If 3ds Max were a person, he’d be what we might refer to as a Renaissance Man – excellent at multiple fields, well-rounded, and talented in many domains. Throughout its history, 3ds Max has shown that its features and capabilities are well-suited to a variety of fields and applications including architecture, engineering, product design, game development, and cinematic visual effects.
Architecture: The Burj Khalifa. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, the designers of the world’s tallest building, is known to use 3ds Max in visualizing their projects. It’s likely 3ds Max played a role in visualizing this amazing architectural milestone during its development phase.
Game Design: Warcraft 2. Back in 1995, the cutscenes for this game were best-in-class and they were made possible in part by 3D Studio, an early incarnation of 3ds Max. I for one got enthralled by the opening cutscene of human knights preparing to meet the Orcish horde, even as my family’s Intel Pentium PC struggled to play the cinematic through.
(There are more games that form part of 3ds Max’s illustrious history; we’ll save some of those later for when we take a look at 3ds Max’s history.)
Film Visual Effects: While 3ds Max is part of the standard suite of software used for visual effects by all major studios and has been used in some of the biggest films in cinematic history and pop culture like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Avatar, and The Matrix Reloaded, 3ds Max got its Academy Award-fame from the lesser known animated feature Les Triplettes de Belleville (2 Oscars) and short animated film Fifty Percent Gray (Oscar nomination).
(Looking to render a 3ds Max project? Get started here.)
Another interesting fact about 3ds Max: it’s the only 3D software in Autodesk’s roster that was developed in-house. Autodesk has had a track record of acquiring promising 3D software firms and folding them into the Autodesk ecosystem; this was basically how Maya, Autodesk’s other big full-featured 3D software, came to be.
So how exactly did 3ds Max come to be? Let’s take a look.
1980s. Gary Yost, a kind of a Renaissance man himself (digital artist slash filmmaker slash magazine writer, editor and publisher) gathers a bunch of like-minded computer visuals-obsessed individuals through his myriad affiliations and interests including Atari gaming systems and created early 3D software for the DOS operating system called 3D Studio. It ran on a mere 640kb of RAM!
1990. The Yost Group (Gary Yost, Jack Powell, Tom Hudson, and others) establishes a publishing relationship with Autodesk as they continue to work on improving 3D Studio. With Autodesk, the 640kb limit was removed and animation became part of 3D Studio’s modules, thanks to Dan Silva. Dan, in turn, has already been famous for his previous work on graphics and animation package Deluxe Paint for Commodore Amiga series of computers. Autodesk releases 3D Studio commercially for 3495 USD, which was rather cheap for a fully-featured 3D program. (Fun fact: all of 3ds Max’s releases never exceeded this price point, making it the most affordable fully featured 3D package until, well, Blender, which is free.) At the time, 3D Studio’s suite of features and tools for its price point was unprecedented and unmatched.
1992-94. These years cover software Release 3 and 4. Plugins, or aftermarket software additions, make their first appearance. The Yost Group added a bunch of new features including inverse kinematics, fast preview, key scripting, and tool presets for particle systems and lens flares. This introduction of plugins led to the advent of third-party software development, allowing avid community members to make their own custom additions to a program that was already launched. All these new tools and features went into the making of films like Johnny Mnemonic and The Craft.
1995-96. Autodesk releases 3D Studio MAX for Windows NT. The software is now more powerful than ever, thanks to Windows’ 32-bit platform. Many capabilities that were simply impossible with DOS were now possible in Windows – real-time animation, undo (yep, we take this for granted these days but it was revolutionary back then), and a new module for character modeling. The Dancing Baby, a looping short video of a, um, dancing baby, became the poster child for what 3D Studio MAX brought to the table. This was also perhaps one of the earliest examples of a viral meme.
1997. Autodesk launches MAXScript with 3D Studio MAX Release 2, along with a host of other new features and workflow enhancements. MAXScript allowed users to build their own custom tools, which was big for artists working in different aspects of the 3D industry then. The movie Lost In Space made use of this release’s new features for its visual effects. The game Tomb Raider made use of the features for its cutscenes featuring Lara Croft, helping bolster Lara into the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling videogame heroine.
1999. Autodesk acquires Discreet Logic, folding in all of its own 3D innovations with 3D Studio MAX. This iteration of the software helped create the Emmy-winning opening cinematic for the NFL Super Bowl.
2000. 3D Studio MAX rebrands as 3ds max in accordance to the naming conventions by Discreet. In the same year, Electronic Arts launched The Sims, a game created in part using 3ds max. It became the best-selling PC game of all time at that point.
2001. Halo launches on the XBOX, a game that was created in part with 3ds max.
2004. 3ds max’s 7th release goes live. The same year, World of Warcraft became the world’s most popular MMORPG. 3ds max helped bring to life its art, environments, items, and characters.
2005. Autodesk drops the Discreet branding and renames the 3ds max division as Autodesk Media & Entertainment. Halo 2, created in part once more with 3ds max, debuts worldwide to much anticipation and success.
2006. Autodesk relaunches 3ds Max’s 9th iteration with a slightly new name: Autodesk 3ds Max. The software has retained this name until today.
2007. Autodesk releases 3ds Max 2008, hereby dropping the numeric naming convention. (It’s like if iPhone stops naming its yearly release as iPhone 15 and instead calls it iPhone 2023).
From here on out, 3ds Max continued to improve its features and build its impressive track record of games, movies, and projects.
If its history is any indication, many professionals from varied 3D fields rely on 3ds Max for its robust features and stunning output. Let’s look at some of the strengths of 3ds Max that makes it one of the standard software in the industry.
It’s fully featured. From modeling to texturing to rigging to animating to rendering, 3ds Max allows you to create various 3D projects without needing any other software. Be it high-resolution architectural visualizations or photorealistic digital doubles for film, you can do it all in 3ds Max. And if you need to render faster but you're lacking in hardware, you can always tap into the power and reliability of an online 3ds max render farm.
It ships with Arnold. You may have painstakingly modeled and animated your 3D scene but if you render poorly, your project may end up looking like crap. 3ds Max comes with one of the best, if not the best, rendering engines currently available today: Arnold.
It has lots of plugins and asset libraries. Through decades of being among the industry standard software, 3ds Max has built a huge community of CG artists who help improve its tools, features and assets, aside from Autodesk’s dedicated developers who put out plugins to cover any and every use case you may encounter. Effects, simulations, materials, textures – you name it, 3ds Max has got it (more likely than not).
Its modeling tools and workflow are robust and user-friendly. While 3ds Max is a one-stop shop for anything 3D, modeling is probably where it shines. Whether you’re crafting entire cities or a fleet of cars or a villain and his goons, you’ll be able to do so in 3ds Max relatively easier than, say, in Maya.
While there’s really no reason to stay away from 3ds Max, there are a couple of factors that might lead you to a different 3D software.
It only works on Windows. 3ds Max only works with Windows, so if you are working on a Mac or a Linux-based machine then you can’t use 3ds Max.
It may not be the best software for animation. While 3ds Max has good tools for animation, there may be some movements or behaviors that may be achieved better with animation tools in Maya or Blender or Cinema 4D.
3ds Max, while not perfect, has been developed and improved upon by decades of innovation and experience. If you are looking to get hired as a professional CG artist, skillfulness with 3ds Max can get you far in your career. Along with Autodesk’s other giant software, Maya, 3ds Max remains to be a fixture in production workflows in the foreseeable future. The only threat that may knock 3ds Max (and possibly Maya) off of its pedestal is this little free software called Blender. This of course is a topic for a different article altogether.