workplace and specifically criticized the behavior of Mahler and co-founder Gennadiy Korol. Moon Studios denied the report, claiming it did not match the experiences of the "more than 80 Moon Studios team members who are thriving and doing great work every day." I asked Mahler for comment on the studio's working conditions and its ongoing response to this report, and he said the following:

"We already released our official statement and I can't say more than that. I can guarantee you that the folks that are actually employed at Moon that we didn't have to lay off wouldn't say any of this stuff." 

"I saw, first of all, the level of polish that was on display there," he continues. "That's really nice to see, you know. I'm always looking for people that really understand game development, and not just in one specific thing. So you don't just have these masters of one thing, but they understand game development on a deeper level or have made indie games themselves. Traditionally I've found that makes for a much more rounded developer. And so he definitely showed that right? All of this feels fairly polished. He took a look at all those little things that are needed to make things feel good, and so on. Controls looked good. He also talked very smartly about what his inspirations were, what he did to actually get it to that level. 

"And then, obviously, the level design. That's basically the biggest thing that I'm looking at here, right? Does this person show some ability or some sign of great talent in terms of level design? When he reached out, he also immediately said that's the field that's interesting to him. And yeah, if you can make levels like that in 3D, based on some character that you made, and they're actually fun to explore, and they're fun to play. I haven't actually played the game myself, but I think I'm a pretty good judge of just looking at a video and seeing is this a good level or not? So I've watched some Let's Plays of this thing, and yeah, it's really good. Level design is always the thing right? It looks easy but it really isn't. It's really hard if you sit down and do it yourself."

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As Mahler explained in a tweet, Eupholace is just 20 years old and started working on Trip's Voyage two years ago, and it's their only real game design experience. This made me wonder how work in Dreams would transfer to the tools and software used at studios like Moon, but Mahler stresses that all that stuff takes a backseat to real design knowhow. 

"It doesn't really matter where you learn your craft," he argues. "To me, it's like he drew with this pencil, right? My expectation is that he will do just as well if I give him another pencil. Yeah, you need a couple of weeks to actually adjust. But you'll find the more important thing, that thing that actually takes you the longest, is just actually learning the craft, actually becoming a good level designer, failing again and again on something. Making a character and just going, 'ugh, my character doesn't feel right.' And tweaking all those things over and over and over again, and failing and failing and failing until you actually understand how you build it. How is this done? How did you intend to do it? And the same thing is true for level design. You have to go through your 10,000 hours of just building horrible levels."  

The lost art of level design  

Ori and the Blind Forest

(Image credit: Moon Studios)

Speaking of horrible levels, Mahler reckons level design is an underappreciated and increasingly "lost" art form. He praises studios like Arkane and Nintendo, but laments the handling of level design in some modern games, particularly open-world titles. 

"It really is a lost art form," he says. "If you look for good level designers, it's incredibly hard to find. Most of our level designers came from places where level design is still held really high. If you really look at all these open-world games today, you don't really learn level design like this anymore, like Nintendo does it. And I think you see that in all these games right now. So many times as a developer, as a level designer, I run through areas and I'm like, yeah, I guarantee you that no designer has ever touched this, you know, it's just empty, a designer really didn't know what he was doing." 

It's a relief, then, that games like Dreams, as well as the likes of Super Mario Maker, are around today. "I sent mail to Media Molecule because I very much appreciate that these tools are out there now where kids can just craft things and really learn the craft, and it is a craft," Mahler says. "It is the same as sitting down and learning how to sculpt something, how to paint something and so on. Media Molecule just figured out how to make that process fun for people. Now that we get more people learning this stuff through play, I think that's genius. That's really cool, and I'm very sad that Dreams didn't completely blow up like Roblox or something, right? Because I think it deserves that.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

(Image credit: Microsoft / Xbox)

"It amazes me that you can do this stuff with a controller. It seems so counterintuitive that you don't have a mouse or a tablet. You can just make a game like this at this level with a PlayStation controller. That's crazy. But you know, Dreams was in development for a long time. They did LittleBigPlanet one and two before that, they must have a lot of experience just really boiling down, like, how do we simplify that and make it as accessible as possible on a controller? I've never actually even looked at Dreams, I never even touched it. Because the funny thing is, right, if you're a developer and you look at games like Mario Maker and Dreams, it's like, no fucking way. I'm not gonna touch this after work, because it's more work, right? It's just work. But it's great that kids do this. 

"And the funny thing is, I constantly hear stories about what kids learn through Minecraft and so on. I think that's fantastic," Mahler concludes. "That's amazing. It's not just, hey, people play fucking Call of Duty or something. Now they actually do something, I would say, valuable, right? In something like Minecraft or Dreams, or honestly even Roblox, as much as I dislike what that game looks like. If people are being creative, if studios manage to turn people into creatives and artists, how fantastic is that? And trust me, I've got nothing against people spending time on video games. But if it has a productive outcome as well, that's glorious. I would have loved to have had a tool like that available when I was younger." 

Moon Studios says its next game, an action RPG, is the Zelda to Ori's Mario

Austin Wood

Austin freelanced for the likes of PC Gamer, Eurogamer, IGN, Sports Illustrated, and more while finishing his journalism degree, and he's been with GamesRadar+ since 2019. They've yet to realize that his position as a staff writer is just a cover up for his career-spanning Destiny column, and he's kept the ruse going with a focus on news and the occasional feature.