Friday, September 28, 2007

Is blender really equal to the competition?

Recently, while visiting Blendernation, I came across a posting with a link to a 3D application comparison. At first, the biased nature and inaccuracy of the article was a source of amusement for me; but after thinking about it, if people take the article seriously, then it could be cause for concern.

I love open source for many reasons, chiefly because of the superior quality that seems to come out of such projects, and the fact that the work is offered up free of charge. Just because something is open source does not make it superior, however. Sometimes the open source solution is superior, in the case of Linux versus Windows and Firefox vs Internet Explorer, but other times it's not; as in Photoshop versus The Gimp. In the case of Blender, it is a solution that is not superior or inferior, it's just it's own program with its own set of features. In the 3D industry, when two programs have almost identical feature sets, the superiority of one over the other is quite subjective.

The concern that I have is with overselling. If I make a claim to a friend that if he downloads Firefox and uses it over IE that he will never get a virus, and he gets a virus via email or some other source, he will assume that this is the fault of his browser because of my outlandish claim. He would likely switch back to IE, and actively argue against anyone who tries to tell him that this is dangerous because obviously my claim of Firefox being all the protection he needed was ambiguous. The fact that Firefox is free makes little difference, as there is still an investment in time, productivity and learning the new software- even for one so simple as a browser. Making claims that Blender is this much better than the competition could have dire consequences for the adoption of Blender in the future, as many users may not give it a second chance. By all means, be honest about what Blender can really do- but be open about what it can't, so new users will know exactly what to expect.

So is Blender at least equal to Maya, Softimage or 3Ds Max? In some ways yes, in others no.

The article I previously read dealt with 3ds max, Maya, Cinema 4D, Lightwave, and XSI. I will compare the three that I have experience with, those being Max, Maya and XSI. Also, I will skip much of the technical information that is very concrete, such as pricing and compatibility.

Interface- The Blender interface is actually brilliant, but different from any other 3D package I've used. I personally dislike the Max interface very much, but I am quite fond of both the Maya and XSI interfaces. I know that there are many artists who prefer Max over the other solutions out there, so this is completely a matter of opinion, and none is a clear winner.

But for beginners, I actually think that Blender has the best interface. The rest are messy and confusing, especially Max, whereas Blender is clean and simple- with most options available via shortcuts. With video tutorials like the series by Glen Moyes available, Blender is probably the most newbie friendly package on the market.

Rendering Quality- This topic is extremely subjective. I have managed to get very good results out of all of the packages that I have used, and with poor rendering settings, I have gotten poor results as well. I recall the first project that I rendered using Renderman, which is an industry standard, and it looked awful. Like the 3D package itself this really depends on the artist- and none of the render systems are a clear winner. If I were to pick one as the best my opinion would favor Mental Ray. Again, this is subjective, so I am not claiming that your experience will be the same.

Animation tools- Each is different, but I would put XSI as my favorite to work with. The animation system in Maya is very complex and hardly intuitive, but extremely powerful. I have not found a limitation yet with the Maya animation system. 3ds Max has good rigging tools and setup, though much of it is a pain to use. They do have Character Studio though, which is nice if you have a tough time constraint, but in larger projects it isn't very powerful. I would rank theirs as “good” because there are no major limitations.

Then there's Blender. I am quite satisfied with the rigging system. They are missing a few things, such as using non-bones as part of your rig (useful for making things react to one another, such as mechanical objects) and some equivalent to Maya's Spline IK constraint, useful for animating tails, snakes, chains, etc. There are a few other things missing too, but those are the biggest ones that I missed.

As for the animation system in Blender, the NLA editor is nowhere near as robust as Maya's dope sheet, the action editor could use some help, and there are a few tools that I would like- but the system is feature-rich enough to be usable. I would put Maya's animation system at the top, XSI second, and Max a close third. That ranking is based on available features, flexibility and capabilities, so if your package has the features you need then it's more a matter of preference.

UV tools- I'm not going to spend tons of time on this one other than to say that the UV tools in Blender are so vastly superior to those in all three of the packages that I have experience with, that it was enough alone for me to consider learning a whole different package and give Blender a chance at becoming my tool of choice. Where I would once rank the rest as “good” I will now rank them as “inadequate.”

3D Painting- Blender's brush support is better than that of The Gimp, but I'm not sure if that's saying anything about how good Blender's brushes are so much as how bad The Gimp's brushes are. I actually have used Bodypaint, and found it to be very good, but I still prefer to use Photoshop for texturing.

Modeling- The modeling tools are probably about equal across the board. Maya and Softimage have support for n-gons, which can create real issues for newbies who don't know to avoid them, but just the same I think it is possible to achieve equivalent results with any package in a timely manner. This is purely a matter of preference, and I am quite impartial on this one.

