- second-hand smegma
- May 4, 2004
It hurts my maiden eyes to see chu people insult Xenogears.
New interview with Ancel. Some nice pictures at the site.
Rayman Origins, Beyond Good & Evil and the state of the games industry: An interview with Michel Ancel
Rayman's creator and lead writer Gabrielle Shrager chat about their creative process, plans for BG&E II and the importance of fun
If you ever need an argument to reinforce the idea that games are art, the works of Michel Ancel are a pretty good place to start looking. One of the game industry's most recognizable developers, the energetic 39-year-old has been the driving force behind the quirky Rayman games, the stunning-for-its time adaptation of Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, and the subversive, critically acclaimed commercial failure Beyond Good & Evil.
His latest creation, Rayman Origins (due to release Nov. 15) appears to fit neatly into Ancel's rebel oeuvre: it's unapologetically 2D, brilliantly animated, endearingly goofy and fun in an old-school, friends-on-the-couch way. In other words, potentially amazing, but something of a gamble at retail (especially considering the heavy hitters it's up against this November).
When we last played Origins back in August, we had a rare opportunity to visit Ancel's Montpelier studio Ė and more importantly, to sit down with Ancel and his collaborator, Gabrielle Shrager, for a conversation about Rayman, Beyond Good & Evil (and its sequel), and Ancel's thoughts on the current state of the industry.
GR: In making Rayman Origins, how has the reception for other previously 3D games that went back to 2D, like Mario, Sonic and Mega Man, influenced you?
Michel Ancel: Itís funny, because we started Rayman Origins a long time ago, in fact. We have been experiencing these [development] tools since like three years ago. While we were doing the first tests Ė this was for different projects, I hope this [other] project will proceed shortly, it was a 2D project with multiple players. And then we saw LittleBigPlanet, we saw Mario coming, and we were like, ďOK, itís time for us to redesign our game.Ē
My feeling is that LittleBigPlanet did the first official move toward playing four at the same time. But in my memory, itís more the good old Bomberman games, or all the tennis games, the 2D tennis games. You were able to play four and five with Bomberman, or even eight on the Saturn. I donít know, there was one console, it was crazy.
GR: I think it was 10 on Saturn.
Michel Ancel: Yeah. And itís justÖ itís not an innovation, itís just like if we were remembering that 2D makes possible this kind of thing. 3D, you have the camera, itís very hard to contain the players, or you have to split the screen in 10. Can you imagine? But here in 2D, you have this overall view, and you can make people interact with each other. So I canít wait to have games where you can play eight.
Of course, itís difficult. Maybe everybody comes with his controller, and you can play. With this engine, you can play 10 if you want. Thereís no limits, just input limits. But itís just that it was fun, and we just realized that the technology moved too freely, but this old fun is now moving back to 2D, it makes old things able to come back. And with the HD screen, itís better.
GR: Given how easy it is to drop art assets into the game, are there a lot of incidents where artists have come up with something cool or interesting for the game that you want to find a place for? Or is it more, ďWe need this sort of thing for a given area, so create something along those lines?Ē
Michel Ancel: Itís a real bad answer for these things. (Shows us the art pictured below.) These three artworks show differences. That one is an artistic view of the ocean. We said ďWe want you to draw something in the Abyss, but whatever you want. Surprise us.Ē That one is more a variation of the same place, with different colors to create different moods, like pink, orange and blue.
But that one (indicates the art below) is more an order, because we wanted straight shapes for the gameplay. We wanted something to hide the secret passages. So itís really an order, but sometimes we have this concept art, we have the feeling that this should be in the game. And so we have that reverse way of thinking, like, how this can be really interesting in terms of gameplay? So we are both finding ways to converge in terms of creative process.
Gabrielle Shrager: Itís not always function that leads the dance; sometimes itíll be the graphics.
Michel Ancel: Thatís really interesting, because itís always a balance between surprise from the artist, or ordering things, and you know what you want. But you know, one person told me one day, ďWith the artist, you must not order. You must inspire.Ē Inspire the artist, more than ordering things to them. And itís funny, because if you inspire the artist Ė like, not ordering things, but just saying ďthis is the Abyss, this is a place where everything seems to be hidden, but at the same time it seems peaceful,Ē then the artist can try to imagine things and evolve to create different things. Therefore, you have seen the level inside the dragon Ė itís the same guy who did these two. Here, itís more insideÖ
Gabrielle Shrager: An anemone. The interior of a sea anemone.
