Whether you're a budding computer graphics professional or a passionate hobbyist, it's a tall order determining which 3d software suite to purchase. 3D software is expensive, and it can be hard to learn. Matching the right software package to your needs and preferences is one of the most important steps you can take on the way to a long and rewarding experience with 3D production.
Types of 3D Software:
Although today's software is becoming harder and harder to classify into strict subsets, there are three major types of applications used for CG production:
- Full 3D suites
- Digital sculpting applications
- Game development engines
In addition to these, there's a wide range of specialist software used for unique tasks that require greater control and sophistication than generalist applications can provide.
1. Full 3D Suites:
Full 3D Suites are meant to be one-stop-shops for 3D production. They provide tools for every aspect of the computer graphics pipeline, including 3D modeling, texturing, lighting, animation, and visual effects.
- The great advantage of full 3D suites is that the artist has little need to switch between applications and is given the ability to create a polished image from start to finish using one piece of software.
- The disadvantage is that even though most 3D suites do a lot of things very well, due to the abundance of situation-specific software they are rarely best at any given task.
Even so, a full software suite is typically the first application any aspiring 3D artist should learn. Despite their hefty learning curve, 3D suites offer the widest range of tools and allow the user to experiment with any aspect of the computer graphics pipeline.
2. Digital Sculpting Applications:
Digital sculpting software differs enough from traditional 3D modeling tools to warrant its own discussion. Whereas modeling in Maya and 3ds Max consists primarily of moving and extruding edges, vertices, and polygons, 3D sculpting is akin to molding digital clay.
- Pixologic ZBrush and Autodesk Mudbox are the two major players in the digital sculpting world. Pixologic revolutionized the industry with Zbrush, and by many accounts it's the most fully featured digital sculpting application out there. However, Mudbox boasts excellent useability, seamless integration with other Autodesk software, and just enough unique features to keep it competitive.
- We'd say the edge goes to ZBrush for it's customizability, constant innovation, and perhaps most importantly, its prevalence in major studios.
3. Game Engines:
Nearly every major game studio has its own proprietary development engine, but fortunately there are some rock solid options for the rest of us. Game engines are used in conjunction with third party modeling software (usually a full software suite like 3ds Max) to create interactive 3D game environments.
- Unreal Development Kit, and Unity are the industry's best choices for independent developers at the moment, but CryTek has promised to make a splash in the near future by releasing an free version of their graphical powerhouse, CryEngine 3.
4. Specialist 3D Software:
There's an extensive list of 3D software that aims to perform specialized functions as well possible. From sophisticated hair & fur systems to procedural 3D foliage applications, there's too much variation to fully explore them all here.
- One of the most important is e-on Vue, which easily leads the way in natural environment creation (Avatar's jungle scenes, for example).
Almost every piece of software mentioned here has an educational version that you can try for free. Before making a final decision, it’s wise to play around with two or three of the solutions that interest you most.
As I said earlier, the most important thing an artist can do is find the proper tools for his or her workflow. With all the options out there, there’s no reason to shoestring yourself into a piece of software you don’t enjoy using.