Modifiers- I need to dissect this one, because the original article really screwed it up. Max does have an extensive modifier system. In fact, almost everything you do in Max, including modeling, is done via modifiers. Even plugins are modifiers. The problem is that everything is buried and difficult to find, and because you have to dig to get to anything, and the naming convention is not user friendly, this is far from the best setup. (this is part of the reason I dislike the Max interface)

With Maya, the modifier stack is also quite robust, and though it's more limited that Max, this is a good thing. The modifiers are decentralized and you need to know where to look to find what you want, though.

Softimage actually has the best and most intuitive modifier system. The modifier stack can be changed and tweaked at any time, it's all centralized and easy to access, everything is in an intuitive hierarchy, and each piece of the model- including the mesh itself- is a separate piece of the hierarchy that can be modified. For example, if I decide that the characters nose is too small I can modify the mesh without interfering with the texture map, the rig, the shape keys, etc.

Blender also has a nice modifier stack. It's fairly centralized, and intuitive. Is it the best one? No, but I would say that it's very good. There are a few more modifiers that would be nice to see in there, but adding them would just be copying some of the nice stuff that Softimage has.

NURBS- The best implementation of NURBS that I've seen is in Maya, and the implementation there is horrible. In fact, to say that it sucks would be a drastic understatement. Sure, you can get good results with NURBS if you really know what you're doing, but the workflow with them is so clunky that you would have to have a really good reason to choose them over another solution. But if you need NURBS for some reason, go Maya. Yes, Blender sucks at NURBS, and it has not impacted my choice of 3D software. I have not tried NURBS on any other package, as this is not my preferred modeling method, so I cannot say how well Max or XSI does it.

Dynamics/Rigid bodies- This depends really on the desired results, and this is a discussion that is beyond the scope of this article. I would say decide what your project requires, then research to see which packages can handle your requirements. I'll give you a hint: in most cases, they all can just as well.

Soft Bodies- See Dynamics above, same thing applies.

Hairs- I find it surprising that the article ranked this as “Good” in Blender, the hair system implemented as of 2.45 is horrible. This is about to change with (hopefully) 2.50, however. In fact, Jahka's hair system is one of the best I've seen anywhere. The expensive version of Maya has a descent hair sim, but Shave and a Haircut seems to yield good results with less effort. In the hands of a competent artist, the results from any solution will be identical.

Particles- The expensive version of Maya has a really good particle system, but in my opinion, if your project calls for anything that is beyond the scope of what is possible the Blender particle system, then you should consider using a program that specializes in particle sims. You will get better results that way and sometimes with less effort. If this is you, check out Houdini Master from Side Effects. (I have no affiliation with that company) For everyone else, which is most of you, you will get great results with the built-in particle systems in just about any 3D package, including Blender 2.45.

Learning Materials- I know blender doesn't have that much available, and a lot of it is out of date. I'm working on that, and I'm not alone. If you are a complete newbie, check out Introducing Character Animation. Maya has the best learning community right now, and Softimage isn't that far behind.

Price- Think about this. If you're paying an artist $60,000 a year, is that $7,000 really that big of an expense if it makes your artist more productive or produce better work? What if you're a freelancer, is your time worth less than the cost of that software? What if your artist is in California and will need to earn $80,000 or more just to make a decent living? Unless we're talking about software that's prohibitively expensive, then price is a poor argument for or against a given software solution when talking to professionals; but it is a good argument for students and hobbyists. You know what type of user you are, and whether or not this argument even holds water for you.

The Dark Side- This one I will disagree on almost every claim made in the original article. With Max, the weakest point is the interface. It's messy, difficult for newbies, and not much is where you would expect to look the first time. Additionally, you must dig through illogically named panels for whatever you are looking for.

I had no trouble learning Maya, but I didn't start with it, so I may not be qualified to comment on the learning curve. That's not to say that it's friendly to newbies, Maya allows you to do things without warning you that it will completely mess up your project- such as ngons. Even professionals can make ngons in Maya without noticing until it causes problems. The fact that Blender doesn't support these is one of its better features.

The biggest weakness of XSI, seems to be their own marketing department. The company is plain juvenile. The basic features that it comes with aren't much, but XSI has a very complete library of available plugins available- but this also makes it expensive to use as you will need licenses per plugin per workstation.

Blender has my favorite interface (Maya is second for customizability) so I don't see this as being in “The Dark Side.” If I were to give blender a slap on the wrist for anything it would be lack of animation features. Again, that is an article I will write up later, as the upcoming particle system is something I would rather see them put development effort into- and the animation system isn't bad, it's just lacking some features that I miss from Maya and Softimage. Furthermore, from reading on the Blender development site, they know this and plan on improving it.

I prefer blender at this point, and I look forward to the addition of Jahka's particles, which will allow me to use it as my only 3D package. Blender may cater to hobbyists, but they aren't the only ones who use it.

Final thoughts- If you are a professional artist and have not done so already, then seriously look into Blender and see if it meets your needs. You may be surprised at what it can really do.

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