Umbra Software specializes in providing Occlusion culling techniques in modern and popular AAA games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Evil Within. For those who are unaware, Occlusion culling is a popular technique to render large scenes that have a high depth complexity.
GamingBolt recently caught up with Umbra Software’s COO Sampo Lappalainen and Head of Communications Jenni Ahlapuro to check how Umbra is shaping for current gen consoles, PS4 Pro, Xbox Scorpio, cloud gaming and more. Check out the entire Q&A below.
We interviewed you last year in 2013 and a lot has changed since then. We are well into the current gen console cycle and are aware of each console’s limitations. How has Umbra evolved in this period?
Sampo: These past few years we’ve spent a lot of time fine tuning the core of the product to make it work in different game genres and various types of content. Today the technology is far better for example in expansive open worlds game than what it was three years ago.
During the last year or so, we have started all new R&D on a couple of new major features that complement the current ones. So far, Umbra has been focused on finding the visible objects in a 3D environment. The new functionality will optimize these visible objects and help in determining which objects should be streamed into the memory. All these features combined make for a very powerful overall whole scene optimization that will make it possible to render environments with unparalleled scale and detail. We are very excited about this technology.
From a memory and CPU cycle point of view, how have you optimized Umbra is the last one year or so?
Sampo: Umbra is now much faster on the CPU across the board, but most importantly it now does a better job at visibility optimization — particularly in open world environments. So the biggest gains – both on the CPU and GPU – are actually on the game engine’s side. It simply has less work to do thanks to Umbra.
We have already seen Umbra’s Occlusion technique being used in a multiplatform game like Destiny. Do you think the absolute potential of your technology is reduced when it’s applied to multi-platform games, since essentially we are scaling up and down across the PS4 and Xbox One in case of a multiplatform game?
Jenni: I don’t think the actual potential is reduced, as our technology makes sure developers can get the best possible graphics and frame rates with the hardware they choose to use. Destiny was also available for last gen consoles, and although those versions didn’t look impressive compared to PS4 or Xbox One, they were pretty impressive on that specific hardware. We definitely played a key role to achieve that. That being said, obviously we want to help developers to really push the envelope and enable stunning graphics and super fast frame rates on any console.
"Umbra is now much faster on the CPU across the board, but most importantly it now does a better job at visibility optimization — particularly in open world environments. So the biggest gains – both on the CPU and GPU – are actually on the game engine’s side."
The differences in GPU ROPs between the PS4 and Xbox One are fairly public knowledge now. As someone who works very closely with these two machines, what is your take on the differences between PS4 and Xbox One GPUs?
Sampo: We don’t actually consider ourselves huge GPU experts. That said, to my understanding one of the big differences between the two GPU’s is in how they support async compute, which makes it possible to use the GPU for various compute intensive engine operations — not always related to rendering. So from the perspective of game engine design, it is a challenge to take full advantage of the compute capabilities on both platforms as you have to write custom async compute pipelines for both consoles.
In our last interview, you were fairly critical about the memory in the new consoles and it seems you were correct. PC games are already surpassing 8-12GB as recommended requirements. How do you think a. the new consoles will cope with this?
Sampo: Obviously more memory is be better, but in big picture it’s always more complicated than that. Larger memories require faster memory bandwidths, otherwise it takes a long time to fill the memory. This problem can already be seen as somewhat lengthy load times and the problem would only be worse if the memories were simply made bigger. The vendors could also install more memory bandwidth, but this adds to the cost. How much more are the big masses willing to pay? Difficult questions.
Our new product will bring remedy to this problem. It will make it possible to stream in the least accurate version of the 3D scene into the memory first, display it immediately and then keep streaming in the more detailed version of the scene on the background. This almost entirely removes the need for load screens and makes hardware upgrades cheaper and less of a hassle too as you could simply plug-in more memory without upgrading the memory bandwidth.
"Now when 4k is emerging and the iterative console generations are in the horizon, the developers might have to support all possible configurations. Old console & HD TV, new console & HD TV and new console & 4k TV. This means more work for the developers just to get all the configurations supported."
With DX12, how do you think it has affected your occlusion technique, specifically on the Xbox One?
Sampo: Our method is CPU-based, so DX12 hasn’t affected it at all. However, modern GPU’s have made us consider making it possible to execute our operation alternatively on the GPU to cater for the game engines which prefer this approach. We are doing research on this as we speak.
Last year you told us that you are working on integrating the cloud with Umbra. Since then Microsoft had showcased its potential in a demo, which can be seen here. Has there been any progression on this front or do you think streaming data, graphical assets, physics etc is simply not possible on the current console i.e. Xbox One and this is simply some sort of a pipe dream?
