Should I Learn 3ds Max or Maya (or Softimage, CINEMA 4D, MODO, Houdini, Etc.)?

If you're starting out in 3D there quickly comes the moment when you're going to ask: should I learn Maya or 3ds Max (or quite truthfully, insert any other complete 3D animation application: Softimage, CINEMA 4D, MODO, Houdini, etc.)? For some it may be decided by your school or what resources you have to acquire the software. If it's up to you to decide, there are some key things you should think about when deciding, and some reasons why it's about more than just learning one application. You'll learn about each application's pricing point, as well as what most studios are using each application for, and why.

Picking Your First 3D Application

Step 1: Try (for Free) Before You Commit When all is said and done, and we hope this isn't a spoiler alert or a let down, when it comes to picking your software of choice, it's as simple as preference. If you're not limited to a software you're already being handed, there's no reason not to set out and explore which application you prefer. Most software companies offer free trial or learning versions to get you started and help see if it's a right fit. It's also important to know the price points for each application, because eventually you will need to purchase one. Some options to explore include (Please note restrictions on each linked page about importing and exporting files per the software provider)


Maya is arguably one of the most popular 3D applications out there today. With two different versions Maya, and Maya LT the prices vary. Maya costs $3675, or $185 monthly, $460 quarterly and $1470 annually. If you're a student, however, you can get the full software at no cost for educational purposes for 3 years. The stripped down version of Maya, Maya LT costs just $30 monthly or $795 if you buy the program outright. It's also important to note that in a recent interview, Autodesk has announced they will eventually move to a subscription only pricing model, similar to the Adobe products. A specific date for that has not been specified, however. Maya (30 day) Maya (academic free three-year license)

3ds Max

3ds Max is another extremely popular 3D application in Autodesk's arsenal. The pricing for 3ds Max is the same as Maya, you can buy the program outright for $3675, or get a free 3-year license if you're a student. Since 3ds Max is also an Autodesk product it will eventually move to a subscription only pricing model. 3ds Max (30 day) 3ds Max (academic free three-year license)


Softimage is another of Autodesk 3D applications, sadly; however, the last release of the program will be 2015. After that there will be no updates to the software as Autodesk phases the program out. It's a side time in the 3D community seeing the beloved program go the way of the wind, but there are still plenty of 3D applications to choose from. If you still desire, you can download the 30 trial or the three year free student license. Softimage (30 day) NOTE: Softimage 2015 will be the last release per  an Autodesk announcement. Softimage (academic free three-year license)


There are several different versions of CINEMA 4D focusing on specific areas of a production pipeline. CINEMA 4D Prime costs just $995 and focuses on graphic designers. CINEMA 4D Broadcast costs $1,695 which focuses on the motion graphics side of things. CINEMA 4D Studio combines every package into one, costing $3695. CINEMA 4D (demo version)


MODO is one of the more inexpensive 3D applications out there, costing $1495. Even though it costs less it's still a program that packs a punch. You can also download a free 30 day trial. MODO (free 15 days and $25 for 30 days)


Houdini offers a few different versions of the program focuses on specific areas of a pipeline. Houdini costs $1,995 which focuses on animation, modeling and lighting. Houdini FX focuses specifically on the visual effects side of things like particle simulations, fluids, dynamics, etc. It costs $4,495. You can also get Houdini Indie which only costs $199 and focuses on animators and game creators. The program is attached to a limited commercial license however. Houdini (Apprentice Editions)


