Finnish middleware developer Umbra Software has released Umbra 3.1, the latest version of its rendering optimisation solution.
Clients include Remedy – which used Umbra in the original Alan Wake and is taking advantage of it again in the recently announced Alan Wake's American Nightmare – and Bungie. While the former Halo developer's next project, its first for new parent Activision, remains shrouded in secrecy, the Umbra deal adds further weight to rumours that Bungie is working on an MMOG.
One of Umbra 3.1's headline features is Incremental Bake, which enables changes to be made to an object's placement in a scene without the need for the entire scene's visibility information to be computed again from scratch, or "rebaked". Instead, it only bakes the information that is changed as a result of the object being moved.
"These days rapid content iteration is a key thing for developers and this is something that Bungie was pushing for," says Umbra's chief technology officer Otso Mäkinen, pointing to a talk the developer held at computer graphics conference Siggraph 2011. "You need to be able to build huge game worlds and have very fast turnaround times – artists and designers traditionally have to wait for hours and hours to generate, for example, lightmaps and visibility data, which they have to do manually.
"[With Incremental Bake] you can do a lot of changes to your scene and not worry about having to wait for hours for those changes to take place."
Naturally, the bigger the world, the more time Umbra saves, especially if that world is dynamic, with different types of terrain, weather effects and day/night cycles. It's something Hao Chen, Bungie's senior graphics artist, said in a recent interview was one of the biggest challenges the studio has faced in the design of its new engine.
"The challenge is selling a dynamic world," he told Game Developer Magazine. "In terms of what we think is important, we will even lower some of the quality in order for us to have a more dynamic world.
"This means dynamic time of day, lots of things that move in the wind, lots of things reacting to players moving through them, and when you walk on soft surfaces like sand and mud, you leave footprints. So basically everything we do to sell that this world is moving and dynamic is important to us."
Chen doesn't name Umbra specifically – though he did in his talk at Siggraph – but elsewhere in the interview he does admit that Bungie is increasingly relying on middleware to speed up progress on its new engine and game.
"We see more and more roles played by middleware these days," he said. "I think good use of middleware allows us to get a feature earlier than we could if we were to engineer it ourselves, and that means the content people will get mature technology and more time to produce content.
"So that longer iteration time will translate to higher quality that will offset whatever engineering advantage you would have by writing your own. So in a lot of these places where it makes sense, we use middleware."
There's no smoking gun, of course, but it does add further weight to the widely held belief that Bungie's first project for Activision will be an MMOG. In February, sources told Kotaku the studio was working on an MMOFPS, codenamed Destiny.
At GDC in March, Bungie's lead network engineer David Aldridge appeared to confirm the rumours with a slide claiming the studio was hiring for a "massively multiplayer action game." However, the very next day Bungie said it was a joke that only Aldridge got.