Posted on Tue 04 March 2014 in blog

It’s bad enough we just lost Harold Ramis.

Now we’ve also lost SoftImage.

Although I’ve never used XSI professionally, I was incredibly impressed by the people who made it, and I’ve always felt that XSI was a superior product to Max or Maya: making better use of modern hardware and showing off really innovative concepts in an industry that’s gotten pretty damn stale for something that’s sounds so high tech and is occasionally so magical.

In honor of the passing of this great piece of software, I’m going to reprint an article I wrote for Game Developer back in 2008 when the sale of XSI to Autodesk was first announced. I’m afraid I may have been a little too optimistic. However I do think that the basic idea of the piece - that we let ourselves in for this kind of treatment by not being more informed and flexible consumers - is still true.

In the mean time, I’m going to go have an Irish wake for a poor old XSI. (BTW, if you’re waiting on the follow-up to Rescuing Maya GUI From Itself, I’m cleaning up the code and writing tests before I go blabbing…)

Update: Came upon this interesting set of charts (espceially the next to the last one at the bottom) which explains a lot of what’s going on on here. Doesn’t make it hurt less, though.

Equally relevant: Autodesk’s upgrade lockdown.

The M-Word

If you’ve been in a crunch-time media blackout for the past month, or shut down your internet connection to avoid election news, or are the only games artist on the planet who’s never received a youtube link via email you may have missed an interesting little tidbit of news. On October 23 we learned that Avid is going to sell SoftImage, the Montreal-based developer or SoftImage|XSI to Autodesk. If and when the deal goes through, all three of the biggest 3d modeling and animation packages will all belong to a single company.

Even if you managed to miss the announcement, you can probably predict the immediate reactions anyway. In the XSI community, the dominant mode was shell-shock. The “Resistance is Futile” jokes and Borg-themed Photoshop jobs could not disguise the level of emotion in the air — the poster on the XSI forums who simply said “I think I’ll cry” wasn’t kidding. There was a smattering of optimists suggesting the deal would give more people access to some of XSI’s best tech. A few pragmatists found consolation in the idea that the conglomeration would give cross-package data transfer the attention it deserves. But the most common reactions were shock and anxiety.

It’s hardly surprising that the possibility of being forced to abandon the comfort and security of a familiar environment would give XSI users the heebie-jeebies. The official Pixel Pusher line has always been that any professional game artist should be competent in at least two packages. But even traditional artists are famous for being emotionally attached to their tools (never, ever venture an opinion about Kolinsky sable brushes in mixed company!) For us, who spend so much of our lives poking at one particular set of dialogs or buttons, the thought of being forced to swap them for a different, unfamiliar set of dialogs and buttons is deeply disturbing. The fact that some XSI fans were so distraught they’d consider switching to Blender out of pique is an index of how emotional this issue can be.

What’s surprising, though, is that a similar miasma could be seen in the Max and Maya forums after the buyout announcement. Emotions ran high even for those not affected directly. Hardcore Maya fans suffered flashbacks as they relived the 2006 buyout of Alias. More commonly, though, users were grimly pondering the future of graphics software in general, rather than the fate of any particular package. Some naysayers worried that technology would stagnate without the underdogs like XSI striving to gain an advantage through innovation. Others fretted that consolidation in the industry means the exciting, Wild-West days of graphics are really over. And many users of all three packages speculated that the lack of competition will lead to price gouging.

You Are Elected Chairman of the Board

Before we pronounce the graphics software business dead, we ought to look at this deal in its historical context. These kinds of corporate dramas are unsettling for artists because they are an unsubtle reminder that we creative types are dependent on huge, impersonal corporations to get anything done. Masters-of-the-Universe style MBA analysis isn’t part of our job descriptions, so it’s hard for use mere users to figure out how to respond. A little bit of history, however, is often a good way to get some perspective; so here’s a very abbreviated walk through the life and times of SoftImage to help you understand today’s news.

XSI may be the youngest of the big three graphics packages, but SoftImage the company is one of the oldest firms in 3d graphics software. The original “SoftImage Creative Environment” debuted in 1988, but in an economic environment very different from todays. 3D graphics was very closely akin to rocket science – for one thing, it was mysterious new high-tech discipline and for another you needed an exotic workstation that cost upwards of $50,000[1] to do either one. It was a very esoteric, very pricey business.

SoftImage|3D was the first commercial application to offer artist-friendly IK (1991) and it quickly became the gold standard for computer animation. Many seminal CGI films of the early ‘90’s were animated in SoftImage, most famously Jurassic Park. Those early days of the CG revolution were heady times. Hollywood stood ready to firehose money onto anybody who could render a good looking triangle — SIGGRAPH veterans still murmur nostalgically about the heydays of studio parties – and the boom times were good for the company. In 1992, the Montreal firm went public to much acclaim. ****

Success also changed the way the industry worked. By the mid ‘90s, the explosion of 3d game development shifted the industry dynamic: the ranks of 3d artists and animators expanded enormously, but few games companies could afford to put the equivalent of a luxury sports car under every animator’s desk. Affordable PCs with primitive graphics cards started stealing business from workstations and PC based packages like Autodesk’s 3d Studio started making inroads against pricey workstation software.

From Sale Of Stock You Get $45

Microsoft, naturally, wanted to see the PC forces prevail . In 1994 they bought SoftImage for $130 million – a pretty high price given that the whole 3D software market was only around $60 million a year back then. But box sales weren’t the real goal: Microsoft needed to port a top-end workstation graphics package to Windows and legitimize the market for high end graphics on Windows.

For many SoftImage vets, the events of last month may have an eerily familiar ring, right down to the “you will be assimilated” jokes (although, in 1994 the reference was forgivably fresh).

