Ahead of the Game
|by Pavel Barter
Havok has gone from a Trinity College start-up to an international Intel-owned middleware company, creating industry standard products such as Havok Physics. Pavel Barter talks to Managing Director David Coghlan about recruitment, Havok's expanding portfolio, and putting gravity and gravitas into the world's biggest games.
Videogame middleware can be an unassuming form of magic for the casual observer. Walking through Havok's Dublin office, it is hard to believe this is the Emmy-award winning company that helped forge worlds and create characters for around 300 games, including modern classics such as Assassin’s Creed 2, Uncharted 2, Fable III, Fallout 3, and Left 4 Dead 2. The programmers, working at their terminals amid the modest surroundings, could be from any IT company. In one part of the office, however, the walls are decorated with illustrations of digital creatures and characters, revealing Havok's true game plan.
This is the in-house art and production team, explains David Coghlan, Managing Director of Havok. While Havok's physics engines require technical showcases, the company's character-driven products require demos that will impress producers and lead artists as well as programmers. Havok still recruit stellar C++ programmers who have 3D experience, but as their product portfolio expands so too do their needs. Now artists, as well as programmers, make up the frontline at Havok, their ranks consisting of experienced graduates from colleges such as Dublin's Ballyfermot and development companies like Rare.
Not that any of them are getting too comfortable. Havok is about to expand its primary development location, moving from Dublin's Digital Depot on Thomas Street to a location closer to the city centre. Although the company has offices in San Francisco, Calcutta, Munich, and Tokyo, the largest research and development (R&D) team is here in Ireland.
"This year alone we moved our Tokyo and San Francisco offices," says Coghlan. "In all cases, we're going for about 50% increase in square footage. It is a sign of a healthy company, bucking the trend of what we are seeing in the Irish economy."
Gamedevelopers.ie takes a seat in Coghlan's office to discuss one of Ireland's greatest success stories in recent times. A success that continues today, despite the country's grim economic climate. The MD joined the company in late 2003, having graduated in Business Studies from Trinity College, training with KPMG as a qualified accountant and working with biotechnology corporation Elan as director of corporate strategy and corporate development.
"Although I don't have any natural technology training, I have a real passion for technology," he says. "My interest in games goes right back to the 8-bit era and the Commodore 64, so it has been a longstanding passion of mine."
Coghlan held a number of finance and business development roles during his first few years with the company before heading up the research and development team. In June, 2010, he was appointed Managing Director. From its inception as a Trinity college start-up to its reported €76m sale to Intel in 2007 and its continued role as one of the leading middleware providers for the games industry, Havok has stayed on top by staying one step ahead of the game. Coghlan, driving the business into the future, is not about to become complacent.
"Havok have a real passion for the industry and we are clued into the needs of game developers. That is critical for us. Ultimately, we're doing something fairly challenging. We are selling technology to companies who are themselves technology experts. The bar isn't to be as good as what they think they can produce, you have to be better. We have to innovate and stay ahead of the curve in terms of identifying the challenges game developers face. That is the key to our ongoing success."
Havok's task is not easy. Anyone can create a promising tech demo, but making a middleware product that fits into countless configurations and any number of game productions is a different matter entirely. With Havok Physics, the company produced an industry standard product for real-time collision detection and physical simulation. Launched in 2000, the software was initially used as an in-game effect: virtual stuntman, or ragdolls, subjected in-game characters to Newtonian Laws, and racing games used physics effects for crashes.
Game physics were initially just that - an effect - but since Havok's emergence they have become core to the gameplay. When developers first received Havok, they began spicing up their games with puzzles and contraptions, such as the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. In games like Portal and Just Cause 2, physics is the gameplay. At the casual end of the market, many gameplay concepts are based around a simulated world immersed in the laws of physics.
Although Havok Physics matured over time - the current version, 7.1, was released late 2009 - this company never wanted to be a one hit wonder. When Coghlan joined, Havok was a single product company. Now it has seven products.
"Customers kept telling us they liked the way we approached problems technically, the way we architected the software," he says. "In many ways, they encouraged us to explore the other technical challenges they faced. Had we stayed a single product company, we would still be successful but I don't think we'd have seen the growth and success that we've had."
David Coghlan, managing director of Havok
Part of Havok's ambition is to make in-game characters truly interactive. As developer animation and the visual fidelity of consoles have improved, there are increased challenges for most AAA titles. Nothing short of a cinematic experience will suffice. Products like Havok Animation have helped push toward an in-game CGI-style cinematic, using the run-time performance and real-time blending of animations to create realistic characters. Supplement tools, such as Havok Behaviour, help developers aggregate libraries of animations and pull them together into complex and convincing character performances.