Sampo: Our focus on the cloud side has been on the tools side, where we have built a system for building our data very fast. Regarding the the game runtime side and cloud our focus is currently in building a system for providing and streaming 3D assets. This will make it possible to reduce load times and to build bigger and more detailed worlds.
Cloud gaming on the current generation is not a pipe dream, it’s just a matter of building the technology and tools for making it happen. Amazon is investing a lot of effort into making this happen with their Lumberyard engine. I’m really looking forward to what they are up to!
Has the slower clock speeds of the PS4 and Xbox One CPU been an issue for you guys? If yes, how did you managed to cope with it?
Sampo: Our software runs 100% on the CPU so the faster the chip, the better for us. However, we pride for being platform agnostic and light in terms of CPU cycles consumed, PS4 and Xbox One are amongst the easy platforms we work with. Embedded devices like tablets, cell phones and the Hololens push the envelope of anything that requires processor cycles quite a bit, but we are well optimized on those too.
I wanted to talk something which is out of the scope of this interview but I would like your opinion on this anyway. What are your thoughts on the so called resolution and frame rate wars between PS4 and Xbox One? Do you think that AAA developers gives priority to resolution and fps over gameplay and in a broader picture, do they even care about this debate?
Sampo: Different kinds of games set different requirements for frame rates and often developers have their own strong preference to the 30 vs 60 fps debate. I personally really like 60 fps and think that it adds a lot to the overall gaming experience. The resolution question however is a bit more complicated. In some sense, HD -> 4k can be seen as a incremental change instead of a revolutionary one in terms of graphics fidelity and still it hogs *a lot* more GPU cycles. The developers have to decide between increasing the number of pixels on the screen or adding nicer effects. These are not easy decisions and there are no right answers.
Now when 4k is emerging and the iterative console generations are in the horizon, the developers might have to support all possible configurations. Old console & HD TV, new console & HD TV and new console & 4k TV. This means more work for the developers just to get all the configurations supported.
In addition it is also a matter of what people expect from the developers. For example, if someone buys a shiny new 4k TV and the console supports that, they will assume that the game supports it too.
"More TFLOPS is naturally nice, but feature to feature comparisons are not the most fruitful discussion to have. Things like CPU speed and memory bandwidth play a huge role as well, but in the end it’s the big picture that matters."
With both Sony and Microsoft confirming iterative console products in the next year or so, how is Umbra preparing itself for the next evolution in console gaming?
Sampo: As our product is so platform agnostic, we don’t have to do much whenever a new platform emerges. This hold true with the new console generations as well. With the developers having the difficult task of supporting these new platforms, I would imagine that our assistance is more valued than ever.
Unlike the current gen, Microsoft will apparently have the upper hand with the Scorpio. The console will feature 6TFLOPs of GPU compared to the reported 4.3 TFLOPs in PS4 NEO. As a developer what is your take on that difference?
Sampo: More TFLOPS is naturally nice, but feature to feature comparisons are not the most fruitful discussion to have. Things like CPU speed and memory bandwidth play a huge role as well, but in the end it’s the big picture that matters. I think that until both consoles are on the shelf of a store, the jury is still out on which has the upper hand.
Given that Sony and Microsoft both mandate that there can be no exclusive Neo and Scorpio games, don’t you think that the Neo and Scorpio are effectively redundant, given that there is not much you can do with that excess power?
Sampo: I hope that the developers have some say on what to do with the excess power. For example, they could have a separate HD version of the game with nicer effects for the new consoles. This brings the consoles closer to PC and it seems like this is what the platform holders are going after. This is obviously more work for the developers so they aren’t necessarily all that happy if this is what happens.
I know you can’t talk about some of the games you are working on but what is next on the pipleline for Umbra Software?
Jenni: Lots of amazing games in the pipeline with old partners and new ones, unfortunately can’t really say a lot about those just yet. Be sure to stay tuned though, as we do have few surprises coming up. As mentioned earlier, we are building a new product which adds new features to the existing one. We don’t have a set release date just yet, but news should be incoming pretty soon. I can say we’ll make especially VR & AR developers very happy with the new technology, as it allows even bigger data sets run super fast on any device. Obviously game developers will benefit greatly too.
It was lovely chatting with you. Is there anything else you want to tell us before we let you go?
Jenni: We are actively hiring skilled graphics programmers to work with the very latest technology and blockbuster games, so do apply if you’re up to the challenge.