‘It’s Not Just the Tech, but the People’ – How Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Embraces Creativity While Pushing Boundaries of Technology
Our first glimpse of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was an amazing showcase of the Snowdrop engine and its ability to render an incredibly lush and richly detailed vision of Pandora’s biodiversity, featuring creatures and locations both familiar and new, along with some tantalizing hints of the gameplay to come when the game releases in 2022 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, Amazon Luna, and Stadia.
What might have been less obvious, but no less important to this incredible display of technology, were the ideas that brought it to life to begin with. Being reminded of the biodiversity on Pandora was enough for me to be excited about the possibility of different locations, creatures, and things that I haven't seen before.
JL: Well then, if you really think about the trailer and you talk about the biodiversity and the flora and the fauna – even if we talk just about the fauna – there is more new fauna that has never been seen than existing fauna, and that comes out of a longtime collaboration with Ubisoft Ubisoft worked very closely with our design team, working around the idea of, “What do we need to create? How does it fit into our narrative story?” Because ultimately games need to have a story that really holds and engages people over a much longer time than a movie does?
Nobody ever cared where a good idea came from. A good idea is a good idea. Whether it was from a designer at Massive and we riffed off it, or it was one from our team and people riffed on it.
Magnus, as creative director on the game, what did you want the audience to get from the ‘First Look Trailer’? Obviously, as Jon said, it’s a tease, so it doesn’t show too much of the game, but there’s enough for people’s imaginations to carry them a little bit.
It's not a gameplay trailer, but you can watch it many times and see new things, so there's a lot of hidden stuff there, if you know what to look for. There are other things, too. There are more things like that.
I don't want to give it all away, but there are a number of things that we had in this first look that people will get to see more of later, like the first-person aspect and the fantastic level of fidelity that we can achieve with new-generation hardware, along with the Snowdrop engine and our fantastic teams here at Ubisoft and Lightstorm.
How did the Western Frontier come about? Was this something that Lightstorm and Disney already had some ideas about, and you just said, “Here’s a location we’d like you to explore for a game?” How did the collaboration start?
JL: As we move into the sequels, we always talk about how we're going to new places. Along those lines, Massive came to us with this story concept. And then the questions were: If we like the story, where can that story be set? In what time frame can that story be set?
How do we do that and not make it feel like it's a story that took place 2,000 years ago, which is what we did with the Avatar Cirque du Soleil show very intentionally? How do we make it feel like it's not something that takes place beyond the movies and reveals things that would have happened in order to be consistent? So it was: here's the story we want to tell.
Whether it’s biomes or creatures, with so much to already work with, how do you decide what to focus on to build the game itself? It’s the feeling when I first watched Avatar in the theater – it brought to life feelings of wonder and astonishment I hadn't had for many years in the theater, because of the act of pure creation that went into the creatures, the flora, and the clans. So, we knew that while there is a tremendous amount of existing and upcoming creations that will have been and will be in the movies, we knew we had to co-create things to a large degree.
There are no fences on Pandora, so some species can be found across the continents, like the sturmbeests, the ikran, the hexapedes - all these creatures that you've seen in the movie, but a lot of what we need to do is to create new things, because it's about new discoveries.
How much does being first-person perspective affect how things are designed? Is the level of immersion something that comes into play? MJ: Obviously, we need the fidelity for the world to hold up at that distance. But then, we also need it to be reactive, and we need the world to react when you act, because it's an interactive medium, right? So we need to take advantage of what you can do in a game, so that when you're moving through the world, you're brushing foliage aside, as you could see in the trailer. That's in the game and that sense of being there is what the first-person perspective brings. Obviously, that changes things because then we have to focus on technologies and specific species that interact very well in first-person.
Jon, you talked a little about this before, but Avatar and the different forms it exists in always seem to be a harbinger of new technology, in the sense that technology now exists to tell the story. Is that what happened here? The technology, in this case the Snowdrop engine, sold Lightstorm on the game?
Meeting that core team of people that were going to be the creative force behind it, including Magnus, and others, as well as seeing, several years ago, where Snowdrop was.
And again, playing in the world of Pandora and telling our story has pushed improvements in Snowdrop, and has challenged that team to rise to a different level, because without that impetus, technology becomes stagnant. In some ways, this collaboration on this story we want to tell the world has advanced the technology, and that's the way it should be. It's story- and it's gameplay-driving. I think that's what Magnus and his team have been able to do. They've been the impetus to drive that technology forward.
Jun 25, 2021 at 16:35