Ubisoft’s acclaimed Montreal studio, makers of best-selling games such as Assassin’s Creed* and Prince of Persia*: The Sands of Time, has spent the past two-plus years collaborating with James Cameron and his Lightstorm Entertainment to create three original video game prequels for the epic 3D movie, Avatar*. One of the primary focuses for the team of over 250 developers was the Microsoft Xbox 360*, Sony PlayStation* 3, and the PC game, which utilize proprietary 3D stereo technology to extend the world of Pandora beyond the 3D-ready HDTVs and LCD monitors.
While Cameron has pushed computer-generated technology, and more recently 3D technology, with his blockbuster films such as The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, and Titanic, he has stayed away from the video game industry, allowing licensors to choose game publishers for the various film projects. With Avatar, a film that originated 14 years ago at a time when Cameron’s Digital Domain special effects house could bring his vision to the big screen based simply on current technology, Cameron dove into the video game world for the first time. With publishers lining up to collaborate with Cameron and his producing partner, Jon Landau, Ubisoft’s Montreal Studio stepped up to the plate.
“The first demo they brought to us was actually a first-person shooter and it was tons of fun,” said Cameron. “You could ride a banshee and shoot the bow like that, but then we all started talking about it and the thinking was if you can only see your hands, you can’t really get a good sense of yourself as a Na’Vi. The idea was that we wanted the player to feel like they were a Na’Vi and not just a soldier running around with a gun. So we pulled back to a third-person perspective. Some of the ideas from the very first demo that they brought us have remained, like the interface, seeing the planet, and having the Pandorapedia where you can look up different creatures and find out more about the planet.”
Because the games were released before the USD 250 million movie hit theaters, it has been the first entryway for the core sci-fi fans into the world of Pandora. And what a world it is, conjured from the mind of one of the most influential filmmakers of our time.
Opening Pandora’s Box
The story for the 3D game takes place two years prior to the events in the film, a time frame that Cameron was adamant about. He wanted the games to expand the world beyond what audiences see in the theater. Both the game and the movie are set on the planet Pandora, a beautiful but dangerous world inhabited by killer plants and ferocious beasts. The native Na’Vi, 10-foot-tall blue aliens who are lithe and lethal, must defend their world from the invading human forces of the Resources Development Administration (RDA), a huge corporation.
“The corporation has been on Pandora for at least 30 years by the time that our game starts,” said Kevin Shortt, scriptwriter for the film. “They’ve established themselves and they’re there mining for this rare resource called unobtainium, which is hugely valuable on Earth. Essentially, Pandora is a gold mine for the RDA. They’re there to make money, and the Na’Vi are getting in the way. The Na’Vi are trying to stop the RDA from destroying their planet, so the conflict comes out of that.”
The technology we use to display Avatar*: the Game in stereoscopic 3D is very similar to what you’ll see in the movie.”
—DAVID CHABOT, LEAD PROGRAMMER ON AVATAR: THE GAME
“Our game introduces a story prior to the hero Jake in the film,” explained Patrick Naud, executive producer of the game. “Jake isn’t in our game. It’s a whole different hero. The game is a precursor to what you see in the movie. It introduces you to the world and the first conflict between the Na’Vi and the RDA. The movie becomes the primary conflict.”
Players assume the role of a signal specialist named Ryder, sent by the RDA to Pandora to help find a mole within the Avatar Program who is abetting the Na’Vi. This program allows the player to step into a Na’Vi body that has been created with a fusion of Na’Vi and human DNA. It also allows soldiers to work on the planet without having to fight the indigenous plants and creatures. Ryder is crucial to the RDA in tracking down the Well of Souls, which has been dormant for so long that not even the Na’Vi know its location.
Naud said that, at first, players will get to experience gameplay from both the human RDA side and the Na’Vi side. The story then branches, forcing the player to make a moral decision to join one side or the other in the conflict. From that point on, Avatar is essentially two unique games.
“If you play it as a human, you see the Na’Vi as your enemy, and you see the creatures as these ferocious things that all have to be destroyed,” said Cameron. “If you play it as a Na’Vi, then the humans are destroying your planet and you have to fight back. The humans have formidable weapons because they have high technology, machine guns, missiles, and so on. You have to use your wits and your skill as this kind of primitive warrior who relies on his or her strength, but also draws energy from the planet. Na’Vi can use the native plants and they can get the animals to assist them and so on, so it’s two completely different experiences. I’ve never seen anything like that before in a game, and the idea of doing the game itself in 3D, since we were doing a 3D movie, was perfect.”
