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Product Review: 3DS Max in Two Takes

May 12, 2004

In every industry, there are a few products whose presence is close to universal, ones that deserve a little extra attention and a wider range of perspectives than do other programs in other disciplines. In this industry, 3DS Max is clearly one of those, not only because of its wide adoption, but because of its range of capabilities-from modeling to animation to rendering. However, this very diversity makes it rare to find any one individual that uses all aspects of it equally, day in and day out.

So with that in mind, and to take advantage of this section's redesign, we've decided to mix up our old formula a bit and have two reviewers take apart 3DS Max 6-reporting on the areas of the product that each uses most in their everyday work. We lead off with Take One-Michael Dean's perspective, focusing on the modeling and texturing improvements since 3DS Max 5. In Take Two, Spencer Lindsay covers the rendering and animation improvements, while overlaping Dean's coverage of the Vertex Paint module.

In the end, both give 3DS Max 6 high (but slightly different) scores, and slightly different recommendations on whether you should upgrade. A few features neither covered will nonetheless be of interest to many-among them, relaxed UV editing to reduce the texture mapping headache and better integration with Criterion.

-Peter Sheerin

Take One
Michael Dean

3DS Max has certainly embedded itself firmly into the game production studio environment. Chances are, no matter what 3D package a studio uses, many of the artists at that studio also are adept at Max. It has more or less become the 3D equivalent of Photoshop: it is the package 3D artists are expected to know.

3DS Max

Montreal, Quebec
800.896.3504 or 514.393.1616

Price: $3,495 ($795 upgrade)

System Requirements: Windows 2004 (SP4) or Windows XP (SP1), Intel Pentium III or AMD 300MHz processor or faster (Dual Intel Xeon or dual AMD Athlon recommended), 512MB RAM and 500MB disk swap space (1GB RAM and 2GB swap recommended, 64MB OpenGL/DirectX 8.1 graphics card (256MB 3D DirectX 9 graphics card recommended).

The Face-Lift. Interface improvements have been added throughout 3DS Max 6, though it may not be immediately apparent to even advanced users (besides the addition of the Reactor shelves). Most of the interface improvements have been made at the module level. For instance, the design of the layer manager is improved and has a more integrated, refined feel. On a more basic level, some of the main menu items have had their commands grouped together into a cleaner structure. Nothing major here, but it does help to clean up the interface and improve workflow.

One of the most notable improvements is the enhancement of the schematic view. In previous versions, it was more or less a glorified outline of the current scene. Interactivity was limited to selection, linking, and a few other simple tasks. With the current version, all of the objects and modifiers present in Max are organized, editable, and viewable inside of the schematic view. All of the power and functionality present in a standard viewport are now accessible via the schematic view. One of the best examples of this is the Wire Parameters function, which enables the user to set expressive relationships between related or unrelated objects in a visual and/or mathematical manner. It is now simple to set up relationships such as the left thumb curling on a character when the right thumb curls, as the user no longer has to make sure these spaced-apart objects are both visible in a viewport.

On top of the many functional enhancements of the schematic view, the visual enhancements are present as well. Background images can now be added independently to the viewport, and can be used as a visual guide for laying out schematic nodes. A script included with the software allows a user to select an active viewport and arrange the linked nodes so the world-space of the selected viewport is duplicated in the schematic view. Truly, the schematic view has evolved to the point where it is one of the more useful viewports in the 3DS Max arsenal.

Both Dean and Lindsay found the vertex painting tools in 3DS Max 6 to meet their expectations as artists-it offers the features and interaction that they are already familiar with in Photoshop and other tools, even including layers.

Vertex Painting. Artists fortunate enough to create content for game engines that support the importing of vertex color painting will be quite pleased with 3DS Max's overhauled vertex painting engine, with improvements in both interface and functionality. Vertex painting now behaves much more like it does in a traditional 2D paint package such as Photoshop or Painter. It is complete with-most noticeably-a very nice toolbar, layers, layer types and settings, the ability to paint in the sub-object mode without having to revert from the modifier back into sub-object mode, and a more intuitive workflow.

