Michel Ancel is an anomaly in Ubisoft’s system: a lone creator working with a tiny team in Montpellier, apparently far from the eyes of the company’s Parisian editors. Where the likes of Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed occupy thousands of developers in numerous studios across the globe, Ancel’s team fits in the Villa, a converted house on a residential street. Now starting his 25th year at Ubisoft, and returning to 3D triple-A development after four years spent in the company of his creation, Rayman, Ancel talks about the past, present and future of small-team development.
In 1999, you told us you’d like to create moments that will stay with people forever – the kind of things Roy Batty talks about in his monologue at the end of Blade Runner. After 15 years, do you feel you’ve managed it?
Oh, I said that so long ago, but no, not yet. I think I’d love to work on a project with an idea of such [emotion] that you could tell it to people and it would be something they will never forget. But I think there are some very memorable moments in games, and in the one I’m working on we try to make moments memorable and [imbue them] with strong consequences. It’s not only about a single moment, but the whole journey that the player is led through in the world. In Beyond Good & Evil, we tried to make the player travel and discover different things, and I think it’s something that you really need… It’s like in a good story, or a good book, or a good movie: the whole book is supposed to bring you to this special moment. It’s meant to make you feel something very strong, even if it’s short. It’s something that we haven’t achieved yet [in the game industry]. I have the idea to build this kind of thing, but honestly, it’s something that we need to work on.
That Beyond Good & Evil is so respected years on suggests you were at least partially successful.
Well, I really like the kind of videogames I call ‘sport games’. Not sport-sport games, but platformers and some shooters and so on – an action game where you have a score and each area is mathematical, logical and precise. It’s like a competition, not an experience. But when we did Beyond Good & Evil, we really wanted to make something different, even if it’s in the style of a classic action-adventure game, and make a real experience game. I think that it’s a game that people are still discovering, and maybe these kinds of games still have a place. We’re all waiting for games like The Last Guardian, after all.
You once told us how much you learned from Ico and The Wind Waker for Beyond Good & Evil. Have you found much to learn from games in recent years?
Yes, in fact a lot of games. Minecraft or Spelunky have opened interesting doors with the fact that they generate procedural stuff, and I think there are lots of good ideas that can be combined. People seem to enjoy being in a different world where you’re on your own journey, and [I’m fascinated by] procedural generation – this idea of being able to build something different, this idea of infinite worlds and this idea of keeping the game elements subtle in the world, so you are always in emergent situations. Those games, for different reasons, have proved that people are interested in emergent and procedural worlds.
Procedural generation seems entirely contrary to the authored experiences you usually make.
Yeah, but I believe it’s so interesting to keep mystery in the game, you know – the feeling of no limits. The developer might give you some goals, but it’s very interesting to not see the limits of the game, and I’m certainly intrigued by how the combinations of simple elements can create new situations. I’m not surprised [Hello Games is making No Man’s Sky]. It’s a really different thing and they are one of the most different studios in the world. I think that limitlessness is something I felt playing games on 16bit computers. It’s very interesting and it’s good to see that it can be made by small teams.
That Hello Games can build a galaxy with only four people is proof of the power of procedural generation. You work with a small team at Ubisoft Montpellier – comparatively small next to Watch Dogs, at least – so what are the benefits of a small team for you?
Mainly, I think it’s the ability of people to share, because the main issue in developing a game is having a connection between people. I think when you look now at some of the most successful teams – Naughty Dog, for example – the people who are leading those teams are excellent communicators who have developed other games, and they are able to connect people with their team. When you have a big team and you don’t have this connection with the people, you try to make an engine or a tool that will be capable of filling in every blank. It’s very complex, because if I’m a programmer and I don’t exactly understand the game [then] I’m going to make a more generic graphics engine. But if you take the time to talk to the people and really talk about what we need and what they want, then you can really optimise and make something unique.
Can a small team compete with that bigger, more unwieldy team in the commercial space?
I believe technology allows you to make good choices and see the creativity in your hands [more easily] than you could with a lot of people, and for sure the technology, and procedural generation, can help a small team make great things. I think it’s all about how you see the creativity in the first place and how you believe in it. It’s important when the team is really involved in the kind of game we want to do. The core Montpellier team is around ten or 15 people maximum. The good thing is we have a lot of talented people that can join us for periods… Like a movie, we know these guys will come and work with us again, but they will come at the right time, when we need an outsider.
Do you call on other Ubisoft studios for help?