Michel Ancel: Yeah, so itís the same kind of idea. Itís recreating a surprising environment for us.
GR: While weíre on the topic of inspiration, what kinds of things do you draw upon to come up with the ideas for these games?
Michel Ancel: You know, here we live close to the sea. Itís funny, because you canít imagine how many things are in the sea, just behind you. Because I live just three kilometers from here, on the border of the sea, and I used to take my scuba diving suitÖ and youíve got octopus, youíve got some kind of giant fish, some very big fishes. Sometimes you can see sharks, youíve got squids, and itís a world that looks simple, but you can imagine a lot of things, and there are maybe more than what you can imagine. And I think that in a game, itís very interesting to retrieve the sensation of exploring something, and not really being able to know whatís coming next. And thatís the kind of things we want to bring to the player.
Gabrielle Shrager: Michel taught me something very important, because sometimes I would come in with art done by other artists. And he said ďNo, Gab, you donít show the artists other artistsí art. You want to show them something, you describe something in nature, or you can show photos, or real elements from the real world. But if you show them another artistís interpretation, youíre just going to influence them, whereas they have their own creative vision. And thatís the way I think that Michel also gets completely unique environments and characters, because he doesnít ever say, ďItís like this person,Ē or ďHave you heard ofÖ?Ē It all comes from something inside him, and inside us, and inside each of the artists.
GR: So would you say most of your inspiration comes from nature? Are there any other games or pop-culture works you draw inspiration from?
Michel Ancel: I think, looking back now at all the things we did in that game, itís reallyÖ when we worked on Beyond Good & Evil, it was more political things, political situations, you know. It was the period of the Iraq war, and September 11, and it was a very terrific period in terms of propaganda and things like that. And the game is really close to this environment and situation. Rayman is more, I would say, close to nature, and the fact that when you were a kid, you were always discovering things.
We donít remember those periods, but when you are two, when you are three, everything is new, in fact. And maybe as a very, very young kid, you see someone in the street, and the face of that person, very old person, can be like a monster, you know? These people talking to you, you donít really understand the language, you canít imagine how much itís influenced you as what you are now.
Some people say, ďno, supernatural things, this is not good, this is not rational.Ē But we always live in an irrational world, because we donít understand the world exactly as it is, especially when we were kids. Imagine when you go back in a place, when you were kids, you had the feeling that the place was giant. When you go back when youíre an adult, the size is normal. So that means that when youíre a kid, you thought giants were existing.
I think Rayman is really influenced by all these sensations. As adults, we still have sensations like that with the ocean, or with weird creatures we can see with microscopic vision. So thatís the main thing.
GR: Since you mention Beyond Good & Evil, there's something Iím curious to know. It didnít do so well initially in terms of sales, but there have been several pushes over the years Ė giving away PC copies for free, the HD version, etc. Have you seen the audience for it grow at all? Has it become more of a success, in your opinion?
Michel Ancel: Yes, of course. And itís good to see that people are pushing the game by themselves. The people that love something, they can beÖ (speaks in French to Shrager)
Gabrielle Shrager: They become proselytizers, the people love the game so much that theyíve been selling it to other people just by word of mouth. And it becomes a cultish game just of its own volition.
Michel Ancel: The thing is, this game, when I worked on it, had kind of a political dimension. So for me, it has this serious aspect, it has this kind of depth, and itís very cool to see that people are sensitive to the fact that there could be a game with a message. And I think that now, very good games have come before and after Beyond Good & Evil, and it just gives us the message that this kind of game is the kind of thing that can appeal to a lot of people. And they are not the no-brain people that people outside of our industry think we are, you know, just things with no brain who donít care about the art, donít care about the story. Thatís exactly the contrary. I think most of the games that really have success, games that have a certain depth Ė my feeling is that Beyond Good & Evil is part of that.
So, yes, but itís more than the commercial success. Itís a very positive response from a lot of people.
GR: Given how much the world has changed since 2003, do you think the sequel to Beyond Good & Evil will have a similar message?
Michel Ancel: No. Weíve already worked on the sequel, and the idea is to be deeper in this direction, and to have thisÖ involved storytelling. Thatís the main thing that we have to focus on.
GR: Can you talk about whatís going on with the sequel?
