As the game development and visual effects industries converge, one would expect the production techniques and toolsets used to mirror each other as well. For the most part this has occurred, with applications such as Maya, Max, Photoshop and Zbrush becoming industry standards.
Yet there is one very notable exception - Houdini, by Side Effects Software. During the past 17 years Houdini has been used on more than 5000 shots in over 200 feature films, most recently in Spiderman 3 and Surf's Up. Furthermore, Houdini has been awarded two Technical Achievement awards by The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences.
In July 2007 Side Effects released Houdini 9, the latest version of its visual effects and animation software, and at Siggraph 2007, we had the opportunity to meet with CEO Kim Davidson to help unravel the mystery of why Houdini isn't a household name in the games industry.
Thank you for meeting with us. So, to begin, what’s new in Houdini 9?
There are two large things that are new in Houdini 9, one of them being the user interface which makes it totally accessible. Houdini has always been known for its power and the flexibility that the procedural component provides. Up to now it has taken a while for people to embrace Houdini because of its non-standard user interface.
So we went back through our software design and wherever we could be standard, wherever we had to add an interface to our unique features, we did. Because of the change in the UI and added accessibility, there has been a huge breakthrough, and it has been received very very well. So that’s the one huge breakthrough. Because of the change in the UI, we are seeing 10 times more downloads than we have in the past.
So the learning curve has been drastically reduced compared to previous versions?
I think its early to say what the learning curve exactly is, to really exploit the power, but at least people can be productive right away. To get into it right away, not be intimated, and give it a try. Houdini has a new lower price point to increase its accessibility and broaden its market. Secondly, we have added new solvers, and new fluids to the amazing dynamics system. We added rigid body dynamics a few years ago, and this year we've added fluids to our tightly integrated dynamics system.
So that should come in handy for games with lots of explosions.
Kim: The rigid body dynamics, yes. As well as the procedural features.
What features does Houdini bring to the game development community?
We have a number of game developers using Houdini. Game developers who built their pipeline around the other products found that they can't handle the large volume of data that today's hardware consoles are capable of. Houdini has also been used at many shops for previsualization and prototyping. So that’s what we offer the games industry.
Developers can quickly build a prototype using the procedural engine in Houdini, show that to directors, and easily revise and make changes to the mechanics. Once that has been approved, the engineers can then hardcode the prototype into their game engine.
Has Houdini been used for creation of prerendered cinematics in games?
Yes. We've had game companies use Houdini for that, a few companies in Japan and here in the U.S.
Are there any plans for Side Effects to develop tools exclusively for the game industry? For instance, a Character Tool where a character can be packed with all its different animations, such as walk or run cycles?
Houdini does support multiple takes of animations, so it would be possible to manage multiple animations in a single file. It would depend on the game developer's production process how they choose to use that file.
Are there any plans for creation of an environment or terrain generation tool? It seems every games development project needs one.
Houdini itself allows for procedural modeling of cities. Here at Siggraph we were doing a demonstration of procedurally building the city of Paris. Given a street map, all the buildings can be procedurally generated. Changing the map will automatically update all the buildings. We also have a demo of painting trees and forests. And lastly, there is also learning material on our website that shows how to model cities procedurally.
Can Houdini be used as a Spell Effects Tool? Allowing for example certain character animations to trigger certain particle systems, sound effects, and so on?
Yes, triggers, events, playbacks have long been in there. Anything that moves, you can move, anything that can move can reference anything else that moves at any time. A sound can trigger an event, or an object hitting the ground can trigger a sound. Houdini is not a one-button tool, but that’s not what artists want. Artists want control.