If it's GDC week in San Francisco, then it's time for Autodesk to roll out its latest suite of DEC products coinciding with the acquisition of Scaleform, provider of UI solutions for games.
The 2012 lineup of Media & Entertainment software (across creative finishing and DCC) focuses on iterative workflows, helping users manage complexity and providing a host of new creative tools (to keep up with the demands of the post-Avatar  bar that has been raised). Also, there's been a lot of development around suites to augment these improvements and greater support for trials and extended terms for free student licenses (36 months for members of the student community).
The new 2012 lineup naturally covers Maya ($3,495), 3ds Max ($3,495), Softimage ($2,995), Mudbox ($745), MotionBuilder ($3,995), Flame Premium (prices vary based on configuration) and Smoke for Mac ($14,995). These will start shipping in April. The Entertainment Creation Suites take advantage of the latest new features in Maya, Max, Softimage, Mudbox and MotionBuilder.
Meanwhile, Autodesk/Mac synergy is on the rise: platform neutrality is on the horizon along with broad awareness among the Final Cut Pro user base.
Not surprisingly, there is particular emphasis in the latest releases on the two hottest trends: virtual moviemaking and stereoscopic production. In fact, looking ahead, Autodesk believes a broader range of creative professionals will be able to adopt virtual moviemaking techniques as the technology becomes more scalable and accessible, thanks to the latest advancements in the 2012 versions of MotionBuilder, Maya, Softimage and Mudbox.
"The whole idea is the modern digital creation workflow, which means greater creative capabilities and improved production facilities," suggests Rob Hoffmann, senior manager product marketing, 3D. "But it really ties back into the bigger picture, which is production facilities, regardless of whether they're doing film, games or television work, are impacted by what you could almost call the Avatar effect, where the movie going audience and consumers of digital content are expecting bigger and better effects. These higher expectations are being passed onto the production facilities where they're being asked to deliver much more complex content than ever before, and being asked to deliver much larger volumes than ever before. But the big struggle is that they're not being given additional time to do so. In many cases, the budgets are remaining flat and, in some cases, they are actually shrinking. So there's this fundamental gap between the client's expectations as well as ultimately what the resources are at hand, and that's what we are really working toward to help address these production-based challenges for our customers."
Maya 2012 extends its toolset for previs, games prototyping and simulation along with better pipeline integration. Maya 2012 provides significant enhancements to the viewport offering full-screen effects, editable motion trails for animation editing in the viewport, as well as new simulation options. The new release also includes single-step workflows to enable users to move 3D data directly between the latest versions of Maya, Softimage (ICE), Mudbox and MotionBuilder for better pipeline integration.
3ds Max 2012 delivers a new accelerated graphics core, mRigids for dynamic rigid-body simulations in the viewport (using the NVIDIA PhysX engine) and new sculpting and painting enhancements such as the Clone brush.
Mudbox 2012 delivers enhancements to the painting toolset, innovative new UV and topology-independent workflows, practical posing tools and improved large dataset handling.
MotionBuilder 2012 provides new in-viewport stereoscopic display and camera rig, a unified interface and solver for Autodesk HumanIK 4.5 or 2012 middleware, as well as new tools for virtual moviemaking.
Flame Premium 2012 offers a comprehensive set of effects tools for finishing stereoscopic 3-D projects, enhanced finishing workflows with CG pipelines and a range of new tools designed to make 3D compositing as fast and interactive as traditional 2D compositing.
Smoke 2012, the all-in-one creative solution for professional finishing on the Mac, contains a redesigned 3D lighting system and Flame FX, a comprehensive new set of creative and technical tools for common finishing tasks, featuring Damage, Deform, Edge Detect and Pixel Spread.
"As we move forward, we're seeing the finishing aspect of things and color grading start to combine, and relighting is that sweet spot in the middle," offers Marc Hamaker, senior manager product marketing, creative finishing. "This includes extracting point clouds from images and extracting 3-D data from flat scenes."
Live linking: Character animators can see and play with their characters in a game engine while they work in the familiar Maya software environment. What previously might have taken up to weeks before artists could validate their work now happens immediately.
Visual programming: Using a node-based visual programming environment, technical artists and directors can quickly build and edit custom interactions without coding. Live linking make it easier to debug complex animation setups, which can be edited quickly without coding. Programmers can build custom nodes that can be used by the team to achieve specific results.
Middleware integration: Programmers no longer need to worry about writing low level animation code and data translators. Project Skyline comes with an animation engine that can be integrated into the game engine with minimal effort.
Speaking of middleware, Autodesk launches an enhanced API (application programming interface) in Autodesk Beast 2012 global illumination middleware, which enables developers to integrate the eRnsT interactive lighting preview tool into custom game level editors; Autodesk HumanIK 2012 character animation middleware , which now supports the next-gen portable entertainment system (codename: NGP) from Sony Computer Ent. Inc., as well as the Apple iOS mobile platform, enabling more realistic character animation on the latest mobile gaming devices; and Autodesk Kynapse 2012 artificial intelligence middleware, focusing on improving runtime performance and making advanced features easier to use.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.