We now know for sure that the much-anticipated Beyond Good and Evil 2 is, finally, in full-scale development. For the past ten years the game has been one of the industry’s open secrets but its creative director, Michel Ancel, has been working on other projects, such as the Rayman Legends games and Wild (which still occupies around half his time). Then in September, Ancel posted this image to Instagram:
It looks very much like a young Uncle Pey’j - the charming pig - sitting on the shoulders of someone who could be, fans speculate, original protagonist Jade’s father. The scenario presented had an obvious symbolism: this was Ancel saying he is finally working on the game.
At last week’s Indiecade Europe I spoke with Ancel after he delivered his keynote. About the game’s development, why it was never cancelled, and Ubisoft’s current position among the big publishers.
“That was not a gimmick but a way to say 'Look. The game exists and we can do it.'”, Ancel says, explaining the timing behind the image’s release. Ancel says his team at Ubisoft has been working on the sequel properly since the release of Rayman Legends - it’s still a long way from release, and needs to be “more concrete” before he spills all the beans, but represents “a very serious development for Ubisoft.”
Ancel explains that one of the reasons it’s taken this long for the game to go into full development is that the technology simply wasn’t mainstream until two years ago.
For Beyond Good and Evil 2, Ancel and his team wanted a focus on interplanetary travel. “Even on Beyond Good and Evil 1 it was supposed to have space travel and all these things but we were limited,” Ancel says. “The big thing that is really cool is that the consoles are now so powerful [...] The amount of memory the CPU has, you can do those things now. It's not 'Oh, we will never do it.' It's working.”
“I've been working on [Beyond Good and Evil 2] for a long time, on the technologies that allow you to create those kinds of games - tools to draw the big planets and things like that,” Ancel says. “We're confident on the quality and that we can achieve that kind of game.”
Ancel admits that, even if he wanted to make this game a decade ago, other developers are now tackling the same challenges of galactic-scale games. “It's like the gold rush on planets,” Ancel says. “We're looking at games like Star Citizen and seeing they have these big planet systems and thinking 'We have the same problems but we are more advanced on this side, [whereas] they're doing something nice on this side.'”
One of the challenges of scale has been building the components of BG&E2 without quite knowing how to overcome the computational problems of building a galaxy. “[We had] big questions that are so big you can't know the answers because no physics engine can handle all of the dimensions and speeds and things like that,” Ancel says. “It's like 'Okay, if no physics engine can do it, how can we achieve that?'
“It's crazy and difficult to explain to people how technical making a game is. Now it's not anymore about polygons and things like that, it's about millions of behavioural AIs, systems, and giant spaceships crashing on big planets”
And even when it’s technically possible, even after the engineers have built the tools that allow for planet-scale games, the team still has to make it interesting to actually play. “You need to have diversity,” says Ancel.
In May 2009 a video of a pre-production build of BG&E2 leaked.
Beyond Good and Evil was a critical success, if not a commercial one. The sequel has been long-anticipated and could have been pushed out sooner, even if the technology to make it the interplanetary game envisioned wasn’t there: Ancel admits that the team compromised on travelling between planets on the first game.
Perhaps this inspired a certain mindset with BG&E2. The opportunities for releasing it would have meant compromises and so - despite the evidence of pre-production work surfacing sporadically over the years - the project was never moved into full production. But neither was it cancelled, which Ancel says is thanks to Yves Guillemot and Serge Hascoet, respectively Ubisoft’s CEO and chief creative officer.
“They want these kinds of games to exist,” Ancel says. “When they wake up in the morning they don't want to make money - they've got money for ten lives if they want to stop. It's not a question of power or money now. What reason has this company to live: Is it to beat competitors? No, [Ubisoft’s] already in the top three. It's being able to create things that have never been created before. [Guillemot and Hascoet] are the ones that want to make this happen. They ask the creatives 'You want to do it? We can do it.'”
Of course, Ancel’s unadulterated praise, while genuine, may also be inspired by something that is threatening Ubisoft at the moment: the hostile takeover from Vivendi.
Throughout 2016 Vivendi has been buying up Ubisoft’s shares in an attempt to gain a controlling stake in the publishing house’s boardroom. In June Vivendi took over Gameloft, Ubisoft’s sister company. Later that month the board resigned in protest. Since then Vivendi has been buying more shares in Ubisoft, while Guillemot has been trying to convince current shareholders not to sell.
Inside Ubisoft, many developers aren’t happy with the prospect of a new owner, including Ancel. “There is something very fragile that makes a company what it is,” Ancel said. “[It’s made of] people who have been working together for a long time. It's always the same, if you look at King or Supercell, it's a group of people who did something very strong at a certain time.”
“It's not just one person most of the time, it's a lot of people who make the team work. If you change the team this fragile system could break, it's a risk, and today there is no reason to change it, unless people want to make more money. But Ubisoft is good at what it's doing.”
As part of the day-to-day, Ancel says his staff try not to let what’s going on in the boardroom affect them. They remain focused on delivering BG&E2, and across Ubisoft its developers remain committed to the idea that - while they work for one of the industry’s giants - they’re also part of a company that has soul. It is striking that, from the top to the bottom of the company, no-one makes any bones about Vivendi being an unwelcome presence.
“We try to continue in the normal way,” Ancel says. “We try to [remain] focused on our job and not think too much because otherwise... you aren't natural anymore.
“You can't live with the threat.”
Flights and accommodation for Indiecade Europe were provided by the organisers.