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James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PC, PSP, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: Dec. 1, 2009 (US), Dec. 4, 2009 (EU)

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'James Cameron's Avatar: The Game' (Wii) Developer Interview

by Adam Pavlacka on Nov. 11, 2009 @ 6:03 a.m. PST

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game takes you deep into the heart of Pandora, an alien planet that is beyond imagination. When conflict erupts between the RDA Corporation, a space-faring consortium in search of valuable resources, and the Na’'vi, Pandora’s indigenous people, gamers will find themselves thrust into a fight for the heart of a planet and the fate of a civilization.

"Avatar" is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds, in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm Daniel Bisson, and I'm creative director on Avatar on the Wii.

WP: As we understand it, the Wii version of Avatar actually occurs before the movie and has nothing to do with the game on the other current-gen consoles. Why take it in a different direction?

DB: The console by itself provides a different experience. When we talked with Lightstorm Entertainment and James Cameron, they really wanted something specific for the Wii. To tell you the truth, for the Wii version, we couldn't support the 3-D options because we couldn't have a satisfying way to provide that to the player. By having red and blue things, it's not very well rendered on the screen for the Wii. Basically what we really want to do on the Wii is have a unique experience, meaning that you're a Na'vi, living the other perspective of Pandora as an ally and using the peripherals to help you get a deeper experience with that.

WP: Do you get play as RDA at all?

DB: Not at all on the Wii version. Only the X360 and PS3 versions.

WP: Since you're exploring new territory here, did you have a lot of freedom on the story?  Or were Lightstorm and James Cameron very strict about it?

DB: No, we're lucky on that because James Cameron and Lightstorm were pretty open about the story. We didn't have any difficulty with the story — maybe more with the names because it's its own universe. He hired a doctor in linguistics to create a language; with the Na'vi, he really wanted it to be authentic. The names, we didn't know exactly what was the morphology of some of the words so they made us rename the characters, and the linguist that they hired helped us with that. Aside from that, all of the story was pretty much approved.  James Cameron also helped throughout the process because we didn't just write our stuff in a dark corner and then show it to him. (laughs)  He worked with us, and I think we came up with something very deep and interesting for his universe.

WP: You've got two types of gameplay in the levels. You've got the on-foot sections, and you've also got the banshees, the flying sections where you can use the Balance Board. Can you explain a little bit about how the flying sections work?

DB: The banshees are like vehicles; the Na'vi use the animals to travel. In terms of banshees, your first flying mission has you learning to navigate from one point to another with a mission. You're tracking the antagonist because he destroyed your village. Throughout the game, you'll generally use the banshees to go places where it's more difficult to reach. At first, you're just navigating through canyons. The humans may have a mining camp, and they'll use mines and turrets to stop the animals. As you get further in the banshee levels, you're going to fight against helicopters, and you're going to fight against bigger turrets and things like that. You travel a lot in the universe of James Cameron's Avatar, and this is their way of traveling.

WP: From a technical perspective, how difficult was it to render those flying levels on the Wii hardware, with the draw distance and expansive areas to fly in?

DB: It was not just with the banshees; it was overall with the game because we really pushed the graphics quality of the game. With the banshee levels, we really made sure that everything that will be in the screen will be shown, that everything that is outside the screen will not exist. We use the engine of the Prince of Persia series, so there is dynamic loading so we could actually load in sector after sector. We could focus more on quality and loading in real time.

WP: You also support co-op gameplay here, but you chose not to do split-screen. Why was that decision made?

DB: There are two main reasons for this decision. The first one is because by doing split-screen, we had to cut the quality of the graphics in half because we had to render it two times. The second reason is because we really wanted the two players to work together in co-op and not have a symmetrical experience, meaning you take your side and I take my side and we're side by side but not working together. By having one screen, everyone sees everyone all the time so they can create better strategies like ambush and diversion. There's also a feeling of competition that you always see on the screen.

WP: Avatar on the Wii is very heavy on the contextual actions. Is that something that you did out of necessity, or were you trying to reach out to the casual gamers, who may not be as hardcore?

DB: The first reason is a good point, but it's more because of the second reason. We didn't want the casual player to have to figure out the 3-D world, and we wanted to help them. We really wanted the Na'vi to control well in this environment, but having this contextual action, we really feel that the Na'vi is really in sync with his environment, is very powerful, and he can dispose of his enemies rapidly and efficiently.

WP: What about explaining the world in general to the players? Avatar is a brand-new property, and the game is going to ship at about the same time as the movie. A lot of players are probably going to experience the game before they see the movie. How do you present all that backstory to the player without loading them down with text screens?

DB: That's a good question. Instead of putting everything at the beginning of the game, which people are going to forget two minutes later, we decided to introduce the Avatar universe to the player section by section and chapter by chapter. When you play, that's why you see all these text screens. They not only tell the story of how the Na'vi feels but also how he perceives this world. That's how we're slowly revealing this world piece by piece through the perspective of this main character. At the beginning, we talk more about the clans and how the totems represent the clan. The second part of the story is more about who the humans are and why they are there. The third part of the story is more about the relationship between the two species in this universe.

WP: Gameplay-wise, when you're on the banshee, there's a lot of heavy action. When you're on foot, the levels that we've played thus far seem to rely a lot on stealth. Is stealth a continuing theme throughout the game, or is that only at the beginning?

DB: Stealth is our core gameplay. Because you're a Na'vi, you have to go guerrilla-style. You cannot go head-on against the humans because they have more proper technology.  The good way to dispose of them is by going guerrilla-style. Our core gameplay is stalk, strike, evade. Once you're done striking, you evade by going back to the bushes or a secure zone. We wanted that to convey as much as possible the experience of being a Na'vi, but in each mission, we introduce new gameplay, a new way for the player to beat the obstacle or challenge that's in front of him. Each time, there's an evolution of the challenge so during the first mission, you really feel like you're only doing the stealth part, it's the predator gameplay, but the second mission is all about the bow. The third mission is more about the banshees. The fourth one is more platforming, so there are a lot of variations in terms of gameplay, but yeah, to answer your question, the core gameplay, the core experience, what we reward the most, is the core gameplay of stalk, strike, evade.

WP: If you had to sum it up in two to three sentences, what really makes James Cameron's Avatar a game that's worth playing?

DB: When James Cameron explained his vision to us, he talked about pushing the experience of the movie by pushing the technology to make sure that what we see as a spectator is an evolution in terms of movies. We tried to do the same thing on the Wii: pushing the envelope with the graphics, with the experience, feeling that you're really in this universe that is credible and realistic. With the Wii's peripherals and control scheme, it could provide the player with a way to interact with this universe in a unique and original way.

WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

DB: We really wanted to create a next-gen blockbuster experience but provide accessible controls so that the game interaction would appeal to as many people as possible, both core and casual gamers.


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