The Interview: David Coghlan, Havok

17 Dec 2014

David Coghlan, CEO of Havok

Havok, the Irish company behind the physics engine that powers globally popular games such as Call of Duty and Destiny, and movies from the Matrix to Harry Potter, has reached the ripe old age of 15.

Whenever a new blockbuster game comes on the scene that is likely to sell millions of copies worldwide, I always check the back of the box and get great satisfaction when two logos belonging to Irish tech companies are included: Havok and Demonware.

Havok, the older of the two companies, is now 15 years old and its technology has been responsible for creating realistic physical effects in games that range from the first Halo and Max Payne games right up to new titles like Destiny and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

Havok was started up in 1997 by Hugh Reynolds and Steven Collins who were based at the Computer Science department at Trinity College. Not many people know it but Havok, the company that makes the graphics realistic in top end games and movies, began as a project to recreate crystal glass rendering.

I first encountered the company in 1999 when I ambled into their then headquarters in a basement of a Georgian building off Baggott Street in Dublin.

At the time the team was working on developing physics engines for what would be the first Xbox – it didn’t look like much at the time, the dev kit was just wires and electronic components.

They had just rebranded as Havok and were getting ready to head to E3. Their PR and marketing advisor at the time Paul Hayes explained how they were going to commandeer a big red bus, fill it with booze and steal gaming industry execs away from the show.

Just a year later Havok acquired Ipion Software, whose technology was licensed by Valve for use in the upcoming Half-Life 2 video game.

By 2003 and 2004 at least 40 of the most iconic games at the time, including Halo 2, Max Payne 2 and Lord of the Rings Online, were powered by Havok’s Physics engine.

In 2006 the company had veered into artificial intelligence with Havok Behavior and games like Elder Scrolls IV, Oblivion and F.E.A.R. were powered using Havok Animation and Physics.

By the time Intel had acquired the company in full for US$110m in 2007 some 50 top game titles that year including Assassin’s Creed, Halo 3, BioShock and Half-Life 2 were powered by Havok’s technology.

Just a year later Havok won an Emmy for the role its advanced physics engines played in moves like The Matrix and the Harry Potter movies.

As Christmas 2014 approaches some 55 titles that kids and adults will be playing on consoles including Watch Dogs, Dark Souls II, Sunset Overdrive and Assassin’s Creed Unity, look at the back of the box and you’ll see the iconic Havok logo.

“Games very much remain the core of our business,” says CEO David Coghlan, who joined the company as it was transitioning from start-up to global technology brand.

He explained that while large console games like Battlefield and Killzone will feature Havok technology, much of the company’s focus today is in Asia where the company has offices in Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai.

“At this point now Asia makes up more than a quarter of our revenues.”

He says the Asian region is very fragmented and different. “Games vary quite a bit in Asia. In Japan the market leans towards console and casual mobile gaming but not too dissimilar to the Western world. However, in China and South Korea there really hasn’t been a history of consoles in those markets. South Korea was the pioneering market around PC online games and particularly the free-to-play business model which has taken not only the games industry but the app industry by storm.”

Next gen consoles, next gen Havok

You could say that Havok grew up with the first and second generations of Xbox and PlayStation and matured with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But now as a new generation of consoles, namely the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the teenager is approaching adulthood.

“Physics remains our focus but we’re seeing ongoing scope for innovation around the new consoles that have come on stream,” Coghlan explains.

“The previous wave of consoles like PS3 and Xbox 360 are eight or nine years old at this stage but obviously both Sony and Microsoft have come to the market with new high-powered consoles and that really offers a lot of scope for innovation and a lot of game companies are looking at those platforms and figuring out the next wave of innovation.

“Havok has really been a key partner for a good majority of the key launch titles that have come to market on those platforms. The line-up of titles this year has really been our strongest ever, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Many of a good majority of the key must-have titles have all been powered by Havok, from Assassin’s Creed Unity to the latest Call of Duty to Sunset Overdrive to Destiny. It’s really been a phenomenal line-up and if you look across the next generation of consoles, the Xbox One and the PS4, Havok is heavily prevalent across those.

