Autodesk answers your questions on the demise of Softimage

We put your questions about Autodesk's decision to retire its popular 3D package to its entertainment industry manager. Here's what he said.

Last week, we reported on Autodesk's decision to discontinue its popular 3D programme Softimage. The news led to many questions from Softimage users, many of which were addressed at Autodesk's recent webinar on the subject.

Maurice Patel

Following our report, we were contacted by Autodesk entertainment industry manager Maurice Patel, who responded to users' reactions. This, in turn, raised further questions within the Softimage community, which we put to Maurice when he agreed to speak with us earlier this week. Here are his answers...

(Note: If you have any further question for Maurice and the Autodesk team regarding the subject, you can email them to softimage.transition.plan@autodesk.com).

What happened at the end of last year to prompt the decision to EOL Softimage?

MP: We go through strategic planning each year, and it was part of that process that the decision was made. Softimage wasn't an area we were actively investing more resources in, it was something that we had outsourced to Singapore and was in a continue-to-maintain mode. But it wasn't something we were thinking of end-of-lifing until that strategic planning process.

I think people think that we have this five-year plan that's really clearly laid out, and we would love to have that. But, ultimately, plans continue to evolve and change. A lot of things changed over the course of last year, including the fact that the industry is facing a lot of challenges.

Our Max, Maya and Softimage customers were all unhappy with the rate of innovation because of such changes and they want us to move faster to help them with that change. And so we had to make some decision to focus if we wanted to serve our greater customer base and move our products forward at a quicker rate.

The realisation in that planning process last year was that if we really wanted to accelerate the rate of development in Max and Maya then we needed to make some tough choices. And we did know they were tough choices. We didn't walk into this blindly. We did know that it was going to be difficult for Softimage customers, but we've tried to offer programs and make this as flexible as possible.

Why did Autodesk acquire Softimage from Avid back in 2008 when it already had two 3D DCC apps?

MP: The primary reason for acquiring the technology was to acquire the engineering teams, to have them work on next generation technology. That was the primary driver behind why we wanted it. We'd already hired several engineers from that company. At that point, our company and division was growing very rapidly and we needed skilled engineers, and that was an opportunity to bring them on board. We wanted to build next-gen technologies and there was a lot of excitement about doing those things.

At the same time, when you're building next generation technology, you're hoping, down the road, that those will replace your older ones. So, was there an expectation that we would be introducing new technology and we start replacing old ones? I think that would be true to say, yes.

But it was too early to start thinking about the exact mechanics of how this was going to play out. In the end, that technology did not come to market. We basically realised along the way that this was going to be too monumental, even more disruptive and that there were other ways of doing this, including re-engineering core parts of out other applications, Maya and Max.

Given the massive complexity of 3D applications, do you really think two years is a reasonable transition time frame?

MP: It's subjective. I think some will make the transition faster, some might take longer. You have to remember, Softimage users can continue to use their product for much longer, it's not that people have to stop using that program, it's just that we won't be developing it.

Ultimately, across the next two years we believe that we can stabilise Softimage to such a point that it doesn't need ongoing maintenance. What we're talking about is not developing new functionality and features for it, not that people can't use it or continue to use it while they're transitioning over longer periods of time.

On the forums, a lot of people would like us to continue to develop it going forward, change those decisions, but given that the product is not being developed and that people can continue to use it if they already have it, we think it's sufficient time. There's no doubt that if you have a large pipeline built around Softimage with a lot of customisation it will take you longer. But the two year transition is really about the transition to add Maya or Max to your pipeline, not having to move off Softimage.

We would like people to make the choice between Maya and Max over the the next two years so that we know where we are at the end of that period. We need to be able to plan things through properly so we believe that a two-year transition is reasonable; it's longer than is typically given in the industry. Many companies don't give any time at all or provide a year, so we do believe this a reasonable time and, as I mentioned, it doesn't mean people have to stop using Softimage at the end of the two years.

Did you consider the viability of selling Softimage? Or possibly licensing it to a third party to onwardly develop with clauses to protect your patents and IP?

MP: We looked at a bunch of very different scenarios and they were very quickly removed from the table. I think that there was no real clear business case to see why we would want to do that. Doing all of those things diligently, is not insignificant. We're not talking about trivial code bases, either one of those would require significant effort and investment on our part if it was to work.

We're not just going to dump software and run and we can't. There's too much tied into the software for us to do that safely. We've looked at open-sourcing, not just Softimage but other applications, but it's not trivial to do these things. There's code bases, third party IP, we have to go through all of it to understand where all the IP came from, etc. So any transition is going to require resources on our part to do and so the question is, is it worth it?

