[Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil creator Michel Ancel talks about how the 2011 2D Rayman Origins got its start, what's up with the BG&E sequel, and why he just can't get enthusiastic about the Mario series.]
Best known as the creator of Rayman and also as the mind behind the acclaimed Beyond Good & Evil, Michel Ancel recently revitalized the series that put him on the map with the release of Rayman Origins, a new 2D entry in the series for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii, that harkens back to its beginnings while debuting new technology: the UbiArt Framework.
"We always need to think about the hundreds of thousands, maybe the millions of people who might play our game. We have to always be welcoming to the non-players," says Ancel, who feels that some developers coming into the industry these days create "autistic" games to please only themselves.
In this interview, Ancel also speaks about the game's genesis, what's going on with Beyond Good & Evil, why he made the leap to Rayman Origins instead of completing that game, what he thinks about Nintendo's Mario and Zelda games, and why he's "very different" from famed creator Shigeru Miyamoto.
What was your exact involvement with Rayman Origins?
Michel Ancel: I'm the one who started the project. I officially worked as a creative director. I first put together a small team of two or three people to make some trials on a new generation 2D engine.
It was a continuation of what we were doing with Beyond Good & Evil 2 -- a visual pattern generating-based engine. Artists make some patterns, like samples, and we use them to quickly model levels, as to have a forest, for example. Everything started from this tool, which we called the UbiArt Framework. Then we said to ourselves, "To prove that this engine works, let's make an entire game with it!"
In March 2006, alongside Shigeru Miyamoto and Frédérick Raynal, you were one of the first three video game developers to be knighted under the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. But since then, no Michel Ancel game has made it to stores. How come?
MA: I was busy with my horse, my armor, my castle -- it took me a lot of time, you know! [laughs] No, no, I didn't have any castle, neither armor nor horse. I just participated in the genesis of the Rabbids, working from a canceled 3D Rayman 4 project. Tell me about luck! I started with Rayman, and it finished with these stupid Rabbids! [smiles]
Actually, it all went this way because of the coming of the Wii. I realized it would be useless to make the adventure game I would have made on PlayStation 2, so we've moved on with a more appropriate party game, which fitted best to the console. Then I moved on [Beyond Good & Evil] 2, and then recently to Rayman Origins.
When did you switch from Beyond Good & Evil 2 to Rayman?
MA: While working on BGE 2, we realized that, technologically speaking, we were making something quite crazy, with cities, planets, and everything we couldn't put into the first BGE.
But it turned out that we were heading to the same syndrome -- that is to say that, even if current consoles can apparently feature some very good-looking things, with lights, shadows and so on, architecturally speaking, we felt bounded. So I said, "Let's make a full 2D game instead of half of a 3D game."
You've been called "the French Miyamoto." How do you feel about it? Does it bother you?
MA: No, it could have been a lot worse. [smiles] Of course it's an honor. I think I'm very different from Miyamoto. And not only because I don't speak Japanese! In my opinion, he focuses a lot on gameplay, whereas I really like to work with technical tools, too.
I really loved the idea of introducing artistic features in games -- that is to say the storytelling, the artwork, music -- and to get everything together in the best possible alchemy. We have two different approaches, two different tracks.
And he's such a star! When I'm compared to him, I find it very exaggerated. I still have a lot to learn! Actually, Miyamoto has always been one of my models, because when I started as a game designer, there were no video games schools, no well-defined jobs, and anyhow, everyone had to find someone to get inspired from. Miyamoto is the top guy.
Would you like to work with him?
MA: It never happened, but of course I wish I could. We've already met. He even told me he wasn't fond of BGE! [laughs, embarrassed] He really liked the cooperation work with [sidekick character] Pey'j, but wasn't satisfied with cameras. He suggested we had a look at what Nintendo did with Super Mario Sunshine.
In your French biography, you said that if anyone in France should be compared to Miyamoto, it should be Serge Hascoët [Ubisoft's chief creative director].
MA: Absolutely -- because he has the same profile, philosophically speaking. He's one hundred percent focused on the gameplay and the game sensations, where as I'm myself a little more between gameplay and story.
Do you remember any particular advice Hascoët gave you while you were working on the original Rayman?
MA: Absolutely. One may notice that Serge began as a tester -- hence, he went through a lot of games. Then he became in charge of evaluating which games were good and which ones were not.
He was working on the ['80s PC format] Amstrad when I first met him. He had a very analytic point of view, and sometimes he had to dismiss some gorgeous games because of their lack of any interest. He does have that insight, and although it hasn't been voiced as a literal advice, getting this insight was clearly a first step.
But when Rayman's development began, what really struck me was his vision: he considers game making as a filmmaker would, with a specific language, with editing, with components, and so on. We learned from him that we needed a proper language to talk about game design and level design. To analyze those elements is now what is taught in video game schools.
