3D tools for a buck....

Posted by in on December 13, 2013 . .

... or two ;) ...

If you ever thought that some computer games are expensive check price tags on the software used in the CAD world - dang, that's where things get REALLY expensive. Most of those can drain your budget quickly in a single swift blow, even if you're used to spending lots of cash on a hobby. Yup, they haven't been made with an average Joe in mind - rather studios and large workshops.
But does the design software have to be that pricey? The answer is - luckily not. There are lots of tools that can get you going with 3d design affordably. Better still , with 3d printing becoming slightly more popular, some companies noticed new market and started working on software for hobbyists - landscape in this segment changes rapidly.
So if the "big names" I've wrote about earlier is not something you're interested in and you'd like to get something you could try at home here are my top picks.

1. Silo
Seriously I don't think you can get any better for 75EUR (price on Steam) . Ok, sure you don't have any rendering features in it, nor animation setup - just a streamlined set of modelling tools. And IMO that's exactly what a modelmakers need - a way to easily build manufacturable models. Heck it even has some basic sculpting features if you decide you wish to make some handy-dandy details.

For me there's only one, potentially serious, "but" - be warned, this app is practically dead. Developers abandoned this project a while back (enraging its user base), so you can't count on any updates. On the other hand - does it matter? For a low price you get tool that simply works. If you decide that 3d modelling is something you wish to delve into more, you can switch to one of the mainstream "big" apps and things you learn in Silo should prove really handy.
But if that matters, you can try Nvil instead (but note I haven't tried it, so I can't wholeheartedly recommend it - looks more complex and with steeper learning curve).

2. MoI
While Silo should get you started easily, you may want to learn a bit about NURBS modelling - something great for establishing basic forms really quickly and building more "tech" stuff (guns, vehicles etc.). Moment of Inspiration serves this task crazily well. I'm yet to find other NURBS package that is so easy to use. Tools are grouped into clear task-related sets and the whole thing looks really clean and uncluttered. It also works nicely if you use a graphic tablet (something which most of industrial design software usually struggles to do correctly).

3. Sculptris
For those that wish to start freeform sculpting this is a great start - and it's free. Even better - you don't have to worry much about technical part of 3d modelling , such as topology etc. Sculptris adds polygons in the background when needed so even less-technically minded people should grasp Sculptris basics quickly. Its simplicity and limited number of tools is its bigger strength and its biggest weakness at the same time. After playing with it for a while you quickly wish there have been some more manipulation tools. But no other program gets you started faster.

4. 3D Coat
Make no mistake - this is a professional grade tool. So you may feel a tad overwhelmed with number of options at first. Especially considering there's tons of stuff you propably won't need, related to preparing assets for games and rendering (like texture painting, uv-ing and so on).

At the moment of writing 3d Coat is priced 380USD for commercial full version and 99USD for hobby license (no commercial use and limited to use of 7 layers per project). That's a pretty sweet deal.
It works great as a freeform sculpting tool, with many options that ease hard surface forms creation and kitbashing. One of the deal makers for me is that thx to use of different technology all models made in 3d Coat should be 3d printable - at least as long as you stick to voxel mode (that's the default sculpting mode in it). And trust me, that's important - around 80% of the files we get from our customers suffer from some serious issues and we have to use dedicated mesh repair programs like Netfabb to deal with them. When something looks good on the screen it does not mean it is manufacturable - and in most other apps you have to get into some technicalities to prepare perfect or near-perfect file.
When you get more familiar with 3d Coat and you'll start creating some crazy details in surface mode you'll quickly appreciate new tools introduced in V4 - liveclay brushes. Thx to them in both modes you don't have to worry about topology and you can concentrate on model making.
The way the brushes behave have been vastly improved in V4 - while they are still not as responsive as ZBrush ones (and slightly tricker to learn differences between them), they are getting close.
All in all it is really cool program - even though I have some UI related gripes I love it! If you're looking for all-round powerful and friendly-priced modelling program that's IMO one of the best (if not the best) choices you can make.

5. Groboto
-and now for something completely different :D .

Groboto is really crazy, small piece of software. It may not be something you'd use to build final models or organic sculpts but for forms exploration and plain fun it is awesome - if you get used to user interface that is.
The whole concept of it is totally different - based on using various basic shapes ( cubes, cones, spheres..) to add or subtract material from each other to build more complex shapes. Sounds strange, doesn't it ? But it's fun - and really trains your creativity.
You can export models created this way to .obj format ( which is rather popular) for further refinement ( it works especially well with subd programs - like Modo, Silo etc).

This article wouldn't be complete without mentioning Blender. It is very powerful and (surprise!) free app . It has probably most of the features you'll need and tons of those you won't (rendering, animation, physics). But unless you're really patient I'd say - stay away from it. For me it was the most annoying 3d program I have tried. I simply can't understand some of the choices its designers made. It has turned out to be really hard to learn and remember. For example when I launched Modo or Silo I've been able to do basic tasks within minutes and when I returned to them a couple of days later I started when I left - somehow all the keyboard shortcuts "clicked" and I remembered them instantly.
With Blender it has taken me around an hour to start, and when I returned 2 days later I had to start from the beginning - I forgot things I've learned. Seems it is not compatible with me :D . And I'm doing my best to be polite here - I was close to smashing my laptop when I launched it for the first time.
Don't get me wrong - I consider it very able piece of code. People do amazing things with it. But I think most hobbyists want to start with modelling quickly and enjoyably, using their free time to maximum. And that's where Blender fails short - you have to spend tons of time, fighting with the app, to learn howto use it smoothly. Other choices may need you to spend a couple of bucks , but you'll see first results much quicker and with less frustration.

Things do not look that grim now, do they? You really can get started with 3d model creation even with a very limited budget. And things get better with 3d printing becoming more mainstream, not some mysterious Star-Trek`ish technology. This week The Foundry released ModoSteam - a "bare" version of Modo. Even though it is meant to be used as a tool for making assets for Steam Games (and its license limits use for other purposes - which is a shame really) it shows the perspective is changing. Companies that deliver "pro" tools started noticing hobby market - heck, maybe one day we will see for example ModoHobby (with subd and sculpting tools only - area where Modo shines) ?
Autodesk released whole bunch of hobby tools under the name of 123D . 3D Systems introduced a series of apps that are meant to accompany Cubify 3d printer (Cubify Sculpt, Cubify Design, Cubify Invent). So the big names are already here :) . The software is no longer a barier - so what you waiting for :) ? All you have to do is launch your PC and start building your first models :) .

Tags: 3d, modelling Last update: December 13, 2013
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