Tools Spotlight: Umbra Software

Tools Spotlight: Umbra Software
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

August 2nd 2013 at 10:12AM

Develop speaks to the Finnish firm behind a helpful graphics visibility tool

[This feature was published in the June 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Umbra Software wants to solve the complicated problem of visibility in 3D graphics. Umbra was started in 2007 by chief technology officer Otso Mäkinen. Its history lies in the legendary Finnish 3D engine outfit Hybrid that was bought by Nvidia and then splintered off from that.

Umbra 3 is the third version of the company’s acclaimed visibility solution. In technical terms what it does is occlusion culling – making sure you do not render objects that are hidden behind other objects.

“It sounds simple, but it is a very complex issue to solve efficiently,” says Umbra’s director of developer relations Thomas Puha.

“Traditionally, the solving part requires a lot of manual work from artists and we automate that as much as possible so that artists can concentrate on making graphics look better instead of having to do a lot of painstaking portal-work. The end result is smoother running games that look better on-screen.”

Umbra has been in used in games such as Guild Wars 2, Alan Wake, Mass Effect 2 and 3 as well as Splash Damage’s Dirty Bomb.

Its latest update is 3.3. Much time was spent optimising for next generation consoles, such as the PS4. Many optimisations that have been done make things run a lot faster and significantly reduce draw calls, which will be important in next-gen games. The main new feature in 3.3 is ‘dynamic occluders’, which allows developers to use any type of dynamic element, for example boss characters or large moving vehicles, as occluders.

Puha says static objects tend to make for the best occluders, but with next-gen worlds becoming more dynamic, he believes this feature meets the needs of users and helps with user-generated content and destructible worlds. The best results occur when Umbra is taken into the development cycle early on, he adds.

And Umbra hasn’t forgotten about the current generation consoles either. Its worked on lessening the memory that Umbra 3 uses, which will be important for games such as Destiny, which is also coming to PS3 and 360.

Furthermore, it’s the provider of the occlusion culling technology used in Unity, and is also part of Epic’s Intergrated Partners Program for UE4.

And the near future is looking exciting for the outfit. In addition to Bungie’s Destiny, Umbra 3’s currently being used to build CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3, an unannounced project from Eidos Montreal, Square Enix is using it, as is Remedy’s Quantum Break for Xbox One and more.

“We’ve got tremendous experience in occlusion culling, 3D engines and graphics programming in general, which gives us a lot of expertise that we leverage into our product. We work with some of the world’s best video game development studios on a daily basis that really help us to make our product as good as it can be,” says Puha.

“There isn’t a lot of competition out there – companies doing occlusion culling middleware that we do – so we compete with development teams engineering resources and development budgets really.”

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