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Maya 2008 Review: Workflow is Key

Fred Galpern tests Maya 2008 and discovers a significant change to Autodesk's approach to Maya development well worth the investment.

Maya 2008, a major upgrade to Autodesk's flagship 3D creation package, marks a significant change to the company's approach to the development of the software. All images courtesy of Autodesk.

Autodesk has released a major upgrade to Maya, which drops the sequential numbering in favor of the year, so what would have been Maya 9 is now Maya 2008. The updated package is a strong one, including many new features as well as many rock solid workflow enhancements. The release marks a significant change to Autodesk's approach to Maya's development. The focus is squarely on workflow this time, and the product shines for it.

The tried and true pattern of offering two distinct versions, Maya Complete and Maya Unlimited, remains with this upgrade. Maya Complete gives users all they need for standard 3D projects such as game development, basic animation and visual effects. Maya Unlimited includes some deeper, more application specific features including Nucleus Unified Simulation Framework, nCloth, Hair, Fur, Live and Fluid Effects. There is a significant cost difference between the versions, which may not be the most popular aspect of the product with users; however, it does offer them a choice along with the possibility of saving some of their budget.

Modeling in Maya 2008 is the main beneficiary of the workflow improvements. Artists spend many, many hours on modeling tasks, no matter what their 3D application of choice. In the past, Maya users bemoaned some of the multi-step processes they had to endure while modeling. In Maya 2008, the process has been sped up with a variety of keyboard shortcut consolidations and preview functions, all of which make the work go faster. The new X-Ray highlight feature allows users to select specific objects more easily by ghosting portions of the scene or object. Edges can now be slid, making the process of adding detail to complex geometry much faster. The Boolean functions have also been sped up as well as enhanced with cleaner output. Finally, smoothed meshes can now be previewed along with the mesh cage, which remains editable while viewing the smoothed mesh underneath. This feature alone is likely to be one of the most popular amongst modelers.

Modeling in Maya 2008 is the main beneficiary of the workflow improvements. Edges can now be slid, making the process of adding detail to complex geometry move much faster. 

Autodesk, of course, now develops the two most widely used 3D apps: Maya and 3ds Max. With Maya 2008, the beginning of cross-referenced feature sets begins to show. In particular, Maya 2008 now includes accurate, realtime viewport previews, much like 3ds Max. While these interactive previews are not identical to the output of whatever renderer users may choose, they do provide a look at the work that is more detailed and advanced than previous versions of Maya's viewports were capable of displaying in realtime. Another benefit of the more robust previewing in Maya 2008 is a snappier, more responsive user interface. Selecting objects, dialog boxes, panels and general screen updates are much faster.

Autodesk introduced nCloth in Maya 8.5, and it's now been updated in Maya 2008 to be faster, more user-friendly and features improved realtime previews. 

In the last version, Maya 8.5, Autodesk introduced nCloth, a new system for creating cloth objects using the Nucleus Unified Framework. nCloth has been updated in Maya 2008 to be faster, more user-friendly and now has improved realtime previews.

Model builders are not the only creators who get attention in Maya 2008. Riggers and animators get their props too with new non-destructive skinning. The old way of rebinding the skin over and over again with each new iteration has been replaced with the new skin editing functionality. Users can keep the skeleton bound to geometry throughout the skinning process, including the ability to add, remove, join or disconnect joints while their previously created binding remains unaffected.

Shader support is also enhanced in the new version. Direct X HLSL shaders are now part of the Maya toolkit, useful most likely to game developers and other realtime application users. Maya 2008 still includes the previously offered CgFX shader support. Even though the shader support here is robust, there are many details that fall outside of their capabilities, especially in the complex game development world. Users will be able to view PC and console shaders in realtime right in the Maya viewports, but there is no guarantee that those previews will be identical to the their final game platform. Game artists won't be surprised that they will need to work with the Maya shaders to create the custom result they desire, especially as next-gen game development continues to evolve at breakneck speed.

Users can keep the skeleton bound to geometry throughout the skinning process, including the ability to add, remove, join or disconnect joints while their previously created binding remains unaffected. 

Some additional general category enhancements come with the Maya 2008 update, including API updates for hardware rendering. The API also has some wish list additions for animators, specifically the new constraints API that will allow technical artists to write animation helpers more easily. mental ray 3.6 core is faster now, allowing faster polygon translation and rendering instances of polygons. For example, a 20,000 polygon mesh that has been instanced 2,000 times now renders 20 times faster than before. The improved mental ray functionality also includes the ability to render particles that previously only be viewed in the hardware renderer. This removes the necessity of combing two separate render outputs after rendering is completed. The final mental ray improvement is accelerated texture baking. This is noticeably faster than previous versions, however a precise amount could not identified without comparing one to one with versions of Maya.

Increased workflow being the focus of Maya 2008 is seen with some of the other effective feature enhancements, including speed boosts for Poly Reduce, which is now as much as 30 times faster than previous versions, and a four times speed increase for Poly Smooth. Along the same lines of more speed, nCloth now caches three times faster than it did in Maya 8.5.

Smoothed meshes can now be previewed along with the mesh cage, which remains editable while viewing the smoothed mesh underneath. This feature alone is likely to be one of the most popular amongst modelers. 

The good news, for some users at least, is that Maya appears mostly unchanged. Much of what is new in Maya 2008 will appear to experienced users as subtle changes, if they are noticed at all. The real benefits of Maya 2008 become apparent after using it for a few days. Many users are likely to find their Maya 2008 experience to be more flowing and direct. Although the feature list for Maya 2008 may seem short at first glance, the rich workflow improvements more than add up. Experienced Maya users will find the app to be significantly smoother overall, while new users will have less ramp-up time getting to know this incredibly dense piece of software.

Autodesk Maya 2008 is offered in two versions: Maya 2008 Complete and Maya 2008 Unlimited. Boxes include Windows/Mac/Linux versions. Maya Complete sells for $1,995, Maya Unlimited for $6,995. Upgrades from Maya 8.5 cost $895 for Maya 2008 Complete and $1,245 for Maya 2008 Unlimited. U.K. & euro pricing was not available at the time of this writing.

Fred Galpern is currently the managing art director for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than 12 years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comic books and also has interactive, print and web design experience.

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