Back in 2003, when Havok released its first physics technology to games developers, the impact was considerable.
Crates and barrels in virtual environments the world over enjoyed a new status as strategic playthings of gamers spoilt by a new way to interact. Half-Life 2 set a new standard, and in the following years physics-powered ragdolls and gravity guns became staples of contemporary game design. As the years went on, Havok and the in-game physics it championed never went away. Instead, they became standard.
Then, in 2013, Havok’s reinvented physics tech found its way to studios. And now, in the second half of 2014, Havok is building a new template for what physics should offer. Already it is able to have thousands of objects interacting in a realtime, interactive scene.
Havok is pushing further still, ever set on bettering the impact on games. It’s what Havok’s head of product management Andrew Bowell describes as a renaissance not just for physics, but the ideas and potential to impact gameplay, parallel game systems and the creative method of environment artists.
“Describing what we’re doing now as a ‘renaissance of physics’ is not to say physics in games ever went away,” he says. “It’s been our bread and butter for years. But our latest release of Havok Physics isn’t only faster, using less memory and giving higher quality results; we’re also returning to a point where it is pushing gameplay in ways not seen before.
“I mean real cinematic gameplay at a new scale. Instead of 100 objects, we are now pushing it to a thousand, or ten thousand, or one hundred thousand objects in game. When they see that, game designers’ eyes light up.”
As Bowell reminisces about times when stacking ten physically controlled crates used to draw a crowd to a monitor, he and Havok field application engineer Steve Ewart show live, realtime, interactive demos of thousands of boulders tumbling down cliff sides, clattering together and gathering around the structure of a bridge, or soldiers influencing pillars of smoke with a fully automatic gun that unleashes a plume of tinned beans.
The demos may at times be aesthetically absurd, but they prove a point. As Havok continues to push physics, vast interactive game worlds unlike anything seen in consumer products before are increasingly possible. And as Ewart guides a sports car through a demo environment, using its wake to gather a sea of autumn leaves into neat piles, he makes an important point.
“A few crates or ragdolls was one thing, and there were great examples, but if a developer could build dynamic systems through their entire environment that work as a complete, grounded system, there is so much to be done with with gameplay,” he says. “Imagine a world with smoke effects, intricately destructible buildings, swarms of insects and such, that the player can influence directly, all interacting and controlled physically as a single dynamic system, providing information coming out of the physics that informs AI control and various other systems.”
It’s immediately obvious on seeing the demos (pictured), that a huge leap forward in the number and complexity of physics controlled objects offers devs a rich toybox of ideas to plunder, but it doesn’t stop there.
“What we do has to give the developer something they can use; something that informs other systems in powerful new ways,” says Bowell.
BUT IS IT ART?
There’s even talk of physics to offer artists a creative tool. Why invest hours in crafting distinct derelict buildings when you could just destroy each through physics, generating unique, realistically informed results?
It’s an interesting potential offshoot for Havok, and ties in neatly with the broader theme that guides its strides into the future. As it works to offer increasingly complex and numerous physically-controlled, interactive, realtime objects in scene influenced by numerous inputs and feeding out data across a game’s own system, the impact of physics in the near future really could be as influential as it was when Half-Life 2 made the concept part of most ordinary gamer’s vocabulary.