Following the success of Rayman Origins on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the developers at Ubisoft Montpellier immediately got to work on Rayman Legends, a sequel promising more of the franchise's quirky characters and diverse gameplay. When the opportunity arose to tailor a version of the game for Nintendo's then-unreleased Wii U, Ubisoft jumped at the opportunity to bring even more players into the Rayman fold.
Their decision left the Rayman Legends team staring down two barrels. Not only had they yet to get their hands on the Wii U's touch-friendly GamePad, they had to figure out a way to incorporate its functionality—functionality that would inevitably be compared to how Nintendo, long considered the best developer for its platforms, made use of the tablet in its own 2D platformer helmed by its world-famous mascot.
"We basically had to imagine our own benchmark to create our game," explained Emile Morel, lead game designer on Rayman Legends. "I remember that during the whole development of the game we were very afraid that New Super Mario Bros. U would propose the exact same touch gameplay we were offering. When this Mario game was finally released, we were relieved to see that their touch gameplay was quite different from our proposal. They were making great use of the GamePad, but in a very different way than us."
In the Villa
Rayman Legends had more standards to measure up to besides those set by Nintendo. Revered by critics upon its release in November 2011, Rayman Origins was the latest reinvention in a series known for its ability to rebrand itself as times and industry trends changed. The franchise debuted as a 2D platformer, entered the third dimension for Rayman 2, and assembled a collection of motion-heavy minigames for the Wii.
With Rayman Origins, the first proper sequel since 2003, Ubisoft Montpellier delighted fans and critics by doing what Rayman did best: march to the beat of his own drum. The game's graphics were vibrant and whimsical, its characters eccentric and memorable, its levels varied and challenging. Players had to expect the unexpected, and so did the lead designer for its sequel.
"Rayman Legends was my very first experience working on a Rayman game," Emile Morel said. "I was familiar with the Rayman universe since I had played several Rayman games before, but it was my first experience working on a game starring that crazy, limbless hero."
Franchise creator and director Michel Ancel tapped Morel to work alongside him on the sequel at "La Villa," a 400-year-old home nestled in the center of the French city of Montpellier just off the Mediterranean coast, where the Rayman team concocted their creations. Morel felt excited but daunted. He had got his hands on an early copy of Rayman Origins a few weeks before it shipped out to stores and had been floored by its artistic visuals and deep pool of levels. "I started feeling a bit of pressure at that time, and then the amazing reviews for the game arrived, and at that point the pressure was even higher," he said.
His worries were assuaged when Michel Ancel asked him to sit down one-on-one and share his honest opinion of Rayman Origins. "I told him all the things I had loved about it, but also the things I thought we could improve for a sequel," Morel remembered. "I remember talking about two major points. First, at times the Rayman Origins experience could feel a bit abstract: You were playing one level after the other, without really knowing why you were there and without a true feeling of progression or continuity."
Even though Rayman had never been a story-heavy game, Morel wanted Legends to feel more cohesive. Each level should be one step in a larger adventure so that players get a sense of progression as they move from objective to objective, world to world.
His second issue concerned difficulty. Since the tail-end of the aughts, tough-as-nails platformers had enjoyed a resurgence. Games like Retro Studios' Donkey Kong Country Returns and Ubisoft's own Rayman Origins garnered praise from veteran players who appreciated level design that put their platform skills to the chest, but scared away more casual consumers who had not cut their teeth on infamously demanding NES-era classics.
"I felt like we could do something about this to make sure everybody could enjoy the game and potentially finish it, without sacrificing the super hard challenges that people—including myself—love about these games," Morel said.
Far from taking offense at Morel's candid answer, Ancel agreed that Origins' difficulty and disparate construction had been nagging at him, too. Tying together the dozens of environments that players would visit in Rayman Legends—from castles and forests to lava-soaked caverns and jungles bordered by thorny flora—and giving players more leeway in tackling harder levels would make an already great template even better.
"For instance, in the fourth world, called '20,000 Lums Under The Sea', you start by diving into the ocean, then you swim to the bottom of it to finally discover a secret base," Morel explained. "After sneaking in by avoiding guards and security systems, you finally realize they're building some sort of crazy mechanical dragon inside a secret lab in that base. Playing through all the levels composing this adventure gives you this feeling of progression in the game."
