Havokâ??s place in the games industry is almost unrivaled and no doubt enviable. Itâ??s the perfect example of the world of Middleware 2.0. Michael French catches up with CEO David Oâ??Meara...
A few months back we wrote about the world of Middleware 2.0, with developers favouring modular technology solutions. As one of the middleware market leaders, how do you think the market and model for that has developed?
With the new generation of consoles – and particularly on the PS3 – things have really taken off because it’s a difficult and complex architecture, but a brilliant one to have at your disposal and get a game right for. So the number of PS3 titles we are on is growing very quickly.
In terms of physics, studios definitely want that approach to the business so they don’t have to rely on such technology to be made in-house. What studios want is risk minimisation and to be confident that there is help if they need it.
This hasn’t happened overnight, though. It wasn’t until 2003, particularly with the release of things like Half-Life 2, that it really made itself work.
Also, I think it’s a great model for new middleware companies to break into because the customer wants to know that technology is financially viable and stable and that you won’t run off or be signed up to just one publisher. There are a lot of things to do with resiliance and reliability, which means new companies can step in to offer that.
Havok tends to get very involved with its partners and the development of their titles, possibly closer than other middleware companies – why is that?
In truth, I don’t really see us as a middleware – internally we don’t use the term any more because it doesn’t fit us. We’re in technology and when a customer buys our product what they get, if they are articulating that or not, is a solution. There are some tremendous developers out there that we’ve worked with – such as Evolution and MotorStorm and Relic and Company of Heroes – that are really trying to push what can be done, so just providing someone with physics code really wouldn’t be of that much use to them. They need more of an ongoing dialogue with us, which is what we aim to give.
Do you think the term middleware is becoming a bit outdated then?
If you go back to what studios need to be successful, the average gamer spends $250 a year on games which is four or five titles. So producers are trying to get their titles in the top ten and to make something pretty compelling – which even the franchises don’t guarantee now days. At the same time, the industry means that marketing and other support outside of development is also compelling, so the pressure is on for development teams to look for and buy the best tools they can for everything they want to achieve. One thing I don’t want from Havok’s point of view is for all games to look alike – that’s not in anyone’s interest, especially the end customer.
There was that unspoken danger that Renderware games could end up having a similar feel or look, but now we’re at point where tools are so fractured that they can be cherry-picked to create studio-specific solutions…
Yes, and on PS3, where we’re all learning, we are going to see some great games appear for it in the coming years. But it has been much more of a partnership for us in terms of gauging the potential of an architecuture like that – because certainly no one wants to under-estimate such a format.
Are you seeing increased demands for things like PS3, Xbox or Wii?
When we look at our sales, the majority of customers sign up for cross-platform. Obviously there are exceptions – Bungie is only going to develop for Xbox – but the bulk of our customers are making games cross platform. And that is more and more including the Wii and the PlayStation Portable.
Is there any hint as to where developers may focus their attention in the coming years?
Maybe things will be different from the last generation because the architectures are different in a way they weren’t before. That has to play itself out and we need to see what will happen one way or the other. I don’t really see a trend yet towards a specific format yet.
In interviews last year you branded Havok as ‘an industry standard’. Is that still your stance on how the company is positioned?
Well, I think that’s a position borne out by the fact of sales of games and the fact that studios recruiting now will say they want ‘Havok experience’. In triple-A games you can see Havok in more titles than anything else, even beyond in-house tools. And people trying to recruit people that have worked on or with Havok.
When you’re in that position of ubiquity, then, what does that mean if someone offers to acquire Havok Criterion-style?
That situation arose as a concern when EA took Renderware in-house, but we clarified our position at the time and it is the same today: we are independent and cross-platform. Not just from a developer perspective, but also a publisher one. We have no interest or desire in an acquisition.
My desire actually is to add more products and do acquisitions ourselves of products I think would make sense alongside Havok Physics and Animation. Right now there are companies I would like to acquire. I won’t tell you their names, but I have the balance sheet to do it.
If you end up amassing a group of such ‘best of breed’ companies, could Havok end up offering a full engine solution further down the line?
We will go as far as we possibly can, both organically and via acquisitions. I am not interested in acquiring what I would call mediocre companies or mediocre technologies as that would damage our brand and image. However, we will go as far as we can in terms of filling out each product in our portfolio on a more modular basis and independent of each other (but they will work together, in a way that’s different to Epic) to provide media creators, not just games developers, a comprehensive range of services and software.
You mention all media creators, I presume that’s because Havok’s scripting has been used in film animation too and there have been a number of technology companies servicing both games and films. Has that urged studios towards chasing those ‘movie-like’ style animations?
Absolutely, particularly amongst the bigger studios – and you can see it where they’re hiring from at times, taking in people from movies to build special effects teams. There is also a very compelling drive behind triyng to get characters in games that players can relate to. That brings in emotions and technologies possible with things like PS3, but it also brings in complementary mindsets that are currently in the movie industry right now.