There is now doubt that physics in video games has one of the bigger trends in the gaming industry over the last few years. Havok was the one that really broke ground on the industry in Painkiller and more notably in Half-Life 2 but during the 2005 E3 we met with Ageia a company who was taking physics to the next level. Realizing that the CPU could eventually become a bottle neck for computing physics they proposed a dedicated card with a Physics Processing Unit (PPU) that would handle all of the physics in the game. The thought was that the PPU processor would do for physics in games what the dedicated graphical processor did for graphics in the late 90’s. The card went on sale in May of 2006 and we got the chance to talk to Ageia about how the launch of the card went, where things were going, and their impression of what their main rival Havok is doing with their recent partnership with ATI and nVidia.
GamingNexus: Can you introduce yourself and describe your role at Ageia? How long have you been with Ageia and what drew you to the company?
Hello, I’m Michael Steele, AGEIA’s Vice-President of Marketing. I am responsible for all aspects of strategic and tactical marketing for AGEIA. I officially joined AGEIA in early 2006 with experience in the semiconductor and PC markets. I was drawn to AGEIA after hearing about its truly revolutionary technology. I was, and continue to be, excited about how it is bringing innovative processors and associated technologies to improve games and other interactive applications. (I enjoy playing games and have always been interested in the latest and greatest technologies!)
GamingNexus: The Ageia cards have been on the market for a few months now, has the response been what you expected? Can we expect any changes to the card or the pricing between now and the end of the year?
Michael Steele: While it’s still very early, we think the response to AGEIA PhysX cards has overall been very positive. Not only the products themselves but what we have done in launching a new category with the PhysX processor and physics hardware. Everyone in the industry now sees hardware physics as something that will be necessary for PC gaming. As the only company with a hardware physics solution and available titles on the shelves, AGEIA is very encouraged by the response and sees a bright future.
As of today there is only a single PCI-SKU of PC cards powered by the PhysX processor. We have not announced any additional product versions; since we make the processors and our partners make the boards, we don’t control pricing of the cards but we think a sub-$300 price-point will continue to be attractive.
GamingNexus: The initial reviews of your cards were a little lackluster. Do you think it's because there aren't many games that really take advantage of the hardware yet?
Michael Steele: It is very early on and this is a brand new hardware category. Just as with new consoles, you see a few titles early on but many more in development, and with more time and experience developing to the hardware – plus in our case improved drivers and SDK features – you will see more games that start to take fuller advantage of the potential of the PhysX processor. That being said, the benefits of PhysX hardware in games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (where the direction and force of debris effects allow players to sense where attacks are coming from) or City of Villains (where bonus points come from greater destruction) are clear
GamingNexus: Which upcoming products using your API are you most impressed with so far? What do you think will be the one killer game that will really show off what your API can do?
Michael Steele: Currently, we have CellFactor: Combat Training available as a pre-release demo version downloadable for free from ageia.com. While there’s a lot more that can be done with CellFactor (we encourage folks to read the interview with Artificial Studios on our site for more on that at http://www.ageia.com/physx_in_action/cellfactor_di.html), it is a great example of the power of gameplay and effects physics taken to the next level with PhysX. Of course, upcoming titles like Unreal Tournament 2007 and licensee games of the UE3 engine should grab gamers’ attention also, and with over 100 titles in development, more games of all genres are taking advantage of PhysX in innovative ways every day
GamingNexus: With the PhysX card you can render more physics but a byproduct of this is that there are more objects on screen being rendered, thus pushing an already strained graphics card, which can results in a decrease in performance on new games. How do you think developers should handle the problem of trying to offer the best graphics yet keep the performance up to par when using the PhysX card? Should it be the case where the card should just enhance the physical reactions? Perhaps users will just have to live with the fact that if they want more effects and the same performance they'll just have to turn down the graphics a bit? Or will this not be an issue as the technology matures and developers learn to really take advantage of the card fully?
Michael Steele: We’d say it’s the latter. With any new technology, there’s a learning curve as developers continuously push the boundaries. Working closely with our developers and partners, we have already been able to optimize both games and our drivers to optimize the performance of existing titles and see that as an on-going process of improvements, just like the graphics vendors do with new driver tweaks all the time. It is true though that dynamic physics does create new challenges in graphics rendering, but we believe the best scenario is for folks to have great physics through PhysX hardware AND great graphics from the GPU vendors focusing brilliantly as always on their core expertise.
GamingNexus: Havok introduced a new version of their physics engine last week that allows for hardware acceleration with upcoming video cards from ATI and nVidia. How does Ageia’s physics offering compare to this solution and how do you get people to go out and buy a separate card when they can get physics acceleration on their video hardware?
Michael Steele: The key word in this question is “compare”. For now, all we can really compare is our product which is available for purchase worldwide, included in OEM and SI systems, and with game titles shipping that utilize it. Couple that with an SDK being used by over 65 major developers in over 100 titles in development and with several thousand indie developers using it free of charge. We compare that to some controlled demos that we can’t really review or benchmark ourselves, and no exact dates on products, drivers or game support.