“Both the movie and the game share a common theme, which is that there’s a hero in all of us,” said Landau. “And if you can find that hero and make a difference, then we’ve accomplished something.”
Linear Storytelling Meets Interactive Entertainment
Once Ubisoft partnered with Cameron, Shortt and Naud were sent everything there was on Pandora and Avatar, from the script to the treatment to the 100-page scriptment that detailed every aspect of the world. They worked with a team at Ubisoft Montreal, immersing themselves in this world.
“Jim would leave us alone for a bit and we’d come up with stuff and then we’d meet in Los Angeles and brainstorm with him and Jon,” said Shortt. “We had to come up with new mythology for the game, and he loved our ideas. He added some things, and then we’d go back and work from that. This process continued as we started creating the actual game. We’d present demos of the game as we moved forward and received input every step of the way.”
Naud said the great thing about working with Jim, Jon, and everyone at Lightstorm was that they’re the best at creating movies and creating worlds, but they trusted Ubisoft Montreal to make the best game.
“They gave us the liberty to do whatever we wanted to expand upon the world of Avatar,” said Naud. “We needed some new vehicles for the game and Jon and Jim would say, ‘All right, we don’t necessarily have that and we haven’t thought of a concept for that yet, but we’ll design it for you.’ We created three vehicles in the game that were designed by Jim, Jon, and Lightstorm. We worked with them when we needed more costume, more mythology, more areas around Pandora that aren’t discussed in the movie. The whole process was this creative back and forth.”
Ubisoft’s programmers, artists, and world editors in Montreal used PCs with Intel® Core™2 Quad processor Q6600s with 4 GB of RAM. Because all cinematics were rendered in-game, the teams did not use any render farm to produce them.
“An Intel application engineer came on our production floor to help us analyze the performance of our PC version on different Intel processor (two cores, four cores, eight cores),” said David Chabot, lead programmer on the game. “We’re achieving very strong results in terms of frame rate throughout the game, and improvements are noticeable as you move from single core (1C) to dual core (2C) and quad core (4C). For best results, I would recommend 4C, to truly draw the best experience from our game.”
The game is designed to take advantage of multicore processors (Figure 1). Internally, it divides the work into many small tasks that can be executed in parallel, such as artificial intelligence, skeletal animation, vegetation simulation, or physics. Each task is scheduled to run on a task scheduler in the game, each using a thread. The game is designed to scale the number of task schedulers to the number of cores the system has. When played on a quad-core processor system, the game can run more tasks at the same time than when played on a single core or dual-core processor system, offering higher performance and interactivity on the quad-core processor system. The Intel® VTune™ Performance Analyzer and the Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzers were used to analyze and optimize the game to maximize the use of all cores for these and other threads, including the renderer and the sound system.
Since it has been nearly a decade since Cameron took home multiple Oscars for Titanic, every aspect of the Avatar movie was kept hidden from the public. This opened a unique technology challenge for the team at Ubisoft Montreal, which needed to access assets from the movie, as well as to understand the intricacies of the world and the story, itself.
“The security surrounding the assets from the movie was a big concern throughout the project,” explained Chabot. “Each person working on the game had two PCs, one connected to the Ubisoft network and one connected to our internal Avatar network. This Avatar network had no external connection (no outside e-mail, no connection to the Web, etc.) and its servers were installed inside that network (providing the source control, data storage, e-mail, build system, etc). Everyone used their PC connected on the Ubisoft network for their everyday needs, but all development on the game was done strictly on the PC connected to the Avatar network. The data from Lightstorm were transferred on our internal Avatar network by our security team.”
The location of these Avatar network workstations spanned an entire floor of the Montreal studio, which was called “the bunker” by everyone in the company. Only eight keys allowed access into this secured area, which even other Ubisoft employees developing other titles were not allowed to see. Over the entire development schedule, no details on the game or film were ever leaked to the public, thanks in large part to the technology and the precautions taken to keep Pandora within its electronic box.
While multiple Avatar games and stories were developed by the teams at Ubisoft Montreal, the PC version of the game, which takes advantage of stereoscopic 3D technology, remained a favorite of the developers.
