Particle effects middleware Fork Particle is all about making the most of your gameâ??s big eventsâ?¦

Triggering the light fantastic

Product: Fork Particle v2.5
Company: Fork Particle
Price: Available on request

Over the past five years, the prevailing trend in middleware has been a push to extremes; either an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to complete engines or technology so specialised only the largest publishers would bother trying to match it internally. The area in between – nice but not essential tools – have been all but wiped out.

To that extent, as a company completely focused on particle effects, Fork Particle should be well positioned. Another good sign is founder Noor Khawaja is passionate about the technology.

“Particle effects are perfect to convey the mood and intensity of a situation or event. A flash and burst of particles delivers the ‘KAPOW!’ in a fighting game, while an explosion effect gives the sense of how much damage is caused,” he enthuses.

This attitude is based on longterm game experience too.

“Since I started in the industry 15 years ago, effects have always fascinated me,” he says.

“I saw a gap for a professional effects authoring tool and real-time multi-platform middleware that would give developers the ability to create high quality particle effects quickly and integrate them into their games easily.”

Fork Particle, which is based in California, was established in 2004, gaining its first commercial client two years later when Mad Doc Software (now Rockstar New England) used its technology in Empire Earth III. Since then the likes of THQ, Net Devil and Turbine have licensed it.

It consists of two basic components; Fork Particle Studio, which is used to author the effects, and the Fork Particle SDK, which integrates into your game engine and runs them. It, in turn, consists of simulation and rendering parts. There’s also the Fork Asset Converter which deals with integration into the build process.

“The particle simulator portion integrates fairly quickly because we provide the necessary source code that works at the application level,” Khawaja explains.

“For the rendering part, you have the option to use the renderer we provide or hook up the simulator with your renderer.”

He claims a fundamental integration, including loading effects files or data and rendering them in game, generally takes between four to six days. Integration samples are available for DirectX, OpenGL and the main consoles, and an out-of-the-box integration with Emergent’s Gamebryo engine is a current work-in-progress.

Perhaps the most important part of Fork Particle however is the authoring side. Built using an plug-in architecture, Particle Studio features the Fork Live Tuner, which provides a live update facility so at the end of the creation process you can effectively edit your effects in-game to ensure they are just so.

“This is a key part of development because it’s when artists are finalising their effects,” Khawaja says. “Not only are they making sure their effects are working and displaying as intended during gameplay, but they can tweak effects in terms of performance too. For that reason alone, the Live Tuner is an essential tool in terms of saving on development time.”

He says it’s all part of the philosophy that sees Fork Particle’s development focusing on letting artists use their creativity rather than fighting the tools. “In this way they’re able to create higher quality effects,” he points out.

Customisation is another focus. “It’s common for programmers to add to the functionality of particle systems according to their game design,” he says. “Fork Runtime SDK was designed while keeping extendibility in mind.”

Similarly Particle Studio’s plug-in architecture means you can override the factory default plug-ins to embed your custom data into the particle system. And ensuring the technology remains as flexible, and as spectacular, as possible is the goal of Fork Particle’s current development cycle.

As with all middleware, future versions of Fork Particle are being enhanced both in terms of basic functionality as well as customer requirements. So, as well as the previously mentioned Gamebryo integration, work is being undertaken to multi-thread the particle system to support multi-core processors on PC.

More significant perhaps is the attempt to release technology specifically for those developers creating downloadable console games, whether for Xbox Live Arcade, Wiiware or the PlayStation Store. “We’re developing something for the console Live Arcade developers, and will be making an announcement soon, so watch this space,” Noor Khawaja says.

More generally however is the ongoing push to ensure Fork Particle is a flexible as possible, both in terms of authoring and integration.

“Effect artists want independence during the integration phase in that other game assets don’t have to altered during integration. Artists want to create their complete sequence in the effects authoring tool and this highlights the need for plug and play particle,” explains Khawaja. “That is what we have been reacting to over time. We are close, but I think with the addition of a few minor elements we will have a better package.”

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