Morel and Ancel addressed Origins' steep difficulty curve by giving players more choice in how they advanced. All worlds and their levels were accessible via the Gallery of Dreams, a hub environment filled with paintings. Paintings acted as portals into worlds, and players had to save a certain amount of the fairylike Teensies in order to access paintings, like collecting stars in Super Mario 64. "This open structure allows players to play at their own pace and travel from one world to another to finish the levels in the order they want, making sure they never get stuck in the game," Morel said.
While Rayman Legends is grounded in classic run-and-jump platforming, some of its most memorable stages deviate from that norm. Early in pre-production, the developers mapped out a concept known as infinite challenges, procedurally generated levels made from predefined blocks snapped together on the fly. Infinite challenges were geared toward expert-level players: they started out challenging and ratcheted up difficulty the longer players survived.
"At one point, we had an important meeting in Paris to show internally our work on the game and we wanted to showcase the most difficult [segments] in those challenges to explain how tricky they could become," Morel said. "The only problem was, those challenges were so hard at that time that only the level designer, Simon Chocquet-Bottani, who had worked on those challenges could play long enough without dying to reach those specific bricks, and unfortunately he couldn't be at that meeting."
Morel and Ancel began to fret. No one else at Ubisoft Montpellier besides Chocquet-Bottani had the chops to show off infinite challenges. Ancel decided that the best course of action would be to record himself playing some of the levels, and cull his best attempts into a flashy video arranged to wow company brass. He layered heavy metal music over his recording to further illustrate the mood and hazards of infinite challenges.
To Morel's amazement, Ancel perfectly synced Rayman's jumps and kicks with the sounds of the instruments in the metal soundtrack. "People loved that video in the Paris meeting, and Michel sent us a mail directly from the meeting: 'Guys, we have to make musical levels where players will have to play in rhythm with the music.' Everybody immediately loved the idea and the same level designer started working on our very first musical level."
Composing musical levels was a team effort. The game's programmers wrote routines to ensure that the player's movements would synchronize with the rhythm of Heral's music. Meanwhile, Chocquet-Bottani cobbled together a proof-of-concept level using a pre-existing music track. Each level would be an auto-scroller—a stage that propelled the player forward—where players had to leap pits and attack enemies to prevent Rayman from running head-long into them. For his prototype, Chocquet-Bottani matched up player actions such as jumps, kicks, and tornado attacks with sounds—vocals, guitar riffs, and drums.
"The first time we got a playable prototype, everybody wanted to try it," said Morel. "It felt incredibly good to play, like the impossible mix between a high-speed platformer and a rhythm game."
Happy with their prototype, Ancel and Morel got Christophe Heral, Ubisoft Montpellier's resident musician, to write heavy-metal tracks for each stage. Many were Rayman-style covers of famous songs like Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," given a flamenco twist to fit the game's lush visuals and sound effects.
"Then Simon was able to build his levels based on these tracks that had been composed with the gameplay in mind," Morel continued, "and Christophe kept refining his tracks to make sure that all the important sounds for the gameplay would be easy to hear in the final mix."
Not to be left out, Rayman's artists accentuated musical levels with visual effects that punctuated the player's actions and Heral's music. "The brief for these levels was the following: let's give the player the feeling of stepping inside a musical," Morel said. "Those levels were a blast to create, and the story behind their creation totally reflects how the whole game was created, how ideas were just popping up all the time, some of them making it into the final game to become key features."
Kung Foot, a minigame where up to four players square off in a variation of soccer, was another idea that started as a fun diversion and became a staple. The team developed Kung Foot as a prototype purely to have something to play during studio parties. Even at work, developers found themselves splitting off into teams for impromptu tournaments.
"At the very end of production, Michel and many people in the team really wanted to put Kung Foot inside the game," Morel said, "but it was a bit late and our producer said he would only agree to put it in the game if we could quickly send him a simple design to integrate it. So, we worked really fast to put an actual design on the whole thing and luckily Kung Foot was able to be integrated into the final game."
The Gallery of Dreams hub brought every level, character, minigame, and objective together. "It's not necessarily what people remember about the game," Morel said of constructing the gallery, "but it was very satisfying to build because it was towards the end of production and it was like finally assembling the whole game. Building this hub was like putting the final touch on the game, but a very important touch because it had to work perfectly to allow all the elements comprising the game to shine."
