If there’s been one leading victor in the last decade’s rapid sophistication of games development it has been Ubisoft. As games have reached new platforms, the French firm has spread to new continents. It has the largest development resource in the world, with teams in markets both established and emerging.
But while Ubisoft has defined everything great about games development, it has also helped complicate the field. Its biggest operation is the 2,000-strong Ubisoft Montreal, a site which effectively wrote the rules on contentious points like staff-hungry superstudios and proprietary in-house tech (supported by tax breaks, natch).
This seems to have weighed on the mind of Rayman creator Michel Ancel, one of the publisher’s longest-serving developers.
After having kept a low-profile in games for five years after following the release of Rayman spin-off Raving Rabbids, he’s back with a 10th anniversary game, Rayman Origins. And yet it is not just the origins of his best-selling franchise he’s reimagined – but the very fundamentals of games design and production.
BACK TO BASICS
When Origins’ development started, Ancel insisted on going back to basics production-wise as much as the game did conceptually.
That meant a small team, just a handful of people left to their own devices at his Ubisoft Montpellier studio. He wasn’t interested in running a controlled and predictable super-sized team. “The thinking there is simple,” he tells Develop.
“The smaller the team, the more freedom you have. So the backgrounds in our game are designed by a very good female artist – I just wanted to let her imagine things freely and build a connection with art. It’s not about asking for something precise, but something creative. With a large team, you don’t get that chance. You must order people around, and tell them what to do.
“But a small team really exchanges ideas. And I knew that Rayman needs a… well, I call it ‘out of control’ creation. Where you don’t know what’s coming next.”
Ancel is no stranger to that bigger team structure, which in many respects Ubisoft as refined. Some of its games are such an undertaking that yearly episodes require four or five studios in different time zones working through art, design, multiplayer, and so on.
The feeling Develop gets from him is that this method has become anathema to him.
“Yes,” is the plain, honest reply. “The big teams have to be very controlled and precise – they avoid surprises. So the more organic nature of a small team allows you to move quickly and explore more.
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate both ways of making a game.”
But the contrast to the production of something like an Assassin’s Creed is apparent. “It was very refreshing – and there was less pressure [in that machine], so you have the time to be creative. The human mind moves very quickly and fires off so many ideas, when you’re smaller you can keep up with all those ideas.”
Right now, in the four months or so before the game is completed, the Origins team has actually ballooned to 80 – but that’s to finish the game off, says Ancel. This is the film production model at work, not games industry tradition.
“The team size has grown now because we know where we want to go – it’s the ‘doing the thing’.
“But the creation needed to be small. And then [when it comes to the next game] you shrink again, otherwise people get tired. Or artists end up spending ages drawing blades of grass for years.”
A NEW FRAMEWORK
Ancel’s approach to making games seems best described as enthusiasm tempered with weariness. There’s no way a game as attractive as Rayman Origins could come from anyone less positive about the industry. Talk to him about games generally and he’s an avid fan. Like many developers, he says he hasn’t time to make games and play all he wants, but he signals out recent hits like Angry Birds and Mass Effect as titles he’s made sure to play, while keeping an eye on new platforms like tables and smartphones.
But he’s clearly frustrated with the way the industry makes those games. And once team management approaches were challenged when Origins’ production began, Ancel moved on to his other irritation; technology.
“When we were making games for older platforms, we were just using synthesisers for music, we were experimenting with what we had and it was fun,” he says of making the original Rayman, which became a slow-burning commercial hit on PSone. Famously, the character himself doesn’t have a body because the hardware couldn’t render that and his movement. So his design was born from technical constraints.
“But over time music in games just became real orchestras and more detailed. Something was lost. The trend has always been to get ‘better’, more detailed, more realistic. But we don’t necessarily agree. You become focused on new technology all the time.”
