Which of these 5 apps can replace Softimage?

In the wake of Autodesk's decision to retire its popular tool, Lance Evans checks out some of the alternatives.

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There once was a time when a person could learn a set of tools, and then go off to be a productive member of society for the rest of their lives. Stories of such lives are not fairy tales, they were the lives of our parents and grandparents. Our generation, however, has drawn a shorter straw, and we seem always in need of learning new tools. Whether we like it or not.

And now it may be time for all of us Softimage users to learn a new tool. As Autodesk moves to wind down the life of superstar 3D program Softimage - which won't be developed beyond 2015 - its large user base will soon need to migrate to other 3D solutions. If Softimage is your main program, what are your plans for when all development ceases after Softimage 2015?

How it all began

SoftImage's heritage goes back to 1988 when it was one of the elite high end 3D applications costing a small fortune (there really wasn't much in the way of affordable 3D packages at the time). In the early years Softimage gained fame for its use in projects like ILM's work on Jurassic Park, and Cyan Studio's game RIVEN.

Ultimately, what you actually do with SI will largely direct your decision making on what program to move to. As Wikipedia puts it, "Softimage is primarily used in the film, video game and advertising industries as a tool to generate digital characters, environments and visual effects." So do you do more character, special effect or game work? Or like most 3D artists, something of a mix?

While there is no shortage of options out there, it should be no surprise that the more specialized your work, the narrower your options will be. Here are our top 5 picks:

01. Maya

Maya is a good alternative if your work is mainly character-based

If a good chunk of your workload is character based, then you might be hard pressed to find a better option. Maya is also a (not as direct) descendant from the big bad boy 3D apps of early CG days. It will do just about anything you could want. And many would say it was a superior product anyway. It is also a popular solution for film style work, and stunning visual effects. Be aware of its steeper than usual learning curve.

Since SI and Maya are both owned by Autodesk, they are letting those with an active SI subscriptions migrate to Maya for free. A good deal if you happen to fit their requirements.

02. 3DS Max

3DS Max is a good choice for technical or architectural work

If your work leans more towards the technical or architectural side of things, 3DS Max is a really good option. This app sees heavy use in the construction and building sectors, but is also used for film and effects work. Max is the leading choice for 3D game development.

Like Maya, Max is owned by Autodesk, and thus will offer a free cross-grade for SI users with an up to date support agreement.

03. Cinema 4D

If you don't need all the power of SI, Cinema 4D could be a good alternative

C4D has been something of the tortoise in the 3D footrace. It started out a bit later than some, but received steady development and is now a very powerful and widely adopted program.

Some might say C4D is not as powerful as SI, and view this as a step down. But if you didn't really need all the power and gadgets in SI, this could be a wonderful option. Although it will not be a cheap one, at $3,695 for the full seat. Competitive cross-grade offers may bring some additional discounts.

04. Lightwave

Lightwave joins Cinema 4D in the mid-range options

Lightwave is a peer program to Cinema 4D (depending on who you talk to, of course). Both are in the upper midrange of power, and complexity.

Lightwave is known for its character work, and generally considered easy to use. There may be some things about LW that make the transition from SI a bit easier than other options.

As of this writing, purchase price for LW Version 11.x was a discounted $995 USD (reduced from $1495) on the software publisher's website.

05. Blender

It's free - and with an open source community behind it, it's getting better all the time

Don't laugh. Being free, Blender is often dismissed as a pro tool for 3D artists, but it's increasingly capable. And given that it's constantly being developed by its open-source enthusiasts, it would be foolish to discount it as a future contender.

With some artists saying they now view Autodesk as a company that's more interested in profit than supporting artists, at some point a move to a community-backed alternative may be the logical conclusion. You can find more about what Blender is capable of right now in this article.

Or... stay put

Having said all that, if you're happy with the features of the latest version of Softimage, what's forcing you to do anything?

I've often wished - fantasized really, that I could wait until one of those magic times when the OS and applications are all working very well (Mac OS 6.05 circa 1992, Mac OS 9.2 circa 2000, WinXP circa 2004... all fond memories). Then just pick up and move to a desert island! There I would never hear of an upgrade again, and happily remain in a state of top-functioning isolation. All software frozen in time.

Alas, the real world dashes such idealistic plans. Your OS or other applications will likely get upgraded and at some point become less compatible with your frozen-in-time software. One solution to this: consider dedicating a computer to your legacy software, and just use it for those projects. This is a good excuse to get yourself a new main workstation anyway!

On the upside, you may not have to worry about compatibility issues at all. While there is no way to know beforehand, SI might just work really well with whatever you throw at it down the road. For example, I have a seat of Maya 2009 that is working perfectly well in 2014 on a new box running Win 7.

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