Michel Ancel: Yes, weíve been working on it for a long time, but weíve had some technical issues. Itís a complex game. The first Beyond Good & Evil, when I sent the technical document to Sony, it was the time of the Emotion Engine on the PlayStation 2. We had the feeling that we could do whatever we wanted. We sent them the document, it was about planets, going from planet to planet, towns to towns and all these things. But in the end, what we were really about to do was far less than what we wanted.
And of course, the scope of Beyond Good & Evil is large Ė youíve got the city, the ocean, the moon and the space ship. But the space ship was designed to go from planet to planet, and it was frustrating to have those limitations. And my thing is that we really want to make the game that was previously imagined, with all this feeling of traveling. Mass Effect did a good job on that side, and I think that there are a lot of things to do to continue in that direction, with storytelling and a massive world.
GR: Is that why it wonít appear on the current generation of consoles?
Michel Ancel: Yeah, yeah. Thatís the reason.
GR: Does it feel constraining to work on something like King Kong, thatís somebody elseís vision?
Michel Ancel: Itís different, because then you donít focus on creating the world, you focus on how to make it very immersive, and true to the vision of Peter Jackson. To me it was cool, because it was just after Beyond Good & Evil, which was a real creation, and itís a lot of work to create everything. Here it was half the work, because Peter Jackson showed us a lot of things. He was very proud of the world of King Kong.
And we went in a room like that, and all around the room was all the concept art of King Kong. And each concept art, he detailed each concept art. And when he detailed those concept arts, he said that all of these things will not be in the movie, because the movieís two hours long Ė but maybe in the game, you can use it. So it was always not in the movie, but could be in the game. Ö So it was cool, because we had all these things. So each game is different from this point of view.
GR: Seeing the way that you guys have interacted today, and being in your studio, itís obvious that youíre very jovial with each other. Is it the same with a project like this and the Rabbids games as it is with more serious matter, like BG&E and King Kong?
Michel Ancel: You know, it depends, because you can work on a very serious game and have a lot of fun. It really depends on the connection between the people. Itís like that in every kind of work. Maybe you, as journalists, youíve seen different things, and you work differently with the people around you depending on their personality. But yes, of course, this kind of game, we really need to have fun.
We canít lie. You canít work on this kind of game without the fun of working on it. So we have Dick Man (points across the room at an animator infamous for leaving obscene doodles around Ubisoft Montpelier's studio), which is drawing dicks everywhere. Itís crazy.
Gabrielle Shrager: And it translates somehow, without the XXX rating, into the game.
Michel Ancel: One day she had like 20 dicks around her screenÖ different shapes, and different colors, and different activities.
Gabrielle Shrager: It was helping me concentrate, obviously.
GR: Is it difficult to not be influenced by all the dicks?
Michel Ancel: (Laughs, points at a Teensy) Look at the nose of that guy! (laughs) Donít tell that.
GR: Would you agree with the statement that a lot of the time, 2D cartoon art can be more relatable than ďrealisticĒ 3D graphics?
Michel Ancel: You mean feeling involved in the game, with 2D? My feeling is that itís just a matter of distance between the results and the idea. With 2D, you have seen that if we want to draw a skeleton, itís a matter of seconds. With 3D, itís a matter of maybe minutes, or maybe hours, between the idea andÖ but with new 3D tools, I believe that 3Dís going to be closer to direct ideas. If you look at most of the media, you look at the movies, for example. Most of the movies take their stories from books. Books are written by people alone, with no constraints, with their own personality. Itís not a matter of discussing with 20 people what to do. Itís just doing something. So itís very pure, in terms of creativity.
We are very committed to the artists, their input is directly put in the game. But in 3D, itís coming, because with new tools, likeÖ I canít really mention them, but there are tools that help you really create content quickly, so it should be better and better. Thatís my thing.
Gabrielle Shrager: You obviously donít have to worry about the ďdead eye.Ē Itís called photorealistic, but is that actually going to make us identify more and more with these characters? With LA Noire, do we feel more immersed because theyíve gotten that technology into it? I donít know.
When you look at the popularity of Cartoon Network, when you see how many adults have gone back to watching cartoons, itís much easier to identify with the whimsical, and the original and the artistic than it is with someone who youíre supposed to identify with because heís supposed to look like the bad guy, or heís supposed to look like somebody you should recognize, whereas these are completely invented. So you make your own relationship with them.
GR: Was the multiplayer something that was planned from the start?
