Havok overview feature for PC Live

Havok overview feature
PC Live magizine
As sent, not as published
October 2008
By Cian Ginty

Gaming friends can be bitterly divided over which games console is the best — is it the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or the Wii? And what about the handhelds consoles? An Irish company called Havok plays with them all.

Havok don’t make games. But the Dublin-based company makes software tools, called middleware, which allows game developers to focus on making better games. The ‘Havok Physics’ software is what Havok is best known for. Without it each game developer would have to rewrite the book each time.

The tools Havok makes allow games to simulate real-world physics inside virtual worlds. If an enemy henchman is shot down, he’ll fall in a realistic way. Or the game designers want, it can help create wacky physics reaction in real looking worlds. In Havok’s own words, its business is to turn its “customers’ creative aspirations into technical realities”.

It all started ten years ago when Steve Collins and Hugh Reynolds founded Telekinesys Research out of Trinity College Dublin. Both founders have since left; Collins is now back at Trinity heading up a computer games course (see panel), and Reynolds has been advising other companies.

In 2002 they secured funding from state agency Enterprise Ireland and venture capitalists, but it was over the next two years that Havok started to attract the public’s attention.

Physics was a limited factor in games; at least gamers or the gaming press didn’t mention it. The release of Max Payne 2 in 2003 and Half-Life 2 a year later started to change things. The award-winning games were some of the first titles to feature what was advance “rag doll” physics at the time, making virtual bodies act like real bodies. Both games could have been seen as a type of showcase for physics in games. For Half-Life 2, game studio Valve communicated with programmers at Havok to developed what was described as a “heavily modified” version of then current Havok tool set.

Another boost came before the launch of the PlayStation 3 when Havok done a deal with the console manufacture Sony to have their basic package to be bundled with the software development kits for the system. A development kit is used by game developers to program games for the PS3 console.

At the start of last month, Havok signed another deal with rival console maker Microsoft. The US software giant has been licensing Havok’s physics products since 2001, and they expanded on this to include the use of the newer tools for Microsoft’s internal Xbox 360 and PC studios and development partners around the world.

Today the Irish connection can be found in hundreds of games for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, the PC, and older consoles. Some of the big names include Halo 3, Spore, Assassin’s Creed, Guitar Hero III, BioShock, Heavenly Sword, MotorStorm, FEAR, Second Life, and Star Wars: The Force Unleased. It is expected Havok code will be used in even more titles which are due to be released by the end of the year and beyond, such as Alan Wake, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, Fable 2,  Halo Wars, and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts.

And the Dublin company’s package of offerings were updated and expanded in September. This included: ‘Havok Behavior’ to set different behaviours to characters; ‘Havok Animation’ to aid game animators; ‘Havok Cloth’ to control the way flexible surfaces like curtains, vegetation, hair, and garments move; and ‘Havok Destruction’ which simulates destruction.

In plain English, the new tools are aimed at allowing game developers to do more with less work. Havok says “Destruction gives the game artist total control over the simulation, drastically reducing the production time and cost of creating large numbers of realistic destructible game objects.”

Launching Havok 6.0 with the new elements last month, managing director, David O’Meara said the move “underlines Havok’s commitment to focus on building modular software solutions that address the key challenges facing games developers, without pushing a hardware agenda or demanding adoption of a monolithic system. Our philosophy is to empower the entire development team so every person involved in the process can work more effectively to create the most visually stunning entertainment possible.”

Hollywood also uses Havok software to make films more realistic, although the company says this is a small part of the business that it has not promoted. Most of the handful of film studios they have worked with have come to them. The films include: The Matrix, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and 10,000 BC.

For the Titanic-like disaster film Poseidon, the Motion Picture Company were nominated for an Oscar for visual effects and Havok were accredited with helping gain the nomination. Havok’s sole efforts were awarded recognition in January when the US Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded them an Emmy for “pioneering new levels of realism and interactivity in movies and games.” The company also holds two Develop Industry Excellence Award and a raft of other awards.

Success attracts attention. Rival middleware provider, RenderWare, have stopped signing new licensing deals since they were bought up by published Electronic Arts (EA). A win-win for Havok as EA are still using its products too. EA seamed to have been more focused on buying up RenderWare’s owner, the Burnout 3 developer Criterion than buying middleware section of the company.