It's pretty much like making a music tune, and then working over it to get an orchestration, or an arrangement. First you need to put the basis; then you may try to obtain the more different experiences you can get from this basis, while also working on rhythm. Basis, variety, rhythm -- almost all video games come down to this.
Do you have other memories of Hascoët's influences?
MA: King Kong's development. We learnt a lot from him, again. We forced ourselves not to use cinematics, as to tell the story while the player is playing. It was a neat exercise. We owe it to Serge, who told us one day, "We're done putting cinematics in video games. We don't do that anymore. It's up to the game to make a story alive. If you have anything to tell, you'd better have the player living it."
And Assassin's Creed is based upon this idea. The project germinated around the same time, around 2004. The game is very cinematic in itself, but it tells the player's story, not the developer's. It really was a decision that was at the forefront. And two years later, Serge came out with another decision: he wanted every game to be 60 frames per second. But not everyone managed to do it...
This specific decision sounds to be less about gameplay.
MA: But it is, because 60 frames per second, it's simply all about the game's comfort. It's all about the smoothness of the camera, the moves, and the controls. We managed to do it with Rayman Origins; it was one of our objectives.
And nowadays, which advice do you give to your team?
MA: There's some refocusing we always have to do with fresh, recent video game school graduates. We have to make them fit to the audience, the players. One always wants to please oneself, and we are faced with people who love video games – which is essential, it's a good thing – but who tend to focus on their own amusement.
Do you have some examples?
MA: Yes, of course. We had some levels no one could even play, but the level designer himself! It was something of a contemporary art work -- an artist's work, or should I say, almost an autistic work. Because in this case, everything is done for oneself. Whereas video games are for others, actually. So I happened to play some maps I couldn't even finish myself. I was quite embarrassed to make a game I couldn't beat myself at home! [laughs]
And how did it impact the game's development?
MA: I began to repeat to myself how important it was that someone like me could finish the game. I'm not an amazing player, and it's fine, because not everyone is an amazing player. We always need to think about the hundreds of thousands, maybe the millions of people who might play our game. We have to always be welcoming to the non-players. I don't think video games should withdraw into itself. I often used to think about player versus non-player wars, and they're a pity; we need to give people a hand.
With Rayman Origins, we wanted gamers to be able to play with their girlfriend, who maybe hates video games, but we needed to keep this door open so that even so she could find something to have fun with. I'm very sensitive to this. We're like mountain guides, or super surf teachers: we love it, but we can also share this passion.
That's what we repeat the most to game designers. When they're comfortable with tools, methods, there's this little one thing: to realize that we work for millions of people. But you would almost need to have every one of them in front of you to understand!
I'd guess the Mario games must have been a huge inspiration for Rayman games.
MA: As far as I'm concerned, not at all! I will tell you something terrible -- I don't really enjoy playing Mario games. I don't like gliding, I don't like its inertia, and I don't like not being able to give some slaps! It's a fabulous series, and I understand that people love it, but it's not my cup of tea.
I used to prefer Ghosts n' Goblins, Heart of Darkness, Another World -- games with a focus on the narrative side. Beyond that, I find Mario's controls very interesting, but I don't buy it. I can't help but seeing the ropes of the game, even if it works. The game is thrilling, obviously.
In your biography, surprisingly, the game you're the most enthusiastic about is Legend of the Mystical Ninja, on Super NES. This merging of gameplay styles, it's something we can also find in Beyond Good & Evil -- as if it was less important to fit into a genre than to tell a story by interactive means.
MA: Exactly. It was a really important game for me. Around that time, Super Mario World was out, but if I were given the choice, I preferred to play Mystical Ninja. Primarily because it was a two player game, that one might climb on the other's shoulders. And they were this mythical levels, where you could make the background crumble, the other player fall. And then there were the Mode 7-style rendered bosses, a story, hidden paths, and games inside the game. It's true that it was a game one couldn't define.
I sometimes forget to quote it, but alongside The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, it's one of my models. They share one thing in common: they're a world in their own. Gameplay is secondary. Of course, when it comes to video games, gameplay is essential. But whenever there is storytelling, some sense, it's better. Gameplay is about action. But it's the story which explains why we pursue this action.
This is something very striking about the genesis of the first Rayman. In your biography, you never talk about any gameplay-related ambitions. It looks like the game had been thought of from an artist's view, which is pretty unusual for a platformer.
MA: It's true. To tell the truth, the first Rayman wasn't so fun at the beginning of the project. But when Serge Hascoët arrived, we were able to find the correct alchemy between the artistic side and the gameplay.
Today, which game are you the most proud of?
MA: Of course I'm very happy with Beyond Good & Evil, even if while playing it again in HD, I sometimes felt it deserved to be dusted. We learned so much since BGE that we'd of course have a lot to things to polish. I think than Beyond Good & Evil 2 might be as different from the first Beyond Good & Evil as Rayman Origins is from the first Rayman. Everything we learned about rhythm, and mastering the gameplay, we'll be able to use it.