"We're pushing to allow game developers to have an environment in which characters can become more cinematic," the MD continues. "Ultimately, games have to be about something that engages the player. Characters are a critical part of that."
Other products add to this increased immersion. Havok Cloth is a subtle visual effect, whether simulating the cloak on a superhero, hair on a heroine, or the clothing attachments on a hipster in a title such as DJ Hero 2. Havok Destruction, on the other hand, is not so subtle. Destruction, which includes Battlefield Bad Company 2 amongst its users, transforms action games into Jerry Bruckheimer-esque explosions of carnage. As with all the products, Destruction is designed in a way that makes the developer's life easier, explains Coghlan.
"We put in place tools that make it easier and more feasible to author the content. A key aspect of game production is that even when something becomes technically feasible, it still remains a challenge in relation to putting it everywhere in the game world. We invest a lot in lowering the barrier for developers to make production times faster for these type of effects."
Havok AI was also designed to help ease the process for developers, in this case the ability to navigate large number of characters in a plausible way through a game world. Not long ago, game AI depended on a character knowing whether a door was open or closed. Now a non-player character (NPC) might have to navigate a road filled with destructible rubble. Developers are faced with the challenge of creating NPC's that can navigate and behave realistically in such dynamic environments.
The concept of AI is broad - ranging from NPC combat to emotive characters - but Havok opted to tackle the technical geometric challenges in trying to get plausible movement out of characters. A worthy cause since nothing jerks a player out of an experience more than seeing an NPC running on the spot in the corner.
In 2010, Havok added a seventh product to its portfolio - Havok Script - which marked a full circle of sorts for the company. Hugh Reynolds and Steven Collins, Script's creators, founded Havok in 1998, before leaving the company in 2007. The following year, the pair set up a new company, New Game Technologies, and promptly created Kore Virtual Machine, a Lua-compatible implementation for console games. Developers such as Bungie, Lionhead and Sega, were already using Kore's virtual machines in order to enable faster prototyping and production pipelines, when Havok purchased (and rebranded) the tech in 2010.
"[Hugh and Steven] had developed an implementation of the Lua scripting language that was heavily optimised for consoles and had associated tools for debugging and profiling," explains Coghlan. "We've seen Lua gain fairly widespread adoption across the industry as the scripting language of choice. It has a number of advantages for game developers in terms of being able to prototype rapidly and use script, rather than a more cumbersome language such as C++. It allows game designers to leverage a language with a lower learning curve."
For the team at Havok, there is no greater satisfaction than seeing their technology in games. Not only are the products at work in many triple AAA titles, but they have been behind the special effects in movies such as Watchmen, Quantum of Solace, and Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix. Unusually for a middleware provider, there is a large level of consumer recognition for Havok, due to the presence of the company's logo on packaging.
"When people walk into a games store, at any point in time, whether in Dublin, San Francisco, or Tokyo, and look at the top 10 list, they are going to see the Havok logo on many of those games. That is a really rewarding factor for our employees, knowing that our technology is an integral part of some great titles."
Havok is in continual recruitment mode and is on constant lookout for talented employees, although standards are high. In some cases, the company has relocated candidates from overseas to supplement the team in Ireland. Like many companies in the sector, however, Havok face challenges in finding talent. Part of the problem is that Irish students are participating less in science, both at second and third level, believes Coghlan.
"For Ireland to pursue a strategy of a smart economy, an R&D based economy, it's vital that we have an appropriate balance of top students pursuing technical subjects," he says. "Alongside the government and other employers in the technology space, pharmaceuticals and engineering, we have a role to play in rebalancing that. The idea that Ireland is a country that nurtures R&D will be unsustainable if we don't see a rebalance."
Havok has engaged with Engineers Ireland to promote maths and science at second level and Coghlan also calls for a broader initiative. In time when employment is difficult to find, Havok offers opportunity. The company's international focus - in North America, broader European markets, and Asia - has left it largely unscathed from Ireland's economic turmoil.
Havok also has something to offer smaller developers. The Havok Strike Programme, launched 2010, allows independent developers to access basic Havok products and services at a reduced rate. There are no educational rates for the portfolio, although Havok Physics is free for the PC, allowing students use of the flagship product as part of games course work.
When it comes to high production titles, Havok has become an industry standard and as top developers pursue more cinematic titles, the product portfolio will undergo more innovation. But this company is also setting its sights on broader markets. As casual, social, mobile and downloadable titles increase in sales and popularity, Havok intends to broaden its reach. Sir Isaac Newton, the founding father of physics, would be proud.
Bio: Pavel Barter is a freelance journalist based in Dublin and a regular contributor to gd.ie.
Gd.ie – Our previous feature story on Havok (see the link says article 1)- http://www.gamedevelopers.ie/features/viewfeature.php?article=1 So we thought it was time to update.