A decade later, which software now?


I learnt a decent amount of 3ds Max back in the day but after a pretty long absence, and forgetting most things, I’ve decided to get back into design. I’d like to succeed in making some money out of it, and if not more, I want to enjoy being creative.

I want to create a realistic representation of the effects of time on an abandoned; afterlife esk city. Including detailed vegetation growth, building destruction and aging, and particle effects; smoke, water - and make a beautiful render out of it.

But, I also want to try a range of other things such as using these assets ive made as in game objects, and being able to walk around the world that I created, or use the scene\scenes as a location for a short film, digital story book.

Which 3D package should I start to learn based on these requirements?

Thank you


Bro - why an abandoned city? (I don’t know what “afterlife” is - it’s not a game is it?). Why don’t you make a COOL, FUTURISTIC type of a city? Now THAT would be beautiful! Come on, wow us with your imagination!! :slight_smile:


Sounds to me like you want to learn Houdini:



Things haven’t changed much in 10 years, except Softimage XSI and LightWave are pretty much out of the picture. That leaves 3 main 3D softs - Maya, Max, Cinema4D pretty much. I don’t include Houdini, because it is not really “general purpose” - more for hyper-complex dynamics simulations and procedural work. Modo I have no experience of at all, so I won’t comment.

  • Maya is still the most powerful for 3D film VFX, high-end character animation work, custom scripting and such.
  • Max is still the 3D package most aimed at creating game assets and exporting to game engines.
  • Cinema4D is still the easiest to use and the fastest to create good artistic work with. You’ll need to buy plugins like X-Particles and Realflow/TurbulenceFD though - Cinema4D does not have fluids simulation built in, and for particles everyone uses the excellent X-Particles right now, which I believe now also has some basic fluid-simulation capabilities in it as well.

On the rendering side there is no difference whatsoever between the 3D apps today - for each one, you can get the same 7 to 10 different pro render engines today.

On the workflow side, C4D is still the fastest, most artist-friendly and most painless to work with. Maya and Max also seem not have not changed by a huge amount as far as UI/UX design goes.

All 3D softwares have support for VDB volumes these days. So if you want to render volumes - smoke, haze and so forth - all 3 can do it.

What you want to do can be done in all major 3D apps. You are pretty much going to do the same things with all 3D apps, just in a different UI design.


skeebert: how come you don’t consider Blender?


The procedural nature of Houdini makes it perfectly suited for the task which this thread is about, i.e. generating a city, vegetation growth, and destruction/weathering effects.

Also it’s inaccurate to say that there is no difference between various applications in regards to rendering. Just because two pieces of software might be supported by the same renderer doesn’t make the two equivalent. Various packages are better than others when it comes to managing and handling complex sets, the kinds seen in real world VFX production as well as modern games, especially giant open world games. Generally speaking, Houdini and Maya are two ‘general purpose’ packages which get the most use in lighting departments across studios. As far as a standalone lighting/look dev package, there is Katana, again for the reason that it excels at managing complex scenes.


A decade later, 3Ds Max and Maya cost infinity at a current rate of $1500 a year. However, there are the plugins for 3ds max to do what you want.

Next Limit does a fully integrated Realflow (a fluid simulator) for Cinema4D for a one-time cost if and when you need it.

Houdini is great for the special-effects but it is horrible for modelling large complex scenes. You really need two monitors for it too because you’re supposed to give a massive shit about the “Node-Editor” and on one screen, your view-port is halved due to the “Node Editor” which makes it really slow and claustrophobic/cluttered.

Oh and there is Blender which is free and actually pretty good and can do fluids natively, but the UI, even in 2.8-beta is a bit bonkers.


3ds max hasn’t changed much. Graphite modeling tools (Poolyboost plugin) is now integrated. Hair, water, fire, clothes simulation is still preferred to make in external programs or via plugins. Animation hasn’t changed, uv mapping still sucks compared to Uvlayout, some improvements with materials for high-end users in the last version.
If you want to use your models as game assets, be prepared you will need some high-poly models to be baked into low-poly with normal maps, which is not a piece of cake.


Because the User Interface is a pile of shit if you are used to commercial 3D software UIs.

Blender is free, but you’ll spend 5 x times the amount of time building that ruined city compared to, say, Max or Cinema4D.

I’ve downloaded Blender at least once a year for the last 8 years to see if “it is getting better”.

To me, Blender is borderline unusable - I’d rather get a Maya, Max or C4D license and do my work without being driven crazy by a poor UI design.


Provided that you put in serious time to learn how Houdini works. In that time, you’ll already have built a sizeable city in more approachable 3D softs. When I tried Houdini years ago, I loved the Mantra renderer. But the node-based approach was not something I had time to learn from scratch.

