In the following article I will be discussing out-of-the-box 3ds Max versions only. I do appreciate many users have plugins or modified interfaces they prefer and welcome people to suggest their favourites in the comments. They wont however be discussed in this part of this article but I do plan to follow up and will try to include anyones suggestions and/or discussion points later especially regarding sections of the software I use less often. I mainly use 3ds Max for modelling so this discussion will revolve around that more than other areas such as animation. I will try to get a hold of some people regarding these features and ask their opinion on fixes.
Read more about the 20th Anniversary History of 3ds Max here.
I started using 3ds Max with R2.5 back in 1998/99 and the command panel has never really changed. It's one of those core features that perhaps Autodesk (Discreet/Kinetix) never wanted to ruin for users familiar with the software but over time it has become one of the features in most need of repair. For almost 20 years this single feature has defined the software, when someone looks to the right panel and sees those iconic tabs they know what software it is.
The panel itself is versatile allowing the user to move it around, snap it to the sides or resize it to be custom widths of 2 or more columns. One thing a user can not do though is be in both Modify and Create modes at the same time and there in lies one of my largest issues with 3ds Max. Being able to move briskly between Creation and Editing is a key feature that will open the software up in a number of ways. I appreciate that context sensitivity may need to stay intact but the line between the two, namely the tab panel in this instance, should disappear.
You might think I'm crazy if you're an avid max user but if we remove this barrier it means objects can be created whilst in Modify mode and immediately modified, they can be created and snapped instantly and immediately deformed or turned to editable polys which is extremely powerful. In comparison edge loop is a technique for creating extra geometry; That and poly extrusion - but what if we could more readily tie our workflow in whether its freehand or modifier based? It would make the software flow better.
...Which brings me to my next major issue with the basics - selection and deselection.
When you are in Create mode its impossible to deselect without first right clicking after creating an object, I have no idea why Create is locked from Modify, but when you are in Create mode it simply doesn't do much unless you're using it to Create objects.
It does seem partially redundant by design, and when you consider the flow between the object size at Create vs Modify it makes you wonder why you need to adjust one before the fact, when it can be simply modified after.
Now this might be as a result of how things work under the hood. but a good user experience should work around those nuances to provide a smooth flow for the user... Especially when we are talking about graphics software of this level designed by professionals who should be considering how their tools are used by the industry!
I like to think that interface design has come a long way in the past 20 years since those early versions of Windows; The advent of touch interfaces and all sorts of new peripherals like motion controls will open doors, and I believe its time for 3ds Max to get with the times!
I rarely have the track bar displayed but I can see why this might even be a focus for some users but when I'm modelling I don't feel the need to show which frame I'm on and actually would prefer to be able to hide most of this bar without entering expert mode. I would consider a modelling mode a plus which still brought those most convenient tools to the surface.
Adobe Illustrator as an alternative example shows how there is little to no wall between creation and modification. These menus for drawing both primitive shapes as well as lines are all in much easier to get to menus which can all be opened and docked making it easy to get to your most used primitives.
The selection modes are right there accessible instantly everything is closer to the surface. Obviously filters are deeper in the program and arnt perfect they could be likened to modifiers but the stack is huge when entirely expanded. It means it could benefit from this type of menu where modifiers are put into groups with icons that represent them rather than one long drop down.
I thought that the newer additions, and Mayas move to QT might push 3ds Max along. I thought that the .Net implementation would yield some improvements to the interface too, but most of what we have gotten is integration of plugins and increases in viewport speed with only minor updates to modelling tools.
This section needs expanding - note that ribbon did bring slightly easier to find tools however it is far from perfect imho in that respect and adds focus to tools that we rarely use. brush over changes in version 3 and in regards to the ribbon styled menu. and the new graphite tools how they didn't improve anything and just added more clutter end
Obviously the Graphite Ribbon does make selection easier but it does it at more resource cost for no real reason, clicking on create and back again to modify is no where near as slow as this tool makes it seem like it should be. I think the problem is in an ancient piece of code from the original 3ds Max days where this context was meant to be the only way to select a new object. Edit Poly modifier can for instance create new objects when you select faces but getting to them immediately is problematic even with the ribbon as you still get stuck in sub-object selection. This is where Illustrator excels as it has direct select and select, one is object level so you can get there really quickly and one thing that would open 3dsmax up to being more powerful is getting from sub-object marquee to object rectangle select more immediately.