Michel Ancel: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Thatís the main thing. Without the multiplayer, we would not have been doing the game. Making just a high-definition game for me is not interesting.
GR: What do you hope that the multiplayer component adds to the overall experience?
Michel Ancel: If you play alone, and then you play with friends on the same levels, the experience is very different. So itís a way of having a good replay value, because you can unlock the levels, maybe you have friends at dinner and you want to play with them, you can play from the beginning, or pick up any level and make them play. Because you can save them, you can try other levels, and maybeÖ
(At this point, Ancel is briefly distracted by a group of players shouting in the background.)
Michel Ancel: And you see, thatís the kind of reaction we want to imagine people being able to have in their living room. Itís the way social games could go. Not having people alone at home with their iPad, but playing all together, directly.
GR: Do you envision the game as being playable online?
Michel Ancel: I would say yes, but thatís not the mainÖ it would be a good addition, thatís my feeling. But itís not as essential as sharing the experience directly.
GR: Since the last Rayman game came out, how has the audience changed, and how have you changed, and how is that reflected in Rayman?
Michel Ancel: The levels youíve played are good, but are not polished yet. I think the way we polish the game is the main thing. We now know more how to make a high-quality kind of game, and weíve all seen too muchÖ of course, with design, we are a bit more experienced. And we have more processes now to fine-tune the game and try to make it better. We really know where we are good and where we are bad. When we started a long time ago, we were just making things and not really analyzing what could make them better or not. But now, with time, we try to have more methods to understand how to make the game better.
GR: Do you see many differences in design philosophy between the way that American, European and Japanese developers approach games?
Michel Ancel: I would say maybe 10 or 15 years ago, yes, there were differences. Because maybe videogames were perceived as a very authorial. Not authorial, butÖ it was more about experiencing. And today, there are some genres where you can try to make your game, and you donít have to rewrite everything from scratch. On one side, itís good, and on the other itís not so good.
The good part is that you can make a very creative game, but you donít have to rewrite the control scheme, and you can say, ďOK, Iím going to have the controls of a classic FPS, and my game is going to be about the storytelling,Ē and maybe you can have an addition of a role-playing game. If you look at Fallout, for example, maybe you play it like an FPS, but itís more kind of role-playing, itís kind of classic feeling. Like Mass Effect, too. But the controls are established. And now, it makes European, Japanese and US games closer, because they share the genres more than they did a long time ago.
The bad thing of that, of two ideas being there at the same time, is that maybe games play the same too much. They seem too close. So itís still cool to innovate, in terms of controls, and to create new experiences, but itís not essential, I would say. Sometimes innovation in every part of the game is not the essential thing. Maybe you can say Iím going to innovate in the way I tell the story, but not in the control.
If you look at Beyond Good & Evil, the controls are classic controls. They are close to Rayman 2, or to Mario 64, and itís a third-person control. The control of the hovercraft is classical, too. But the way all those things are blended, and the story, makes the game unique. Very special. So thatís my feeling. Itís not just about innovating everywhere, itís trying to focus on one part of the game. Thatís why all those games look not so different in the different countries.
GR: Speaking of authorial control, when you look at Rayman Origins now, does it feel like itís your game? Do you feel a certain ownership, or do you feel like part of the team?
Michel Ancel: For Rayman Origins, itís quite special, becauseÖ itís more that people, they know that Rayman, Iím very close to this world. And when I started working on the project, they knew that, OK, this is Michelís world, and we are going to try to render this world. So of course itís a big teamwork, but itís very close toÖ because we try to be very true to the first Rayman. It was a garage game. I did it alone. I did the code, the music on the Atari ST first, so itís a long time ago. They know that itís a personal project. But at the same time, I know I couldnít make this game without their inspiration, and all this art. Thatís why the art thing was very interesting, because itís really the mix between ordering things, and putting their creativity in the game.
GR: What kind of feedback have you gotten from the Rayman community? How has their feedback played into what you guys have done differently?
Michel Ancel: In fact, itís quite early, and my feeling is that the community of Rayman fans is slowly, because we didnítÖ we are going to open a blog [The Daily Bubble] to tell the story, how itís connected to Rayman 1, 2, 3, and I think itís going to help them understand the work weíre doing with Rayman now. My feeling is that theyíre slowly understanding the move, but we donít know how much we want Raymanís world to be connected, with the different episodes, and to be immersive. We donít want to make that game that just looks like level one, level two. We want to give him a soul. And we are working with Gabrielle on that part. Itís not so easy, because itís a game that involves lots of gameplay and level design, and on top of that, we try to make the story connections with all these elements. And I think that Raymanís fans pay attention to all the details.