We wouldn't sell the software. We paid to acquire the IP as well as the engineers and we're using a lot of these concepts in our other products. There are a lot of good things about this product that we want to retain and integrate into our products.

Why was Softimage chosen out of the three products?

MP: A lot of people are saying why Softimage? It was the most innovate product, why didn't you just keep Softimage and replace Maya or Max? Well, if we'd made those decisions, those things have 50/1 users, Maya and Softimage compared, so this is not something that we took lightly.

We looked at Softimage, which has a small number of users, which is declining and yes, it's very impactful to them but the impact of making a different decision on the overall industry would've been much more significant, much more disruptive.

While we sympathise that this is difficult for Softimage customers, for us it's not really a reasonable alternative to make a different decision. Based on the fact that now you're talking about 100,000s of users, millions of students who are also invested heavily invested in those products, so the impact is going to be much bigger as there are more users. For us, choosing Maya over Softimage was not just a pure technology decision, it was definitely driven by impact on industry and users.

What would you say to reassure customers going forward?

Note: 18 months ago Autodesk's director of film and TV solutions Chris Vienneau publicly announced that the rumours surrounding the EOL of Softimage were totally false and that the production team was working on the future of the product with key customers.

MP: That was the true at the time. A lot changed over the last year, including the senior executive management of the division. We're a high tech company and things move very fast in the high tech world. We change our business based on what's going on, and if you talk to anyone, last year in the indursty was a very challenging one. Next gen consoles were introduced, the Playstation 4, XBox One, there was a lot of churn in the VFX industry, so theres a lot of change going on in the media and entertainment business.

Its not like the plans that we built two years ago are valid today. At that time we were not investing significantly or increasing our investment in Softimage. People knew that we'd outsourced the team to Singapore and that it was being developed but there were no plans to EOL it at that time. And we thought we could continue to do that, at that point.

But the scenario that everyone is asking us - can't you just keep it going? - we made that decision then to try and do just that. But it just didn't work out. We said, we can be more efficient, we can outsource it to Singapore, we can keep it going and we can keep developing and adding features. The 2015 release has some good new features and we really believed that we could keep doing that long-term. But with all the changes in the industry and the new challenges that our customers faced, we couldn't continue to do that moving forward.

Track record

Our track record shows that we have consistently developed products for the last 20 years or more. AUTOCAD, 3ds Max, the continued development of Maya and Flame, both of which were from acquisitions. We have a strong track record in continuing to invest and develop our products, it's not like we're constantly killing products left, right and centre and all of our products are very transitory. We invest millions of dollars in maintaining and developing these core code bases that we have.

Occasionally, do we have to restructure our business and make some tough decisions? For sure. Every company does, and especially when industries are going through rapid change. It is necessary as a technology company to make changes - if you don't you'll end up going out of business and then all your customers suffer. So it's not an option not to adapt.

A question of trust

In terms of why Max and Maya customers should trust us, we understand that some of them won't. This is a difficult decision customers have to make, they've invested a lot of time in a product that was a marginal product and that's why people were passionate about it. They truly believed that this really different and unique product would be the thing of the future and there were legitimate reasons for them to believe so. It never materialised that way, unfortunately.

Those people are now scratching their head and asking why should they trust Autodesk, saying 'you killed the one thing I love', and that's a natural sentiment. And there's nothing we can do to stop that feeling from happening, it's natural. All we can do is help people make the transition to the best of our abilities and hope that people see enough value in what we're doing to want to continue to be our customers.

I've been on the forums responding to people, and other people in the organisation have too. We've invited Softimage users to be part of our beta process, so we are doing things to try and make this easier. The one thing we cannot do, that this user base would really like us to do, is continue to develop Softimage as aggressively as we're developing Max and Maya. Ultimately, down the road, we cannot do that.

Yes, we could probably keep it ticking over in maintenance but that just draws out the problem longer. We want to move fast on Max and Maya, we need to invest more in them to make them much more suited to the changes that are happening in the environment. People need those products to be faster and more efficient.

Budgets are getting smaller for less, next-gen consoles are going to put a lot of pressure on games companies to do more for less and they have some monumental problems to solve. There are a lot of things that need to happen - virtual production technologies, reality capture technologies - in the next few years to make people productive in the new production pipeline and we need to begin working on those problems too.

