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Autodesk Talks GDC

It's been a busier GDC than usual for Autodesk, which was expected after the recent Softimage purchase. First came the announcement of 3ds Max 2010, followed by new versions of its two runtime technologies for the game engine -- HumanIK 4 animation middleware and Kynapse 6 artificial intelligence (AI) middleware -- as well as Softimage Mod Tool 7.5 software (formerly SOFTIMAGE|XSI Mod Tool), the free 3D modeling and animation package for aspiring artists. In addition, Autodesk is building advanced integration between Kynapse artificial intelligence (AI) and NaturalMotion's morpheme animation middleware engine.

On the eve of GDC, we spoke with Marc Stevens, VP, games and former Softimage GM.

Bill Desowitz: So what's the Autodesk story at this year's GDC?

Marc Stevens: It's about three themes: equipping artists with the best tools to create their content, providing more of these runtime middleware solutions so they don't have to go out and recreate that stuff themselves all the time and continuing to focus on the problem of getting all this complex 3D data around in their pipelines. And we're going to be doing a lot of stuff on The Area again to make sure we hit all the people that can't physically be at GDC, so that all the business we do at this show reaches the broadest possible audience.

BD: Let's talk about how the Softimage integration is going so far, with you now supervising the new games group.

MS: Everything went pretty smoothly and there's a couple of reasons for that: One, everyone moving into this building and just being right down the street obviously makes things go a lot smoother. I think the other thing that helped move things along is that there's a lot of shared history... And to point to specific results, we've done two releases: version 7.01 of Softimage and version 7.5 and we'll be back for another major release around SIGGRAPH time. In general, I don't think we've missed a beat in terms of what our product planning originally was. If I just look forward a bit, there's a large community of Softimage users -- and the same can be said of Max and Maya -- these people are entrenched around these products. No one wants to spend the time or energy to switch, costs are just prohibitive to do so, and we're going to deliver this product out to the existing customers as planned. Obviously I'm now responsible overall for the games industry inside Autodesk, so we have a bunch of plans that are going to leverage the technology; I'm going to budget in different ways moving forward, so it's been good for the team. There's been a lot of healthy discussion on leveraging talent and technology across the teams, so we haven't hit any significant speed bumps thus far.

BD: And the impact of the recession on Autodesk and the industry at large?

MS: Like any company, we needed to make some choices about where we focus our attention more. These things tend to make you look harder at certain things than you would during better times. From the outside looking in, I don't think any of the changes are significantly going to impact anything that the customer would've seen. One of the data points, interestingly, is that while the games market is not immune, and is maybe a couple of percentage points lower than it was a year ago, but it is still growing. I guess in bad times people just go out and buy games and forget about their money problems.

BD: What indications are you getting from customers?

MS: It's a very interesting question from both sides. About a month ago at DICE, EA talked about the problems they were having and, again, taking a hard look at the things that are going to be most impactful to their business. So you could say at EA they want to cut down on the number of titles they are doing, but, on the other side, they're looking to get more efficient. And I think that has opened up the door for our middleware solutions, they're looking for more off-the-shelf solutions and they're looking for more consulting work from us. So the dollars may have shifted around, but I can't say that people are spending less across the board.

So most of the customers are looking efficiencies in the titles they're generating because they just spent the last few years making the biggest investment in building their pipelines for the 360 and PS3. Now they want to make some money off that.

If I had to speculate a little bit, next year at some time, people are going to start thinking about what the next tool change needs to look like. And it'll probably be 2011 that you start to see prototypes and more info from the console vendors, if they do want to hit, say, a 2014 date for the next generation of consoles.

--By AWN and VFXWorld Senior Editor Bill Desowitz