'Avatar' looks to alter Hollywood videogame biz

The track record of film-based videogames has been spotty. While there have been a handful of critical and commercial successes, the majority have been average at best — and, frequently, embarrassing.

James Cameron plans to change that. Fox has scheduled a December release of his 3-D film “Avatar” and the filmmaker has pushed game publisher Ubisoft to create the vidgame industry’s first stereoscopic title.

What’s more, Cameron was so impressed by some of the shots developed by Ubisoft Digital Arts, a computer animation studio owned by the game publisher, that he will use some of them in the film.

Admittedly, these are small steps, but they signify a game-changing alliance with a multibillion-dollar industry, as Hollywood and gamemakers begin to work more closely.

And while few gamers — or anyone else for that matter — have a TV that will support the spectroscopic feature, a non-3-D version of the “Avatar” game also will be sold, and will bear Cameron’s mark of approval. What’s more, the 3-D game plants the seed for the Holy Grail of creating stereo 3-D at home in much the same way Cameron’s commitment-obsession to 3-D film is being eyed as a significant step in even wider use of the format.

Ubisoft doesn’t plan to end its association with high-powered directors after “Avatar” ships. The company announced at tech confab E3 in Los Angeles this month that it would work with Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy on a gaming adaptation of the upcoming “Tintin.” The film marks a reteaming for the company with Peter Jackson, with whom Ubisoft worked on 2005′s “King Kong,” a launch title for the Xbox 360.

“We can create good games, but we are still very junior at creating movies, so why not join forces with the best of the best to make our visions come to life?” says Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft chairman-CEO, who co-founded the company in 1986.

Cameron and the company began work on the game version of “Avatar” 2½ years ago, an incredibly long gestation period for a film-based game. The long development window was deliberate to ensure the game would match the quality of the film, Cameron said during a surprise appearance at the E3 press conference for Ubisoft.

“Movies are on a one-year track,” he said. “One year after someone pushes the button, it’s in theaters. Good games can’t be made that fast.”

While affairs between studios and game publishers aren’t always smooth, both sides say the “Avatar” relationship quickly became collaborative. As both sides contributed to each other’s work, Cameron’s passion for the project pushed Ubisoft to experiment with technologies that have never before been tried in the videogame space.

The partnership is part of Ubisoft’s strategy to blend its game studios with filmmaking. Last July, the company bought Hybride Technologies, the visual effects house behind films such as “300″ and “Sin City.” Today, it uses Hybride to create new technologies for both films and games.

The plan behind the strategy, Guillemot says, is to lower expenses as it pushes new boundaries: “We need to make sure we can reuse our animations and graphics with other mediums, so we can reduce the cost of making games.”

Both the film and game versions of “Avatar” are set in the 22nd century on Pandora, a large moon of a gas planet teeming with exotic new forms of life. Among the creatures who live there are the Na’vi, a humanoid race with blue skin, tiger stripes and heights of up to 10 feet. Humans cannot breathe the air on Pandora, but have created a living, genetic hybrid (known as an Avatar) into which they can insert their consciousness and explore the world.

Ubisoft was given full access to the film’s CG shots to re-create the world. With Cameron’s blessing, though, the game will tell a different story than the film, allowing it to be released at an earlier date.

“They brought the same passion to ‘Avatar,’ which is a licensed game, (that they bring to) their own games,” Cameron said. “The world of the Avatar game is, in some ways, richer than what you’ll see in the film. At the same time, it doesn’t have any spoilers in it that will ruin the film for you.”

The developers also had a few improvements they wanted to make to Pandora. Ubisoft came up with the idea of adding bioluminescence to the plant life. When he saw it, Cameron was so impressed, he added it to the film.

“Let’s face it, some games based on movies have sucked,” Cameron said at E3. “We had very ambitious goals for this film and we knew we wanted to choose our videogame partner very carefully.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more