Meet the small Finnish firm helping Call Of Duty, Destiny, Killzone and more look truly next-gen
One tiny middleware company from Finland, which currently employs just nine people, will see its graphics optimisation technology stealthily enter millions of players’ homes in the coming months.
Umbra’s toolset helped Infinity Ward get the best visuals possible from the Xbox One, PS4 and PC versions of Call Of Duty: Ghosts, and it has been part of the engineering effort on Bungie’s Destiny for three years now. Deus Ex Universe, Killzone: Shadow Fall, The Witcher 3 and Quantum Break will also play host to Umbra’s optimisation tech. The company works with developers to help next-gen games look, well, next-gen – in short, its Umbra 3 software enables studios to play with much bigger object counts and enable far greater geometric and shader complexity.
Middleware companies like Umbra are the unsung heroes of game development, working almost anonymously in the gaps between platform holder and developer to power physics engines, help polish up a game’s visuals or optimise development resources. And the nature of their work means that Umbra gets to see next-gen tech almost as early as the studios developing PS4 and Xbox One launch games. Having signed multiple NDAs long ago, it has been working with next-gen devkits since early 2012, says developer relations manager Thomas Puha.
“I remember our engineers being happy that there were no convoluted SPU’s [Synergistic Processing Units, part of PS3’s CELL processor],” he recalls. “Of course back then the complaint was that the new consoles were pretty much like a PC, so not that exciting! But they were very powerful. I think the ease of use of both machines has been really great and definitely Sony’s tools and support has been really great with the PS4. That’s not to say Microsoft’s haven’t been good, but obviously, Sony had more to prove, as they’ve said themselves.”
Umbra specialises in visual performance, so it’s been a delight to feel out the limits of the new tech, says Puha – and a relief not to have to tackle the new consoles’ wider functionality, like networks, online stores, matchmaking, install-as-you-play… “That stuff’s a whole lot more painful,” he says.
Since they arrived early last year, each new iteration of the PS4 and Xbox One devkit got physically smaller and more powerful. Umbra pushed its tools a little harder each time, spurred on by the feeling that the previous incarnation of its tech hadn’t quite reached its full potential on 360 and PS3. “BioWare used it in Mass Effect 2 and 3 and Remedy in Alan Wake, but we were pretty late in the cycle introducing the tech,” says Puha. “We weren’t able to get into as many current-gen games as we hoped to, so we really wanted to make sure we’d be prepared for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and have our tech optimized for them as early as possible.”
It worked. Umbra is helping Bungie, Guerrilla, Remedy, CD Projekt Red and more implement its tech in some of the biggest forthcoming PS4 and Xbox One games, a process made easier due to the new consoles’ similar, PC-like architecture. And yet for studios making multiple versions of the same game in order to span the generations, workloads are as heavy as they’ve ever been.
“This current generation has gone on for so long that you forget how painful the transition is when developers have to make a current gen version and then somehow make a optimized next-gen version as well at the same time,” Puha tells us. “Having some insight into that process now, it’s a crazy amount of work for developers to do. I’m sure most developers just want to get onto next-gen machines and concentrate solely on those.”
Puha also understands the vague sense of disappointment among players (and in the media) surrounding this first wave of launch games; the visual difference between generations isn’t as large as some might be expecting, but that’s for good reason.
“When you have to build something mostly on unfinished hardware and services like a launch game, it’s very tough,” he says. “The fact that the next-generation hardware is easier to develop for doesn’t mean they will be maxed out super-fast, but it’s a sure thing that the 2014 and 2015 titles will be a significant leap forward compared to what we have at launch.”
Clearly, what developers can achieve on the new consoles right now is barely scratching the surface of the new tech. But as studios learn about the nuances of each machine, the differences between the two will become clearer – Puha is keen to see what Microsoft does with its proposed cloud services in particular, while each console’s improved GPU compute capabilities “offer immense potential” for companies like Umbra.
And for every next-gen console game Umbra can talk about – Ghosts, Killzone, Destiny, Deus Ex – its tech is also helping to power plenty of games it can’t yet discuss. Indeed, it was only after the release of the current gen versions this week that Umbra could state publicly that it helped out on the next-gen versions of Call Of Duty: Ghosts. Stringent NDAs prevent Puha from discussing the multitude of yet-to-be announced next-gen games using Umbra’s toolset. “We don’t just do mobile games in Finland,” he jokes – as an industry-facing company with just nine employees, Umbra might not have the scale or profile of a Rovio or Supercell, but it is ensuring that Finland is playing its own subtle part in the next-gen console race, too.