Talking with Michel Ancel is a lot like playing one of his games. The conversation starts off gently, with an almost deceptive charm. Then things warm up, and Ancel bounces around with infectious enthusiasm, pulling you into his creative world and tossing you about as he ricochets from one idea to another. It’s joyful, expressive – and loaded with whimsical sound effects that don’t translate to the written word. All that makes sense, though, considering Ancel is the creative force behind the Rayman franchise (including the just-released Rayman Legends), along with the beloved Beyond Good & Evil and what’s arguably one of the best (and longest-titled) movie-based games ever, Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. We chatted with Ancel a few weeks before the release of Rayman Legends, during which he shared his colorful insights into the creative process behind his latest game. Oh, and because we couldn’t help ourselves, we tossed in a few questions about Beyond Good & Evil as well.
What is it about the 2D platformer that makes it such a perfect canvas for expressing pure gameplay and artistic vision?
When you are painting or drawing, it’s always in 2D. You’re used to doing those things in 2D. You can work with the artists very easily. So, for example, the concept art we’re doing for the game can very quickly be in the game itself. The connection between the artist, the musician and the game is very simple. When you’re working in 3D you have to sculpt and you need a lot of people working on it. It’s very technical. Here it’s very direct. There is a direct connection between the artists and the game. It’s easier to add content to the game.
Tell us more about how the art, level design and music work hand-in-hand in Rayman Legends.
The different levels of the game are driven by different things. Some levels are driven by the music. Some others are driven by an artistic idea. Some levels use the lights, for example, and that’s more visual. Some of the levels are more driven by the gameplay itself. We try as much as possible to ask the people from the different teams to be involved in the final result of the game. One is not working for the others; they are working all together for the game. I think the fact that in a 2D game you can easily experience things makes people more involved because they can try more things. They aren’t afraid of the cost of trying things. They unleash more of their creativity.
So it lets the team focus on being creative?
Yeah, and the result is the kind of game where you want to experience different situations and discover lots of different things.
With Rayman Origins, you expressed the notion of the player bringing the world to life with his actions. That’s continuing in Legends. What’s the thinking behind this idea?
I think people want to be involved in the game. They don’t want to look at a cinematic. They can watch a movie for that. In a game you enjoy disturbing the environment, modifying the environment and playing with it. You can dig into the cakes or you can use the flow or tickle the enemies. Most of these things are not really possible in most other games. We tried as much as possible to give interactivity to the players.
At the same time, Rayman Legends is very minimalistic when it comes to the available moves and actions. What are some of the challenges of this minimalist design approach?
We want people to pick up the joystick and play very easily. That doesn’t mean the game is too easy. We tried to avoid, as much as possible, information on the screen that has no real purpose and that could confuse the player. You can play five players at the same time (on the Wii U) so if everyone has a complex HUD it can get very confusing. We tried to be as simple as possible. The controls need to be simple, but you have things to discover. By combining what you’re doing you will see there are even hidden moves. We want the game to be super easy to handle but hard to master.
I found that I play Rayman better when I get into the flow of the level and trust both the characters’ moves and my own abilities. It’s when I try too hard to “game” the game that I run into difficulties. Is this something you built into the game?
The levels are made so you can do them in one run without stopping and waiting too much. It’s based on the flow. If you master the game you might be able to do the whole level without stopping. It’s made so the speed run is possible. So if you think you can’t do it, maybe you should trust more in yourself and maybe you can pass the obstacles.
The music levels are one of my favorite parts. What went into selecting those songs?
Some songs are very repetitive. You need events that are not too repetitive. If the song is repetitive you are doing the same thing over and over in the game. “Eye of the Tiger” is perfect because you have events and beat changes. The best is when the song goes up and down or the guitar slides because then the character can slide. We need events like that. We looked at a lot of different songs and only selected about six.
Rayman or Globox? And no fair saying both…
I would go with Globox because he’s very stupid and I think being stupid is more relaxing than thinking too much.
OK, you knew this was coming, so here goes: Beyond Good & Evil. What is it about BG&E that still resonates today? Why is it a game people really still rally around?
Maybe because it’s a game between genres. Rayman is very creative and colorful. On the other side you have some extremely violent games based around shooting and killing. I’m not saying one is bad or good, it’s just that maybe Beyond Good & Evil is a bridge between those two kinds of games. It is a mix of creativity and more mature content. I think there is a lack of this kind of game in the games industry.
Part of it has to be the main character herself. Jade was a different kind of female hero, especially a decade ago…
Yeah. When we started the project the first thing we said was, If this project is different it’s because it’s a female character who is driving the story. She’s not like other characters who look like women but act like men. I’m not saying women don’t shoot guns or defend themselves; it’s just that most women in games are clichés. They are just one vision of the woman. We wanted to create this character and respect her. We said, This is our character. This is how she is. We are not going to modify her with our male fantasies. We tried as much as possible to make Jade her own entity and her own personality. It was one of the challenges of development.
How do you feel about next generation of consoles? Have you had a chance to play around with next-gen hardware?
Developers are always excited by new hardware because it’s more possibilities. I appreciate a few things. The PlayStation 4, for example, is really developer-friendly. It’s not a nightmare to develop on this console, which means the team has more energy to spend on the game itself, rather than on the console. The other cool thing is the social features, which are very strong. Today people are talking about social. It has no meaning until you experience it. The success of the Internet is not really about the Internet, it’s the social activity around the Internet. The Internet is just a tool. Without people the Internet would just be an encyclopedia. It wouldn’t be so exciting. The exciting thing is the connection between people. I think the social thing is really something that’s going to evolve and be more integrated in a game so you can, for example, do your investigation and share evidence with friends. It’s fun to say people are going to play more together, not necessarily at the same time but in the same kinds of situations.
Do you see a next-gen future for Rayman?
Yeah, because sharing things is very interesting. With the Miiverse you can share a screenshot and things like that. Imagine if you could record yourself. It’s going to be crazy because you’ll be able to see people do certain challenges or this thing or that. It’s not just about leaderboards, though. Sometimes it’s more about something funny you’ve done in the game or something crazy that happened. When you play Kung Foot, for example, having a recording of a specific moment could be really funny because then you can share it and say, Hey look, we lost the game but this is what happened. It’s like in real life when you talk about what you’ve done today or tonight. You’ll say, Oh I met Michel Ancel. It was incredible.