Early on, one element of Rayman Legends lacked the luster of its constituent parts. "For several weeks, it wasn't really clear how the Wii U GamePad would fit in the game, and we were sort of avoiding the issue focusing on other parts of the game," said Morel.
Although the Wii U version of Rayman Legends is considered by many to be the finest implementation due to its unique GamePad functions, the game did not start as a Wii U title.
"As we were working on the game, we started to get our first info about the Wii U and our game seemed like the perfect fit for this new console, so at that point we became a Wii U exclusive title," Morel explained. "But in the back of our heads we were always thinking about versions of this game for other consoles, even if we had no idea whether or not we could ever do these versions."
PS3 and Xbox 360 owners were less than pleased by the news. They loved Rayman Origins and did not like the idea that another version might be superior to the game they would eventually receive. Meanwhile, the Rayman team wrestled with frustrations of their own. The GamePad and Wii U were inextricably linked. Players could not use the console without the tablet, which meant that Ubisoft Montpellier needed to figure out a clever way to involve both the television and the tablet screen.
Ancel and Morel called an all-hands meeting in one of the studio's conference rooms. A whiteboard dominated one wall. Ancel got the ball rolling. "The first one to have clear ideas about this was Michel," Morel recalled. "Ideas like tickling an enemy to make him laugh and distract him, cutting the stilts on an enemy walking on stilts to make him fall, etc."
The co-designers opened the floor to suggestions. Answers trickled in. Maybe, someone suggested, the player could slash their finger across the screen to cut ropes. Someone else recommended dragging platforms back and forth. Warming to the concepts, the rest of the team offered up suggestions. "By the end of the meeting, though, the whiteboard was completely covered with drawings, each of them illustrating new touch interactions in our game," said Morel. "After that meeting, we were convinced that the Wii U GamePad was a great creative tool and that it would allow us to create a unique kind of gameplay in a platforming game."
Most of the GamePad implementation was filtered through Murfy, a grinning creature resembling a cross between a fly and a frog. Murfy made his debut in Rayman 2 and had been on ice until the development team realized that controlling a character through the GamePad fit Morel's guiding principle of unifying gameplay and story.
"Being just a finger on a screen wasn't very exciting, and it was putting the player using the Wii U GamePad into another space, like he wasn't really inside the game's world with the other players," Morel said. "Everything changed when we decided that the player using the GamePad would control a character."
Murfy fit the team's needs perfectly. His role in Rayman 2 was that of a guide, fluttering in to dispense advice and leaving heroics to the more able-bodied (albeit limbless) Rayman. "With Murfy's integration, the whole gameplay on the GamePad felt totally different," Morel remembered. "You had clear feedback on your actions thanks to the animations Murfy was performing—you could see him grab a platform to move it, tickle enemies, cut ropes—and even if you were playing on a touchscreen you were controlling an actual character just like the other players who were playing with 'regular' characters like Rayman, Barbara, and Globox."
The team was so thrilled with the implementation of Murfy that they implemented a drop-in-drop-out system. At any time, a second player could pick up the GamePad and take command of Rayman's fly-frog guide. Besides a touchscreen, the GamePad contained a gyroscope that allowed for applications like asking players to turn it like a wheel. "We used this in very fun ways in Rayman Legends with puzzles where you have to turn entire rooms with Murfy to allow the other characters to progress in a sort of maze," Morel said.
Collectively, those Murfy features doubled their workload. "It may seem like a simple idea," Morel admitted, "but it forced us to develop two types of interaction for almost all our gameplay elements: one interaction for the regular platformer characters and another interaction for Murfy and his touch gameplay. Working on this double interaction for all our gameplay elements was a lot of work, and sometimes felt like we were working on two completely different games at the same time."
While enlisting a second player to control Murfy via the GamePad and help Rayman get through levels amounted to a one-of-a-kind experience, Ubisoft Montpellier knew that some consumers would play Rayman Legends without the aid of a second player to control Murfy. "This is a typical issue with asymmetrical gameplay: it's perfect for multiplayer experiences but very difficult to adapt for single-player gameplay," Morel said.
