Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will be Ubisoft's first new-gen-only game – we spoke to its developers to find out why it demands next-gen hardware to run.
"Technology is everything, it's what allows us to realize our dreams as designers."
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will be Ubisoft's first new-gen-only game, and that remains an unusual choice. Given the sheer number of owners of Xbox One and PS4 out there, it's simply financially more viable for most developers to work on cross-generation games – something we've seen borne out by most of the games released in Xbox Series X/S and PS5's first year. It begs the question then – what makes Ubisoft Massive's Avatar game so much more demanding that it can only run on next-gen hardware, beyond the obvious answer of "it looks nicer"? I spoke to the game's creative director, Magnus Jansén, and technical director of programming Nikolay Stefanov to find out.
Much of Frontiers of Pandora's reveal trailer takes place with Na'vi heroes riding their Banshee companions. As it turns out, this isn't just for show – the game will let you take to the skies and travel across them at high speed, and only new hardware allowed the team to couple that mechanic with the detailed world it wanted to present. "[New consoles allowed] us to have much better object detail up close to you," explains Stefanove, "but also when you're flying high up in the air – to have a lovely vista and far-distance rendering, where we can even use the ray tracing to do shadows super far away, you know, three or four kilometers away from you."
It's not just that the world needs to look good as you lazily soar over it – it's that it needs to stay looking good while you travel very, very quickly, as Jansén explains: "You're flying at enormous high speeds on a Banshee over this very, very detailed landscape. It doesn't matter how much we can render, unless we can stream it in as fast when we're moving very fast from one place to another. So just this shift to these newer hard drives, it can't be underestimated because, and it really has a lot of implications."
One of the less visible benefits of new hardware is in changing not just how the open world looks, but how it's pieced together. Because of more limited tech, older open world games needed to balance detail with density, which can lead to large areas of relative nothingness between major points of interest (I'm looking at you Assassin's Creed: Odyssey). It seems that new-gen tech will allow Frontiers of Pandora to be built a little more organically:
"It's not just the old 'I'm taking this slow walk as I enter into the place because we have to stream everything in'," explains Jansén of the benefits to his maps, "it's little subtle things that people don't think about, which is how close together are all the places in the world. If you look at, with the old hard drives, they had to be spaced out very far [apart], because you had to stream out the old and stream in the new, so it just created a formulaic world. So, there's a ton of stuff like that."
Enemy and Creature AI
It's not just graphical power helping Massive's designers – processing power will help them try new things, too, particularly when it comes to NPCs.
"Technology is everything," says Jansén, "it's what allows us to realize our dreams as designers. It's what allows us to tell our stories, and to create the immersion and the escapism that we want. It's not just about escapism, it's about danger as well, because Pandora is a beautiful place, but it's also a dangerous place. So, the wildlife, the AI, the way that they track you, the way that they attack you, the advances in technology and the way that we are taking advantage of the power with our in-house Snowdrop engine is allowing us [to] do amazing things that would not be possible [otherwise]."
Stefanov steps in to show us exactly what that can mean: "I can give you a specific example of something that you see in the trailer that has to do with the AI systems. For the big creatures, whenever they are calm, they would obviously walk around trees and things like that. But when they are fleeing, or attacking you, or whatever, they will just go straight through the bamboo and other vegetation and just completely destroy it. I think it's really cool to be able to see all of these effects that the NPCs have on the environment, as well as you having an effect on the environment too."
While this does fall somewhat under the "it looks nice" bracket of technical improvements, Massive is adamant that improving some of the more complex visuals will help players get into the idea that they're on the Pandora of James Cameron's original movie, not just another game world. "It's a first-person game," says Jansén. "It's, to me, the most immersive way of playing. So we're really going all-in on that vision of, 'Remember the movie, remember you wanted to go to Pandora.' Now you can go to Pandora and, to do that, we needed to have the best simulation of weather, rain, animals, and the best rendering, because the more technically excellent it is, the more capable it is of taking you from where you are and into the world of Pandora."
Stefanov gives some examples of what that can mean to the game: "In terms of a new generation of consoles, the improved [hardware] just gives us so much opportunity to make sure that the game's as immersive as possible. So a couple of examples, we have a completely new lighting system that is based on ray tracing, and I think it is a dramatic step up in quality that makes you feel like it's a real place. One tiny example is that it can actually handle the translucency of the leaves [...] so it can figure out how much of the light is reflected through the leaves, how tinted it is with the colors and everything else. You get lovely reflections and sights for the water, even down to the volumetric clouds up in the sky – they actually receive the correct lighting as well."