Some users will swear by Max Ribbons; Microsoft have certainly taken them on too in more recent application iterations, and while I appreciate the benefits of a palette styled user interface I cant help but think this is one area Adobe's applications really excel.
One of the things I like about Microsofts implementation is that it can remember which tools you use most often and bring those to tools you use more often closer while tucking the ones you dont behind the expander "..." buttons. The real problem here though is that they force you to have them at the top of the application and the Context Menu is really great too so they are less useful, lets consider for a moment that widescreens are now the norm so this has given us extra room on the sides of the screens compared to the 4:3 aspect so we have room for expanding menus on the sides of our screens more than ever and the top and bottom become precious reserved more for file/tab browsing.
The addition of Graphite modelling tools for me was just another tool for us to have to dig through to find what we need nearer our fingertips. The general aesthetic updates were nice, but the core of my complaints with the software go to usability, and while you might be thinking how horrible that piece of software you've been meaning or trying to learn is, it doesn't excuse industry leaders from innovating.
There is not to say Autodesk need to update the User Interface and completely change every facet, alienating their core audience, but instead of the tacking on of features we've become all too accustomed, to they could very easily offer new schemes which slowly transition users into a new format - which is designed from the ground up using modern UX design techniques. This is one area where Microsoft commonly fails, in that they remove features users like; So instead they have started merging new ideas in with the old, as in the revisit of the Start Menu - which now looks retro - while they keept the Metro theme.
By no means are all the suggestions here meant to represent the views of every user, but I'm sure most can agree with the premise!
Modifiers, potential enhancements and why I think we should move them out of the drop down to make them more visible without having hundreds of buttons!
This is one of the stand out parts of the 3ds Max experience! It is immediately identifiable, and many features have found their way into the modifier stack because of its power and versatility. The ability to be able to shift around and modify in a non-linear (and non-destructive) fashion is part of what makes competing applications such as Modo powerful. This is the software people will start to migrate towards if Autodesk doesn't raise their game, because while there is the Maya option when it comes to learning new software, people are always willing to make a leap.
To touch on Mudbox, it does things easier and differently enough to a package like Z-Brush; it doesn't have to be too concerned, whereas 3ds Max has always been in a position where it is facing a lot of direct competition, not only from outside influences, but also from Autodesk itself, with its many modelling applications such as AutoCAD, Softimage and Maya.
I do think Autodesk could do a lot more, rather than just tacking on features. One area this is very noticeable is the UWV mapping and how it still feels like a plugin, or the numerous Boolean methods accessible from all over the UI. This is problematic when the software doesn't feel like a cohesive experience.
I think if Autodesk tried to go a Palette route to make the UI more minimal, but the areas you use maximizable, (like Adobe Creative suite) it could be a genuine step to something better. The modifier stack in particular is not something you need visible if you use shortcuts a lot, which i'm sure most people do. It needs to be there for easy traversal, but I do think a fly out with just the tree section, which allows adding Modifiers, would be much better than a huge drop down list, which in turn would be beneficial.
As discussed previously the command panel could be moved into floaters, and trimmed back to this old school database view that still seems to predominant in modern graphics applications. One of the biggest interface pluses for AutoCAD is the minimal UI, and having more view space - the command panel takes up valuable real estate regardless of how much you use expert mode!
Version 4's release with the inclusion of the quad menu is one of my favorite additions to the software and as it comes in the default setup extremely under utilized.
I believe the Ribbons and Quad Menu could come together with an updated command panel, to form sort of holy trinity of usability; One of the core strengths of the Quad Menu, is it can be accessed via customisable key combinations, and is highly editable.
If the graphite tools and aesthetics of the menu could be applied to the quad menu it would be much more useful and it could help improve the overall feel of using gestures whilst working in 3D Studio Max.
Overall I use 3D Studio Max because it is what I know. It has the features I need, and I am willing to deal with the bits I think are not as good - but I am looking elsewhere as more as options open up, and other software packages mature.
I enjoy using the 3ds Max software, and I think its great... But I can not honestly say its the best modelling software available, even though I would like to. I would really like to back Autodesk and tell them they are doing a great job, but 20 years of minor improvements have seen the software become this Frankenstein monster, a jumbled mess of pieces that seemingly have to be pieced back together every few versions just so they do not fall apart.
I want to see the software take a break for a couple of years so we can get some real updates! I think the nitrous viewport was a great addition, but the modelling tools really need to be brought up to scratch to really exploit that extra overhead that we have to play with!