Siggraph 2008: The Year of Softimage?

It may be difficult to comprehend now, but it was only two years ago that many in the video game world had given Nintendo up for dead.  Despite the early success of the DS handheld, the company’s Gamecube had finished in distant third vs. its same generation competitors.  And with the next generation of consoles dawning, the XBox 360 was lighting up the charts and the Playstation 3 was about to become reality.  Then at E3 2006, Nintendo unveiled the Wii and the rest is history.

While nothing unveiled at this week’s Siggraph conference in Los Angeles will have that level of mainstream consumer impact, the event may feature a similar underdog story that will have far-reaching consequences for the business of video game development.

Siggraph is the annual conference where everyone who is anyone in the field of computer-generated imagery convenes to celebrate and advance the state of the art.

The Siggraph exhibit floor has shrunk in recent years due to consolidation, but  it has long been dominated by three major software platforms: 3DS Max, Maya and Softimage XSI.  Although their user bases are relatively small, these expensive programs have featured prominently in just about every video game and effects-laden movie released since the early 90’s.

Autodesk’s 3DS Max is the king of the hill in the game development space.  Its release in 1990 coincided with the beginning of PC gaming and for 18 years the software has continued to add features designed for game artists. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3ds_Max_release_history for a rundown of 3DS Max’s storied past).  But as you might expect from a product that has been around for nearly two decades, Max is widely regarded as something of a Frankenstein’s monster, with each new feature bolted on in an unsightly fashion.  Autodesk has accelerated the development cycle for the program in recent years: from 18 months per version to 12 and, most recently, to only six months between the 2008 version released last October and the 2009 version released this April.  This rapid development has introduced significant bugs and performance issues.

Maya was first released in 1998 and it quickly became a favorite application in the motion picture effects business.  As games required more sophisticated character animation, more studios began to turn to the platform for next-gen game development.  Rather than see itself usurped, Autodesk swallowed up Maya’s parent company Alias in October 2005.  Autodesk Maya 2008 was released in late 2007 and the company announced the new “10th anniversary edition” today.   More will be unveiled at tonight’s Autodesk user group meeting, but a quick read of the press release doesn’t promise any jaw-dropping new features.

Softimage XSI is the literal granddaddy of them all. First released in 1986, the software played prominently in the development of breakthrough feature films like Jurassic Park.  By 2004, the software’s user base had dwindled and it appeared certain that its days were numbered.  In a seeming act of desperation, an entry level version of the product was released for only $495 and a year later, an entirely free version was released as the XSI ModTool.  Despite the fact that XSI was the tool of choice for Valve’s Half Life 2, few in the industry paid much attention to versions 5 and 6.

This video primarily demonstrates ICE’s particle capabilities, but the tool goes much further than that.

Last week, Softimage released XSI 7 with a new breakthrough feature called ICE (for Interactive Creative Environment).  ICE is a revolutionary interface that gives any artist the ability to stitch together incredibly complex effects and simulations that would have previously required the involvement of a programmer.  Suddenly, the wheezing old-timer has leapt ahead of the competition and it will be fascinating to see how the developers at Autodesk react to the new challenge.  And, more importantly to the average Joe, it will be fantastic to see how these new tools affect the video games and movies currently in development.

For more details and to play with a 30-day demo of XSI 7, visit www.softimage.com.

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