When Michel Ancel took the stage at E3 this year after the unveiling of Beyond Good & Evil 2, he didn’t introduce himself. No American-accented announcer bellowed his name or job title. We already knew who he was – the creative director behind Beyond Good & Evil and Rayman. And Ubisoft expected us to know too.
Related: everything we know about the setting and story of Beyond Good & Evil 2.
But how many other Ubisoft staffers could you name? There’s the CEO Yves Guillemot, of course. Patrice Désilets and Jade Raymond, two of the faces of early Assassin’s Creed – neither of whom have worked at the publisher for years. Patrick Plourde, the passionate director behind Child of Light. And possibly Clint Hocking, if you’re a Far Cry 2 apologist. If you’re counting on more than one hand, you’re doing very well.
Yet in 2016, Ubisoft approximated – because, apparently, they couldn’t say for sure – that the company employed 10,000 people. Of those, 80% were working in production at the time, making games. So why do we know so few? Where are the other Ancels?
Perhaps more so than any of their peers, Ubisoft have defined the shape of the modern major publisher. Where once they worked with a host of independent developers to bring projects into being – providing funding, distribution, and feedback to studios they otherwise had no hand in running – they now operate a network of directly-owned studios across the world.
Glance at the credits for an Assassin’s Creed game and you’ll see several studios namechecked. Ubisoft’s largest games are made by cross-continental teams – so that Ubi Montreal can get to work on Watch Dogs 2 just as Reflections in the UK finishes their shift.
It’s an approach that’s increasingly becoming standard practice due to the onward march of hardware, which demands ever-larger team sizes. Although Obsidian worked with Ubisoft for South Park: The Stick of Truth, that collaboration came about under unusual circumstances: namely, the fire sale that followed the closure of original publishers THQ. And sure enough, the series was taken in-house at Ubisoft’s studio in San Francisco for the sequel.
You probably heard about that decision. Obsidian are one of the best-known independent studios in the world, and which projects they do and don’t work on is big news. But, by and large, Ubisoft have the luxury of switching the lead studio of a series between projects without prompting any upset or outrage. Splinter Cell can shift from Montreal, to Shanghai, to Toronto, without the gaming public batting an eye.
That anonymity might be convenient, but it makes the business of following games less personal. One of the great joys of consuming pop culture lies in recognising a distinct authorial voice – the bridge-chorus of a great pop song written by Max Martin, or the John Wagner deadpan in a classic Judge Dredd strip. But comics have bylines, and it’s far harder to approach triple-A games with the same mindset when studios and their directors are treated as interchangeable.
It’s not just about giving credit where it’s due – there’s clearly a financial payoff to promoting creative directors. Beyond Good & Evil, let’s not forget, was a commercial failure. It performed badly enough on launch that an entire planned trilogy was cancelled. Now, however, it’s birthed one of the most anticipated sequels of our times. That’s due in part to Ancel’s reputation – buoyed by Peter Jackson’s backing, the resurgence of Rayman, and Ubisoft’s willingness to let their goofy French charmer stand front and centre.
Ancel has held that privilege alone for much of the last decade. He’s been with the company almost since its foundation, and Guillemot has a particular soft spot for Rayman. But there are signs that Ubisoft are starting to see the sense in developing some of their creators as personalities.
The distinctive baritone of Dan Hay – who has produced the Far Cry games for years and now takes on the mantle of creative director for Far Cry 5 – has become a fixture of the publisher’s E3 press conferences. And For Honor was sold through sheer force of personality by Jason Vandenberghe, the big, hairy swordfighter who looks for all the world like a character from his own game.
And then there’s Ubisoft Montreal’s in-house ‘indie’ division, Fun House – an incubator for smaller-scale personal projects, run by Child of Light’s Patrick Plourde. Perhaps the publisher is conscious that it’s easier than ever for their most charismatic talents to leave the nest to pursue passion projects as independents. Whatever the motive, Fun House is a potential breeding ground for another Ancel – a larger than life character that players can see reflected in the games they make.
This hopeful future isn’t without its problems. Film critics have long recognised the flaws in promoting a single figure to the status of auteur, rendering the work of others invisible. Games are team efforts, after all, and the overwhelming majority of that 10,000 remains anonymous even as more creators come to the fore.
However. One of Ubisoft’s standout ‘indie’ projects to date, the devastating Great War game Valiant Hearts, allowed developers at Ancel’s Montpellier studio to step out of the shadow their creative director had cast for so long. Not only is Valiant Hearts an excellent game, but it’s one that shows Ubisoft Montpellier’s finest traits – a tendency to mix silliness with pathos, and a proclivity for genre-hopping sequences set to music – to belong to the studio, rather than one man.
Paradoxically, the move to find more Ancels might just see the developers who enable figures like him to finally be recognised.