SPECIAL REPORT: Long-term partnership pairs PC hardware firm's PhysX with animation specialist's toolsNvidia's Roy Taylor has told Develop that his firm - which cut its teeth and built a reputation as a supplier of PC hardware - has 'shaken up' its practices and is now targeting multiplatform games development via a new deal inked with British animation specialist NaturalMotion.
Under the terms of the deal, Oxford, UK-based NaturalMotion's v2.0 release of animation engine Morpheme will incorporate PhysX, Nvidia's recently-acquired physics technology it obtained as part of its purchase of Ageia earlier this year.
The product development and marketing agreement will mean the PhysX and Morpheme technologies will become "closely linked" as Nvidia and NaturalMotion collaborate; Morpheme will also support hardware-accelerated physics using Nvidia's PC cards.
Explained Taylor: "The performance gains we've found running PhysX on the GPU are quite extraordinary. So with GeForce 9800-level products we're running particle physics at 20 times faster faster than a quad-core CPU. What we want to do is bring some of the benefits of that GPU acceleration across to Morpheme too."
Key to the partnership is Nvidia moving to support multi-platform development of upcoming games.
"Our position is that we will support PhysX on PS3 and Xbox 360 and the Wii - that's break from tradition as up until now Nvidia's support has been exclusively focused on the PC," said Taylor.
"We're definitely in the middle of shaking things up in that regard.
"A big takeaway for us at GDC was that future games development has to be cross-platform. So we will be supporting all platforms going forward.
"But we'll always think the PC platform provides the richest and deepest experience," he added.
Together, but separate
PhysX and Morpheme will still be available separately but can be licensed together, the idea being that more tools – and more powerful tools for the likes of animation to physics blends – will be available to developers.
"That's where we're different from other approaches," added NaturalMotion chief Torsten Reil.
"The big trends in the industry at the moment are around performance, where we can shift more static assets onto hardware, and also a closer integration between usability for the end-user. That's what's happening here - developers don't just have access to all this performance power now, they have the right tools to take advantage of it."
Reil added that animation engine Morpheme hasn't supported physics and functions such as blends to and from ragdolls until now - but it will with the v2.0 upgrade, due in a few months. "All the things that have been quite hard to do as you've needed separate software are now much easier as they can be authored graphically," he said.
The "tight integration" of the two tools is, however, "just the first step" in the collaboration, Reil added.
"We've been very impressed with the way Nvidia has pushed things forward in terms of integration and support for customers."
Although the two do not have other announcements to make just yet, Reil added that the two have "long-term plans for how our technologies will integrate. You can probably guess where things will or will not go in future."
Taylor said that in the long-term, Nvidia is eying cross-platform development as it provides a benefit to developers "not available anywhere else" – that is, one which relates to the scale of projects; meaning developers can show off the best of their games on a PC-based system using GPU support, but can also be confident that the same game runs on 360, PS3 or even Wii.
Reil added that NaturalMotion has learnt this first hand in the development of its internally-developed game Backbreaker, the engine from which uses PhysX – the game's engine creates high-grade character animation but the team is confident it works just as smoothly on multiple platforms.
Explained Reil: "So what we've learnt from that, and what we're doing in this agreement is supporting all types of platforms - and that's a pretty important point to make as we are supporting all platforms in an optimised form. And then on Nvidia hardware we get quite a lot of extra performance on top.
"It's fair to say we know what kind of performance we can get out of console, and when you shift to dedicated hardware you get extra performance or can do extra things. Overall the user-experience will be the same for a developer across all the platforms, the differences will be performance differences."
Revolution for physics gameplay and cost?
Ulimately, the two said that Nvidia and NaturalMotion can help bring down the cost of development and save time for developers via their alliance - which gives studios more opportunity to add better gameplay features.
"A lot of physics implementations right now are very similar to what has been in place years ago," said Reil. "For some it's just too hard to take it to the next level or to put in something that's more detailed and more controlled. The idea in our partnership is to give people a more accessible way to implement more complex physics and animation in their games."
"For those readers of Develop that haven't seen this running, they really should check it out because the reaction we've seen so far has been extraordinarily positive," said Taylor.
"Developers are saying it allows them to do what they did in the past much faster - that's real world cost saving, real dollars, in terms of savings. That's just the first part; because once you've saved time and money it means developers can do more and try more things."
Added Reil: "That's the pattern we see – very often people adopt a product because of the cost saving. But the cost saving just comes about by letting people do things faster – and when you can do things faster it means things are of a higher quality as it means you can do more things and spend that time saved on refining an idea."