Ubisoft: Avatar interview

PhotobucketPhil Brannelly, brand manager for Avatar: The Game in the UK, was unfortunate enough to be the one demoing the game at the Eurogamer Expo – and therefore, the one subjected to my questioning. Easy one first: How did Ubisoft first come to pick up the Avatar license?

“When James Cameron was pitching the license we went to him with our own story, we wanted to offer something a little bit different. The game is set two years before the movie but in his universe. That’s one of the reasons why he selected Ubisoft for the job, because everyone else was just doing ‘the game of the movie’, and he liked what Ubisoft Montreal had done in the past; that’s how we got the gig basically. Ubisoft Montreal have been working on it since 2006 in close collaboration with James Cameron.”

Just how close an eye did Cameron keep on the game’s development, though? Were there certain things the team couldn’t do?

Everything has to get approved. It’s a long process, but they’ve done a really good job on what they’ve produced.”

Have Ubisoft gone for the ‘interactive movie’ angle with the Avatar game?

“It’s a difficult one. We really wanted to get a very good game! That’s what we wanted the most. It is a movie experience, but it’s also a really good game in its own right; it tells its own story as well.”

Of course, Avatar will be the first game to make full use of 3DTV capability. I presumed that incorporating the 3D effect into the game was a significant hike in the development budget. Was it worth it, I asked, considering that so few people will be able to take advantage of it on the game’s release?

Photobucket“I should clarify that Avatar: The Game is not a ‘3D game’. 3D is definitely not a requirement to enjoy Avatar: The Game. Our objective from the beginning has been to develop the best game possible so all gamers can truly enjoy the Avatar experience, regardless of the TV you watch it on. You can think of 3D as the ‘5.1 Surround Sound’ for gaming visuals. You can have a great gaming experience without it, but the experience is definitively heightened in 3D. In terms of budget it wasn’t overly excessive. With the demo we’re showing here, the console feeds two sets of images to the 3DTV, which then overlaps them, and with the polarisation tech creates the 3D effect; so it’s quite simple really. In terms of numbers of people that can view it, we have to remember this is a global market that Ubisoft develop games for and 3DTVs were released this year in the US and have been in Japan since 2008; so there are plenty of people that will be able to take advantage of it. For the UK, 3DTVs look like they will be available in retail next Spring. We see it as giving longevity to the product.”

Is 3D the future of gaming?

“Yes; TV will go 3D as well. Sky have announced their 3D channel; it probably won’t go mainstream for four, five years, but it’s definitely the next step. In the future, we’ll be saying to our grand-kids ‘I remember playing games in 2D’, and they’ll just tell us to shut up!”

Realising that my questioning had strayed away from the game itself, I brought things back on track by asking what the gameplay differences were between the two factions.

“The main difference is that the marines mainly use projectile weapons and technology. They’ve got vehicles they can use, grenade launchers etc. The Na’avi use nature – you can call in a storm. They’ve got big axes, bows and arrows; it’s a different experience altogether. They’re about twelve feet tall as well, so you really feel that difference.”

But will the game live or die on the success of the movie?

“Well if the film bombs then we’ve got a problem there; but we’re marketing the game in its own right to stand on its own two feet. I’m sure the film will be a huge success though, judging by reactions to the recent movie trailer release.”

PhotobucketGenerally speaking, does a box office smash equal a hugely successful tie in game?

“I don’t think that’s happening any more. Transformers 2, the film was a twenty five million pound box office movie; the game didn’t live up to that. Gamers are smart these days, the general public are smart. One of the problems is that when you get the license to the movie, generally you have a really short development phase, maximum of two years. Some of them are rushed out over twelve months. It doesn’t give you the chance to create a really good, quality product with depth. These days it has to be a good game in its own right, and so because we’ve been working on Avatar since 2006, we’ve got a really good product on our hands. If you provide a substandard product, it’s not going to go the distance.”

So if gamers are ‘smarter’ now than they used to be, why is that?

“That’s a good question. There’s a lot more information for gamers, and more accessibility to information online. Websites all over the place, MSN are providing information, Yahoo are providing information. As the industry has grown, understanding of the industry has grown. There’s still a perception of games as geeky in some quarters, Daily Mail etc, but that perception is changing.”

I had to ask; isn’t releasing Avatar and Assassin’s Creed 2 so close together commercially dangerous?

“It’s a difficult one, because you have to look at the size of the Christmas market. I know retail can do 40 – 50% of the year in that quarter. Although they’re two big games, the revenue is there to support them. Even with Modern Warfare 2. They should all still do good numbers. There will still be the ones that fall foul. Last year there were so many good triple A products, just too many for the market. But if you look at this year, there’s less. Avatar’s a different behemoth. We have the movie to pull that through. Assassin’s Creed 2 is much more hardcore, it has its heritage to pull it through. There’s enough revenue for all of them.”

PhotobucketHe refused to be drawn on whether or not Modern Warfare 2 was the main reason many publishers (including Ubisoft) have pushed back games previously slated for a 2009 Q4 release, but he was more talkative when I asked: Are they worried releasing games so close to Modern Warfare 2’s street date?

“No.” he said; he paused for a full five seconds (perhaps hoping I’d move on to the next question, poor sod), then laughed, and continued: “No. Assassin’s Creed 2 is a different game and experience. Everyone knows what they’re going to get with Modern Warfare 2. There’s an element of tiredness in that. Assassin’s Creed 2 is a completely different experience. You can play both.”

In the current economic climate, however, will the Christmas market support several different games as it has in previous years?

“The Wii market’s been interesting, it’s been tough for third parties, anything not branded the last few months. As for PS3 and Xbox 360… we’ll have to see, I can’t really predict that. We’re seeing that the market has dropped off on last year, it is lower than last year, and it’s bordering on being the same as 2007. We’ll just have to see; people are focusing more on sequels, on what they know, so Assassin’s Creed 2 and Modern Warfare 2 are good for that. For Avatar, we have the movie. It could be the biggest movie of this decade.”

And on a final note: Does Avatar mean that we can expect more collaborations between James Cameron and Ubisoft?

“If he’s pleased with what we’ve done, then I think there will be a future there.”

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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