Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora’s Creative Director Magnus Jansen Built A Game For Newcomers & Fans

The original 2009 film ended up being the biggest movie ever made, becoming the first film to top US$2 billion at the global box office, and the 2022 sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water surpassed initial skepticism and expectations to cross US$2 billion as well, and went on to become the third highest grossing film of all time.

Naturally, expectations for any tie-up, including Ubisoft’s Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora open world action-adventure game remains high, but in an exclusive Ubisoft preview and visit to film director James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment studios in Manhattan Beach, California, Magnus Jansen, Creative Director at Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment is quick to establish that this game is not a cash grab to ride on Avatar’s popularity.

The events of the game occur in tandem with those of the first two movies, so even if you haven’t seen the movies, you’ll get your bearings and take the steps to progress through the story through the fresh eyes of the game’s protagonist.

Creative Director Magnus Jansen.

“If you haven’t even seen the movies at all, you’ll just have a fantastic adventure on Pandora and have a wonder journey of discovery.”

In the film, Pandora is a new planet that Earth corporations are plundering for its rich resources, and the military mercenaries, led by the Resources Development Administration, or RDA, run into the native Na’vi who fight against the invasion by mankind. Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment worked closely with Lightstorm Entertainment in building the Avatar game about a journey of discovery of becoming Na’vi, learning about your past about fighting for your home against the RDA invaders, all of which are components of a universal story that’s accessible to everyone regardless of whether you’re a superfan who notices all the little details and have seen the movies hundreds of times, or missed it’s influence and impact in the last 14 years. 

Play As A Na’vi, Discovering Pandora For The First Time

“One of the most amazing things about this completely alien world, this beautiful Pandora is that feeling when you set foot on it for the first time. And that’s where we were thinking… Well, if you’re a Na’vi, and you’re born there, it’s not mind-blowing because it’s just home. So that’s why we came up with this backstory of the character where as a very young child, you’re taken away and put into a human RDA school, which is metallic, sterile, and nothing natural at all,” explained Jansen, who carefully detailed the development team’s approach and thought process on tackling the premise of the game.

“You’re kept away from all of the things Pandora, from nature, and from Na’vi culture. That means that when the game starts and the player steps into Pandora for the first time, you’ll be seeing it for the first time and you learn about it for the first time.”

On Making A Great Game

When the Massive team sat down with the LightStorm team, both chose to build a great game from scratch, as nobody wanted to make a quick movie licensed game that just reuses the story and characters, with the same assets.

“LightStorm was very clear that it needs to be everything that a game can be, so it needs to be systemic. It needs to be a co-authorship between the player and the creators. Non-linear and it needs to have freedom of play. What makes a game great is the freedom of play. So that was clear from the beginning and was the ambition that we had.” shares Jansen.

“The second thing which we set out right from the beginning, that would ensure quality was that this needs to have new things, new characters, a new story and a whole new western frontier setting. Otherwise, it’s just going to be a case of ‘I’ve seen it before’ and you know that’s what makes one of those bad movie games. We are in a new place, in a new region with new clans, new creatures and flora,” he continued. 

“There are completely new character arcs, new weapons, and so many things that were created just for the game. And that ensures that when you go in, you’ll have this sense of discovery of awesome new things just like when watching the movie. They’re all new, and not just a weak copy.”

Working With LightStorm Entertainment

As fans of the franchise, and of James Cameron, Magnus understood the enormous responsibility of working with Cameron’s own production studio that has produced several iconic films in the last 30 years, from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997) and the recent Avatar sequel.

”Because we knew that this was going to be a big game, and we knew that it was important to everyone that the game would fit right in as canon. So the start of the project was really a long educational period for the team that involved multiple research trips, where many of our art and writing staff came down to LightStorm to meet with all the experts to learn everything from them. We went to winter workshops in New Zealand to learn about the physical design of all of the props, and we met with all the lore masters like Josh Izzo (EVP Franchise Development for the Avatar films) and many others. Because there’s so much that we have to create, so many clans, characters, props and creatures.”

“The first consideration with the lore was learning the lore and laws of Eywa by heart, learning how the Na’vi work, and how the RDA builds their things. And this is where it becomes interesting because when we started out, Avatar: The Way of Water wasn’t released yet, obviously. So we had exclusive access to many design works. For example, the RDA looks slightly different in the sequel compared to the first movie because it has been 16 years. Many elements were incorporated under a lot of secrecy, so that’s why you will see that the aircraft and many other elements in the game are true to what you see in Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Riding Your Very Own Ikran (Banshee)

One thing Jansen was quick to include in the game was their take on the special bond and flying experience with the Ikran (Banshee).

Ever since its introduction in the first Avatar movie, where it was established that having your own Banshee is like a rite of passage, Jansen knew it had to be a part of the game. The personal flying dragon is a bond for life, and would always come whenever you called for it, so players can expect to soar through the skies, dive off a floating mountain and when it’s coming to catch you. You can pet it, feed it, and teach it to catch fish. Above all else, players will also be able to name it, dress it up with different gear to customise and personalise it to their taste.

“One of the most wonderful features we have is how that special bond and connection with the Banshee is represented in a great story mission, where you acquire it and continue to build that bond with your Banshee throughout the game. So I would say that I’m super happy with it and can’t wait for players to be able to fly on their own Ikran.”

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora releases on 7 December 2023 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S and PC.