He’s not a “Studio”. He’s one man embarking on a project to build a ruined city. Houdini and Maya may excel at that for a studio full of specialists.

If you are one 3D generalist who hasn’t done 3D for a while, you’ll probably get that city built much quicker with a fast artist-oriented UI like Cinema4D’s.

As for dataset size, he intends to make his city model compatible with realtime engines. That means that the dataset probably will not be too huge in the first place - otherwise even modern game engines and GPUs will flop over and die displaying the city.

Don’t ever confuse “what a VFX studio needs” with what a “one-man 3D army” needs.

If I were embarking on this project alone, I’d do it in C4D. You simply get more juice out of that 3D soft as a one-man user than you get out of - say - Maya.


Sidefx and Houdini are doing great things this year


I feel like the complexity and learning curve of Houdini is being severely overstated in this thread. It is not just a tool for large VFX studios. Quite the opposite, in the right hands Houdini can be used to make a single artist more efficient than a team would be in another package. This is particularly true for tasks which are very repetitive.

Specifically in regards to building a city, anyone with even a basic understanding of 3d modeling can watch the first chapter of the training, literally under 3 hours of instruction, in the following link and learn how to make an HDA (Houdini Digital Asset) which, at the click of a mouse button, will generate a building:

Said buildings can then be populated across a grid which makes up a city. For destruction, apply a Fracture SOP (surface operator) to all or some of the buildings. Anyone who is competent enough to do 3d/VFX for a living should be able to do this in 3 days. 1 day to watch the training video and do the homework, two days to implement a robust HDA for creating buildings. After that, the user is free to make as few or as many buildings as they like, each with unique properties. Tens of thousands of unique buildings at the click of a mouse. How long would it take to even make 1000 unique buildings in 3dsmax or Maya?


Well, since you asked, I don’t know, but there is GhostTown for 3ds max.


And here is a great example of one such project, made by one person in their free time, not by a VFX studio:



Doing something like this would take considerably more time, and artists, to do outside of Houdini.


That’s actually very cool, thanks! Similar procedural concepts as in Houdini.


But it’s such a vibrant ecosystem for the cost of participation. Have you tried bforartists, or blender sensei and/or considered whether the upcoming 2.8 UI changes will affect your opinion?


I wonder more why you even consider Blender here. Spacebar wants to work professional. And the job he wants to do requires tasks and tools where Blender is weak. Particle system for example, and dealing with megapolys. And the addon eco system is very limited. And Blender is in transition. No good time to learn it at the moment. 2.79b marks the end of the old line. Blender 2.8 might be a game changer here, at least at the performance end. But 2.8 with the new viewport engine is in Alpha stage. Means not productive until next spring or summer. Maybe even longer. And the usability drama remains, they are still stuck at Right Click select …

I personally would, with the background of Max, stay with Max. Once learned things will come back much faster, which shortens the learning curve. And the eco system for Max is still very big and powerful.



I agree with Tiles. Since you’re familiar with Max, start up again with Max. It’s fully capable of doing what you want - as are the other packages, with their various strengths and weaknesses - but you’ll be back up to speed much quicker in a program you already know. If you want to work on learning another program while you bust out artwork and assets, you can do that too. But at least you’ll be up and running quickly.

I prefer Maya, but Houdini has obvious appeal. There’s no reason you can’t do what you want in Max though! Go for it.


Tiles: However, didn’t you forget one thing: the PRICE?? :slight_smile: …for a 1-man army, he may not want to spend or even HAVE, 1000s of USDs to start with…?

Hey - btw, aren’t you the creator of Bforartists?!! I was just about to echo what moogaloonie said, and ask Skeebertus if he’s tried that, and if so, what his opinions are of it…?


Well, the price doesn’t play a role when the tool can’t do the job at all. And the calculation does not end with the price for the software. That’s in fact the lowest costs.

Yes, i am the lead developer of the Blender fork Bforartist. And i would be glad when i could advertise Bforartists for this job here. It lowers at least the speed loss by the odd Blender UI by a fair amount. But we haven’t changed the features. And i know when we have lost.

There is no city generator for Blender that could compete with the solutions for Max or Houdini. The available tree generators are years behind. The particle system is as mentioned a bit weak. The viewport can currently simply not handle what Spacebar wants to do.

That Blender is free is also not longer true. You still don’t pay for the base software. But you pay for cloud subscription and required addons. And those addons like fluid simulation, tree generator, wave generator etc. , are all much weaker than the professional solutions for Max, Maya, Houdini etc. . All is trapped in the Blender bubble.

And so, and as much as i love Blender and Bforartists, in this special case i would say stick with Max :slight_smile: