Spring is a busy time of year for Autodesk. The season brings flowers to Montreal and a host of updated software packages that the development teams have been busy working on throughout the winter. Spring also brings a couple of major conferences that are key to users of Autodesk digital media products, including the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
In preparation for these conferences and to show off all their hard work, Autodesk invited a cadre of media personnel to Autodesk's Headquarters in Montreal to preview their recent efforts at the Backstage Pass Media Event.
The event showcased a number of key Autodesk products, let the attendees see many of the new product features firsthand and also included a tour of the local Eidos-Montreal game studio. Aside from the polished product presentations, we were also treated to a technology preview of Project Skyline, an initiative that promises to help alleviate a common workflow bottleneck in game production pipelines.
The first presentation was made by Marc Hamaker, Senior Manager Product Marketing in the Creative Finishing group, who showcased the updated post-production tools. As a pre-cursor to the NAB conference, Marc showed off Smoke 2012 and Flame Premium 2012. The keyword associated with these finishing products is convergence. These releases eliminate the need for plug-ins as everything you need is contained within the shipping box.
The new version of Flame includes an entirely redesigned 3D lighting system with several new light types. This new lighting system enables the user to interact with real-time shadows and lighting artifacts. The new version also includes the ability to create Stereoscopic 3D effects, but the most exciting new feature is the Flame FX addition. Flame FX is a collection of tools for creating warping, rippling, edge detection and embossing without the need for plug-ins.
The new Flame FX module in Flame 2012 includes tools such as edge detection.
Marc also highlighted the Mac initiative at Autodesk, which includes Maya, Mudbox and Smoke 2012 for post processing. Smoke 2012 has many of the same improvements found in Flame including relighting, stereoscopic 3D and Flame FX. Smoke also integrates easily into workflows that use Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer. Smoke 2012 is also available as a 30-day trial version that lets users take the product for a spin.
Along with Smoke, Maya and Mudbox were also highlighted as solutions for Macintosh users. These three tools make a complete pipeline for Mac users including a 64-bit version that runs on Snow Leopard.
Updated DEC Software
One of the highlights of the media event was to see the amazing new features added to Autodesk's new line-up of Digital Entertainment Creation (DEC) software. These new versions were presented by Rob Hoffman, Senior Product Marketing Manager for the 3D team. Rob mentioned that all the improvements are directly related to customer requests.
Every Autodesk DEC software package, including the suites, have been updated and now have the 2012 label on its box. Many of the products have been updated with features that make them work even better with each other, such as the new single-step interoperability feature that lets you move your model from 3ds Max or Maya to MotionBuilder, Mudbox, or the ICE interface in Softimage with a single click.
New additions to 3ds Max 2012 include the new Nitrous display mode that takes advantage of GPU-based video cards to display large, complex models even faster with real-time shadows and ambient occlusion. Figure 2 shows an example of what Nitrous makes possible in the viewport. 3ds Max 2012 also includes a new rigid body physics module using NVIDIA's PhysX engine. The new module is called MassFX in Max and it displays results right in the viewport. Other improvements include better painting tools, Substance procedural textures and an improved UV editing workflow.
The Nitrous display mode in 3ds Max 2012 enables amazing results in the viewport.
Maya 2012 also sports viewport enhancements that enable motion blur, depth-of-field and ambient occlusion effects to be displayed right in the viewport. The new Motion Trails feature, shown in Figure 3, lets you edit animation paths without having to open the graph editor. Maya 2012, like Max, also has a new physics engine for simulations based on NVIDIA's PhysX engine and Maya also includes a new plug-in called the Digital Molecular Matter for realistic shattering of objects. New to fluids are features to simulate boiling, pouring and splashing.
The Motion Trails feature in Maya 2012 lets you control the animation path of objects by simply dragging on them in the viewport.
Softimage 2012 now allows nodes for the Syflex cloth features to be used in the ICE interface. It also includes the new Lagoa multiphysics framework for simulating the motions of traditionally tricky materials like plastics, foam and rubber.
MotionBuilder 2012 includes support for a new stereoscopic camera rig, which can be easily exchanged with Maya, Flame and Smoke. The HumanIK interface is unified across several products making it easier to work with. Mudbox 2012 introduces the concept of UV-less painting, which allows users to paint on objects without having to set up UVs. Mudbox 2012 also has a new set of posing tools that let you pose characters and then have any changes propagated to pre-set poses automatically. Mudbox now includes support for large texture datasets.
Mudbox 2012 includes support for large textures enabling incredible detail.
In addition to Autodesk's DEC products, Autodesk is building out and expanding the available products in its middleware line-up. Many of these middleware solutions have also been updated for 2012 including Kynapse, Beast, and HumanIK.
Kynapse is an effective AI solutions with improved runtime. Beast is an awesome solution for enabling global illumination and interactive previews within a game engine and includes support for Unreal Engine 3. New to HumanIK is a unified interface across several products and support for Sony's NGP and Apple iOS.
Autodesk also announced its intent to acquire Scaleform, which is used for creating interfaces.
Improved Game Pipeline Preview
Autodesk's products are amazing when used as intended, but each product also includes a powerful framework underneath the interface that enables the software to be used in new and interesting ways. The Autodesk teams are always pushing their products to accomplish more and occasionally we get to see their work as a technology preview.
The team showed how Maya could be outfitted to make artists within a game production pipeline more efficient. This initiative, called Project Skyline, was presented by Eric Plante, Product Manager for the Games team. Eric previously worked for EA Games where he felt the pain of building games using an inefficient pipeline.
One key problem with the current inefficient pipeline is that there is no connection between the artist's assets and the runtime data. Artists create game models and then throw them over the wall to a program team where they are integrated into the game engine. Desired changes and bugs are often only identified after an integration build is tested. Any changes require the artist to revisit an asset that has already been completed and the iteration cycle is extremely slow and hard to validate.
Some game companies have gotten around this inefficient workflow by building a system that logs all art assets into a database. The game engine then pulls the latest art version into the game engine for validation testing. This process improves the pipeline efficiencies, but comes at a cost requiring an entire infrastructure to be built by an already overburdened programming team.
Autodesk's solution to this inefficient pipeline is to enable live content authoring within the DEC tool and Eric and his team showed the concept using Maya. The Maya system was retrofitted with tools that let an artists create, rig and animate a character and test it within a game engine all from within Maya. Figure 5 shows a character animation being worked on in Maya on the left and simultaneously being tested in the game engine on the right.
Project Skyline allows artists to build characters and immediately test them in a game engine.
Project Skyline enables live linking between the Maya character and the game engine allowing artists to validate their work in a game engine before turning it over to the programming team. The tools use a visual programming motif allowing technical artists to build interactions for controlling the character without coding. Project Skyline also includes its own animation engine so programmers don't need to worry about data translation.
At the end of all the presentations, my final thoughts are not focused on the amazing new features that each product is endowed with, the technical acumen that I was allowed to see, or the key marketing phrases that lined my notes, but simply an appreciation for the dedication that Autodesk has in making products that help us all to do our work faster and better.
Mind you, the real drawback to these technology previews is that it is only a concept of a potential future workflow that currently has no plans or timeline of showing up in future release. These previews can often be diverting mirages that tempt thristy users with desperately needed functionality which may or may not appear off in the distance. It is a great idea that is needed now and we can only plead with Autodesk to bake it into a future release.