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Interview With Patrick Naud, Executive Producer, Avatar: The Game

By August 3, 2009Interviews

By Neil Schneider

Unless you have been living under a rock, there isn’t a 3D enthusiast out there who hasn’t heard the word “Avatar” during the past two years. Avatar, Avatar, Avatar (Avatar)!

Maybe it’s because James Cameron has attached his name to it, and everything he touches turns to gold. Maybe it’s because even though there is so much talk about it, the film is still shrouded with mystery. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the movie will represent a whole new class of 3D film quality and expectation. We will have to wait and find out.

Avatar: The Game Screen Capture

For MTBS, we are equally interested in the Avatar video game! This time, similarly influenced by James Cameron, the weight of mystery and unparalleled anticipation falls on Ubisoft’s shoulders.

As a prequel to an S-3D gaming announcement worthy of celebrating, MTBS is proud to share with you an exclusive interview with Patrick Naud, Executive Producer (AKA Head Honcho) for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game.

NOTE: “The announcement” is not directly related to Ubisoft.

How long have you been working for Ubisoft, and what are your current responsibilities?

I’ve been with Ubisoft Montreal since 1998, so I guess I’ve been here for about a decade…, although that makes me sound old or something. Anyways, I’ve worked my way through a number of production and production management jobs within the studio. My current title is Executive Producer on James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game.

Can you share some titles you have been personally involved with?

I’ve worked on many of Ubisoft’s key franchises, including Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Open Season, Surf’s Up and Shaun White Snowboarding, among others.

We first met at the Hollywood & Games Summit about two years ago. Time flies! The irony of all ironies is that conference was about finding the bridge between Hollywood and video games. It seems you are now living out this bridge with your work on Avatar. Can you tell us about the Avatar video game’s early beginnings? At what point did you all know you wanted to go full throttle on making this a stereoscopic 3D game?

We met with James Cameron and his team at Lightstorm for the first time back in 2006. They had given us an outline of what they were trying to accomplish with Avatar, and had proposed that we come back to them with our own concept for a game based on the Avatar universe. What we showed them that day in Los Angeles cemented their choice in Ubisoft and our team here in Montreal to make the game.

Cameron was really interested in seeing our game-oriented perspective on Avatar, and generously shared with us his creative vision for the film. What emerged from that meeting has been an ongoing understanding and exchange between two really creative groups hoping to bring to life the same universe through different stories, in different formats.

In our early discussions with Cameron and the team at Lightstorm, it became immediately obvious that their understanding of the use of stereoscopic 3D in film, and entertainment at large, was second to none. If the universe of Avatar is the canvas on which the story is told, it was essential that we adopt and adapt these same brush strokes to the game experience to fall in sync with the artistry that Cameron has brought to Avatar.

We held true to stereoscopic 3D in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game not for reasons of technology, but for reasons of artistry, and capturing Cameron’s intentions for Avatar in every way possible.

Given all the excitement around S-3D gaming over the past two years, why do you think there is so much expectation and anticipation for this title? What sets Avatar apart?

Well, what everybody has got to remember is that Avatar: The Game is going to be a AAA blockbuster experience whether you play it in stereoscopic 3D, or if you took it home on your current LCD or plasma TV today. It’s all about designing a great game.

I think that bringing Avatar to the gaming world gives us the content that justifies the application of the technology. The entire universe, the story we’ve created around that universe and all that exists within it merges seamlessly with the stereoscopic 3D experience. Avatar is going to be unique, exciting and visually breathtaking, regardless of how you choose to play it. Check out the latest screens…, it’s breathtaking.

Avatar: The Game Screen Capture

For PC, there are several S-3D solutions in the market now. iZ3D, NVIDIA, and DDD offer drivers that take existing DirectX games, extrapolate a left and right view, and create a true stereoscopic 3D gaming experience. Ubisoft is going the route of creating a native S-3D gaming experience. Are the visual results different between what you are doing, and what a driver developer is doing? Why or why not?

Avatar is being developed fully enabled for stereoscopic 3D from inception. That means that the entire stereoscopic 3D experience has to be taken in to consideration in things like level design, interface design, and camera control throughout. It’s one thing to take a game conceived for standard display and “amp” it up to stereoscopic 3D, it’s entirely another thing to design the entire game around both of these display experiences.

A very quick example is in how the decisions have to be made about things like pop-up menus, text, and even the targeting reticule. The reticule on a traditional game “pushed” to 3D will appear to float in mid-space…, a very disorienting feeling. We’ve thought of all of these details to ensure that the jump to 3D brings you a deeper, more authentic experience, as opposed to a traditional game experience that has been dressed up as 3D.

At last year’s SIGGRAPH, a high profile speaker (he knows who he is), remarked that S-3D gaming isn’t possible on a traditional console because the required processing power isn’t high enough. Given your experience with Avatar, do you subscribe to this opinion? Why or why not?

At E3 this year, we had the game running in stereoscopic 3D on a 103″ Panasonic TV, and it looked just amazing. We play the game every day on a variety of different TVs, from currently available DLP sets to state of the art prototypes that have yet to hit the market, and the console keeps up without ever missing a beat. Based on some of the feedback that has been posted online following our first behind-closed-doors show at E3, we’re confident that we’re headed in the right direction. I hate to say it, but: you’ve got to see it to believe it!

While creating the Avatar video game, did you have to retrain your way of thinking artistically somehow? Was making Avatar that much different than your other work? Why or why not?

The art of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game is actually an area where adaptation to stereoscopic 3D didn’t require any drastic changes. Much of the universe of Avatar was already developed for us by Cameron and his team, and it had already been designed with stereoscopic 3D in mind. Through our work with Lightstorm, we were able to exchange a number of artistic elements that benefited the game, the film or both, so it was quite a rewarding undertaking.

One of the leading challenges for driver developers is alternate camera angles. For example, if you are playing first person, things look great. When you look through a scope or go to third person, sometimes the S-3D settings no longer make sense, and it is suddenly an uncomfortable experience. Was this a difficult problem to overcome? Why or why not?

This is entirely a design issue. You can’t design a game around a traditional TV display and expect it will “port” perfectly over to stereoscopic 3D. This is also why we developed Avatar: The Game with stereoscopic 3D in mind from the ground up. And yes…, we did experiment with both first-person and third-person perspectives. After mastering a few of the challenges of third-person, we thought it added more to the stereoscopic 3D experience, so stuck with it. Not a lot of games can really go there.

For me, I am very excited to see Ubisoft put out this title to show what can be done with stereoscopic 3D gaming. However, I want to see this as the first in a whole line of games put out by Ubisoft and the industry at large. Do you see this happening, and what would help this along?

We’ve really just dipped our toe in the water with Avatar: The Game. With the technology now firmly within our grasps, we’ve got unlimited opportunities to exploit our knowledge of the stereoscopic 3D medium and really bring much more to not only the gaming community, but the entertainment industry as a whole. I’m not sure which one comes first: the entertainment industry supplying more content in 3D to drive adoption of the hardware, or the eventual adoption of the hardware (at negligible cost over the standard issue hardware) that will drive demand for content. With Avatar: The Game, Ubisoft is fulfilling the industry’s part in supplying engaging content for consumers. If the experience goes well, hopefully we’ll be wading deeper into the pond soon!

Thank you Patrick! Special thanks to the Ubisoft team for making this interview possible. Please share your thoughts in our discussion forums!

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