Their solution was to create an auto character—a character that moved autonomously through the levels. At such junctures, players would pick up the GamePad and control Murfy to clear a path as the auto character charged ahead. "We spent a lot of time working on the AI of this 'auto' character, and in the end I think these levels work great and offer a really entertaining use of all the functionalities of the Wii U GamePad."
A larger problem was teaching players to pay attention to both their TV screen and the Wii U GamePad. In the early 2010s, the games industry coined the phrase "second-screen experience" to refer to apps for smartphones and tablets that complemented gameplay on the player's main display. However, most second-screen experiences were designed for optional tasks such as browsing online rankings. Few games asked players to look from one screen to the other as they played.
During early play tests, Ubisoft Montpellier noticed that players got stuck at the point where they had to switch from watching Rayman on their TV to controlling Murfy on the tablet. "They were standing there having no idea what to do," explained Morel, "so we put more indications on the TV screen to tell you to look at the Wii U GamePad at this moment, but still it wasn't perfect because you always have players who don't read what's on screen, and you certainly can't count on little kids to do that."
They solved the issue by having Murfy appear on the GamePad screen and call out and knock on the glass, as if he were trapped inside the device. Players invariably looked down and touched the screen, setting him free and assuming control of him for the next game segment.
"It made a lot of people laugh and definitely draw their attention to the GamePad, helping to make this transition from one screen to the other perfectly smooth," Morel said.
Rayman For All
Following multiple delays, Rayman Legends launched in September 2013. Unfortunately, Ubisoft Montpellier pivoted from releasing the game as a Wii U exclusive to a multiplatform title. GamePad-centric features were adapted to a more traditional control scheme on Sony's and Microsoft's platforms. To many, the more direct interactions made possible by the Wii U GamePad set that version apart as a more intuitive and immersive experience.
"What I like in the end," said Morel, "is that the Wii U version of the game kept all its gameplay specificities related to the Wii U GamePad, and some people will tell you it's the ultimate version of the game, while other people will tell you that Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are way superior. In the end, I think what's important is that we managed to please all people owning this game, no matter what platform they played it on."
Rayman Legends launched approximately 10 months out from the Wii U's launch in the fall of 2012. By that time, Nintendo's console was struggling at retail, leaving Ubisoft little choice but to target as many platforms as possible. "We were going to different events to showcase Rayman Legends and people were coming to play the game, they were manipulating the GamePad for the first time and they were asking us questions like 'This looks cool, can I buy this controller for my Wii?'" Morel recalled. "It seemed like people had trouble understanding that this was a brand-new console offering something totally different than the Wii."
Morel does not anticipate Nintendo encountering a similar problem with the Switch, the company's newest system that can be used as a traditional console attached to a TV, and as a portable like its 3DS family of devices. "As a developer I'm very excited about two things that are at the core of the Switch: the mobility, of course—an old gamer's dream, being able to keep playing your favorite game everywhere—and the strong multiplayer aspect of the console. With the two Joy-Con controllers sold with the console you have everything you need to play with a friend, and I don't remember so many consoles being natively sold with two controllers."
Morel hopes that the Switch's versatility will encourage more spontaneous play among consumers. A player might sit down in a public venue to start a game, only to notice someone else playing Switch and invite them to join in. That sort of ad hoc collaboration was at the heart of Rayman Legends, and could extend to other Switch software.
"I really hope that this will encourage more developers to offer a cool system of 'opt in/opt out' available at any time in their games," Morel said. It's something that was really important for us when working on Rayman Legends: making sure that at any time one or several friends could join your game, and leave just as easily. That's why I think the upcoming adaptation of Rayman Legends on Switch should be a pretty fun experience on this console."
Regardless of where they play Rayman Legends, Morel hopes players continue to enjoy it. He and the team are proud of their 92 aggregate score on Metacritic and, on a personal note, proud of how their game has been received by fans as well as the Japanese publisher whose carpenter-turned-plumber paved the way for Rayman and other platform games.
"I know my nephews really loved the game when it came out, and their parents had to buy them their first console so they could play it even when I was not around," he said. "I'm also quite proud of something that most people don't know about Rayman Legend: Nintendo loved the game so much and thought it was such a great game for the Wii U that they decided to publish it themselves, like a true Nintendo game, in Japan. When Nintendo does that, you know you must have done something right with your game."
A special thanks to Ubisoft Montpellier and Emile Morel for participating in this interview.