How Avatar Leaped Into the Third Dimension

Filmmaker James Cameron has pushed computer-generated technology and, more recently, 3D technology, with his blockbuster films, such as The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies and Titanic. But until Avatar, he stayed away from the video-game industry, allowing licensors to choose game publishers for the various film projects.

With Avatar: The Game, Cameron dived into the gaming world for the first time. With his producing partner, Jon Landau, Cameron worked with Ubisoft’s acclaimed Montreal studio during a two-year-plus collaboration with a team of more than 250 developers.

The result is a unique player experience for Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and PCs that was developed using the latest tools in 3D technology, graphics performance analytics and processor optimization. The game brings to life the beautiful but dangerous world of Pandora and its native Na’Vi, 10-foot-tall blue aliens who are lithe and lethal.

“The first demo they brought to us was actually a first-person shooter, and it was tons of fun,” Cameron recalls. “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.”

Opening Pandora’s Box

The story for the 3D game takes place from a third-person perspective two years prior to the events in the film. Cameron wanted to expand the world beyond what audiences saw in the theater.

The Resources Development Administration (RDA), a big corporation, has been on Pandora for 30 years and is mining a rare resource called unobtainium, which is hugely valuable on Earth. Players assume the role of a signal specialist named Ryder, whom the RDA sent 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 by fusing Na’Vi and human DNA.

“Both the movie and the game share a common theme, which is that there’s a hero in all of us,” Landau says. “And if you can find that hero and make a difference, then we’ve accomplished something.”

The Technology

A team of programmers, artists and editors at Ubisoft Montreal worked with Kevin Shortt, scriptwriter for the film, and Patrick Naud, executive producer of the game, to become immersed in the world of Pandora and bring it to life through technology.

Graphics performance analytics were used in designing the game to take advantage of multicore processors. Internally, the game divides the work into many small tasks that can be executed in parallel, such as artificial intelligence, skeletal animation, vegetation simulation and physics. Each task runs on a task scheduler in the game, using a thread. The game is designed to scale the number of task lists 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. The quad-core processor system offers higher performance and interactivity.

While multiple Avatar games and stories were developed by the teams at Ubisoft Montreal, the PC version, 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,” says David Chabot, the game’s lead programmer.

Constructing a 3D World

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 gamers experiencing unwanted side effects. The technicians at Lightstorm Entertainment and the pioneers at Ubisoft-owned Hybride Technologies used stereoscopic 3D technology similar to that used in the movie.

“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,” Chabot says. “Your brain does most of the work from there, piecing the information together as a fully rendered 3D environment.”

Chabot believes stereoscopic 3D gives the gamer both a more immersive and more authentic experience. “Your brain really wants to believe that what you’re looking at is a living, breathing entity,” he says. “It’s especially compelling when that entity wants to bite, claw or trample you to death!”