The MS acquisition was not a very pleasant experience for SoftImage users. Not only were many Unix devotees forcibly converted to a new OS, but the demands of porting and cross-platform development shunted innovation to the sidelines. It took almost 7 years for SoftImage|3D to get from version 3.0 to version 4.0 , and the package lost a lot of its technological edge to newer platforms like 3dStudio Max and Maya. It’s not surprising that the survivors of that first buyout react suspiciously to the latest.

By 1998, Microsoft had achieved its strategic objective: Windows had triumphed and graphics workstations were headed for the history books. SoftImage became superfluous. Microsoft sought out a buyer and found Avid, a rising power in the digital video editing business which coveted the company’s VFX and compositing tech. Even if the core 3d business was losing steam, the deal still ran a cool $285 million – a price that might have been inflated by internet bubble, but it’s still pretty impressive.

Avid’s stewardship was a lot healthier for SoftImage as a tech company. SoftImage XSI, the long overdue gut-rehab of the aging SoftImage|3D, was released in 2000. The product started out a bit slow – version 1.0 had no poly modeling tools! – but gained steam with impressive tech and clean new architecture. Many artists have lusted after XSI’s GATOR system for mapping one mesh onto another (supporting everything from texture transfers to skin weight matching) , its non-linear animation mixer, Face Robot facial animation technology, and most recently the high-perfomance ICE system for node-based custom object creation.

Second Prize in a Beauty Contest, Collect $11

Unfortunately, the eningeering success of the product did not translate into success for SoftImage’s owners. Avid’s core business has been hit hard by the proliferation of lower-cost video editing software like Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Even though the SoftImage was profitable, it wasn’t profitable enough: to get a sense of the scale, you might note that the $35 million sale price for the company won’t even cover Avid’s losses for the 3rdquarter of this year. As times got leaner, Avid needed to focus on protecting its core video editing business, so it started hunting for a buyer early this year. Autodesk, as home to both of XSI’s a main rivals, was not the first buyer who was approached… but it was the final one, which is the one that counts.

What lessons can you learn from this little history?

First, it doesn’t provide a lot of evidence for conspiracy theories about monopoly power. The fact is, supplying 3d software is pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of capitalism. It’s been said that there are only about half a million seats of full 3d packages in the world – sounds like a lot, but that’s smaller than the number of people in the beta program alone for Photoshop. It’s not a market where achieving dominance is a huge financial win. All three turnovers at SofImage have been driven by strategic concerns that didn’t have to do with monopoly power or market domination. Microsoft bought SoftImage to catalyze the switch from workstations to PCs. Avid bought it to solidify its FX and compositing business and saw modeling and animation through that prism. The most recent sale didn’t originate with a sinister plot from inside of Autodesk, it originated with Avid’s accountants.

The more interesting – but also more depressing – aspect of this story, though, isn’t concerned with money. You could read the whole thing as a stirring tale of steadfast devotion. It was user loyalty that sustained SoftImage during the drift of the Microsoft years, when technical sluggishness might have let Max and Maya completely marginalize the original SoftImage. The emotional reaction to the news is proof of how viscerally loyal users are to their favorite tools.

Unfortunately, that loyalty is a two edged sword. The last few version of XSI were consistently excellent — but no combination of cool features and good design managed to seduce away enough users from other packages to secure SoftImage’s future. They competed on tech and features and did a great job – but it wasn’t enough to overcome the entrenched loyalties of Max and Maya fans. Individual artists might admire this feature or that bit of UI, but collectively we’re reactionaries: we stick with what we know. On top of that, most studios have tools and processes are designed around a particular package and aren’t eager to chuck those investments for the sake of sexy icons or a cleaner interface.

The fact is, we don’t really reward tools companies for pushing the envelope. Even when something new does break into the scene, we try to shoehorn it into our existing workflows rather than embracing the new. We’re the last people to start denouncing monopolies and phoning up the Federal Trade Commission. Most of us have already folded our hands by letting ourselves become emotionally attached or technically beholden to particular bits of software. If you’re in the same camp as the XSI user who posted “they’ll have to pry my license from my cold dead fingers,” you live in a virtual monopoly already.

Get Out Of Jail Free?

That’s not to say that things aren’t going to change. The absence of major-league alternatives will definitely give Autodesk a much freer hand in choosing both its price points and research directions. T fact that their track record to date is pretty benign is comforting, but the knowledge that we’re dependent on their altruism from here on out should give us pause. Autodesk has put some genuine effort into trying to explain the deal to users (there’s an interesting interview featuring the GMs of Autodesk and SoftImage up on the Autodesk website, with more info promised as the deal solidifies) but apart from reassurances that XSI isn’t going to go away overnight, the magic 8-ball is pretty cloudy.

The uncertainty is tough, particularly for anxious XSI users but for all of us. We all know the mantra, “it’s the artist not the tools” – but in practice it’s sometimes hard to say where the artist leaves off and the tool begins. The feeling that such an important part of our lives is out of our control is unnerving.

What can we do about it? As individuals, that means being open to new software and new ways of working, so that we make an environment where companies have a real incentive to give us new and better tools. As studios we should invest in in-house tools rather than relying too faithfully on any single vendor. As an industry we should push harder for more consistent, open standards in data formats and for open source tools so we can make our pipelines less dependent on the ups and downs of individual companies. None of these steps will magically unwind the clock but they will give us a little more input into this critical part of our lives.

Or, we could all switch to Blender… But man, I hate the way they do their menus. It’s not like Max. You couldn’t pay me enough to switch.

[1]That’s $65,000 in today’s dollars. For a machine less powerful than an iPhone.