A number times in the past Havok’s David O’Meara said they were ‘‘not interested’’ in being acquired by a larger firm. He told the Sunday Business Post: “If people ever hint that they are interested in acquiring Havok, our answer is that we are doing too well and are not interested. Even if someone approached us, I can’t see that happening.”

Havok wanted to remain independent.

And they did so until late last year when chip manufacture Intel approached them with a takeover worth $110 million which would still offer an acceptable level of independents. “We really wanted to get as close as possible to a non-partisan player” said O’Meara, to the Irish Times. “Intel’s scale of technology investment and customer reach enable Havok with opportunities to grow more quickly into new market segments with new products than we could have done organically.”

Havok made it clear in statements about the Intel deal that it will “continue to operate as an independent business.” O’Meara told industry magazine Develop: “At the time of Criterion’s acquisition, people would say what would happen to us – could EA step in, buy Havok too, and leave them with a problem? I had given them assurances both verbally and sometimes in writing to publishers that we would never go down that road. I have always wanted to make sure that we put that first.”

He added Intel would bring unseen advantages beyond its size: “We have been very hesitant about selling in China because of protection of intellectual property [IP]. Intel has Fab plants under construction there so it is a major player in the Chinese market. We feel, rightly or wrongly, that Intel has more clout with our IP than we would have alone.”

To promote PC gaming, a PC version of Havok Complete was made available as a free download for non-commercial users and to Intel-approved commercial users. Intel’s Renee J James said at the time it “Aligns well with our ongoing strategy of putting the best software tools in the hands of PC games developers.”

Another show of strength since the Intel buyout is Havok recently launching a prize fund of €40,000 to support math and physics education. The Havok Physics Innovation Contest fund, which includes a dedicated section for third level students in Ireland, aims to find “the next big thing in game developing.”

“We want to play our part in encouraging the use of math and physics in a demanding but fun way and show how cool math and physics can be. We have a host of fantastic prizes on offer to reward the most imaginative projects and are delighted to offer a special prize to the best PC game demo from an Irish third level student,” said David O’Meara. “Havok is always on the lookout for emerging talent and anticipate that the competition will generate innovative entries from the amateur game developer community.”

Havok now has around 100 staff. Most of its programming staff are employed at the Digital Hub in Dublin, while it also has offices in San Francisco, San Antonio, Kolkata (Calcutta), Munich, and Tokyo.

SIDE PANEL: MSc in Computer Science (Interactive Entertainment Technology)

Directed by Steven Collins, a co-founder of Havok, the MSc in Computer Science (Interactive Entertainment Technology) is entering its second academic year this month at the School of Computer Science & Statistics in Trinity College Dublin.

Besides the deceptive name, it is a computer games course. It aims to equip students with a theoretical and practical knowledge in the design and development of the technology behind video games. It is focused on the technical side rather than designing games.

“The course is very technology focussed, will require a degree in computing (or related subject) and is aimed at educating students about the core technologies driving primarily the game industry but these technologies are also hugely relevant in other industries including the wider entertainment space, media, simulation and communications,” said Steven Collins, on his blog when the course launched last year.

Collins has also said the focus is on “the international industry,” not the small Irish industry along.

For the masters, a Microsoft sponsored ‘XNA Gamelab’ is kitted out with Microsoft Xbox 360 consoles and PCs. Each student has access to Xbox 360s and PCs with Microsoft DirectX 10 GPUs and student are also promised to have the latest hardware and software as well as classes by leading researchers in related fields.

The design of the one-year masters computer games course was set up in collaboration with Microsoft, Irish middleware firm Demonware, and games developer Radical Entertainment. There has also been a seminar series involving Irish games companies such as Dark Water, BitRabbit, and Frantic Games.

Modules include Vision Systems and Augmented Reality, Graphics Hardware and Real time Rendering, Real time Animation & Physics, Data Communications & Networks, Artificial Intelligence & Autonomous Agents, Software Engineering for Concurrent and Distributed Systems, and Numerical Methods & Advanced Mathematical Modeling.

It’s a mix of assigned coursework, written examination, a group project and a research dissertation.

Places are limited to 25 each year due to laboratory space. Graduates should have a second-class honours degree, or better, in computing, information technology, engineering, mathematics, statistics, or physics. Fees for EU students last year were €1,600.

For more information see the course website at http://isg.cs.tcd.ie/IET/.

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