The company may dominate the physics market, but Havok’s ambitions don’t end at simulating Newton’s laws, Ed Fear discovers. Its next target: artificial intelligence…
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The problem with being a middleware company is that, with few exceptions, it’s a pretty targeted operation, aimed at simplifying – or empowering – in a certain sector. Which is great for targeted selling, but should you be lucky enough to find your middleware dominating that very sector, there remains the question of where to go from there.
The answer, usually, is diversification. Havok showed the first signs of such a movement last year when it demoed two new products – Havok Cloth and Havok Destruction – which have their roots firmly in the physics space but are tangental enough to stand as separate products.
The announcement of its latest product at GDC, then, might initially suggest a further diversification. Havok AI is, as the name suggests, Havok’s foray into the artifical intelligence sector – one of the major middleware areas still largely untapped. But, rather than dip its toe into the murky waters of behaviours and decision making, Havok AI is resolutely focused on the more measurable – and therefore more in-demand – problem of pathfinding.
Naturally, the core foundation of the middleware is the navmesh – with the company particularly proud of the super-quick generation process. “We’ve taken a model with 150,000 polygons and generated a navmesh in under four seconds,” says principle engineer Dave Gargan. “It’s designed to let people rapidly iterate on all levels. You make a change, you get to see it immediately.”
“We also allow you to have one navmesh and use it for multiple different characters in the game. In other implementations you’d need one for each character, but we can vary some properties – such as the width of the character – and it’ll find new paths. It’s a huge memory saving compared to other solutions.”
All of which is well and good – another robust path-finding solution won’t be unwelcome on the market – but it’s nothing revolutionary. The answer is what sits on top of the nav-mesh technologies – a dynamic pathfinding module and a local steering module – that leverage Havok’s experience in the physics market, and brings something new to the market.
“This is where we’ve concentrated: it’s engineered from the ground up to work in highly dynamic environments. This is what our customers said to us: as we raised the bar with physics, environments are changing much faster, and so now AI has to keep up, and that’s a difficult problem. If your representation is taking 12 hours to generate offline, getting that to change in real-time is not an easy task.”
While ‘dynamic pathfinding’ might be something touted by other AI middleware, it’s the local steering module that sets Havok AI apart. As you’d expect, it allows you to simulate flocks, crowds and the such, but it also allows the agents to dynamically avoid objects that are in the process of moving. That may sound obvious, but many other ‘dynamic’ pathfinding tools will wait until the moving objects have settled before adjusting paths.
“If you don’t provide characters with the ability to react to moving objects, you end up with a situation where even the relatively slow objects are potentially ‘invisible’. The AI will be completely unaware of it. As a physics company, we understand the nature of how objects move in games. We know when things happen, and how much things happen in different places.
“In the same way that we concentrated on a really robust collision detection pipeline for Havok Physics, we’re focusing on pathfinding in AI. It plays exactly to our core competencies: it’s really complex, geometrical problems that reply a lot of CPU time and robustness, and that’s what we do strongly across all of our products.”
Cut from the cloth
Out of the two products Havok released mid-way through last year, perhaps the most exciting was Havok Destruction – if only because it plays to our natural instincts to see things smashed to pieces.
But in fact, the one that the market has reacted best to is its counterpart, Havok Cloth. While drapery simulation might not be the most glamorous of areas, it’s clearly something developers are after.
“It’s been the biggest selling Havok product in our history,” says Dave O’Meara, CEO of Havok. “It’s just taken off. Even though it was only launched in the middle of last year, it will already appear in its first game within the next few months. That shows you how quickly it can be integrated into our customers’ titles.”
And while curtains, capes and dresses might be the most obvious uses for the tech, perhaps what might explain the demand is its scalability.
“It’s very deliberately designed to work all the way down to the Wii,” explains engineer Dave Gargan. “There are a lot of uses for it on those environments, including things like soft-body ponytails.”