Another strategy is to license a physics game engine produced by one of several new companies, such as Telekinesys in Dublin and Ipion in Munich. One company -two-year-old MathEngine-employs 50 physicists, mathematicians and computer programmers. These experts, located at the company’s headquarters in Oxford, England, and five other facilities around the world, work as a virtual team to create physics engines. Will Osborn, who studied theoretical physics at Cambridge University and now directs Math-Engine’s research group, explains his new profession’s appeal: “Instead of wondering where my research funding is going to come from every year, I get to work on a whole range of physics-aerodynamics, rigid body dynamics, fluid dynamics, and graphic and rendering techniques.”
MathEngine’s physics engine is one of several tools sanctioned for the next generation Sony Playstation game console. The software enables developers to add complex physical behavior to real-time, 3-D environments without having to derive the complicated mathematics from scratch. By using it, game makers are able to add interactive and dynamic sequences in hours rather than days or weeks. Simple visual demos on the company Web site show animations of swirling leaves and other examples of complex physics that the MathEngine kit makes easy (www.mathengine.com/Product/demos.htm).
You’d think game developers would welcome these new tools with open arms. But in fact, some have mixed feelings. Ken Perlin, founder of New York’s Improv Technologies and creator of a new “cartoon physics” tool for developers, says the key element for a successful game is that the characters are believable-which is not the same as being realistic. Computer game design has never been about modeling reality, insists Noah Falstein, founder of The Inspiracy, a game consulting firm in Greenbrae, Calif. Instead, he says, it has mostly been about creating illusions of reality:” Witness the popularity of the Star Wars Pod Racer games-George Lucas is a genius at creating a fantasy that feels right,’ despite gross violations of physical laws.”
But just as earlier advances in computing hardware ratcheted up game players’ expectations for graphic precision and audio quality, the movement toward realistic physics has too much momentum to stop.”Now that the computational power of PCs and game machines is so much more advanced, the element of physics in every game is going to keep on increasing,” says Michael Valdez, a game developer at Looking Glass Studios in Cambridge, Mass., who came to games via the study of aeronautics at MIT and work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
With the recent uproar over video game violence, of course, enhanced realism may not be exactly what society’s doctors order. But the consumers of games will be the ones whose tastes prevail-and those consumers will probably develop a taste for the “new physics” just as soon as it comes online.