“Part of what we wanted to do as we work with game developers is help them try and look at ways to define what a next generation game can look like, what the visuals look like and what the game play is capable of. We are continuing to innovate on our side to put technology on the table, capture the power of what we do and build great games on it.”

Beyond The Matrix

The realism made possible by Havok’s physics technology has led to the technology being used to drive special effects in movies such as The Matrix, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“While we do work with the movie makers, we generally tend to be one step removed fro the studios themselves. Our direct customers would tend to be the special effects houses,” Coghlan said.

“The visual effect studios would work a number of those who would use Havok’s technology to do CGI scenes in the movies, particularly anything that requires complex motion and interaction and the sort of large Jerry Bruckheimer style effects on screen. The motions of everything that happens in those movies is calculated with a good degree of visual realism but also quite efficiently on PCs to give creators a chance to iterate and get the kind of scenes they want and that’s the capability that Havok is putting on the table.

“Generally we are in the position to talk about them relatively late – but certainly some of the Bond movies and the Harry Potter movies have leveraged Havok technology in there.”

Forging a games industry

Coghlan said that while Ireland has been unable to build a games industry to the scale of the UK that is capable of producing its own console games, the country learned to play to its strengths in a different way.

“One of the things that distinguishes Ireland from the UK is the fact the UK in the 80s had quite a large game development industry and that persisted for a decade or two whereas Ireland didn’t’ have that.

“I think what you saw were there were companies that focused on the technology side and really focused on the tools and technologies behind the creation of games, Havok and Demonware, and they were some of the successes we’ve seen.

“One thing that is clear is the barriers to entry for creating a viable games studio have actually come way down with the advent of mobile platforms. In the case of console games, talking about a game with a US$50m-plus budget with 100-plus team sizes of very experienced talent and it is very hard to create that critical mass in Ireland if you don’t have that track record.

“But with mobile platforms actually the critical size to create a viable commercial game can be as small as one person and certainly we’d see it as very viable for team sizes of 5 to 10 people to be viable games studios and viable games studios.

“That is an encouraging thing for Ireland because it gives an opportunity to spring up. While there is always going to be an element of volatility in those sectors, there are certainly some bright spots and from my point of view when I look at the games industry in Ireland I still think it is going to be a modest part of the broader tech industry but certainly an important part where there is a lot of scope for smaller innovative startups to succeed.”

Brand identity

One of the interesting things about Havok is that while it is wholly-owned by Intel, the company has remained separate and maintained its own identity.

“That’s really a credit to Intel – at the time of the acquisition the model they wanted to leverage for Havok was to not mess with success and allow Havok to be as successful company with a brand in its own right but to take advantage of the backing of a much larger company like Intel and that was their acquisition strategy as articulated before the deal and they’ve stayed very true to that.

“They operate as a long-term strategic investor, they get strategic value out of their stake in Havok but from a Havok point of view we get the best of both worlds, the backing of a large company like Intel but also the ability to have agility and flexibility of a small tech company. We keep our own brand and we remain an Irish success story, which is always nice.”

The next 15 years

If anything, Coghlan believes that the games industry is increasing its pace and the new next generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony are challenging developers to think differently and be innovative.

“Our ambition is to continue to be the partner of choice for game developers as they innovate through this continually shifting landscape. There is no doubt that to survive it is critical to be right at the forefront of technology

“Our vision is to enable that across the the whole industry. I think from an innovation point of view we’ve seen a lot of success in Western markets but we are also looking at new emerging markets in Asia where there is scope for Havok to be the partner of choice for companies in the games industry.

“My own personal perspective is that Ireland is absolutely critical to us. It remains our core R&D and indeed corporate headquarters. We have large offices in San Francisco, Germany and Asia, but the Irish office remains absolutely critical to Havok’s success.”

15 years of raising Havok

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years