“Working on the PC platform is always a good challenge because almost every month new pieces of hardware with better performance are released by different manufacturers,” said Chabot. “This allows us to use the full potential of our engine and produce assets that are top quality.”
Constructing a 3D World
When Ubisoft initially made its pitch to Cameron to bring the world of Avatar to gamers, they hadn’t thought about making the world’s first 3D console game. But Cameron, who liked Ubisoft’s pitch, asked the developer if anyone was making 3D games. As this was over two years ago, the answer was no. On the flight back to Montreal, Naud and his representatives starting thinking about 3D gaming.
“Initially we were wondering what have we gotten ourselves into, but we started looking at different technologies and the more we looked into it, the more we thought it would be possible,” said Naud. “A few months later we were presenting Cameron with our prototype and he loved it. From that point on we’ve spent time planning to have the game in 3D. It’s been a great experience.”
Naud and his team underwent a trial-and-error design process to create a stereoscopic 3D experience that could be played for long periods of time without having gamers experience unwanted side effects. While they experimented with many different technologies and spoke to many different partners, the key to bringing the 3D experience to the Avatar game was working with the technicians at Lightstorm and the pioneers at Ubisoft-owned Hybride Technologies.
“Lightstorm is really good with cameras—with how to create better special effects and how to position your camera so that you have more depth in the image,” explained Naud. “Our friends at Hybride Technologies had been working on over 100 shots for the Avatar movie in 3D already. They came to our studio and we talked about 3D technology and how to best utilize a 3D camera within the game world.”
“The technology we use to display Avatar: The Game in stereoscopic 3D is very similar to what you’ll see in the movie,” said Chabot. “The basic idea is that we have two cameras following the action, whose images are each projected to either the left or right eye only. Your brain does most of the work from there, piecing the information together as a fully rendered 3D environment.”
Chabot believes stereoscopic 3D provides the gamer with slightly more information about the environment they’re in and the relationship between the objects within that environment. It becomes both a more immersive and authentic experience.
“Your brain really wants to believe that what you’re looking at is a living, breathing entity,” added Chabot. “It’s especially compelling when that entity wants to bite, claw, or trample you to death!”
The Future of Convergence
Although the term “convergence” has been bandied about in Hollywood for decades, the type of collaboration that Ubisoft pioneered with Peter Jackson for its King Kong* game—and that has expanded even further with Cameron and Avatar—does take on a convergent quality when the creative types behind traditional linear and the burgeoning interactive mediums work together.
“I think we all see that video games are becoming much more cinematic, and that’s going to continue,” said Cameron. “Movies will always have the advantage, because they can spend 50 or 100 hours rendering a single frame; video games can’t do that. But eventually games will come up to a level that looks almost photo-realistic. The way we’re doing it now, whenever something is created for virtual production in the movie, we’re appropriating that and using it in the game. But movies are moving toward real-time virtual production, which is basically game authoring tools.”
“Games are becoming more cinematic, so the way they’re merging more with movies is in the way they’re developed,” added Cameron. “I think the final product is still going to be a game. It’s still an interactive experience. One is a story that is a fixed narrative with no choices for the viewer, and the other one has a choice every tenth of a second. They’ll always, ultimately, be different, but the way the tools that both worlds use are getting closer and closer.”
Pandora: A World Awaits
Now that Pandora has been unveiled in vivid 3D form in both a game and a film, the man who spent the past four years creating new technology to tell this story is happy with the end result.
“There’s always compromise when you’re making a film, just as there is when you make a game, but there are always pleasant surprises that compensate for those compromises,” said Cameron. “On the movie side I think we’re feeling like the movie has exceeded our expectations, and on the game side I think the game is exceeding our expectations, so we’re pretty pleased with the way everything’s coming out.”
Naud said that Ubisoft is treating Avatar as one of its brands similar to an Assassin’s Creed or Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six*. As such, he hopes he will be able to keep telling stories set on the planet Pandora in the years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for the past 17 years for media outlets such as The Washington Post, CNET, Wired magazine, and CBS.com. He has focused on the convergence of entertainment and videogames for various publications, including Video Business, Home Media magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of Gamerlive.tv and is a freelance game columnist for Reuters and rhminions.com, in addition to writing for print and online publications, such as Playboy magazine, GamePro magazine, Official PlayStation magazine, Entertainment Weekly, DasGamer.com, AOL Games, and FaceoffGames.com.
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