Last week, the 3D community was left in shock as news emerged that Autodesk is to discontinue Softimage, one of its popular, high-powered 3D software packages. The latest release, Softimage 2015, due to ship this April, will be the last, with Autodesk supporting the software to subscription customers until 30 April 2016.
The announcement invoked mixed feelings, including disappointment, sadness and anger from many Softimage users, which includes the team at London-based creative agency Glassworks. With the software serving as the company's primary production tool, it's now having to completely to revaluate its production pipeline.
Like many others users, the Glassworks team heard the news after it was leaked by a reseller early last week, then shortly afterwards from Autodesk itself. In reaction to the news, Glassworks founding partner, director and head of 3D Alastair Hearsum wrote a candid open letter to Autodesk, which quickly attracted Autodesk's attention.
"As a longstanding customer with a reasonably high profile I would have thought some discussion and prior information would have been at least courteous," Hearsum told us. "After my open letter I have had an apology from Maurice Patel of Autodesk for this and an offer to talk."
Long-time Softimage user Rui Santos also told us of his disappointment. "The first I heard of this was a a rumour popping up on Twitter, which I didn't give too much attention," he says. "I know there are rules on how, when and what to announce publicly, but the uncertainty, anger and discomfort caused by the lack of information from Autodesk is huge."
We contacted Autodesk in regards to this matter, and are currently awaiting a response. The official Autodesk announcement offers this by way of explanation: "Although this decision is a difficult one, we do believe that by focusing our development efforts, we can better serve the needs of the media and entertainment industry and provide customers with better products, faster."
In response to the annoucement, senior industry marketing manager for Autodesk Maurice Patel also posted this update to the Softimage transition plan on Autodesk's online community site AREA.
For the Softimage community, however, this has offered little comfort, which is evident in Hearsum's letter and the people reading it. Among the comments to his words was this from Australian-based Softimage user Scotty Wilcox: "It is without doubt that this decision and announcement has brought on a flood of unrest from the user base.
"To many users, their chosen software is like a religion to them. It's like deciding to let us all know that Catholicism will end in 2016 and you should look to turn towards Islam, Budhism or any of our other religions and there will be a fee. And letters like Alastair's and replies like mine are the mondern day equivalent of the peasants marching upon the castle with flames aloft."
Although the news has been a shock to many, Hearsum admitted feelings of unease about the software's future when Autodesk first aquired Softimage from Avid back in 2008.
"The suspicion in the SI community, since Autodesk bought Softimage, was always that they had some underhand intentions rather than having our needs at the centre of their plans," he tells us. "It seemed a bizarre and somewhat monopolistic move and the feeling, some called it paranoid, that they bought it to kill it was always lurking in the back of your mind.
"What kept those thoughts at bay was the knowledge that this was truly an elegant, efficient and, with ICE, an innovative piece of software. How could they just bin it? They still have promotional videos on their website outlining the ongoing future of Softimage at the 2014 version. So while suspicious we were also optimistic."
This optimism lead a small but successful Glassworks to apply Softimage as it's primary production tool - a decision that Hearsum believes has aided them in competing with some of London's biggest animation and VFX vendors for the last 20 years.
"One of the reasons we have been able to do that, apart from the deep talent of our crew is, I believe, because of the software that we chose," Hearsum comments in his letter. "It's better for the work that we do and the sector we are in. Its no coincidence that all the finalists in the recent British Animation Awards (TV commercials) did their work in Softimage."
So, the real question is, to what extent is this really going to affect Softimage users? Has their stream of income just been cut off? Or will the migration to a different product be a simple one? For Rui Santos, the decision will affect him deeply. "One spends 20 years, in my case, working with this tool every day, trying to be the most productive you can be, delivering work to deadlines, to then suddenly be told you can no longer use it is frustrating.
"Changing 3D software is not like changing from, say, a word processor to another," he tells us. "These are very complex programs, which take years of true dedication to master."
For Hearsum and the team at Glassworks, the future is also uncertain. "I can't tell you exactly how it will affect us yet," he explains. "We're still thinking about it. We'd like a longer period than two years to transition. There are calls for a four-year period. I'd be behind that. There is no obvious leading 3D candidate from a technological point of view, we already had the best tool for the job. Pragmatism may lead us to compromise, however, but I wouldn't want to put a name on it yet."
Obviously aware of the disruption that the decision will cause, Autodesk has offered no-cost options to migrate to 3ds Max or Maya for all Softimage subscription customers. But this appears to have done little in the way of reassuring users, with the Glassworks team, wondering what software, and, more importantly, software supplier is best for their future.
"We're actively looking at all candidates," says Hearsum. "They all have their deficencies as far as technology goes. As I mentioned in my open letter I believe, for the sector we are in (commercials), we had the best tool for the job which allowed us, as a numerically small company, to produce big work.
"I'm nervous of the reduced efficiency adopting some of the current candidates would incur. As far as attractive software companies go I would tentatively name names here. I think The Foundry is a good company. They are active and innovative. Same goes for Side Effects. I don't really have any direct experience of them but people that I trust do and I hear very good things about their ability to listen and act on what they hear."
There's also talk among the community of leaving Autodesk altogether. "I will be moving towards Cinema4D," Scotty Wilcox comments. "I've got an Adobe subscription, so I will learn the hell out of C4D, and will never have to deal with any of the Autodesk shenanigans again. I hear that many users are simply deciding between Houdini and C4D. A decision that is all about avoiding the company that has strangled the golden goose."
The final curtain
"Its difficult to have warm feelings about Autodesk," Hearsum comments. "They suddenly killed my favourite puppy without telling me. They are a big organisation but in percentage terms they have a small interest in the entertainment sector. You get the impression that strategic decisions are made far away from the coal face and that there is not the enthusiasts interest found in the smaller software companies."
For more information, Autodesk has released a FAQ surrounding the software's final days. The company has also scheduled a live, web-based Q&A for Monday, 17 March. Interested users can register at the Softimage product page.
Will Autodesk's decision to discontinue Softimage affect you? Or are you in favour of it? Let us know in the comments below.