Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil creator Michel Ancel has denied accusations of toxic mismanagement.
The claims were first reported by French newspaper Libération over the weekend, highlighting harmful behaviours from Ancel as well as various issues with the development of Beyond Good & Evil 2.
The in-depth article was published alongside an interview with Ancel himself, who recently announced he is leaving the games industry to focus on his other passion: wildlife. Libération began working on its report ten days prior to Ancel's departure.
Around 15 Ubisoft Montpellier employees who worked with the creative director described him as a "toxic" personality around which the entire studio's "grotesque" organisation revolved.
The employees also shared a feeling that Ancel was protected by his friendship with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot. Ancel has been under investigation since early August following Ubisoft's efforts to clear its workplaces from toxicity, after the various accusations that have emerged against the publisher since July.
But despite the investigation, Guillemot still reportedly decided to "renew his trust" towards Ancel at the end of the August, saying his presence was non-negotiable, although the BG&E2 teams advised against it.
When asked about the internal investigation against him, Ancel said there was no link between his retirement and the investigation, pointing out that he's not only leaving Ubisoft, but also his other studio, Wild Sheep.
Focusing on Ancel's attitude within the Ubisoft Montpellier studio, the Libération report highlighted "non-stop changes of direction" on BG&E2 due to the "all-powerful" creative director, who reportedly always needed to be the one to shine. No decision apparently could be made at the studio without Ancel giving his approval. It's worth noting that Ancel was only working part-time on BG&E2 -- his mornings were spent at Ubisoft, and his afternoons on Wild, a PS4 exclusive which was announced at Gamescom 2014.
"Michel [Ancel] needs ideas to belong to him," an anonymous developer said. "He often prefers improvising something of his own rather than listening to the team and having a look at the structured work we had been doing to his request."
This often led to months of work being erased. Ganesha City, the super detailed city you can see in the famous E3 trailer that revealed BG&E2 to the world in 2017, has since been redone four or five times, with Ancel requesting the same level of detail each time.
"He could tell you that you're a genius and that your idea was astounding, then rip you a new one during a meeting and tell you you're nothing but shit, that your work is worth nothing, and then not talk to you for a month," a source said.
This led to a dozen Ubisoft Montpellier employees burning out and having to take sick leave, while others simply quit or asked for a transfer. Teams would organise themselves so only one person would have to talk to Ancel, preferably someone who had known him for a long time, so people wouldn't be too exposed to him.
Senior game director at Ubisoft Montpellier Jean-Marc Geffroy joined in 2017 to challenge Ancel, leading to even more tension within the teams and Ancel distancing himself from the project, to the point where he was only around a couple of mornings a week. The entire project was almost shut down in early 2019. A board of directors was created to try and rescue it, but this didn't make things easier for the teams.
"To cope, the only solution for us is to accept that, by definition, the board is always right," a source said. "They say, we do. It gets complicated when they don't agree with each other. The further we are from them, the better."
In the interview Ancel gave to Libération, he evaded the difficult questions, and rather chose to focus on the ambition of BG&E2 -- he called it the "first AAAA game" -- and the difficulty of working on such a big project. The nightmare development of the game seemed to be the core of the issue for him.
"The news from Libération contains fake information revealed by few people who [want] to destroy me"
When asked about the burnouts, he said that some were not prepared to face a project of this scope, adding that he suffered too and that there "were people who were sad."
Libération challenged the use of that word, saying it went beyond that.
"If you want, we can work on the terms," Ancel replied. "For me, this sadness can be very deep. Of course [the fact that] a person [is] burning out is terrible. Of course if someone stops a project after years working on it, it's a part of their life that disappears. I'm not depreciating that, but you have to consider the context of such a creation, its ambition, its complexity.
"Maybe that's what should be questioned indeed. Maybe we shouldn't do it, it's flying too close to the sun. But we signed [up] to put ourselves at risk, and taking risks is burning out, is being upset, and so on. People don't see the pain behind projects, but it's a real pain, you are right. Because we're passionate, we work insanely long hours, we give everything and we're extra sensitive. I have all the more empathy for these people that I am part of [the team] too."
Ancel only mentioned one case of burnout that he was aware of. He did admit there were regular changes when working on the production of BG&E2, but minimised the scope of the issue. He said he wasn't surprised that some people asked for him to be removed from the project, and also pointed a finger at Jean-Marc Geffroy and the constant changes in management of the project.
"The latest big games of Ubisoft Montpellier were made by about 30 or 40 people, now we're talking about 250 people collaborating from everywhere. People want to work like they used to, they want their comfort zone, they're losing their references. We'd love to always work based on what we learnt from the previous game. Maybe there were too many sudden changes, the size, the R&D, too many new things."
Following the publication of the interview, Ancel reacted in English on Instagram saying Libération's articles were "fake news."
"Take [a] few people with rage and jealousy and let them speak in the name of hundreds," he wrote. "Publish the news fast so that it combines with sexual harassment from other news at Ubisoft. [Is] this serious? Is this what you expect from a national newspaper[?] I will fight for the truth because such accusations are a shame. I worked hard on every of my projects and always had respect for the teams.
"The news from Libération contains fake information revealed by few people who [want] to destroy me and the projects. This can't be done without me fighting every single [line] of that news. I've offered the journalist the opportunity to take enough time to look at all the mistakes. Let's see what he will do."
In a separate post, he added: "I left video games because I was exhausted. This is not a way for me to escape any responsibilities. Like many other people, I [participated in] the independent investigation because I still believe in truth and justice. I ask Libération to question itself about the violence of its methods. Real stories of real people are not a product."