King Kong Q&A: Michel Ancel
We talk to design maestro Michel Ancel about the challenges of creating a game based on a blockbuster movie.
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Developer Michel Ancel is arguably one of the pillars in Ubisoft's stable of talent. The veteran creator is often credited as the father of Ubi's Rayman franchise, which was one of the key franchises that helped the French publisher/developer establish itself as a force in the video game market. Since then, Ancel has continued to grow as a developer. Following a few subsequent entries in the Rayman series, the ambitious developer and his Montpellier studio released the stunning, original game Beyond Good and Evil. The action adventure game was a radical departure from the Rayman series, offering up a rich experience that ranked among one of 2003's best and established Ancel and his team as more than just "the Rayman team." Though the game was critically acclaimed, it went commercially unappreciated.
However, one impressive perk was that it caught the attention of director Peter Jackson, who remembered BG&E's rich experience, as he was searching for a company to develop the game counterpart to his reimagination of the movie classic King Kong. While you'd think the task of crafting a game based on what will surely be one of this fall's blockbusters would be daunting, Ancel and company seem to be more than up for the challenge. We had the opportunity to check in with the veteran developer to see how things are going and what we can expect from the game.
GameSpot: How did you approach developing a game based on the film? What did you feel the experience had to offer players in order to succeed?
Michel Ancel: The film gives an overall context and proposes strong themes and characters, in particular King Kong himself.
I approached the game on my side thinking of it as a full creation, while taking a maximum of my inspiration from the values within the movie. For instance, this story has a very primal spirit to it that I really wanted to get through to the player. The notion of survival directly creates a challenge and is part of this idea to live a true adventure. To survive means to understand the environment and take advantage of it. It is a mix of attack and defense that is really fun to play, gives a rhythm to the gameplay phases, and naturally brings variety.
GS: Did your experience with the most excellent Beyond Good & Evil influence Kong's development at all?
MA: Yes, of course. I think in particular that the "multigame play" experience of BG&E helped us a lot to develop a game that will deliver two completely different gameplays, one as a 25-foot-tall gorilla in third person, and another one as a simple human in first person.
GS: What kind of graphics engine are you using? Are you using movie clips or CG to move the story along?
MA: We want the story to be fully interactive. There are virtually no CG sequences in King Kong. The huge majority of what is featured on the screen happens when you play and are in control. The few cinematic scenes are rendered by our home engine: the Jade Engine, which has been optimized for the development of King Kong.
GS: How much of the game's soundtrack will be taken directly from the film and how much of it is original work being created for the game?
MA: The music, and the sound in a general manner, have to be in phase with the action. It is something crucial if we want to keep a very high level of immersion. For that reason, we wanted to compose our own music for the game, with the "blessing" of Peter Jackson of course. So yes, all the music will be original.
GS: Assuming that the game's plot closely follows that of the movie, will players be able to dramatically influence it in any way?
MA: The players will have the chance to relive the story of the movie, but it won't be limited to that experience. It was important for us to go beyond the movie and to propose exclusive content and situations, while preserving a constant rhythm and a direction of quality all along the journey.
Also, we agreed with Peter Jackson that the game should offer choices to the player. At the scale of a chapter, the player can use different styles to pass the obstacles and move forward. At the scale of the storyline, we will offer some interesting surprises.
GS: How large are the Skull Island and 1930s New York environments in the King Kong game, and will players will be free to explore them?
MA: Skull Island offers a very large and rich environment with lots of different moods and atmospheres.
In terms of gameplay, we went for story-based unfolding to keep the focus on the action and avoid long exploration phases that would not suit the whole notion of emergency that gives a rhythm to the adventure. And inside the story, the players will be able to replay the chapters they've already completed and discover new techniques and styles of play. Replaying the chapters will also allow players to unlock features in the game.
GS: Which character(s) will we get to play as in the King Kong game? Any chance of us donning a giant gorilla suit?
MA: This is the number one question on this project! What is funny is that Peter Jackson already answered it even before entrusting us with the game development. For him, to embody Kong was the most intense way to live and understand the story of the big gorilla. Video games allow us to change skin, to become other beings. Playing as Kong means to become a myth, one of the most iconic characters of cinema's history. We just couldn't keep the player away from such an experience.
Otherwise, the whole idea of having a dual gameplay Jack/Kong is to vary the emotions of the players. From stress and struggle to mighty power and freedom. You are placed at the two extremes of the food chain.
GS: What advice would you offer to someone about to play King Kong for the first time?
As Jack, always take time to observe your environment and do not hesitate to hide and think of a tactic to trap the predators.
As Kong, on the contrary, you shouldn't think too much and just let your primal and beastly instincts talk! For me, this change of state is really the funniest element of the game.
GS: Who would win in a fight, King Kong or Donkey Kong?
MA: Those big guys are friends! Why would they fight? We could say that King Kong would win the arm wrestling match and Donkey Kong the conga challenge!
GS: Thanks for your time.