The answer, ironically, was to build an alternative tech at Montpellier, and UbiArt Framework is the result. It’s a platform designed specifically to help artists contribute more directly to the design process, a personal delight for Ancel who started out as a graphic designer on some of Ubisoft’s early internal productions in the late ‘80s.
Origins’ gameplay is a 2D multiplayer platformer – but the levels are essentially paintings simply scanned into UbiArt.
“It takes away the technical constraints that are exhausting for artists: modelling, rendering… all that technology just creates a huge gap between what you intended and what you get. It allows us to iterate constantly, and we prototype rapidly,” says Ancel. “We tried to limit the constraints on artists so they have a direct connection with the game.”
And it shows on screen – Rayman Origins was one of the most eye-catching games at E3 last month, a creative star amidst a parade of high-end, blood-thirsty core gamer titles. The paintings effectively come to life thanks to UbiArt and the power of current-gen consoles.
“Of course [despite what I said about technology] we’re embracing HD graphics – it enables this to work. But the point is to use the right tool for the right job,” he adds.
Other industries are attracted to what UbiArt offers too, he says: “We’ve been really frustrated with a lot of 3D content in games – it’s never as we want it. But we’ve been talking to some big names from the comic book industry, and showing them UbiArt. We can take their images and scan them in, and it is true and consistent, but interactive – they were stunned. I can’t talk much about what we are working on with them, but that’s the beauty of it.
“We can bring highly creative art to life. The style we are going for is a mix between classic arcade gameplay, but with a very vibrant art element. In future we can use it to create some highly original artistic games.”
SHARING THE VISION
What he wants to do next with UbiArt is another convention-challenging idea. He wants to give it away. For free.
“When we started this project we were very focused on letting this develop organically and share what we learned. So UbiArt has been built to be shared. It won’t be like other games technologies, which are often just locked away.”
The inevitable process of full licensing and distribution for the technology is still to be determined – Ancel and his team say that they’ll leave that to the Ubisoft powers that be. But they are insistent UbiArt will be opened up so that a new wave of developers that don’t work for Ubisoft will have access to it: “We will get it out there, for sure.”
Won’t that be expensive for his employer?
“Making Rayman here I have two goals. Firstly, to prove that this engine can be done, and that it is creative. And secondly, to make an actual game with it and prove it works.”
So his thinking that Ubisoft will profit from the game and the artistic works created with UbiArt, not the tools themselves.
“If the guys who invented the paintbrush only kept it for themselves then fine art [would be in a sorry state], it would be ephemeral,” he says. “So yes, I want it to be open source, I want it to go out and be shared and evolved.”
Ancel wants to take a page from other artistic mediums to further prove his idea holds water.
“If you look at the best artists at Disney for example, they create incredible books and artwork and share their processes – it’s interesting because those same people are happy to look at how other artists are developing their style. That whole medium has evolved on the basis of sharing ideas. But in games we lock it all in a black box and keep it to ourselves,” he says.
“A lot of independent developers fail or struggle because of that trend. We need to be more open. I don’t believe that keeping the technology to yourself is interesting. I want someone to look at our game and be inspired to use the tools to be artistic themselves. It is more interesting to have a community and share our content.”
FINDING THE FUN
For Ancel and his team, this free approach to teams, artistry and technology takes them back to what they first loved about making games. “When we created Rayman we were very naive, just doing what we thought was funny and letting the development rule our direction,” he recalls.
Plus, holding on to the original Rayman concept from 15 years ago has only helped encourage this new way of working.
“Our challenge was asking ‘Why can’t we do a very good game in 2D?’ We’re evolving the technology to concentrate on gameplay.
“As a creator if I knew 15 years ago what I know now… well, Rayman Origins is the game I’d intended to make. I’m not thinking about technology. I’m thinking about fun and concentrating on that. Every creator says ‘I want to focus on fun; but that’s not true – they have to think about technology, or a story, or team management. The pure fun is lost. I think we’ve managed to hold onto that as we made this game.”