Product Review: Alias|Wavefront's Maya 4.5

For an incremental update, Alias|Wavefront has presented in Maya 4.5 a fair number of advancements, including Fluid Effects, Smooth Proxy, a large number of API enhancements, new (and groovy) snapping tools, sub-d to NURBS conversion, interface changes that facilitate better workflow, and new polygon and beveling tools. But are these improvements significant enough to warrant an upgrade?

Doing a "complete" review of a product with the scope of Maya 4.5 is a monumental task, so I considered my approach carefully. Given that my role at Rockstar San Diego is primarily one of a modeler and MEL guy, I decided to focus on what I know best and use the most, while also giving a circumspect look at the more intriguing offerings among this version of Maya's new features.

For an incremental update, Alias|Wavefront has presented in Maya 4.5 a fair number of advancements, including Fluid Effects, Smooth Proxy, a large number of API enhancements, new (and groovy) snapping tools, sub-d to NURBS conversion, interface changes that facilitate better workflow, and new polygon and beveling tools. But are these improvements significant enough to warrant an upgrade? Productivity and creativity are co-rulers of the game-art world, so I'll try to relate how these new features affected my workflow and my ability to translate my ideas to the screen.

Fluid effects. Based on my experience of using water plug-ins in the past, I tend to be intimidated by anything that has the words "fluid dynamics" in it. However, the Maya Fluid Effects package is actually very usable, with a great amount of depth if you need more out of it than the preset values (which are numerous). Our effects artists around the office are using this new functionality a lot and digging it.

Workflow improvements. I've been using Alias|Wavefront's Bonus Games Package of plug-ins (available on the Alias|Wavefront web site for Maya 4.0.x) for a while now, so some of the workflow enhancements integrated into 4.5 are old hat to me, but they are nevertheless a huge step up in usability. Alias|Wavefront has bundled a large number of "patch scripts" into this version as well, including Poly Power Tools and the majority of the Bonus Games Package set, allowing you to do things like "Split Face," "Poke Face," and "Wedge Face," which can be combined in a large number of ways to give you some really great MEL scripts. They've also unhidden the Annotate command and put it in a pull-down menu. However, there are still some things missing, such as the excellent UV Texture Editor tools that come with the Bonus Games Package for 4.0.

Also among the new workflow improvements are the new snapping tools, which are very intuitive and easy to use. In particular, the "Snap Together" tool has proved extremely useful for the work we're doing right now, where lots of objects need to be placed with transforms relative to the surface of the landscape.

"Retain Component Spacing" is probably one of my most anticipated additions to Maya. Coming over to Maya from 3DS Max, I was frustrated with the fact that when I used the snap tools, it always snapped all the selected objects to the same transform direction. Now, with "Retain Component Spacing" switched on (the default now in 4.5), you don't have to cluster your components in order to snap them in relation to each other. It's a small but very welcome change.


Maya 4.5's ability to convert between subdivision surfaces and NURBS provides a new modeling workflow.

Subdivision surfaces. Manipulating subdivision surfaces, or sub-d's, hasn't changed much in functionality, but Maya 4.5 adds the ability to convert between sub-d and NURBS, which is great if you do a lot of NURBS and sub-d modeling, which I don't. One thing I did notice was that during the conversion from NURBS back to sub-d, Maya tended to tessellate the edges of my isoparms unnecessarily, creating extra subdivisions in the new sub-d set. Happily, there are some added smoothing techniques which give you more control over the final polygonal model's density.

The best new thing in the subdivision-surface domain is the new "Smooth Proxy" tool, which is basically the same thing as 3DS Max's NURMS. A "smoothMesh" object is created with input connections from the "proxyMesh," so whatever large polygonal modifications you apply to the proxy are transferred down to the smoothed version. I played with this for hours and found it to be a very usable way to model polygons organically in Maya.

NURBS. Like subdivision surfaces, NURBS functionality remains largely the same. The most significant change is that all the functionality of the advanced modeling tools, like Booleans, Offset Surface, and the like, which were previously available in Maya Unlimited are now standard in Maya Complete.

API and MEL refinements. In Maya 4.5, Alias|Wavefront has continued to refine the MEL tools. Improvements include the ability to change the background colors in windows (PC only), the addition of lockNode/lock functionality, and the exposure and documentation of the "Annotate" command. The HTML help pages have been completely reformatted to be much more readable. However, version 4.5 still lacks an easy method of designing UIs in MEL, as well as a usable script editor.

Support. While Alias|Wavefront has made excellent progress with regard to feature additions and stability improvements, support is a relatively sore point. As with all products that make the price migration from high-end to consumer, Alias|Wavefront has stumbled in the support it provides for Maya. In my experience, although I can call or write e-mail and get a pretty fast response Monday through Friday between 3:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, I have experienced virtually zero weekend or late night support. As we all know, the game and film industries operate 24/7/365, and sometimes we need support right away during deadlines and milestones (I was fortunate enough to be experiencing both of these during my evaluation of Maya 4.5 for this review). With their growing customer base, Alias|Wavefront needs to invest some thought and effort into shoring up this weakness as soon as possible.

Last word. Maya 4.5 offers lots of useful additions to the workflow and modeling tools, and to the great relief of users the stability improves with every release. Clearly Alias|Wavefront has been listening to their game customers and their feature requests, a trend I certainly hope to see continue. If you can manage the significant hiccup Maya's rapidly growing user base has caused in the area of support, Maya 4.5 is a worthy upgrade.

Maya 4.5

3body_arrow_sm_right.gif Alias|Wavefront
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
800.447.2542 or 416.362.9181

3body_arrow_sm_right.gif Price:
$1,999 (MSRP)

3body_arrow_sm_right.gif System Requirements:
Windows XP/2000, Pentium II or AMD Athlon with 128MB RAM (256 Recommended) and qualified graphics card; three-button mouse
Mac OS X, Linux, IRIX: see website for requirements

3body_arrow_sm_right.gif Pros:
1. New SmoothProxy tool kicks butt.
2. Lots of incremental workflow improvements add up.
3. Reformatted HTML documentation is more user friendly.

3body_arrow_sm_right.gif Cons:
1. Customer support is slipping.
2. MEL still relatively ungainly.
3. Maya 5 already looming on the horizon at press time.


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