Gabrielle Shrager: Theyíll probably ask us lots of long, hard questions about why we didnít do this, or why we didnít do that. And weíre trying, globally, to satisfy them. Theyíre finding their characters, and the responses that Iíve seen on the forums so far have been, ďOh, itís the same old wacky universe,Ē ďoh, itís the hilarious characters.Ē So the heart and soul that Michel was saying, is there. Fans will be fans; someone will say, ďWhy didnít you put this character in? We really wanted to see this character!Ē But basically, we hope that by giving it a coherency that really doesnít exist between all of the Raymans, that we can then build on that, bring in the old fans and create new fans, and keep moving and expanding the universe from there.
Michel Ancel: We are spending a lot of time trying to take the pieces, and collect them all together, bringing the characters Ė you saw the mosquito, for example. We try really to reconnect and give them more depth. But at the same time, itís a game that is funny, because it has sometimes no depth. So you put depth to a character that is just silly, and maybe you donít need to do so.
Gabrielle Shrager: Itís like overkill.
Michel Ancel: So itís a balance between keeping the simplicity, and then trying to explain everything, and at the same time trying to have a sort of coherent world. So we are working quite hard on that.
GR: Is there anything you wanted to do in Rayman Origins that you havenít been able to do?
Michel Ancel: I donít think so. I donít think so, because Raymanís worldÖ I have a very good overview of that world, and how to keep the simplicity and keep the creative feeling for that world. So my feeling is that in this Rayman, we didnít have so much frustration, or logical things that make usÖ you know, this world is the dream of [the Bubble Dreamer], or the nightmare of that character, so itís very open in terms of creativity. You can really make the things you want, and the nightmares you want, and I like the fact that, at the same time, this character, this kind of god, is influenced by his creations. Itís like when youíre doing a creation yourself, and then you look at what youíve done, and you say, ďOK, I can modify it,Ē because itís talking to you in a certain way. And I like the fact that in this world, the creator is influenced by his creations.
GR: Do you find yourself relating to the Bubble Dreamer?
Michel Ancel: Somehow, yeah. We creators are kind of making creative bubbles.
GR: With Origins launching during the holiday season alongside a ton of shooters and yearly franchises, what kind of audience are you hoping will connect with this game?
Michel Ancel: Because the game is HD, I will see the people that have moved to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. They like the good picture of the Blu-ray, and they love 60 frames-per-second games, and they love deep games and good old platformers. I think those can be gamers, they can be the parents that now have stopped playing, but want to play a game, but with something different than what they played with before. So the audience is quite large, in fact. It can be gamers, but it can also be people who are going to move to HD now. Because, you know, the familyÖ in the family, sometimes, you have a gamer, and now gamers are parents. So the core audience is really people who want to retrieve the good old sensation of 2D, but now in HD.
GR: What, if anything, do you think is wrong with the games industry right now? Or right, for that matter?
Michel Ancel: Itís very hard to emit an opinion on whatís good and wrong, because everything is going so fast. Maybe too fast. Maybe thatís the main thing, is that people are jumping from one thing to another, and the bad thing that could happen to videogames would be to have games that you buy for one dollar, but you just play part of it and you move to another one, another one, another one, and you never really go deep in one game. And this could be a bad thing, the fast food of the games. And then, as old gamers, we could say, ďOh, in our time, we were waiting for a game! A game was something important, but now we have tons of games, and the price cut makes them like fast food.Ē
Maybe this could be a bad thing. At the same time, itís a way to enter the videogame world easily, because you can play a game for free or one dollar. So maybe the entrance is easy, but then the game must be longer, or the wait as we make the game must be different. So we have to deal with this new way of making games.
GR: If the industry moved entirely toward casual/iPhone gaming, as some are predicting, would you still be interested in continuing to games under that model?
Michel Ancel: Itís hard to say. Itís a very interesting question, because are we making games for the audience? Are we making games for making tons of people play our game? And do we want people to be hypnotized by the game, like some games where you play hours and hours and hours, doing the same thing all around just to increase your XP? Or do we want games that really make you think differently and discover new things? I think itís very interesting to try to manage those elements, and try to keep doing good games in this context.