A week after leaving the game development industry after more than 30 years in the business, Rayman creator and former Beyond Good & Evil 2 Creative Director Michel Ancel is being accused of having a toxic management style.
Liberation, a French publication that investigated the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct at Beyond Good & Evil 2 Publisher Ubisoft earlier this summer, published stories from Ancel’s team at Ubisoft Montpellier about their experiences working with the Ubisoft superstar for Beyond Good & Evil 2.
According to the article (translated by users on Resetera), Beyond Good & Evil 2 has been in development for seven years, but the team is still in the concept stage and are struggling with tools that haven’t been finalized yet such as the engine created just for the game at Ancel’s request.
But the toughest thing about working with Ancel is the constant changes he imposes on his developers. According to the article, weeks or even months of work can be swept away in seconds. This process of making and unmaking can cause surprise delays in one department, which can block another department from doing their job.
“He’s able to explain to you that you’re a genius, that your idea is great, and then disassemble you in meetings by saying you’re a piece of shit, that your work is worthless, and not talk to you for a month,” one developer told Liberation. “He’s someone who has a creative process that is based on erosion, erosion of his vision and erosion of the people around him.”
It’s not just the constant reversals that are the problem, but that the reversals come from arbitrary, unexplained reasons. The team feels that Ancel doesn’t so much want to create a game with the team but to create one in spite of the team.
“Faced with a concrete problem, a leader must show leadership, but not provide the answer,” one team member said. “Otherwise, the ‘little hands’ have the impression that they are useless and find themselves dispossessed of their work.”
Also, no decision, no matter how small, can be made without his approval.
“Michel needs the ideas to be his own,” said one developer. “He often prefers to improvise something of his own rather than listen to the team and look at the structured work that has been done at his request.”
Developers say that Ancel’s volatility is not only due to creative surges but to a constant need to shine and be the last to make a mark.
“When he was talking to the press, we took notes because he was always amazed, he was always shining on the outside, he was inventing things and coming up with ideas that became guidelines. And it could concern points that we had been stuck on for months waiting for indications,” a project manager said.
Developers have had to organize themselves in order to protect themselves from the constant changes from Ancel, a process they describe as a “necessary evil.” They’ve set up independent “squads” centered around each component of the development process where only one person is allowed to talk to Ancel, preferably someone whom Ancel has worked a long time with. That way development can be somewhat focused. But even that doesn’t work.
“This pole structure, I believed in it at first,” a developer said. “They wanted to set up a transversal system, except that we remained in the mentality of a pyramidal operation. So it can’t work. The poles compete with each other, there are turf wars, and you end up with an immeasurable number of managers.”
As the project goes on with little in the form of tangible progress, the psychological wear on the employees grew and grew. One developer said that he was able to hold out because he no longer put any affection into the work. Others have collapsed or suffered from depression and burn-out. Some have requested for transfers or resignations. Some want to leave but don’t out of fear that they’ll be sapped at the time of their evaluations or just perceived as cowardly.
“Around me, I’ve seen a good dozen people go on sick leave, probably more… Meeting people with tears in their eyes, it happens often,” one veteran team member said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen that at Ubi.”
According to the article, Ancel only worked with the team part-time. He worked on BGE2 in the morning before working on Wild, his other game at Wild Sheep studio, in the afternoon. Ancel has been accused of receiving special treatment from Ubisoft, as his creation Rayman put the company on the map in the gaming world early in the company’s history with the first game on the PlayStation selling over 13 million copies.
Jean-Marc Geffroy was brought into the team in the summer of 2017 to work on the project as the creative manager. As time when on, Ancel began distancing himself from the studio believing that BGE2 was becoming less and less of his game.
At the beginning of 2019, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot and former Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoët arrived at the studio ready to cancel the game which had reached an impasse after six years of development. However, the team earned a one year reprieve so long as they deliver on a “first playable” demo. Ancel more or less disappears from the studio, with his voice only coming through the IP team.
To get the project back on track and limit Ancel’s impact on the development process, Ubisoft established a board of 18 men. But they proved to be just as dysfunctional, with them focusing on the demo while ignoring the pain the team was under.
“To try to alleviate the Ancel problem, they sent us some big names, others of these ‘talents’ with oversized egos and execrable behaviors caught up in a barely concealed superhero syndrome, all convinced that it would be them and them alone who would save BGE2,” a developer said.
The team was actually dreading that Ancel would return after being absent from development for months and throw away all their hard work. But when he announced that he was retiring from game development to focus on a new project at a wildlife sanctuary, they all breathed a sigh of relief. The only influence Ancel has today is a sheet of paper with the original concept for BGE2 condensed into eight maxims. Since then, recruitment is accelerating and the team finally has a chance to team up and start afresh.
When Liberation asked Ancel if he was aware of the suffering and burn-out team members experienced during the development of BGE2, he said “no, very sincerely.”
Of course, you can sense that it’s difficult. But it’s difficult to sum up these seven years in what you’ve just said. To have things redone, that’s the lot of such a creation. One is prepared for it or not, one has already experienced this kind of situation or not. On projects of this scale, nothing is taken for granted. A lot of people were not prepared for it. To say that there are moments of doubt, that the direction I’m taking is not understood or badly explained, it’s possible. We lay ourselves bare: I am evaluated as “not competent”, as “the boss who doesn’t know where he’s going”. People become those who erase, those who redo, and there is impatience. Suffering is on both sides. Yes, it is difficult and there are people who are sad.
Regarding the burn-out experienced by team members, he said that he’s seen some people experience it but he never asked why they were experiencing it out of modesty.
“It would have been nice if someone had come to talk to me about it,” Ancel said. “I never knew if it was a clumsiness on my part, or too much of a request. Some people left because it was too long, because they were bored. Maybe it’s something that could be improved, spending time with people, hearing what’s going on better.”