No. I have done in the past a little bit, but not now on my new project. But at the same time, it’s very cool to share with teams – sharing solutions, not problems. It’s more that when we finish a project, we can send our content to others. It’s a good feeling when you’re sharing more in a positive way. Very cool.
Operating a small team means you’re burning less money than other Ubisoft studios. Does that mean you have more freedom on the game you’re making?
I think yes and no. It gives you more freedom, but the question you’re always asked is about time more than money. We need the time for people to learn and understand things, and it can take a long time to connect everyone to make sure they’re going in the same direction. Time is more important than the number of people. I think when you’re making a game, if you don’t take time to think, you can easily put yourself in a bad situation.
What would you consider a bad situation?
Well, [Peter Jackson’s] King Kong was supposed to be thirdperson shooter with a group of people, and it was really nasty, because the animations were very complex. We spent so long on them that in the end we decided to move to firstperson and remove all the animation work for the main character. That saved us time and the benefit was to present the game to players as if it were a movie. It was very interesting, very cinematic, more immersive and simpler to do. So this decision was really important. I was really happy with Rayman 2, Beyond Good & Evil was good too, but King Kong was one of the games I liked the most, because it was the first game in which I decided to not put myself in bad situations, and to find good ideas to simplify the work first. In the end, it was done in a short time, but with most of the things that we wanted in it. I think I learned more on that game than on a lot of other games.
I think when we’re making big worlds, we’re always the first ones to find challenges in the wrong places. Rockstar made a very interesting game [in GTAV], and it needed to produce a real city, and that’s a huge part of the work. It also wanted to do some very complex [systemic] things, and that kind of decision can hurt a smaller team a lot. If you ignore the complex things that people don’t care about, maybe you can save some time. That’s the exact thing we’re trying to do to make the game we want. I believe there are a lot of difficult choices that people [wouldn’t notice if you lost them] that will make sure your work is easier.
In your first ever interview with us, even before the release of Ico, you spoke about how Japan was so good at putting emotion into games and how the west lagged behind. Do you think that’s changed?
I don’t know if I know enough to answer this question. I would say that Japanese developers are very good at making believable worlds, and at making innovative content and the visual and external appearance, even if they’re not always that realistic. Maybe western developers still have some work to do on being able to achieve this. I think we are good at making games – better than 20 years ago. We know how to take care with design better than before, but now the next step is to move away a little bit from the graphics. We know how to make games, but we need to work on how to make them really exciting and mysterious at the same time. We’ve made games with big cinematics and expensive sequences, and we’ve tried to make the games for millions of people. Now there are other explorations that we need to do.
Even back when you were making Rayman 2, you were critical of the industry’s obsession with visuals. Is that a problem again at the start of a new generation?
It’s a tough question. I think you can create emotions with the journey and experience you have by playing a game, and that’s not always connected to the graphical quality. You can achieve very good things with the last generation of graphics. And while I believe that it’s cool to keep the player immersed, sometimes the best way to do that is to simplify what you want to do, so it’s still something people believe in. It’s why games like Ico work so well: the world around you is very blurry, but what you see up close is very well done, and they don’t show you too much of anything that didn’t need to be seen. They leave things to the imagination.
Does the new generation of hardware make it easier to bring your vision to life, or has the step to new consoles made your job tougher?
I believe it keeps getting better and better, actually. Especially this generation, where I’ve seen Nintendo and Microsoft and Sony all working on making consoles easier to work on. I think PS2 and PS3 were difficult consoles. Of course, if you want to make a game on a console, you have to work hard, but now everyone feels that the simple things can be done simply and it won’t kill you.
Ico was a great game, but it didn’t sell very well, and simple experiential games often tend to underperform commercially. How willing is Ubisoft to allow you to make your next game the way you want to make it?
Creating a balance between being independent and the commercial issues is important, but I’ve been there, I have the experience and they believe I can balance these ideas. We must take care of being true to our ideas, and I think [it’s like] in the movie industry. In a movie, there is something to take out of the story, something waiting inside that will appeal if you communicate it right. Too much of the time, [publishers] are not connected to the content of the game. For example, in the days of Ico and even Beyond Good & Evil, they didn’t fully understand the communication problem we have with players. [Players] see a trailer, don’t get what it’s about, and that’s the end of it. We must pay attention to these things and I think we’re taking care of that.
You’ve spent at least 15 years chasing a moment like the ones referenced at the end of Blade Runner. Can you achieve that with your next game?
I hope so, yes. I would love it to. It’s designed to produce those kinds of moments… Yes, definitely.