[Originally appearing on my indie game development blog, what follows is a game-specfic version of my blog post 3ds Max vs Maya: Which 3d Package Should I Learn. If you're also interested in the answer beyond the games industry you may refer to my original blog post where I also disect the answer for feature film.]
Since the dawn of human times the topic of 3ds Max vs Maya has repetitively shown up around the web. Al thought a great question, I the answers are less great and often misleading. Today I want to share a very simple answer to which 3d software is the best.
The answers found around the web (that I myself once believed in) usually falls into the following categories. Discarding the question as a duplicate, referring to an ancient 6 year old thread. Claiming that the question is as pointless as "My religion is holier than yours!". And finally, attempting to answer the question with an incredibly specific comparison about a tiny portion of the software, completely overlooking any bigger picture.
I strongly believe all these answers are wrong and would like to share the rule which I go by...
Use Whatever Your (Desired) Company is Using
When you're working for a company you are unlikely to chose software yourself. It doesn't matter if you prefer one package over the other if it isn't your choice to make.
There are rare times when you do have a choice, such as during your learning stage and solo projects. Even then I'd recommend you chose what you'll be likely using in future jobs.
As grim as the word "forced" may sound, it's not necessarily a bad thing. If you find a pattern in what the great studios are using, that might actually hint at which package is the best.
So What Software Does the Best Game Studios Use?
I decided to limit the question to the companies who are currently the cutting edge of video game graphics, but who would that be? A quick search for "Best looking games of 2016" saw a few titles consistently mentioned. The Witcher 3, Battlefield, Batman: Arkham Knight, Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted, The Division, Tomb Raider. Al though an incomplete and flawed list, there's no doubt these are all great-looking games. Let's try to find out what 3d package their studios are using, with the quickest (albet flawed) method I know of; their job applications page.
- DICE (Battlefield 1)
Their job opening for Senior Character Artist and Level Designer requires "Strong skills in Maya or similar 3D modeling software".
- CD Projekt Red (The Witcher 3)
Their job opening for Character Artist specifies "Software: Zbrush, Maya, Photoshop, Substance Painter (or similar programs)".
- Rocksteady (Batman: Arkham Knight)
Their job opening for Senior Technical Artist requires "Knowledge of 3ds max, Photoshop & Unreal Engine toolsets".
- Guerilla Games (Horizon Zero Dawn, Killzone)
Their job opening for Senior Tools Programmer requires "You have experience with Maya or other DCC tools"
- Naughty Dog (Uncharted)
The Technical Artist GDC presentations I've viewed have shown their environment pipeline to use Maya.
- Massive (The Division)
Their job opening for Technical Artist specifies "Working knowledge at least one of the following; 3DSMAX, Maya, Modo, Zbrush and Photoshop (preferable Modo or Maya)"
- Crystal Dynamics (Tomb Raider)
Their job opening for Environment Artist writes your essential duties as "high poly modeling (Maya and ZBrush)"
I'm going to stop my research there as I have some interesting projects off my own to get back to. I will admit that the above research is very limited, but at least I can guarantee that they are in no way cheery-picked. These are the first results that came up and in no way did I intentionally skip any companies to prove a point.
It would appear that many the companies that are currently defining cutting-edge graphics for video-games are flocking to Maya. It should be mentioned that this is not always the case, and there seems to be regional differences. The only studio above that used 3ds Max was Rocksteady, and it should be noted that they are a British studio. My experience with working in Britain is that 3ds Max has a strong regional boost in the country. If I had specifically looked at UK companies I wouldn't be surprised if 3ds Max took the lead.
Also it gets complicated as some studios are using Maya for characters and 3ds Max for environments, to keep this article simple let's hope that's not too common.
3ds Max vs Maya: Moving From one to the Other
A common comment is that once you've learnt one 3d package the principles will easily transition to the other. Especially in my younger days I believed this to be true, but nowadays I'm less convinced.
When you're young, time doesn't feel as valuable as it should be. Perhaps due to school teaching us that disrespect our time with their snail pace tempo. Or perhaps simply not having experienced the bitter taste of aging yet. Transitioning from being efficient in one package to the other DOES take time, but when we're young that time may seem relatively trivial. As you arrive to your first studio however, you may find yourself, as I have, thrown into the middle of crunch, employed to contribute to your project from day one.
That reminds me of senior artist who joined the company I was working for a long time ago. Al though he'd warned my lead that he only had Maya experience, my lead pointed out that the principles will carry over into 3ds Max. During his first week however my lead showed high disappointment at the senior artist's performance. Over lunch my lead told me he expected him to spend some of his relocation time to learn the software. Al though his long Maya experience eventually carried over into 3ds Max (by some even considered the company's best artist), it's worth considering your first impressions while transitioning 3d packages.
So I hope I was able to contribute something to this age old discussion. As intentionally simplified as it was, I fear there might be quite some disagreement on this one. If so, let me know in the comment section below and I'll be happy to consider your point of view.