Avatar: The Game isn’t your usual movie tie-in

In spring 2007, when developers from video game maker Ubisoft’s Montreal studio were meeting with the creative team of “Avatar” about their adaptation, director James Cameron offered a suggestion that surprised the room: that the game be made in 3-D.

The “Avatar” film, of course, is the new sci-fi epic set on Pandora, a distant moon under siege by humans determined to pillage its natural resources and conquer its blue-skinned inhabitants known as the Na’vi. It is also the highest-profile picture to date to use new digital “stereoscopic” 3-D technology that adds depth and an immersive feel to the moviegoing experience and helped make 20th Century Fox’s new release one of the most expensive movies ever, with a production budget of about $310 million.

It has never been used before, however, on video game consoles.

“We said, ‘Yeah, sure, James Cameron, we’ll look into it,’ ” recalled the game’s executive producer, Patrick Naud. “We all thought it would just be a gimmick and we would ditch it in a few weeks. But once we saw how it could work on the new generation of TVs, we realized there was something there.”

Like movie screens, televisions that can display digital 3-D images require special glasses for viewing. While there are no exact figures on market penetration for 3-D TV, the overall number in homes so far is minuscule, according to industry experts.

However, 3-D is one of several features that make Avatar: The Game one of the most ambitious adapted projects to date. Features such as online play, a story line with branching paths and a database with a wealth of background facts on the movie’s world called “Pandorapedia” all go far beyond the traditional movie-based game. Several actors from the film, including Sigourney Weaver, performed original voice work for the game as well.

Ambitious scope

Because publishers can usually generate sales for film-based games simply on name recognition, they usually are produced quickly and with relatively little content, which is why the genre has such a poor reputation for quality.

The recently released Avatar game has received mixed reviews, but just as with its namesake, few fault its scope. Recognizing that there was little originality in the concept itself, Ubisoft purposefully took risks in other areas, particularly in the new 3-D interface. “There are a lot of things that are less risky on this project,” Naud said. “So we decided to take a risk on the technology.”

Since Cameron first started planning “Avatar” more than a decade ago, he has wanted to create a companion video game that took players into its alien world of Pandora. Though there have been numerous video games based on his “Terminator” and “Aliens” movies, the director was never closely involved in their production.

Though the director had initially wanted to create a massive multiplayer online video game akin to World of Warcraft, he gave up on that idea given the huge cost -- often approaching $100 million -- and the many years it can take to create one.

Instead, Cameron and other members of the “Avatar” team met with representatives from most major video game publishers in 2006. Rather than looking for a game company that could best adapt their film, they were instead looking to be pitched a new take on their world.

“We wanted them to delve deeper into the background and create stories in our world, as long as they’re consistent with the themes of the movie,” said Jon Landau, Cameron’s producing partner.

Which road to take?

Ubisoft got the gig with its plan to create a new story, set two years before the movie, that starts players in the shoes of a character similar to the movie’s protagonist Jake Sully, a young marine played by actor Sam Worthington.

Not that far into the game, however, players are presented with a choice: to continue as a human fighting to take control of the planet Pandora, or become a member of the native Na’vi tribe and fight back.

Each choice takes players off in entirely different directions, essentially creating two games in one.

Creating that big of a game, along with altered versions for Nintendo’s Wii and DS from the standard one for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, necessitated a team of about 300 people, the largest Ubisoft Montreal has ever devoted to a movie game.

It was also one of the most secretive projects the publisher has undertaken. Because of security concerns for Fox, the studio releasing the movie, the game developer worked in a separate section of its facility with its own security and computers that couldn’t access the Internet. It was on a secure network that connected to Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment in Santa Monica and effects house Weta Digital in New Zealand.

Those three companies were the only ones with full access to “Avatar’s” extensive digital assets during production. The Ubisoft team used many of the alien creatures created for the movie in its game, including ones that didn’t make the final cut of the picture, such as a carnivorous creature called the Slinger.

In addition, when the game makers had specific design needs, like an all-terrain vehicle, Lightstorm designers created it so that it would be consistent with the “Avatar” world. “We ended up putting that in the background of the movie and rolling it into a toy,” Landau said.

The 3-D experience

While most people are expected to see “Avatar” in 3-D, very few will play it that way. But Ubisoft is hoping that the game is an investment in the future when 3-D displays in the home are common and this newest technology on the big-screen transfers, as most do, to the world of video games.

“We know we’re not going to sell more units because of it, but in the long term we’re confident it will be very useful,” Naud said. “We decided to start investing in 3-D because we realized there is something there that will eventually work on many other games.”