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3ds Max 2008 Review: Boosting Performance

Ryan Lesser tests 3ds Max 2008 and finds great productivity improvements, particularly for those specializing in architectural design, previs and lighting/composition.

3ds Max 2008 boasts a number of productivity enhancements. Except where noted, all images courtesy of Ryan Lesser.

2008. This is now my 11th version of 3ds Max that I have used and one of many that I have reviewed. It is sort of crazy for me to think that these powerful tools have been around for this long and just how much they have changed and improved. As my 3D tool of choice since back when it was called 3d Studio, this software package has seen me through a lot, including my recent projects Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, as well as some fondly remembered projects such as Frequency and Amplitude. Things that my teams and I have struggled with early on are now history and the tools become more and more powerful by the year. Along with tool enhancements, Autodesk has focused these past years on making use of the drastic leaps and bounds that hardware has made in the past three years. This year's version of 3ds Max has taken on the new moniker of 3ds Max 2008 instead of using the typical "rev" number. This sent warning pings down one of my lead artist's spine when he found out. He is afraid that "Max," as we all lovingly call it, will just get marginally revved each year with no major accomplishments. If you have read my past reviews, you know that I too am leery of this. While I understand that making major leaps and bounds each year is difficult, there are only so many years you can please the crowd with "speed enhancements." Things are looking good on the horizon, though. The elusive in viewport texture painting and brush-based modeling holes in 3ds Max will soon be resolved, as Autodesk has acquired Skymatter and its Mudbox 3D modeling software.

3ds Max 2008 started shipping this month at $3,495 for the standalone version and $4,195 for the network license, while upgrades are at the $795 price point. One interesting thing to note is that while the system requirements on the software clearly state that running 3ds Max 2008 on an Apple with Intel processors are not supported, I have it installed on my Macbook Pro and it runs incredibly well... even better than on my PC workstation. Yeah: no kidding. So now you can get rid of that ugly, 20-pound PC laptop and its eight-pound AC adapter and get yourself a nice Mac and still run 3ds Max like a champ.

Using two lights with corresponding shadows, in-viewport with

We should start with the spot that Autodesk has placed much of its effort: Performance. I will group two types of performance here: the software's and the user's. Autodesk has made improvements to both. Many of the performance boosts in the software focus on the use of many objects, nodes, poly's etc. If you are modeler that likes to focus on a single object such as a head or another body part, these do not affect you much, but if you are a level artist for games, an architect or CAD-type modeler, these may mean quite a bit. 3ds Max 2008 boasts a 10 times speed increase in the selection of thousands of objects as well as material assignments to those objects. This means that you can quickly select tons of objects quickly and just drag a material to them all and be done with it in record time. I was able to easily translate a scene with millions of polys in many thousand objects and alter their materials with ease. Autodesk claims a 60 times increase here when transforming 5,000+ objects. Hiding and un-hiding these thousands of objects has also been sped up, and it was noticeable. This takes me to how the user's performance has been improved. The new Scene Explorer is a nice step up from the old style lister that Max has been using for years. The svelte but full featured explorer that handles thousands of objects comfortably, and all with an easy to use Graphic User Interface. The improvements to the Adaptive Degradation system also aids in scene exploration. Using sliders representing "distance from camera" and "screen size," as well as a "force" degradation system, the user can choose what they wish to degrade and when.

This image uses a Sky system and the default mental ray/Final Gather settings. Courtesy of Autodesk.

This image uses all of the same settings, but has a single Sky Portal attached to the window. You see that high-end results are achieved without slowing down the render time with higher samples/rays. Courtesy of Autodesk. 

On the lighting front, there have been some interesting improvements too. Using Direct X 3ds Max introduces "Review," a new in-viewport rendering system that allows realtime shadows, the effects of Sun/Sky and many material settings. Review allows shadow intensity and color to be seen in the viewport for quick and easy visualization.

In addition, pretty interesting function called Sky Portal has been added. Sky Portal enables artists to light interior scenes with exterior Sun or Sky object with much faster rendering times and more accurate Final Gather results by constraining where the renderer believes the light is coming from. So, if you have an interior room modeled and that room has a small window (see image) then the artist can place a Sky Portal on that window. Now the renderer will only look to that portal for lighting information.

Once all of your lighting is set up, you can use the new "camera based" exposure controls to alter the Tone Mapping of your render. Tone Mapping is a technique used by some photographers to get total control of their shadows and highlights by adjusting parameters such as Shutter Speed, Aperture, Film Speed and so on. This is a very intuitive interface, especially if one is familiar with simple photographic concepts. In addition to these enhancements, 3ds Max 2008 has added a fast, self-illuminated Arch&Design material setting for objects. This quick roll out creates a glow and illumination around an object with ease. Simply setting light parameters like temperature and intensity allows the artist to quickly create neon, fluorescents, etc.

In just seconds, sophisticated, self-illuminated objects create convincing light in a scene.

If you are the type of user that focuses on architectural design, previs, lighting/composition... then these changes and additions to the lighting/rendering systems will be great. However, if you focus more on modeling or animation (especially for games) then these have little bearing on you. For those of you that are focused elsewhere, there are improvements there too. One simple but effective tweak is that now there is the concept of a "Working Pivot," which the artist may turn on or off at will (use a hotkey). With a working pivot, you can set up a pivot that any object in the scene, including sub-objects, can utilize. A new modeling constraint has been added so that, in addition to translating sub objects along their edges or verticies, they can now be moved along their Normals, creating a powerful localized Push. There are also a handful of other minor advancements for those that work in the modeling/animation realm. Sub Object previewing is now functional as well as the ability to assign UV Unwrap to multiple objects... a request made by many game developers. While on the game development front... there are also some changes to Biped (for the better). Most notable is the ability to export and import Biped Layer information. This is not only useful for the obvious reasons, but it also allows artists to create a production pipeline where they can animate in a comfortable setting while being able to export these layers to a game engine as separate files...basically allowing arm movements and head movements to be exported individually and used as blend layers in a game engine.

As a major milestone, I believe 3ds Max 2008 falls short. However, as a productivity booster and overall enjoyable experience, this rev of Max delivers. After a few years of "performance" releases and smatterings of improvements, I am seriously ready for a major release. Having Mudbox in next year's release would be a hell of a start.

Ryan Lesser has served as art director at Harmonix since 1999. Here he has helped produce award-winning games such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Frequency and Amplitude. Ryan also teaches animation at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His animation company (Mammoth Studios) worked on projects for Phish, Sony, MTV, De La Soul, Madison Square Garden and others. Ryan also maintains a Providence, Rhode Island-only,underground music site.