A few months ago, monolithic software giant Autodesk finalized the purchase of Softimage XSI and pretty much all of its assets. This is big news in the CGI world because Autodesk now owns three of the Big Four animation packages – Maya, Max, and XSI. Only Lightwave 3D stands alone as an independently-developed, all-around effects and animation solution.
Sure, there are a few specialty 3D products that Autodesk hasn’t absorbed yet, like Houdini and Vue and Zbrush (although they did acquire Zbrush’s only real competitor last year), and plenty of smaller players like Cinema 4D, Carrara, and Blender… But Lightwave is the only single application that can really compete with any of Autodesk’s main animation packages.
This is important, because the current sophistication of computer graphics is totally the result of the dog-eat-dog graphics industry of previous years. For the last two decades the Big Four were engaged in a cutthroat race for market supremacy, with each player trying match the features of the other three and invent brand new technologies at the same time.
Now, Autodesk’s monopolistic grip on three of the main applications will likely result in a much more stagnant development path. Market dominance could perhaps be achieved without technical superiority, and so the incentive to excel in the areas of research and product streamlining will be lessened. A bland future for animators, unless Lightwave, long considered the underdog of the group, can offer stiff enough competition to keep Autodesk’s engineers on their toes.
I think that’s a very likely possibility, since Lightwave has already beaten all comers in the television effects market. Battlestar Galactica, the CSIs, 24, and just about every sci-fi series since the early 90s have relied on Lightwave for fast and realistic graphics delivered on tight budgets by small effects teams. Today, even blockbuster effects features like Ironman, Dark Knight, and Pirates of the Caribbean (all featuring effects by Maya and expensive proprietary tools) use renders from Lightwave as well.
And interestingly, Newtek is only six days away from a new announcement about Lightwave’s future. For the last several days this countdown clock has been piquing the curiosity of animation forums across the web. Regardless of the direction that Lightwave takes, I expect it to be the most influential, even if not the most widely-used, 3D software package of the next few years.