Artists who are developing games for the PC or Xbox will be glad to know that .FX shaders are natively supported in 3DS Max. These DX9 shaders have enhanced attributes that support the advanced features found in a typical gamer's video card. Vertex normals are fully viewable and editable inside 3DS Max 6. Of course, the texture painting itself must be done in another package, but the effects of the created texture are immediately apparent inside 3DS Max 6 and respond appropriately to a scene light source. It would be nice to see this working with multiple light sources, to better mimic a game environment, but it's a good start. 3DS Max's Direct3D support is the best of any package out there, and it is obvious this is becoming a big deal with any developer interested in easily grasping and visualizing the latest graphics tricks.

Another nice new feature is the Shell modifier. This is a simple and effective way to give a thickness to zero-thickness standard polygonal surfaces. It may seem like a simple extrusion or bevel at first glance, but in fact interpolates the extrusion path on both an individual face-normal and group-normal basis, and effectively scales the extruded faces to match the extrusion distance. It also intelligently maps the resultant edge faces created between the inner and outer shells.

Eclipsing most of the functionality of Character Studio's Physique once and for all, the skin tool now has the ability to mirror skin weights. The arduous process of getting those perfect, precise weights on a character's shoulders, only to be completely demoralized by having to do it all over again on the other shoulder, has become a thing of the past. Of course, characters lacking symmetry in these crucial areas won't benefit from the mirroring of skin weights, but they may benefit from its sibling tool for mirroring skin envelopes.

The optional Character Studio module of 3DS Max is largely unchanged, and its aging interface and somewhat rigid functionality are becoming something of a thorn in 3DS Max's side. Certainly, it has several great features, and 3DS Max would be lost without it, but modules such as this truly evolutionary skin modifier are very welcome.

What Discreet has Done. With 3DS Max 6, Discreet has proven that they are not content with sitting on their laurels. Max is continuously evolving and is obviously adding features that have been requested by users. I am happy with how they seem to be moving away from the backward thinking that plagued them in the past-thinking that required adding thousands of dollars' worth of plug-ins just to bring 3DS Max up to a level of functionality offered by its competitors' standard packages.

When all is said and done, 3DS Max is a fantastic workhorse in the graphics sector of the gaming industry. It still has the greatest user support community, is the most widely known and accepted, and pushes itself from the inside to meet expectations from the outside. In most cases, it has been successful. I would like to see some of the legacy modules and plug-ins disappear, paving the way for more integrated, updated solutions to art and design problems. Specifically, I would like to see the character system take its cue from the Skin Modifier and overhaul itself into a more cohesive plug-in better integrated with the base Max package.

The addition of High Level Shading Language support to 3DS Max 6 means much more sophisticated visual effects can be created that match the capabilities of the recent 3D gaming cards, including pixel and vertex shaders.

Sure, most of the changes in 3DS Max 6 are small, barely incremental changes, but they all add up to a more cohesive package that understands its user base better. This is the most functional, user-friendly version of 3Ds Max to date.

Take Two
Spencer Lindsay

Being a longtime user of Max, I can say that this update to an already impressive set of 3D tools is well worth the price. The modeling and rendering tools alone make it an important item on my company wish list. As with other successive incarnations of the software packages I own, the level of complexity in this version is enough to make you either want to run screaming from the room or become a specialist in one small area of the program. I challenge anyone, even the techies at Discreet, to know all there is to know about this package without having to look it up in a manual.

That being said, with added complexity comes added functionality. The hoops we used to jump through to get earlier versions of 3DS Max to perform some task have been replaced with smoothly operating buttons and procedures. Finding the time in your production schedule to figure out how it works might be a daunting task, but well worth it in the end.