When it comes to pricing, Blender takes the cake on this one. Blender is an open-source 3D application, meaning it doesn't cost anything. While it's free, it doesn't mean it's not powerful. It's very popular among hobbyist and indie developers, it's also starting to grow in popularity in recent years as updates and improvements are constantly happening with the program. Blender (Download Page) In terms of pricing, all the programs are very similar, with the exception of Blender, of course. Maya and 3ds Max offers the most appealing pricing packages with the 3 year student version. This gives you access to both complete versions of the applications at no cost to you. In essence, all of the tools are there in each application. Some may have more powerful features in certain areas, but usually that is something you can learn in any software down the line. We like to think of the analogy where all the tools are in the tool belt, the application, is just organized differently. Some of those advanced features like the Mograph Editor in CINEMA 4D or creating quick dynamic simulations in Houdini may be software-specific, but learning the main skills and tools will help you take those on when you're ready. Spend a week in each software you're contemplating learning first and find which one you are most comfortable working with. You can even start watching free beginner training with a Digital-Tutors demo account, or jump right in with a full membership and watch entire introductory courses.   [caption id="attachment_33213" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Automotive Modeling in Maya[/caption] Step 2: Understand It's All About The Techniques and Skills If you take the approach that it's more than just the software you're learning and stay focused on the techniques and skills, your results will go much further. We can't tell you how many times we've heard: a) A professional saying they have to or even get to switch between applications and b) A student or developing artist refusing to watch a course because it's not in their application of choice. This only limits the artist to stay in that software shell, but also limits them in their marketability when trying to apply to jobs or move between studios. If you can learn techniques and skills from any course no matter the main software, it will be amazing what you can learn and do in any application. Initially it will, of course, make sense to stay in your single application to get up and running, but don't make it a habit. And know that even the pros take time to get re-familiarized when switching software - it just takes time to get used to the new setup. When learning a software you'll essentially be learning new skills too. These skills transfer from application to application, so make sure that overall picture is the focus. Low-poly modeling for games is low-poly modeling no matter which application you are using to get there. Learning the essential skills, and advanced skills along the way, will help you conquer your first application and then any other that may stand in your way. [caption id="attachment_33214" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Transforming Robot Production Pipeline (Uses a Variety of Applications)[/caption] Step 3: Investigate and Think About What You Want to Do If you're getting into 3D you likely know why you're getting into 3D: a career or for your own creative pursuits. If it's for your own artistic journey, the options are endless and all yours. If you're hoping to start your career, you probably know which area of 3D you want to get into and now you can either see if there are clearer options or go deeper to find more. You can learn more about what each job does within the 3D pipeline by reading the Where Should I Start with 3D? article. Maybe you're not even sure yet what exactly you want to do, but all you know is that you want to work in the 3D industry. There are endless possibilities of what you might be doing at a studio. For example, you could be a texture artist, specifically working on creating the textures for an asset, or maybe you'll be a modeler, building the assets. Depending on the studio, you may be required to do only one of this things, and at another studio your job may include both modeling and texturing of assets. You'll need to be flexible and this can mean knowing several different software packages. Which software are they using to do (insert job you want)?

Game Art

From your research you may hear this is 3ds Max dominated (and previously Softimage), but Maya is right up there with it. With the recent release of Maya LT which focuses solely on game development Maya is slowly trying to bridge this gap between 3ds Max and Maya in terms of a game art application. That's why it's so important to focus on those skills you'll be able to transfer to any application. We also love working with Softimage, but it's popularity hasn't taken off quite as much even though it does have some unique, powerful tools and user-friendly UI. While 3ds Max and Maya are known as great game art applications,  MODO, CINEMA 4D and Blender are also popular for game asset creation. Specifically Blender since it's a free 3D application its popular among indie developers. If you want to learn more about the pros and cons of each application in terms of game art read the 3ds Max, Maya LT or Blender - Which 3D Software Should I Choose for Asset Creation? article.

3D Modeling

3D modeling screenshot   If you want to get into game art, you'll likely be modeling, creating assets, characters, etc. However, 3D modeling goes much deeper than that, and modeling for movies can be different than modeling for games. While the techniques are the same, the guidelines can be different. Some of the most popular applications for 3D modeling are 3ds Max and Maya. You can probably start to see the trend here. 3ds Max and Maya are really the two industry standards applications. Both feature some really great 3D modeling tools that will help you get the job done. MODO, CINEMA 4D and Blender have also seen a rise in popularity in terms of 3D modeling. CINEMA 4D boasts a fairly easy to grasp workflow that many new artists enjoy for its ease of use. MODO also has powerful 3D modeling tools. An important thing to keep in mind is that while each 3D application may have slightly different tools, for the most part, they are all similar. You'll be able to create the exact same 3D model in application A as you could in application B, the techniques and workflows that you use to get there will be different depending on the application. That's why it's vital that you test the waters first, and find out what 3D program's workflow you find most comfortable.

