Like a good many people here, I’ve been doing CG for a long time. Are all 3D apps the same? Yes and no. Let me explain why, at least from my POV.
Fundamentally, all of the major CG suites share the same core functionality. No matter where you go, Blender or Maya, a bevel is a bevel and a polygon is a polygon. That’s foundation. Without those basics, 3D apps couldn’t function. Beyond that, all of these apps share similar concepts like keyframes, bones, global illumination, subdivision surfaces, and so on. In principle, there’s nothing to prevent you from creating a short film, game art, or whatever in any of these apps. They might each implement these features in app specific ways, but this sort of functionality is more or less universal. The gap between apps might have been pretty wide back in, say, 1994, but it is much more narrow today. You just have to figure out where the buttons are and if the app uses a different name for the feature. Every developer has their own idea regarding what’s the best sort of UI and UX.
Beyond that, these apps do differ in some regards. Fine print stuff. Cinema4D might be a motion graphics ninja, but that’s because MAXON has made that market a priority. Similarly, Maya and 3dsmax might have certain specific character animation tools or tighter 3rd party integration, but there are reasons behind that too. Likewise, if Houdini is highly technical and supremely badass when it comes to simulation then that’s because it has evolved according to the needs and demands of that audience. Again, you can do motion graphics, character animation, and simulation in just about any major app. It just happens that certain apps have extra features, small or large, that allow them to do those things better. In an attempt to even the playing field, there’s a whole market of 3rd party developers out there creating plugins to fill the gaps.
Which app to choose? There’s no delicate way to put this. I’ll just be blunt.
If you want to be employed by a major studio or in a major industry such as films or games, you should probably focus on learning Maya or 3dsmax. Autodesk is the de facto standard. They were there at the very beginning, decades ago. The larger studios have all built their pipelines around these apps. Schools teach them. Online communities cater to them. The jobs are there.
You can still find a job in the film or game industries if you’re a Cinema4D or LW user, but your options are much greater if you’re into Maya. Postings for Maya artists in those fields tend to outnumber ones for C4D artists by at least a factor of 4 to 1. On the flip side, as a Maya artist, your competition is going to be a lot stiffer. Instead of being one of ten applicants, you might be one of 40. You’ll have to do a lot more to stand out.
If, however, you’re okay with working freelance, at a smaller studio, a startup, or are just a hobbyist then app choice isn’t as crucial.
Working freelance, clients only care about the end results. If you can deliver the goods and in the formats they need, your app could be powered by love and brownies and nobody would care. Working at a smaller studio, your employer might be more flexible regarding app choice as long as the results were good and there was no negative impact on the project or other artists involved. It all depends. Every studio is different.
When working with a startup, you might have a chance to get in on the ground floor. If you’re a new hire at a startup, the choices that you make early on can impact the way the company does business going forward. Startups are blank slates. As hobbyist, who cares? Just use what works best for you. Use the app that makes you the happiest and where you’re most productive.
On top of all of THAT, nobody can tell you what to use at home or in your personal time. Your employer might require you to use Maya, but you might find that Cinema4D suits your personal needs better. That’s fine. Just because I learned one app in my early days, it didn’t mean that I was tied to it. At this point, I know (too) many apps. Once you master one, picking up another isn’t all that hard.
If I had one piece of advice to impart on you then it would be this. Focus on technique, not software. That mindset will serve you greatly over the course of life as an artist.
It never pays to be too loyal to any one app or developer because, ultimately, they won’t or can’t be loyal to you. Apps come and go. There are programs that I spent YEARS working with that simply no longer exist. The companies folded. The apps faded into obscurity. I had to move on. It just happens. However, what has sustained me was the knowledge that the core techniques and artistic principles that I learned early on could be transferred to ANY app, now or in the future.
Technique is program agnostic. The principles of squash and stretch aren’t tied to any one program. Solid foundations in anatomy, color, and composition aren’t either. An edge loop is the same in this app as it is in that one. You want to learn the “why” in addition to the “how” of it all. A good artist isn’t a button pusher. A master can still great magic in a cheap app, but no $5k app will turn a crappy artist into a master.
Professional concerns aside, app choice is personal. Figure out which one works best for you. I can’t tell you what to use. Over the decades, I’ve learned and owned a LOT of apps. Cinema4D. Maya. LightWave. trueSpace. Blender. MODO. ZBrush. Substance. ETC ETC ETC You name it, I’ve probably used it and/or owned a (legit) license. I’ve spent an obscene amount of money on licenses and plugins. (You don’t wanna know.) Some of my choices have been influenced by work needs. Some have been influenced by personal ones. At this point, I honestly don’t care as long as I can get the job done. I do have personal preferences, but my story isn’t yours.
Decide what you want. Do you want to go pro? Do you just want to create good art? Do you want to work for somebody else? Do you want to work for yourself? What do you want to specialize in? Where do you want to live? (Some jobs might take you across the world.) Weigh your options. Play with the demos. Don’t rush into a decision because the choices you make today will follow you 10, 20, or 30 yeas from now.
Don’t worry if you can’t afford a pricey app today. That’s fine. If you’re a student at an accredited school, a number of companies will provide you with a free EDU license. You won’t be able to make money using them, but you can learn and build a portfolio.
Not a student? Don’t worry about that either. Find a cheaper app. Look for an Indie license. Maybe learn Blender. If you like it, you can stay with it going forward. If, however, you would much rather use Maya, use Blender as a means to an end. Learn it and learn it well. Use it to master the concepts and the techniques. Pick up a few freelance assignments, once you’re actually good enough, and earn some money to afford that Maya license you so desperately crave or need. The good thing about 2019 is that there’s no shortage of options or paths to success.