First Impression. At first glance, 3DS Max 6.0 isn't much different from 3DS Max 5.0. Although the new Reactor physics panel is different, the rest of the screen looks pretty much the same. Only when you start getting into the menus does the new functionality become apparent.

The first and most obvious addition to 3DS Max 6 is the seamless integration of the Mental Ray rendering engine. Previously available only as an additional purchase, Mental Ray is now an integrated module of 3DS Max. Although the complexity of the controls for this feature may be a bit daunting at first, the Mental Ray engine is an amazing renderer-with enough tweaking, it can handle the most complex rendering task. The addition of Mental Ray Materials, Lights, Maps, and Shadows links you to the renderer much more closely than in the previous version of 3DS Max. Mental Ray takes full advantage of Hyper Threading, which boosts rendering speeds significantly. A nifty little tool I found useful were the Lighting Data Exposure Controls, which allow you to check the overall exposure of the scene before committing to a full render.

In addition to the new rendering system, an upgraded Vertex Paint module allows you to paint directly onto mesh objects in a very Photoshop-like way. Blending controls allow you to paint over existing colors using Multiply, Screen, Subtract, and other methods. Virtually every blend mode you're used to in Photoshop can be used with 3DS Max's Vertex Paint tool. Using layers in this utility feels very natural and intuitive.

Especially for Game Developers. Combining the vertex paint utility with Assign Vertex Colors utility gives you "baked" vertex colors and other object properties on the geometry you're working with to reflect the lighting in the scene. Not only can you bake your lighting into the scene, you can assign up to 99 channels of vertex colors to each vertex. This means if you are looking for a "time of day" solution for your real-time environment, you can light your scene with radiosity, ray-tracing, and so on, bake the daytime colors into the mesh, change to nighttime lights, re-render, and then bake those into a separate channel. Given two channels of color per vertex, your game programmers can then interpolate between channels to give you day-to-night lighting transitions. Add to this mix an array of pre-rendered shadow maps and you have a very powerful lighting pipeline.

If you feel the need to blow something up, set something on fire, or splash liquids around, the new Particle Flow utility is for you. An amazing array of dynamic, event-driven modules allow you to mix, match, and blend so many parameters of a particle system that knowing this module alone could get you a job at an effects house. A schematic editor acts as an interface to these modularized controls and, after a bit of experimentation, is surprisingly powerful and easy to use. All edits are displayed in real-time so it's very easy to iterate during your design. This is one of my favorite additions to 3DS Max 6.

Another key enhancement is HDRI (High Dynamic Range Image) support. Using a panoramic HDRI map as a skylight will light the scene according to the lighting in the map. This is an excellent way to light 3D elements you plan to composite into live action later. Through an intuitive dialog box, Max also gives you full control over which part of the dynamic range of the HDRI image that you want to use.

Among the improvements that speed the creation of content is the new schematic view-it makes creating and adjusting animations and model structure far more intuitive, and allows you to adjust components that are not even visible in a model view.

Other Enhancements. Version 6.0 has also upgraded the Schematic View. I found it to be much more useful due to several factors. The ability to place bitmaps behind the scene graph assists in figuring out where all your nodes are in 3D space-and acts as an excellent way to keep track of props and objects in an environment. This feature is extremely useful in rigging a character for animation. Bookmarks and saved layouts help you save your workspace without having to set it all up again every time you open the file. Also, you are given very quick access to the wiring dialogue by double clicking on the wires between nodes.

In addition to being functional, the new Panorama Exporter is just really cool. It provides an excellent way of previewing an environment or showing a client the current status of a project. Its ease of export to QTVR makes it web-portable and a really excellent addition to the 3DS Max toolset.

Both Dean and Lindsay found the vertex painting tools in 3DS Max 6 to meet their expectations as artists-it offers the features and interaction that they are already familiar with in Photoshop and other tools, even including layers.

Among the improvements that speed the creation of content is the new schematic view-it makes creating and adjusting animations and model structure far more intuitive, and allows you to adjust components that are not even visible in a model view.


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