3D Animation

It's hard to put any limitations on software for this one. If you look to studios and schools for what they're using, and our most viewed animation training, it goes Maya, 3ds Max, CINEMA 4D, Houdini, MODO, and Softimage. Even prompting our animation tutors and modeling tutors with the question, they too think it all comes down to your skills and applying them to whatever software you need to use to make your scenes, characters and animations happen. When it comes to animation, the 3D application actually plays a very small part. Since creating animation mainly consists of creating keyframes, as long as the application can do that, that's all that really matters. If you can animate in program A you can very easily animate in program B without any real learning curve. If you're wanting to get into animation it's more important that you focus on the principles of great animation, and not the application you're going to use to create it.


  Maya is really known as the go-to application for rigging because of its powerful scripting language "MEL" that allow artists to create complex rigs, and create custom tools. 3ds Max also has some great rigging tools, like CAT which can greatly speed up the process of rigging, and is great for game projects. However, all 3D applications listed here have the ability to create complex rigs. Again it really comes down to personal preference, and which program you find more comfortable to work with.


CINEMA 4D is a growing name in this area and has seen an even bigger spike with its new integration with After Effects using CINEWARE. Maya and 3ds Max still also play nicely with After Effects, including state sets in 3ds Max. CINEMA 4D's affordability and ease of use on a Mac have also helped it grow in popularity. Depending on the intricacy of the project though, even something like Houdini could be used for the VFX tools. Check out this in-depth post to break down some of the differences between 3ds Max and CINEMA 4D for motion graphics. With CINEMA 4D Broadcast it also gives you the option to choose a cheaper version of the program if the only thing you want to focus on is motion graphics and design.

Visual Effects

Most applications we've been discussing, possibly with a mixture of other secondary applications, are going to be able to create stunning visual effects. You'll hear about some powerful tools and dynamics, such as Softimage's ICE, Houdini as a whole. With The Foundry's purchase of Luxology, visual effects between NUKE and MODO should continue to evolve too, though the workflow between NUKE and other applications is also still very popular. When it comes to visual effects it usually comes down to a mixture of different applications to create the finished work. For instance, Houdini is known as the go-to app for simulations, NUKE for compositing. Maya, CINEMA 4D, MODO, etc for rendering.

Product Visualization or Design

product vis screenshot   Most applications discussed will help you create product and architectural visualizations - anything from tiny handheld devices, to vehicles, to large building developments. For visualizations, learning rendering applications like V-Ray, Arnold Renderer and Maxwell Render will also be helpful. When it's time to create specific product designs though, CAD software like Inventor, Rhino or SolidWorks might be more fitting. You'll also want to spend time focusing on items outside the software like usability of the product and overall user experience. All 3D applications mentioned have the tools you'll need to create product visualizations since they are complete 3D packages with modeling, animation, texturing and rendering tools. Investigate and Ask If you have a dream job or even think you know your first stepping stone into the creative industry, there is absolutely nothing holding you back from hunting down more specifics. Look to things like job listings for the software they mention, Google "what does X Studio use?" or even "how did X Studio create that shot?," and then there is the friendly email to the company that can work too. Knowing what a company is using can help you get that foot in the door, but again don't limit yourself to one application. There are many studios that use their own proprietary software. For instance, Pixar uses "Presto" for animation, and DreamWorks uses "Premo" for all their animations. That's why the most important thing is that you master the skills you'll need, and not necessarily the 3D application. Hopefully your head is now in the right place for making the software decision, whether it's Maya, 3ds Max (or Softimage, CINEMA 4D, MODO, Houdini, etc.). Don't forget that's it's not a forever commitment should you want to change - not all will be lost. Focusing on high-level skills and techniques that transfer to any application will set you up for a successful career; that and hard work, patience and perseverance. [caption id="attachment_33216" align="aligncenter" width="800"]rendering a photoreal female screenshot Rendering a Photorealistic Female in 3ds Max[/caption] See how you can jump ahead from the start with introductory training on today's most popular creative software. Learn and grow skills with the same training used in top schools, studios and companies all around the world. For more info no comparing and contrasting 3ds Max and Maya, be sure to check out a newer article about the differences in these popular applications.