Behind Blizzard's Havok announcement

On Thursday physics engine maker Havok announced that Blizzard Entertainment—makers of World of Warcraft —has licensed its Havok 4.0 physics engine for use in new Mac titles. It’s the first time that Havok has appeared on the Mac. But what’s it mean over the longer term?

First, let’s back up a bit: What is Havok, and why should you care? It’s a physics engine— middleware that a game developer uses to control things like how characters are animated, how particles are distributed in explosions, how objects interact with one another. It’s what gives games like Half Life 2 and Halo 2 their ragdoll-style animations and other unique attributes.

Filthy Lucre

Havok is cross-platform. It’s available for the PC, consoles, even handheld systems. But up until now, it’s not been available for the Mac. Havok’s Thursday announcement marks the very first time Havok has been announced as being available on the Mac—a platform that Havok’s own vice president of product management describes as “an important piece of technology.”

Why?

With apologies to Puff Daddy, it’s all about the Benjamins. It comes down to money.

Programming a physics engine isn’t cheap, and isn’t easy. It’s a huge amount of work for programmers to do. And Havok is one of the best ones out there. So it makes sense for well-heeled developers to just license an existing physics engine rather than try to roll their own.

The cost of licensing Havok is high, even for a major PC developer. That’s why you don’t see it in every game that comes out—just in many of the better-funded ones. And I have it on good authority that Havok hasn’t been willing to modify its licensing fees to Mac game conversion developers, who have built their businesses on selling fewer copies of games to the smaller Mac game market.

That’s put the kibosh on many Mac game projects, some announced, many not announced. All of the recent Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six titles use it, for example. So does Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, Max Payne 2, Full Spectrum Warrior, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. More than 150 games for PC and consoles depend on the technology, and many of those I just mentioned have been successful Mac franchises in years past. But none of them have come out for the Mac in their most recent incarnations, and Havok’s absence on the Mac isn’t coincidental.

I want to make certain that you understand that Havok’s absence up to now on the Mac has not been an engineering issue. In fact, unimpeachable sources tell me that Havok’s been ready to go on the Mac for quite some time—even Jeff Yates, the Havok VP I mentioned earlier, lauded his company’s technology as “easy to do on the Mac.”

Because Mac game publishers are dependent on fewer sales, they simply can’t afford to license Havok. In most cases, that’s meant the game that uses the technology just doesn’t come to the Mac. In at least one notable exception— MacSoft’s recently-announced Age of Empires III —the decision was made to gut the physics engine and replace it with something that works on the Mac and is less expensive to license, namely Ageia’s PhysX technology.

Economy of scale

Enter Blizzard. Here’s a company that seems incapable of producing a game that isn’t an instant classic. It’s released the Diablo series, the Warcraft series, StarCraft, and most recently, World of Warcraft. The company is coming out with an expansion pack for that latter title, hopefully soon, and show no signs of slowing down. All of those games listed above and their add-ons have been released simultaneously on the Mac and PC.

Many Mac game enthusiasts point to Blizzard as a mainstream game developer who’s doing it right—releasing games for Mac and PC at the same time—and doing it themselves. And I can’t argue with that logic. Part of it is because Blizzard has a team of incredibly talented engineers who know the Mac inside and out, and part of it is because the company’s management had the foresight a number of years ago to recognize the Mac market as a potential opportunity, created that place for those engineers to work, and set forth the decision to market and promote those games simultaneously for Mac and PC.

But Blizzard’s engineering prowess and business skills aside, this announcement demonstrates that if your business is big enough, you can make a play for an important technology like Havok and bring it to the Mac.

I’m glad to see it happen. Nay, I’m ecstatic about it. But I don’t think it’s going to change the Mac gaming business—I don’t see Havok changing its licensing tune with this new announcement. So I don’t see Blizzard’s license of Havok 4.0 for its own future titles as a way for us to see Half Life 2, Halo 2 and other games refit with Mac compatibility.

But going forward, Blizzard’s games will benefit from that technology, and we as Mac gamers will have fun with them. And that will have to do, at least for now—or until other major game developers take a cue from Blizzard and start making Mac games themselves.

Here’s to hoping.

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