It’s a great time to be a game player – games look more and more realistic as graphics technology improves, and shader-capable graphics cards have become a necessity. We’re at the beginning of another game technology cycle – Microsoft’s XBox 360 is already out, and the buzz about Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PS3 paints a very exciting gaming future for all of us.

For indie developers, this new cycle brings with it good and bad news. The good news is, console manufacturers have recognized the importance of the indie game development community, and have provided opportunities to allow indie games to appear on the next-gen consoles, resulting in a very wide audience for the indie developer. Garagegames, through the Torque Shader Engine, provides a solution for aspiring XBox 360 developers. There has been buzz going on about Nintendo offering a low-cost Wii development kit. The next generation brings with it more opportunities for indie game developers.

However, powerful hardware demands powerful software. Gamers’ expectations are higher than ever. Although assuming risk has always been inherent to being an indie game developer, game production budgets have ballooned to the millions of dollars, which is something that the average indie game developer cannot afford. The great ideas are there, but the barrier to entry has risen so high, and continues to rise even more.

Bottom line is, game production has become more expensive because of increasing gamers’ expectations, which are basically game content expectations. And bringing in high quality content into games has become possible because of the increasing capabilities, in particular, graphics capabilities, of the video card. Gamers demand an immersive experience. And this is made possible through realism – the games look real.

But do the games feel real?

I think that the next generation of video games will compete not on visuals, but on physics. And I’m definitely not the first, or even among the first thousand people, to figure this out. Ageia produces PhysX, a dedicated physics processing unit, that will facilitate physics computations for games, which is the basically the same idea behind the introduction of the mass-market graphics processing unit about a decade ago. Even ATI and NVIDIA, today’s leading graphics card manufacturers, acknowledge this trend, and have made efforts to offer physics processing on their graphics cards. Dedicated hardware for 3D graphics has resulted in a big leap for game visuals – many of the things that we take for granted now were unimaginable ten years ago – suddenly, graphics cards have become musts in computers.

For the past years, many games have competed mostly on the basis of visuals alone, offering better graphics, but essentially the same gameplay, and this has been the complaint of many gamers. However, with physics, many possibilities still remain unexplored, providing a fresh source of game innovation, which this industry badly needs.

Indies Can Do Physics

Primarily, making games look great has been a common problem for indie game developers because of the cost involved in generating content. Yes, the graphics technology is there, but a good 3D engine will only be able to showcase itself well if it is paired up with good art. I even agree that it is ultimately the game art, by the game artist, which will make a 3D engine succeed.

The bottom line is, graphically great games are ultimately made possible by artists, not by programmers. A programmer may have the best 3D engine code, but without the artist, the 3D engine will not be able to demonstrate what it’s really capable of.

This is not the case with physics. Doing physics is very much related to doing math, which is in turn very close to coding. To demonstrate physics, there’s no need to load up a 3D modeling app – the physics demos are mainly implemented in the code. A distinction can be made between artist’s art and programmer’s art, but it is the programmer who mainly implements the physics – game physics is programmer’s physics.

At the same time, having physics in games opens up the possibility for emergent gameplay, where possible game events do not come from a predetermined set of outcomes. With a physics engine, the game player is given an infinite number of options, limited only by the constraints of physics, which allows for a more complete, more immersive experience. Objects in the game can all be interactive, and the gamer can feel free to experiment.

Of course, this added interactivity comes at a very small cost. Instead of having to code individual game entity behaviors, you can let the physics engine handle the behavior of game objects. And as a bonus, all these individual entities will interact in the correct way when needed, for instance, if they collide with one another. The physics engine should figure these all out.

The bottom line is, the power to implement physics in games is in the programmer’s hands. And programming is something which the indie is very, very good at.

Physics Options for the Indie

I will make more posts in the future about the specific options indie game developers have for adding physics to their games.

One way of integrating physics in games is by utilizing a physics library, such as the freely-available Open Dynamics Engine. Another option is to work on your game using a game engine which already supports physics, such as Unity, which has Ageia’s PhysX Technology integrated into it. Some of the ideas contained in this article come from the websites of these two pieces of software, and I would like to thank them for this.

A lot of indie game developers have already explored the possibility of adding physics to their games. Matthew Wegner covers this extensively in his website, Fun-Motion, which primarily covers physics-based games. On this site, you will see that physics allows for many possibilities, and I’m sure that you’ll be able to come up with your own innovations.

The bottom line is, physics has already been identified as one of the key technologies for next generation’s games, and indies already have the capability to make physics-based games. This is a great opportunity which I hope will result in great and innovative games from the indie game development community, for the next-generation gamer.