Studio Profile: Umbra

Founded 2007 | Location Helsinki | Employees 11 | Key staff Otso Mäkinen (founder, CTO), Thomas Puha (director of developer relations), Teppo Soininen (COO), Antti Hätälä (lead engineer) | URL | Selected softography Guild Wars 2 (with ArenaNet) | Current projects Destiny (Bungie), Witcher 3 (CD Projekt), Dirty Bomb (Splash Damage)

Umbra Software specialises in occlusion-culling middleware, which might sound dry. But like Havok, this is a tech company with a playful streak and a passion for games, having helped power PlanetSide 2, Mass Effect 3 and more. Talk of polygon counts may have died out now, but developers still need to worry about memory limitations and Umbra has made it its business to help them squeeze every drop of power from hardware. We spoke with director of developer relations Thomas Puha and COO Teppo Soininen to learn more.

Umbra’s now in Unity – is your tech a good fit with that tool?
Teppo Soininen
Yeah, we’re an integral part of Unity’s rendering engine, so we’re really closely tied together. And our philosophy is pretty similar to Unity: they have the ‘democratise development’ thing and deliver tools to developers who wouldn’t be able to afford similar solutions. Even though our technology is more narrow in scope and very high-end, through Unity it’s available to more developers with a smaller budget.

Is the increasing power of tablets making Umbra more widely relevant?
Thomas Puha
Mobile tablets are getting much more powerful every six months, so you get a lot of benefit from Umbra there as 3D gets more complicated and so on. But that’s the interesting challenge, because obviously there’s a certain price to our software, so if you are a three-person team with a small budget, it’s probably not realistic to buy us separately. But we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where 3D will go. There’s really high-end 3D already: look at Infinity Blade. 3D will get more complicated, so there’s going to be more need for us, which is great.

TS But that’s one of the strategies that we have at the moment. Through Unity we are able to reach smaller developers and give them access to exactly the same technology that bigger devs are getting.

Umbra’s offices are small but distinctive. They’re full of colour and dominated by the large stencil piece of the company’s name on the wall you can see in the lead image

Umbra must also be useful outside of game development?
We deal with some architecture and industrial companies [and] their models are infinitely more complicated and high-poly than anything games do.

TS You can’t really cheat your way out of polygons in those sectors; you can’t not model every screw individually! It’s highly likely that in the future we’ll have fully 3D models of cities that you can navigate through with your phone, or CAD models – go into a factory and do electrical repairs with a model of the building, etc.

TP If you model an oil rig, it has to have everything, an insane amount of data, which we can help with.

But is Umbra, in your minds at least, first and foremost a gaming technology?
Personally, I care about games. But obviously, if we think about the company, there’s a huge untapped market for us.

TS At the moment, we’re focusing on games and the other stuff is just a product of us doing a really good job with games. A lot of visualisation companies, like Boeing and whatever, are looking into gaming to get the latest technology to apply to their fields. Architecture and CAD modelling has always dragged behind gaming – gaming is the tip of the iceberg.