Skip to main content

The Three Ds of 3D

If I'd known better, I would have skipped Marketing 101 and opted to play Roller Coaster Tycoon instead.

In this popular CD-ROM simulation game, a budding entrepreneur can design and run a virtual theme park, building new rides, choosing concessionaires, and hiring and firing workers, while monitoring the public's reaction to these moves. And unlike sleepy old Professor Scott, Roller Coaster Tycoon could have taught me all the essentials of marketplace strategy - how to plan for growth, wise spending on a tight budget and, most of all, pricing strategies that support the laws of supply and demand.

That's the part I keep coming back to these days. It's devilishly simple: When sales are slack and the market is glutted with products, I can lower the price on my roller coaster and recapture a healthy share of the business.


But if it's so simple, why can't the 3D animation marketplace grasp the concept? Last spring, just before the NAB convention, the folks at Alias|Wavefront decided to lower the price of their flagship 3D animation product, Maya, from $7,500 to $1,999. This was a dramatic drop, to be sure, and one that caught the attention of the entire computer graphics industry.

But the curious part was the howl - more like a primal scream - that went up around the 3D community as competitors cried foul and pundits spawned rumors of impending insolvency and doom. From all the fuss, it sounded as though this irresponsible, anarchistic maneuver might single-handedly sink an entire industry; how could Alias|Wavefront devalue... even dishonor... this noble pursuit with such paltry prices?

Of course, if they'd been obsessed - I mean familiar - with Roller Coaster Tycoon like I am, they might have recognized the single-most useful re-marketing tool in the book: If demand is sagging, stir up some business with a good old-fashioned price cut.


There was a span from the late 80s through the mid 90s when 3D was the wunderkind of computer graphics, when the three Ds of 3D might have been Dynamic, Dazzling and Desirable. With each passing season, one outlandish development topped another: photorealistic rendering, particle animation, dramatic speed increases, even hair and cloth simulations.

But when the merry-go-round finally ground to a halt, the boom was over; the mountain had been climbed. These days, new product versions tend to concentrate on more practical matters such as improvements to the user interface or additional import/export capabilities. The Three Ds for the new century feel more like Depressed, Disinterested and Discounted.

It's no surprise, then, that market leaders such as Softimage and Alias|Wavefront are in the doldrums. After all, how often does your production team use 3D animation? Corporate logos and sponsors' products flying through space was a big-ticket fad from the 80s, but today these effects are handled in Adobe AfterEffects with a $200 optional plug-in - and that's only if the effect is requested at all.

Down here in the trenches, we aren't cranking out many feature-length 3D projects; a few scientific animations, flying Oreos and a strolling, whistling hot dog top our recent hits. Big 3D software seemed to be gravitating toward 3D specialists - animation-only boutiques and big studios - while small- to medium-sized operations had to consider other options.


Now here's the good news: the Maya price drop, as well as the price wars and promotions that followed, put folks like you and me into the best position ever to own some very serious 3D firepower. Even after adding in the cost of maintenance contracts and perhaps a new workstation, you may still only be looking at two or three small jobs a year to hit the break-even point. That is, of course, if you don't run out and hire a $70,000-a-year animator to run the system.

But there's good news on that front too: Training materials have become a huge part of the value-added side of the 3D business. In addition to plenty of disk-based tutorials and print materials, there are free program versions from both Softimage and Alias|Wavefront intended to give new animators plenty of practice time before purchase.

One interesting observation is that most of this jockeying for price tag positioning took place in the big-ticket echelon, an elite bunch that includes Maya, Softimage|XSI, SideEffects' Houdini and the like. Statistically, though, you're much more likely to have owned a lesser-priced package: Discreet's 3D Studio MAX, LightWave 3D from NewTek, Martin Hash's software, Rhinoceros 3D or a dozen others. Reduced prices helped make 3D Studio MAX the most-purchased 3D software ever, but these days, the same kind of money will buy you one of the formerly high-priced packages.


In the end, the point is that 3D animation software is more affordable than ever, and that now might be a good time to equip yourself even if 3D only makes money for you three or four times a year. The hardware is relatively inexpensive - a new Quicksilver Mac or the dual-Xeon 3DBOXX I recently bought are nowhere near the big SGI systems of days gone by. And if you're clever, you might be able to pilot the software by yourself.