ok disclaimer first - I use Cosmos Creator for these sort of apps - hence the pricing knowledge etc and I help out in the CC community with support. Just so you know my bias - but that said:
Quest-3D - great tool - well thought out user interface, cool company - brilliant community. starter price is around 89 Euros. This is the lite version so doesn’t have the AI or Database support (does support csv data files). Its a greater starting point and Quest3D can do some very nice things and has a max importer and a number of the community use Max - so a lot of local knowledge which can help a lot. you’ll need the $799 version for publishing the game un branded - but you can do an awful lot with the lite intro version (pretty much everything that you want) and there is a free C++ SDK for writing extenstions etc. As noted earlier in this thread you will need some knowledge of how 3D apps work and maths to get the most out of the way you ‘script’ Quest.
3D game studio - decent platform -very capable - a lot of examples and large enthusiastic user community. Personally I don’t like the world editor that much, but thats a personal thing. Its a good starting point especially given the community knowledge and existing examples - but not sure it supports all the nice things you can do in Max such as multi-stage material maps etc and for animated characters think you will have to export from Max as a .X file using something like the Pandasoft plugin exporter for Max. (IF anyone who knows 3DGS can correct/confrim this that would be great!) IF you want to use physics there are some limitations depending on the version you buy (unless you buy a third party physics engine like Newton).
Blender - great price, comprehensive functionality - amazing user community.- you can import your max work via an intermediate format,probably best via VRML or 3DS for static stuff, and you can character rig and animate in there. (Not sure what character animation importing is like - best to ask the blender folks). The user interface will take a little while to get up to speed with (v.different from Max) but its a good tool and some of the capabilities are really suprising (in a nice way!) Dev wise you will need to learn Python to get the most of the game side of things.
Cosmos Creator (CC)- very easy to use, fast to prototype, well thought out integrated development environment, good max integration, great active community though while growing rapidly is smaller than for the above tools. If you have a licensed version of Max - has a dcom plugin so you can take your Max models including character animation directly into CC. There is a full C and C++ SDK that ships with the authoring tool and gives you access to pretty much everything in the authoring and run time environments. There is an in built modeller and support for procedural textures and shaders which can keep file sizes down to very small but deliver compelling results. There is a chunk of Max users in the community and on the support team - so any questions there will usually get answered quickly. By the sounds of it you would qualify for the academic student pricing - so its 50 bucks to get started.
As for project timescale - is it doable? Would say a definite YES! If you use a tool like Quest3D or Cosmos Creator you can cut down a lot on the programming need esepcially for thinsg like environment interaction - and that gives you breathing space to learn the programmingside while progressing wiht the project. Quest uses a visual flow charting approach which some folks love and some folks hate. CC uses LISP as its scripting language and is really easy to learn or C/C++ if you go the SDK route. (Most folks use LIPS for prototyping and C++ for optimisation). C++ is not that difficult to learn and when you use it with a good designed SDK (Both Quest and CC have very good ones) you can become very productive in a short space of time.
One team developing art assets in Max and using CC for realtime shipped a small commercial game from start to finish inside 4 months - but yes they are an experienced crew (though they didn’t know the tool and they lived through the early beta’s of the Max importer stuff). If you want to verify this, post on the CC user forums and I’m sure one of the team responsible will answer. I know from the quest community, folks have pulled off complex projects inside 3 to 5 months with their starting point being Max and just learning Quest. So while it is a lot of work, it is certainly doable.
For a while, the blender game engine was going through some changes and I think that interrupted some projects, but I believe with the latest release (which I think is 2.34) all that is now rectified and there are some good examples on the blender.org website of what is possible but best to post on the Blender forums and see what answer you get.
As for which platform is best suited for you. Well I’m biased, but all of the ones you mention are capable and it will really come down to what you feel you can do, which you will feel most comfortable with in terms of workflow and authoring approach (since all these apps have a slightly different approach to game/sim authoring) and what can you get up and running with on a small budget. I’d recommended downloading each of them (they all have free trial versions) and trying to do some simple test cases - get an object to move, build a room with animated door, build a simple environment with textures, environment maps and see how quick it is to get an end result… check out how easy is it to build / import stuff, how easy is it to get Max content into a scene etc, what is the accompanying documentation like. Usual assement stuff. I’d also check out the user communities for each - do a posting like the one you made here and see what the response is, read through the forums and check out info relating to using Max with each tool etc. Which ever tool you end up choosing you will be spending an incredible amount of time working with it- so its worth putting some ground work into the selection process.
Hope this helps and good luck with the project.