June 24, 2021

12 Min Read

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‘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. From the kernel of a new Avatar story that Massive brought to Lightstorm Entertainment, to the ensuing collaboration between Ubisoft, Lightstorm, and Disney to create this never-before-seen side of Pandora, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora (along with its ‘First Look Trailer’) shows signs of successful cross-studio, cross-industry coordination and idea-sharing – as well as a mutual respect for creativity.

We spoke with Jon Landau, producer, partner, and COO of Lightstorm Entertainment; and Magnus Jansén, the game’s creative director at Massive – a Ubisoft Studio, to learn more about this partnership and how the exchange of ideas built a strong foundation for the game to stand on.

The ‘First Look Trailer’ is how a lot of people are going to get re-acquainted with Avatar since maybe watching the first film or taking a trip toPandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World. What did you hope those fans might take away from seeing this trailer?

Jon Landau: What I want people to get from the ‘First Look Trailer’ in terms of the Avatar universe is that, to date, the movies only touched on a small sliver of what Pandora has to offer, and to suggest to them that – through partnerships like those we have with Massive and Ubisoft – they will get to personally explore this world of Pandora in a transportive experience. It was important that the elements of the trailer suggest the wonder of Pandora that people yearn for.

The team at Massive and Ubisoft team did a phenomenal job in doing that. You have touchstones that remind you that this is the Pandora that we know, but maybe you’re saying, “I haven't been to that biome before,” or “I haven't met that clan before, and I haven't seen that creature before. Oh my gosh, how big is this world of Pandora?” That’s what is so exciting to me. We called it the ‘First Look Trailer’ because it teases what players will experience in a very personalized way, and they will be able to see the vastness of a moon called Pandora.

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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? What would really exist on Pandora? 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? So how do we do that? How do we continually introduce new things?”

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.

Magnus Jansén: There's quite a lot of gameplay that we are showing or hinting at. 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. Obviously, the first-person aspect is present, so some people, when they saw the stream, were shouting, “Wait, is this first person?” and yes, it is. There are other things, too. Obviously, you can ride a banshee. 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.

We're able to create a level of immersion that couldn't be achieved before, so those are all the big touch points, and then together with the things that that Jon mentioned before, the “Wait a minute, this is not a rehash of something that I've experienced before.” Because no matter how lovingly something is recreated, it's still not the same joyful surprise that you get when you see something completely new. That's why having the experts at Lightstorm there to help elevate what we're doing – with daily contact with the designers that did the creatures for the first movie and for the upcoming movies – that's what creates the results where you know it’s something that’s going to blow your mind.

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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. We're meeting new clans. 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 play this out so that it lives and meshes with the overall canon of Avatar?

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. Here's the basic plot elements. Where can we tell it? How can we fit it in?

There was a dialogue back and forth that I think really led to this idea of what we're calling the Western Frontier. And again, it plays within the timeframe of the movies, but doesn't conflict with them. It's consistent.

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?

MJ: We're really guided by this element of awe and wonder, because that's the epic. 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.

Of course, there are still some favorites there. If you saw the trailer, you can see it. 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.

JL: And I think in terms of the newness, it goes back to sort of what I tell people about story and technology.

You don't say, “Hey, here's a technology. Let's create a story for it.” You ask, “What's the story we want to tell? How do we get the technology there?” So, it’s like, let's not just create a creature, but let’s ask “What do we want the gameplay to be?” We can create a creature that allows the gameplay to do something interesting because we're not limited by what's on Earth. We're limited by what is possible on Pandora. Then we ask, “What do Magnus and his team want, and how do we then deliver that?”

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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. You’re coming up to something – you don't know what it is – and you're carefully reaching out to touch it. 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.

Pandora is a place of majestic scale. There are enormous things, both in terms of flora and fauna, and the near-vertigo you get from looking at these things or looking down the drop of a floating mountain – it's exaggerated in a very positive way in first-person as well.

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?

JL: The first thing that sold us on it was not just the tech, but the people. 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. They presented some very early and preliminary ideas for Frontiers of Pandora to us, and it was like, “Wow, if that's the floor, what's the ceiling? Where can we go?”

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. And what you want to do with any project is, you want to be the impetus that causes the wave, because then you can ride the wave. I think that's what Magnus and his team have been able to do. They've been the impetus to drive that technology forward.

[UN][News] ‘It Was Not the Tech, but the People’ – How Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Embraces Creativity While Pushing Boundaries of Technology - VISTA

MJ: Yeah, absolutely. The games that have been released on Snowdrop are super-advanced and they can do spectacular things. But when you come to Pandora, where you have the immense scale of things – you can be up close, inches away, or centimeters away from an object in first-person. Then you jump on your ikran, take off, and you can see for so many miles and miles and miles, and you can go anywhere in the open world.

To be able to render all that in real time, and to the fidelity that is expected to really take you there, yes, there's been a tremendous amount of work aided by the fact that we are only on the new generation of consoles. The modular nature of Snowdrop has allowed us to plug in new modules and new rendering technology and build upon the open-world tech we already had. Then we increased the size of the world, and the speed at which you could move through it, and the fidelity that we could bring to you by an order of magnitude. We've really been pushed to our limits, and we'll continue to push as well and continue to improve.

Can't wait to talk more about Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora? Come join the official Discord!

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