Can you tell us a more about the training materials that will be available. Are video tutorials part of the plan to help with the transition?

MP: It is most likely to be videos and webinars, as that is our preferred mode of training. We run YouTube channels for all our products and typically release most of our training on YouTube. We're now focusing on creating special ones for Softimage users. The first ones should be coming online in May.

One reader commented not being happy using an older version of Softimage but it's due to the stagnation of development under Autodesk that's kept them there. How would you respond to this?

MP: At the end of the two years, the software doesn't go away. People are using older versions very happily in production today, they will continue to use them and will still be able to do that. What we need to make sure over the next two years is that the work we've done in the 2015 release works well in production.

2015 is the last release, given that, the next two years is about stabilising that release - it's not been proven in production pipelines yet. So, it's going to go out and if people have problems with it we will fix them to make sure it works. The point was that people are using this product in production, they've even frozen themselves on older releases, and it works and they will continue to work in the same way.

At the same time, it's also true that, from a financial perspective, a lot of the decisions were driven by the revenue from the product. To your question about, is there a business maintaining this software? Just maintaining it without no new features? Our feedback from customers told us it was not worth paying that kind of money to maintain. So, if we can't make enough money from the subscription to maintain it then why would we continue to do that long-term? We could've continued to do that to ease the transition if we had infinite resources but we don't and we needed to focus on other products.

Theres many facets to this problem. Nothing is always a simple binary, clear-cut answer. There are many factors that brought us to this and, ultimately, we made some decisions early on at the acquisition that didn't pay off, which lead us to be in this situation. So this wasn't something completely based on external factors, there are internal factors too.

It's true that there are decisions that we made, that if we hadn't made, things could have been different. But we did make them because we believed that we would do something different and better. And we still do believe that we can give the industry better tools and technology that will help in the long run.

Why weren't programmes put in motion to migrate tools, workflows and core functionality so that they would have been available in Maya when you announced the retirement of Softimage?

MP: We feel like we have two very strong products, that are industry leading products, that have been used to do everything from independent productions to Oscar winning movies and AAA games. These are products that have lead the industry so we were trying to offer people a path to those products.

Now, they may not suit everyone's needs and there are other alternatives out there but we do believe that we have a good solution set and that we can make it better. We don't have a plan of making either of one of these into another Softimage, we have a plan to work with them to make them more user friendly for Softimage users to ease the transition.

It took nearly 17 years to develop XSI to where it is today and our intention is not rebuild Softimage in Maya. Our intention is to take things out of Softimage to make Maya better. We think we will have some quick wins and others will take much longer.

Artist-friendly solutions

A lot of people say Maya is old and long in tooth, but it's actually the same age as Softimage. It has been revamped in many areas but it was designed under a different philosophy. It was designed to be an open platform that could be easily customised, that has it pros and cons.

One of the things that we're trying to assess now is how do we make it more artist-friendly out of the box. When we had Maya and Max, Max was the artist-friendly out of the box solution, Maya was the platform, then we had Softimage which was kind of inbetween these two worlds. ICE gave it a lot of customisability but it was very much out of the box.

So we want to bring Maya to where Softimage is. Maya is much more customisable and open, it's basically a shell which people can build anything in. And we have been focused over the last release in building artist-friendly tools and workflows. It's an ongoing process, which will take multiple years - it will never end.

Future predictions

I wish I could say in two years we'd be done, but by then we'll start replacing things with new features and in five years we'll maybe have replaced all the modelling tools but then there will be new next-gen modelling tools needed. So making predicitions of the next few years in the high tech business right now, is like predicting the weather. You know what's gong to happen over the next year or so, but further than its difficult to say.

I think people want us to say, 'yes! We'll be here in five years', but I don't know what we will be doing in that time. We have ideas and plans but we know those will change, just as our plans for the last five years have. Things change too quickly.

Our plan is to continue to build more artist friendly tools in Maya, and we are looking for Softimage users to help us do that, they definitely have great insights as to how to do this. That is the goal. Do we expect there will be short-term gains? Yes, we do. Do we expect that some things will take longer? Yes, we do. Can we say where we will be in the next five years? No. But we definitely expect that we'll see some significant improvements over the next couple of years.

If you have further questions re the Softimage transition plan, send them to softimage.transition.plan@autodesk.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerrie Hughes is associate editor at Creative Bloq. Her employment at Future Publishing began in January 2010 as staff writer for 3D World magazine. Since then, she's written regularly for other publications, including ImagineFX and Computer Arts magazines.

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