Summary: We get some info about how the game physics engine company will bring more interaction in video and PC games.
Firing Squad: First, what will Havok be displaying at GDC this week?
Jeff Yates - Havok will be showing its upcoming 4.0 release, which will showcase more scalable physics on next-generation console platforms, and two new products: Havok Behavior (a character behavior composition tool and run-time SDK), and Havok FX (a GPU-accelerated “effects physics” SDK that blends seamlessly with Havok’s game-play physics product – we’ll be showing Havok FX at the NVIDIA booth at GDC)
Firing Squad: A few months ago the company announced Havok FX. For the folks that don't know can you tell us about this product and how it differs from the company's previous game physics products?
Jeff Yates - Sure – we wanted to take advantage of the current and upcoming power of new GPU configurations – Shader Model 3 and above – to do physically based effects that can add a gritty, detailed look to a game (including organic effects). The types of effects we have in mind require far more rigid bodies and particles than are typically simulated on a standard gaming PC. But we were willing to sacrifice some game-play “feedback” in order to achieve great scalability (10K inter-colliding objects, for example, is where things really start to get interesting). We have solid game-play physics in our flagship Havok Physics product – so we wanted to come up with an add-on solution that game developers could use to layer on stunning effects that look and behave correctly – and can be affected by Game-play objects. Havok FX was born out of that effort.
Firing Squad: Why do you think using the GPU from chips from ATI and NVIDIA will be advantageous to Havok to make new physics effects?
Jeff Yates - GPU companies have a long, successful track record in the consumer space, and they are not standing still - they are investing like anyone else and building bigger/better/faster technology that will outpace yesterday’s graphics cards. We definitely anticipate more cycles – and with the potential of hosting multiple GPU’s in a standard PC, we see lots of promise for extra GPU’s that can do graphics and effects physics on PC’s at the same time. That’s a big win/win since extra GPU’s can be used for graphics or physics or both (unlike proprietary physics hardware). Fundamentally though, today’s GPU’s are great for doing physically-based effects. And even though today’s mindset is that GPU’s will always be maxed out on graphics 100% of the time, we believe that will change in the next year.
Firing Squad: How closely has Havok been working with ATI and NVIDIA to make sure their GPUs will work with Havok FX?
Jeff Yates - Havok FX is architected to run on current generation GPUs that fully support Shader Model 3.0. Both companies are familiar with our physics technology. But we’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with Nvidia on Havok FX and are extremely excited about the progress we’ve made together, especially with GeForce 7900 configurations in SLI mode. We’ll be showing a demo in the Nvidia booth at the GDC conference.
SIDEBAR: One of the upcoming games that will have Havok physics is Neopets Petpet Adventure:The Wand of Wishing. Seriously
Firing Squad: Can you give us a couple of examples of how Havok FX will improve physics game play and effects versus the normal software method?
Jeff Yates - To be clear, we are only targeting physically-based effects with Havok FX on the GPU, working in tandem with Havok Physics for game-play physics on the CPU. Games will continue to use Havok Physics to provide scalable game-play physics with the typical “twitch” response times required to make physics fun and well-integrated with other core game components on the CPU. But Havok FX will be able to layer on top of that many 1000’s of objects (or organic effects based on clouds of objects and particles) that can be affected “downstream” by the game-play physics. There will be some limited feedback from the GPU to the CPU, but this will be lower priority and in general this is what allows the effects to be done extremely quickly on the GPU and in parallel to the game physics. The visual effect of both CPU and GPU physics is essentially seamless – and the nice thing is that the effects can be turned off if/when sufficient GPU power is not available; but when enabled with the right GPU configuration, the effect will be noticeable and will very much help differentiate leading PC game titles.
Jeff Yates - Everyone we’ve talked to is very excited about the direction we have taken, especially our use of the GPU instead of a proprietary hardware solution for accelerated physics on the PC. I think there is a great deal of pent up enthusiasm in the technical side of our industry for the “GP-GPU” space – which is exactly what Havok FX is driving into. We realize though that Havok FX represents a very new and different use for the GPU, and game teams will need more first hand access to see and experiment with this new product. Our upcoming 4.0 release will enable access to Havok FX for a lot more developers.
Firing Squad: When can we expect to see the first games using Havok FX?
Jeff Yates - That’s hard to say exactly since it depends on a number of factors out of our control. But we can say that Havok FX itself is in the hands of game developers already, and that the installed base for Havok FX compatible PC’s with Shader Model 3 GPU’s is likely over 50 Million units today, growing. That’s a good starting point and we don’t think game developers will need to bet on the “if you build it they will come” strategy, just to differentiate their PC games.
Firing Squad: Has the company been surprised by some of the things game developers have done with the physics engine?
Jeff Yates - It is still a bit early – but we expect game developers will use and extend Havok FX in a variety of ways that we have not really anticipated. The reason is simply that the openness and maturity of today’s shading languages and tools allow Havok FX effects physics to be augmented through fairly well-known methods. And since the effects physics simulation lives entirely on the GPU, we expect to see some very novel Shader techniques combined with rich, stable physics.
SIDEBAR: Havok has over 70 games that use its engine and over 20 upcoming announced games will support Havok.
Jeff Yates - Yes definitely. We believe that run-time character animation holds great potential for increased realism (and fun) in games. Over the past 10 years, a great deal of R&D has gone into the technology behind rendering and physical simulations in games – these areas will certainly continue to mature - but run-time character animation methodologies are still relatively young in comparison. We are investing in this area ourselves and will be showing a new Behavioral animation product at GDC that we hope will help foster further development in this area.
Firing Squad: Even though Havok is the leader in game physics tools, another company AEGIA is getting lots of attention for its upcoming physics hardware processor. What is Havok's position on having specialized hardware for game physics and is it something Havok might be interested in for the future?
Jeff Yates - Havok will always be driven by what game developers need, and so when new hardware platforms arrive and there is clear customer need for them, we always take a serious look. That said, as you can infer from our direction with Havok FX, we really don’t see the viability of a proprietary device in the PC game space. The GPU companies seem to have this aspect of the business well in hand, and with the advances in multi-core machines from AMD and Intel, the trajectory for affordable PC/GPU compute power seems sufficiently unbounded. We have not yet been able to find any game developers who believe in the viability of a proprietary hardware device like this. But if/when that ever changes, we are sure to be listening.
Firing Squad: What are some of the challenges that Havok sees for the future of physical interactions in PC and video games?
Jeff Yates - Certainly scalability of existing software technologies on multi-core game systems is paramount for the near term. This is a very achievable thing for us, but just represents investment of time and a commitment to constantly improve scalability and performance over time - and across all platforms. This is something we are certainly passionate about and feel comfortable we will lead. We also know that physics can do so much more to enhance character animation in the game, by blending physics with traditional animation systems. We introduced some novel approaches to this at last year’s GDC conference, and this year we are rolling out the next chapter in our efforts to help developers realize their designs more quickly.
Firing Squad: Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Havok and its current and future plans?
Jeff Yates - We’re very dedicated to understanding our customers’ needs and helping reduce their risk and total cost of development. We take their design goals and deadlines very seriously and we’ll continue to keep that kind of focus going forward. Game-play physics is our bread and butter – and we’ll continue to invest in increased performance for physics and in broad, cross-platform support. But we’ll also explore new ways that physics and animation can combine to enhance the interactive performance of characters in the game.
FiringSquad would like to thank Jeff Yates for participating in this interview. For more info on Havok FX, please visit the Havok FX website here.
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