I recently wrote a feature article for ZAM examining the development of ragdoll physics technology in videogames. One of my interviews was with Hugh Reynolds, who co-founded Havok in 1999 with Trinity College Dublin colleague Dr Steven Collins (both later went on to establish a mobile marketing company, Swrve). In short, Havok software was a literal game-changer, allowing developers to easily implement robust and realistic physics systems. If you’ve sent a guy flying with a shotgun blast, or knocked over a chair, it was likely a result of Havok technology.
Hugh was kind enough to answer my questions, though my deadline and word count kept much of this material out of the final article. I’ve included my questions and his responses in full, with some additional comments for context.
Trinity College Dublin research group [the academic genesis of Havok] – when was it founded, what were its aims, and was there a desired commercial outcome in place from the outset?
Founded around 1992 by Steve Collins. The aim was to create a place for research that was oriented around visualization and animation. Professor John Byrne was the head of the computer science department in Trinity College at the time and he was quite the visionary. He sort of created an off books research group licensed to do anything that was cutting edge. Steve led the team and I joined the following year.
Could you elaborate on the acquisition of Ipion [a rival German physics software studio active in the late 90s] – when and why?
We met the Ipion team in 1999 and eventually acquired them in 2000. In terms of why we were really impressed by Thomas Liss, Oliver Strunk and Oliver Grosse the three core founders and visionaries. They’d already done some great work and we felt together we could achieve so much more. It turned out to be true – Oliver Strunk is still at the core of innovation and R&D at Havok!
What were your aims in developing the Havok engine (in terms of both player and developer experience)? Did you expect it would become so ubiquitous?
From my research I could see that every time objects animated correctly physically it was somehow magic. It’s like something switches on in your head. You “get it”. I think it’s a really deep instinctive thing for us all. So you’ve got this incredible emotive type of animation and yet the people who needed to get their hands on it were kinda locked out. Physics was the purview of the “physics programmer” not the storytellers. Havok was about letting the storytellers in.
What do you see as the gameplay advantages for a game that incorporates ragdoll physics?
Ragdolls are all about empathy – when you merge this with really nicely done animation or motion capture and then transition correctly into ragdoll mode it’s incredible. Early ragdoll work with Havok had lots of snipers shooting their enemies – really really powerful stuff. As things moved on it was not all gun shots, ragdolls and animations started to merge. On that topic it’s worth giving a shout out to the NaturalMotion team who did a great job at extending this with goal seeking and more AI-based animations. That NM team eventually created Clumsy Ninja, a fantastic example of where the story tellers can work with the physics and create really heart warming stuff.