In Too Deep

Cry Havok


Look around your computer. Pick up something – your mouse, the coffee mug, that box-set of Desperate Housewives DVDs that you, er, are keeping for a friend. Look at it. Turn it around. Throw it up in one hand and catch it in the other. Now, put it down.

Congratulations. You’ve just accomplished something that Mario, Lara Croft or the Master Chief never could.

You’ll have noticed that your fingers did not partially pass through the object when you picked it up, that when you caught it, it did not automatically glue to your hand – in other words, it behaved like you expected it to.

Wouldn’t it be nice if gaming worked the same way?

We are instinctively aware of the physics of the world we inhabit. If something doesn’t interact properly – from something as ridiculous as an enemy’s gun poking through a wall to clothes that are static when they should flutter – it jars, shattering the illusion of immersion. That’s where Havok comes in.

“Suspension of disbelief is the key thing,” says David O’Meara, the CEO of physics engine creator Havok. “That’s what immersion is about, isn’t it?”

Dublin, Ireland-based Havok is a world leader in physics middleware – the tools that let developers create worlds where their imaginations can run wild. You can see their work in Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun, or in a battle in Oblivion. In a world based on rules, Havok is the rule maker – and having just launched the latest version of their software development kit, Havok 4.0, they are becoming an integral part of the immersion process.

Instead of having to code real-world physics from scratch for every game, Havok gives developers a much-needed shortcut, allowing them to concentrate on making fun games.

“Havok physics is a foundation,” says O’Meara. “Developers see us as a core component of the game now. No matter how beautiful your animation or whatever is, if the objects are all stuck to the ground, you won’t get immersion.”

Havok is an unlikely world leader. Although modern Ireland is a hi-tech hub, with companies like Microsoft, Dell and Intel basing their European operations out of the increasingly wealthy and metropolitan country, Ireland’s image is still one of rolling green fields and quiet country pubs.

So, in an industry dominated by multi-million dollar giants, how did a small university project turn into the engine that powers worlds? “I think it really comes down to a question of vision and then not letting the vision blind you,” says O’Meara.

Havok was founded in 1998 as a result of computer science research undertaken in Trinity College Dublin by Hugh Reynolds and Stephen Collins. What would become Havok was “a really exceptional bunch of guys working together, who had the vision to see that videogames would eventually develop a need for real-time physics – that more interactive and realistic experiences would be the next thing that the industry was looking for.”

Developers have flocked to Havok since its 1.0 release in 2000, with Halo 2, Perfect Dark Zero and Age of Empires III among the titles making use of Havok physics – as well as movies like The Matrix Reloaded. From their office in Dublin’s Digital Hub, Havok has expanded to such locations as San Francisco, Calcutta and, most recently, Tokyo.

Havok is a step closer to truly immersing the player in a created world. Game developers don’t have to waste time thinking how, say, an empty bullet clip might fall down a staircase, because Havok does the hard work for them. Recently, Havok has also branched out into development kits for character behavior, animation and special effects.

Still, sometimes it seems that the more games engines do, the less convincing things become. With modern games getting closer and closer to representing reality, the gamer can get frustrated when you can’t do what you logically should be able to do. If my rocket launcher lets me blow around all the tables and chairs in a room, why won’t it let me blow a hole in a thin wall?

“It’s a problem for the industry, but not specifically for us,” says O’Meara. “The game developers create the rules and they’re always having to balance the storyline with the representation of reality. It’s about getting the balance right.

“We’ve seen some fantastic scenes with the new PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, scenes that would have been impossible until really recently. We’re talking about massively destructible worlds, amazing scale and realism of effects. You see the physics, the animation and the behavior stuff all coming together for a really realistic, compelling experience for the gamer.”

It’s still the early days: As The Escapist‘s own Shannon Drake has noted, when it comes to physics, developers are still “using Swiss Army knives as simple hammers.”

O’Meara agrees. “We’re only seeing the start of what physics can do in games. [There is] a lot more that can be done. For example, at the moment, in a crowd scene, you’re limited to your key characters having full physical and behavioral effects. But we see a stage where a whole street of people will all have the full panoply of behaviors available to them and will be able to interact with you the player and with each other.”

It might sound like the stuff of virtual reality dreams, but O’Meara says we’ll be seeing this kind of immersion toward the end of next year.

It’s a brave new world for the industry. In addition to superior graphics and physics, new ways of interaction – typified by Nintendo’s Wii controller – will open radical new ways of playing. “All the next gen stuff is really going to have some form of 3-D controller – whether camera or game pad,” says O’Meara. “We’ve always wanted players to be able to interact with our physics as much as possible. This new 3-D world will really be the next leap in game interaction as far as physics is concerned.”

Where do we go from there? O’Meara says “the next step is to make characters more believable. What I’m talking about is performance – reactions that can elicit empathy from the player. When you mesh physics properly with an animated character, you’ll get proper ‘performances,’ human-like reactions.”

Better emotion through physics? It’s enough to make your head spin – if they can figure out how to model that.

Gearoid Reidy is an Irish journalist working in Japan whose game-playing time is sadly limited by the laws of real-world physics. You can find him at

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