Over the last two to three years in games physics have become one of the biggest areas of innovation in the game industry. From the gravity gun of Half-Life 2 to Crypto’s mind powers in Destroy All Humans, Dublin based Havok has been leading the way for in games physics engines. At E3 this year Havok introduced the 4.0 version of their engine which introduced several new features including hardware acceleration support for certain video cards. We were lucky to get a few questions in to the company about their latest product and where they think the market is going.
GamingNexus: Can you introduce yourself and describe your role at Havok?
GamingNexus: Well the big news was that you'll be able to use an ATI card to accelerate games using the next Havok physics engine. Was this a long time coming and was this ATI's response to NVIDIA offering the same feature with their video cards?
My name is Jeff Yates – I’m the VP of Product Management at Havok. I help drive our product roadmap, our product release cycles, and our partner relationships.
Jeff Yates: We always envisioned the general direction of all leading GPUs to be appropriate for our physics developments. This has really been coming for quite some time. I think the timing of the roll out of NVIDIA vs. ATI was impacted by a number of non-technical conditions in the end. Where we are going in the next year, I think both vendors will differentiate based on their unique technologies - with less impact from the timing of our initial rollout.
GamingNexus: What brought on the idea of leveraging a graphics card to drive physics in the game?
The notion of the GP-GPU (or general purpose GPU) has been around for a while. But in the last year, with the installed base of Shader Model 3 class GPUs growing significantly in consumer hands, we felt it was time to start thinking of the GPU as another platform – the way we think about PCs and Consoles. We of course also had visibility on nearer term plans that showed what we know today – that the trajectory for GPUs continues to grow and that even more will be possible as time goes on.
GamingNexus: The technology (hardware acceleration) is only available in the latest generation of Havok software right (i.e. it’s not backwards compatible)?
Yes- this is part of our major 4.0 release. In terms of devices, we always provide fall backs to the PC and Consoles – we of course cannot guarantee the same speeds across different hardware configurations, but functionally, our focus is on establishing a single code path always (cross platform) and then optimizing to the metal where a particular hardware configuration is concerned. We are in the process of doing that exact thing with our GPU physics technology.
GamingNexus: Will developers have to do anything special to leverage the video card if the game is using the Havok FX engine or is it transparent to the developer with the engine doing the work of detection and automatically feeding the data to the video card?
The developer will have access to a special portion of the SDK that will target the GPU, if present. And developers will always know what’s going on with the physics on the GPU, and be able to control it, especially in situations were consumer hardware configurations might vary. This is really key to allow dynamic load balancing when the game is first launched by detecting available hardware and deciding what kinds of things can and cannot be simulated based on that.
GamingNexus: Will users be able to pair up cards from the two companies? Can a user use an ATI card for their graphics and a NVIDIA card for their physics and vice versa or will the solution have to be company specific?
There is a very clear separation between the physics process on the GPU and the traditional graphics process, so it is definitely possible to do this. But I cannot say honestly that we have tried it out yet.
GamingNexus: Are there any limits to how many cards you can use? Would we be able to pair up X number of cards to dedicate to physics provided that hardware to do it is available of course to plug in X number of PCI-E video cards?
That is absolutely the idea. Though for the present, we are focusing on more typical consumer configurations that PC game developers are targeting and GPU manufactures are promoting. As time marches on and the installed base for 3 and 4 GPUconfigurations increases, I suspect there will be Havok-powered games that will be able to utilize multiple GPUs for the physics alone.
GamingNexus: The technology seems to be a competitor to AGEIA's solution of course. What is your opinion on AGEIA's solution and how it compares to the ATI and NVIDIA solution?
All three of these companies are of course hardware companies - first and foremost. Meaning that their ultimate business success and growth depends on selling lots and lots of hardware. The notion of specialized hardware is not something new, and though it can have short term advantages, specialized hardware devices almost inevitably fall within the growth path of more general, established hardware solutions. To put it simply, we think GPUs have a very compelling advantage in the market place today in terms of installed base, technical momentum, and software infrastructure. In particular, being able to leverage the incredible investment of companies like Microsoft, NVIDIA, and ATI around the development of more general shader languages and software tools is a tremendous advantage in favor of the GPUs as you look out even 1 year.
GamingNexus: Do you think you can have two solutions (video card, AGEIA's dedicated card) available to consumers and be successful? Can both co-exist?
I think they would have a better chance of co-existing if there was a common software programming environment that spanned all hardware devices. This would be the proverbial level playing field that could allow software developers like Havok to develop solutions that maximize each hardware’s unique capabilities. In absence of that, I suspect that the winners will be the ones that provide the most leverage for software developers. Right now, I think standardized shading languages and tools put the leverage in the GPU in the strong advantage.
GamingNexus: You've already had over 100 games that use some build of the Havok’s engine. Do you think that with this new technology that the Havok engine's will become even more popular?
We’re at more than 160 games now and certainly see this success continuing. The trend toward many parallel computing cores – of many flavors – is only going to accelerate. Our expansion into physics on the GPU is really just another step in leveraging what we expect will be a very exciting future for game developers.
GamingNexus: What titles that currently use your Havok’s engine are you impressed with the most in terms of utilizing your API and really taking advantage of what you have developed?
Flagship’s Hellgate:London and Eden’s Alone in the Dark both make broad use of Havok physics and animation technologies – on and off of the GPU. Both of these titles are taking a pragmatic, but value-driven approach to utilizing the GPU to improve their games. I think they have done a great job of find the sweet spots where the technology provides benefit on today’s hardware and they are setting themselves up very nicely to scale up as consumer GPUs repeat their yearly advance.
GamingNexus: When do you expect to see the first titles using this technology to hit shelves?
This always depends on developers, and fortunately we have the opportunity of working with many returning customers who value making their games better first – and secondarily determining how the hardware can help that. I’d guess you’ll see several games before the end of the year – but that is just a guess, and honestly I would not want anything to release that did not add clear value to the game play experience. It’s all about helping to make great games. That’s a goal we most certainly share with all of our customers.
We would like to thank Jeff for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Kimberly who helped set the interview up.
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