At Siggraph earlier this week Autodesk took the wraps off of new versions of Max and Maya, an extension of MotionBuilder, and announced it was to acquire New Zealand based Sky Matter and its Mudbox high-end 3D modelling software.
We ran through the principal announcements here and here, but also had the chance after to talk with Michel Kripalani, senior manager for its games industry products, and Curtis Garton, product manager for MotionBuilder to discuss what the new features in the software mean for games studios
First up: the new products and their features. On a purely cosmetic basis, both Max and Maya, the software games studios will be most familiar with from the Autodesk family, are now called Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 and Autodesk Maya 2008.
You could joke that this is 'EA-ification' of the portfolio (truth is it's just to have the products named similarly to the other rendering and graphics software Autodesk offers to other industries). But in talking through the more significant additions to the software Kripalani made it clear there was a key desire to serve the industry in which EA is market leaders: he explained that, while the company serves a number of entertainment and design media, "a lot of the changes have been driven by games studios".
While the company is quick to point out it likes to work well with all its customers, Autodesk works in close collaboration with a number of key studios trying to create cutting edge games (such as the teams at Epic, Midway and Ubisoft working on the likes of Unreal Tournament 3, Stranglehold and Splinter Cell Conviction respectively) to find out what the interactive medium demands from its tools. And clearly Max and Maya have benefitted greatly, says Kripalani.
"The key thing for Max 2008 is that it's all about handling a large number of objects which as we know if necessary for next-generation games," said Kripalani, conceding that the last release was all about high-poly models, but having multiple objects on screen was more difficult.
"So we've put in a two-stage approach. The viewport features adaptive degradation and its scene explorer makes the whole thing much easier to work with."
Max also boasts a new Max script editor, designed to help people easily write tools, while modelling has also been given an upgrade, in order to simply increase speed - with users now about to move around and switch between modes much quicker.
On the Maya front the focus has been on addressing what Kripalani said was a huge frustration for artists previously - being able to tweak and rig character models without destroying the skiing.
"So one of the biggest things for our games customers is the non-destructible workflow for skin," he commented. "People lost too much time before in having to reskin a model whenever they changed underlying models."
Maya's hardware API has also been completely rewritten for games pipelines in mind, specifically OpenGL and DX.
MotionBuilder's extension, meanwhile, has been really targetted for next-gen character movement animation.
"MotionBuilder's already been about being able to support lots of detail but the finger solvers which we've added have seen us go form the previous gen of having polygonal hands to fully animated fingers," says Kripalani. "But the biggest thing I am excited about is bidirectional biped support in 3ds Max."
But Autodesk is now gearing up to add another M-initialed product to its line up - Skymatters' Mudbox, the high-end design tool for 3D brush work that can render characters made of millions of polygons and already employed by games studios (Epic Games is a big proponent) and movie effects design teams (such as Weta).
Kripalani describes the deal to buy Skymatter's assets and the software thus: "It's a great new paradigm for modeling and we're really proud to have it as part of the family."
Games studios, he says, should be able to take real advantage of the software, "specifically where next-gen games require a level where you can create a model with 15 million polygons but you can then bring down to a lower level".
The overall hope, he adds, is that the Autodesk tools will - once the acquisition is complete, that is - offer a solution that can cope from the lowest poly models to the highest, securing the portfolio as developers keep trying to push forward the detail they can wrangle out of PS3 and 360.
"I wouldn't say there was a gap in what we offered before," he adds, "You could do the high-poly stuff in Max and Maya but it was really clunky. Mudbox is the right way to do it, and create organic brush-based modeling with poly-based characters.
While Mudbox addresses the really high end of 3D rendering, there are still questions over what happens with Max and Maya. Autodesk only acquired Alias 16 months ago, but maintains that Max and Maya won't be merged together - a position the company restated at Siggraph.
But with the two lines living side by side, what's Autodesk's stance on which of the two pieces of software, which do similar things after all, it should recommend to studios?
Says Kripalani: "The best advice I give is that if people are familiar with one or the other then they should just keep using it. They can look at getting one or two seats of the other product to see if any thing in that adds something to the mix for them.
"If studios are starting completely from scratch its that Max is a little bit more ready to go right out of the box, and better for small teams who might want to download a lot of plug-ins. Maya is geared towards larger pipelines and really complex workflow and let's people write a lot of tools themselves.
"It's not a great binary decision by any means, but that's my guidance based on what I see in the industry."
In fact, says Curtis Gardon, the ability to keep offering both remains an advantage for the industry as a whole rather than a clash of self-interests.
"When people are building their production pipelines they are also looking at the talent available to them, and in certain regions you are going to find more Max regions in the community or more Maya users," he explains.
"What we've found is that most companies that are going to start building a pipeline are going to pick up some senior guys who will hire from their connections and their talent pool. So it's up to us to make sure that we satisfy the ever growing talent pool with our products."
In fact, that point is the key one both he and Kripalani want studios to understand.
Says Garton: "We spend a huge amount of time with our customers to understand their problems - and our releases are all designed to answer their problems. We want to focus less on pure products and more on the overall solution because that's the only thing that's going to drive the wider games business."