It is definitely encouraging that Havok, ATI and nVIDIA all believe hardware physics is important, and we look forward to when they’ll have something we can actually compare ourselves to. For now though, if gamers agree that hardware physics is important, PhysX is the only game in town.
GamingNexus: From a developer perspective how do you differentiate yourself from your competitors? Why would a developer pick your product over something else in the market?
Michael Steele: There are a number of reasons why developers are embracing PhysX in such a huge way. The open nature of our SDK licensing and usage helps, as does our world-class cross-platform engine software and tools coupled with the unique advantage of the PhysX processor. Offering this complete, integrated solution to developers gives us the competitive edge. Doing it without charging huge licensing fees makes it all the better.
GamingNexus: One advantage Ageia has is that your software engine comes with the Unreal 3 Engine. How did that deal come about and how big of an advantage do you think that gives you over the other physics companies in the marketplace? Are you trying to negotiate a similar agreement with other companies?
Michael Steele: AGEIA is working with a number of other engines and we see huge value in this as it allows many developers to leverage our technology while focusing on the creative aspects of their game, rather than implementation and integration details. Epic – the developers of the UE3 engine – have always been at the forefront of new technology and showing off the best advances in gaming. As such, we are very excited to be working with them on showcasing what PhysX can do and what the UE3 engine can do across many titles and genres.
GamingNexus: We asked the Havok folks about co-existence between your approach to physics and theirs last week. Do you think you two can co-exist in this market or will there have to be one standard that everyone supports? Do you think Microsoft will ever bundle physics into DirectX or is this something outside their purview?
Michael Steele: AGEIA essentially makes its money from selling PhysX processors, so to a large extent we are API-agnostic. Since there is no standard (like DirectX) for physics, we needed an access mechanism that could talk to our hardware and so the PhysX API and SDK are necessary and at the same time were designed and optimized to take best advantage of the processor. As the only hardware physics API used in shipping games and with products on the shelf today, in a sense PhysX is the hw physics standard right now, but something like DirectX standardizing the access mechanism would truly establish hardware physics as a mainstream, required element of future games and that just drives more hardware sales for us, so we’re all for it!
GamingNexus: PCI card slots are starting to go the way of the ISA slots and the monochromatic monitors, how long before we see a PCI-E version of the PhysX card and do you think there will be a performance boost from the card?
Michael Steele: Right now we are looking at the trends from PCI to PCI-E and you’ll certainly see PhysX keep up as PCI fades away over time. Initially though, we knew many gamers have PCs where their PCI-E slots are taken up by one or more graphics cards, and their spare PCI-slot was the most sensible place to drop in PhysX hardware. Due to the very different nature of physics processing from graphics, PCI is actually not a bandwidth limitation today so any future PCI-E product would be more to support those gamers with PCI-E slots available over PCI ones
GamingNexus: One of the big trends in video cards right now is hooking multiple video cards up to increase performance (SLI/Crossfire), do you think there will ever be a point when you’ll have to consider such a configuration for physics cards?
Michael Steele: Currently, developers are just beginning to take advantage of the current PhysX processor so while there’s nothing precluding such configurations in the future, for now we believe the PhysX Processor has more than enough power and feature head-room that developers won’t be disappointed by the capabilities at their disposal with one card,
GamingNexus: One of the panaceas of game design is a fully interactive/destructible environment, do you think in game physics will get us there? How far away are we from achieving that?
Michael Steele: We think this is certainly possible, but the challenges are less about the technical feasibility and more about smart level-design and compelling storytelling. Games have goals built into them and destructible environments offer a far broader palette that game designers can paint from, but the results are still up to the artistic and storytelling skills of those designers. If you look at a title like CellFactor: Combat Training (from Artificial Studios) or even something more simple but incredibly smart and compelling like the puzzle game Switchball (from Atomic Elbow), you can already see the power that advanced gaming physics offers smart game developers and we’ve only been available for a few months!
GamingNexus: How long do think you have before the game physics market reaches critical mass? (i.e. it goes from being a front of the box feature to being a back/side of the box checklist item)
Michael Steele: In many ways this of course depends on how games incorporate the technology and how it makes the gaming experience more compelling to the end-user. The killer-apps and critical mass are just around the corner with titles like CellFactor and Unreal Tournament 2007 amongst many other titles. Already the level of industry support, amazing effects and gameplay created that are impossible without dedicated physics hardware, and buzz about physics is amazing; we think the future for PhysX is extremely bright. We’re over ten years into the 3D graphics add-in board category and not even four months into the PhysX add-in board category. This is just the beginning and as avid gamers ourselves, we invite everyone to join us in pushing the next big thing in PC gaming.
We'd like to thank Michael for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Susan who helped to coordinate the interview.
More On: Companies: AGEIA