Many of us have dreamed of making our own games or otherwise bringing our visions to life. The computer age has made it easier than ever before to make dreams a reality by simply using software you can download for free (or for cheap). In this vein we recently published the best tools for game development and now we’ll add the best 3D graphics software to that list.
There are many applications for 3D graphics. Gaming artists are building worlds with their own geography and architecture, populated by creatures that range from the lifelike to the surreal, and 3D movies have gone from an occasional curiosity to a mainstay of cinema to popular and critical acclaim.
Outside of entertainment, modeling has serious applications. Training for doctors or firefighters can be done in a 3D simulator. Architects can plan designs virtually before committing millions to them. Others just want to create for its own sake and 3D graphics software offers them the chance to bring their creations to life in a way no other art form allows.
Before We Start: Hardware Requirements for 3D Graphics
Building and rendering high-quality 3D images is one of the most complex things your computer can do, so a fast, powerful PC will come in handy. You’ll need lots of RAM, too, if you have high polygon counts and many objects in your scenes. CPU, and possibly GPU, speed will be important when rendering images, as well.
Some test scenes we used took a minute to half an hour or so to render. If you want to animate, you’ll need to render 30 frames to get a second of animation at 30 frames per second, so, even with a fast PC, you’re going to be doing some waiting.
It is worth saying that the longer times only apply to final renders, though, and you have the option to preview your work at a lower quality and higher speed. Rendering times depend as much on the engine used as the software, so you can mix and match if you like. Not all the tools here include a built-in renderer.
What Makes the Best 3D Graphics Tools
What we’re looking at is tools designed for creating 3D objects for games and animation. There may be some crossover between these and tools that design objects for 3D printing, but that won’t be our focus here (check out our piece on the best 3D modeling software for that).
We’re looking at this from a beginner’s perspective, as well, so we’re going to start with the easiest tools to use, then move through them in order of learning curve.
Many of these tools are complex and have tons of features. Some are easier, but even the more sophisticated ones allow you to build objects from simple primitives and manipulate them.
The core tools are for creating objects. These are made out of planes, which are composed of vertices or points in 3D space. Objects can be moved, rotated and scaled, which works as you’d expect. Planes and vertices can also be pulled around, which allows the object you’re working on to be sculpted. They can be split and combined to increase their complexity, too.
Curves require a lot of vertices and are usually composed of small, flat surfaces. Hair and particle systems can have a huge number of vertices and typically must be limited to achieve a smooth performance in a game or a realistic time to render a movie scene.
Texturing 3D Images
Beyond that, 3D objects can be textured, meaning a 2D image can be mapped to each surface. Cameras and lights are then positioned to make the scene look realistic. The more advance tools offer all sorts of special effects to handle things such as liquids and flames, as well as lighting techniques, such as subsurface modeling, to push image quality toward photorealism.
This is an art form you can dedicate a lifetime to mastering. Even with our output limited to a misshapen clay ashtray, we found ourselves getting more and more out of it as we put time into it.
In fact, 3D graphics creation is in some ways better than working with clay. There’s no undo shortcut in real life. You can’t copy and paste things or load a model of a flaming monkey head to use as a starting point. All that and more is possible with 3D graphics software.
The Best 3D Graphics Software
We’re looking for programs that are enjoyable to use, as well as being useful. Creativity shouldn’t be a chore, so we want tools that don’t stand in the way of getting our vision onto the screen.
We’re also taking price into account. We will look at both free and paid tools, but expect the paid tools to offer a free trial and will factor their prices into our assessment. We’ll start with the simplest program first.
Self-described as an “advanced subdivision modeler,” Wings 3D is free and open source. It’s focused on modeling simpler, low-to-mid-polygon objects, rather than large scenes or animations. Wings 3D is a capable program for beginners that allows you to export your work to other tools, such as Blender, if you want to go further with it.
On start-up, Wings 3D presents you with a nice blank area that you can add objects to by right clicking and selecting the primitive of your choice from the menu. These can be selected, moved and rotated easily and we were able to modify them without resorting to the documentation.
Handily, Wings 3D has a dynamic list of suggested inputs on display, telling you what a click or press will do at any particular moment, which is great for learning as you go. There is also text that explains what menu options do.
You can get up to speed with it in a few minutes. Objects can be stretched, split, combined and pushed about with ease.
Wings 3D Documentation
It is fortunate that Wings 3D is easy to use because the online manual is threadbare. Several topics listed in the contents page don’t have links to a description. The basics are covered, but seeing the unfinished manual could be off-putting to newcomers, which is a shame because the program is an ideal tool for them.
There are plenty of good text and YouTube tutorials to work through, though.
Eschewing the crowded UI of similar tools, Wings 3D dedicates its screen space to the working area. Most things are done through the right click menu. It felt odd not to be able to find what we expected on the toolbar or in the menus, but once we got used to the workflow, it was remarkably simple, enabling us to focus on creating.
When it comes to rendering, you might be surprised to find you can’t without installing a separate program or plugin. The view is a simple perspective projection and, beyond options to switch to wireframe or orthographic mode, what you see is what you get.
Our Thoughts on Wings 3D
Though it can be expanded with plugins, Wings 3D is a relatively simple tool that doesn’t have many features. What’s there is excellent, though, and, once you get the hang of it, feels like the 3D equivalent of having a pen and blank sheet of paper. That said, advanced users may hit its limits quicker than we did.
It doesn’t support animation, but you can create objects for export to tools that do, so it can be used in combination with other software if you prefer to keep modeling simple.
If you’re looking to get started with 3D graphics, you can’t go wrong with Wings 3D. It’s free, easy to use and fun to play around with. Plus, it’s quite powerful and a fine way to build simple 3D objects for games or artwork.
- Easy to use
- Great at what it does
- No default renderer
- No animation
Blender has come a long way in recent years. The free tool of choice was once a fairly basic alternative to the big kids on the block, but now boasts a slick, intuitive UI and quite a few cool features.
It takes an unusual approach to layout, with one menu sitting above the bottom panel. The interface, though crowded, is nice and readable. The main screen is informative and you can figure a lot out just by playing with things.
Placing objects and moving them around is quite straightforward, but you’ll need to look at the documentation to rotate and texture them.
Learning to Use Blender
Blender doesn’t have a built-in tutorial, but there is a lengthy online manual. It’s comprehensive, though a quick run through the basics within the software itself would have been a better start. There are tutorials linked on the homepage, but they’re all videos. Some people prefer text, so it would be nice to have both. Moving the video slider back and forth can be a frustrating way to learn about the tool.
There are many video guides on YouTube, but there is much to learn about Blender and little in the way of quick-starts for beginners.
Proficiency is not going to come easily here and you will have to put in work just to get started. Though much is possible, it does feel trickier than it could be when you advance from playing around to trying to get it to do what you want.
As you learn the shortcuts and tricks, though, it becomes more intuitive, so you’ll soon be sculpting objects by pulling around faces and vertices like a kid with a lump of play dough.
Blender has quite a few filters and lighting effects. There are also many features to explore and, while we don’t claim to understand them all, we found that what we did use was a pleasant experience and worked well.
Our Thoughts on Blender
Of the 3D tools we looked at Blender is probably the best free option for more advanced users. It contains a wealth of features that the likes of NASA and the History Channel have employed to create commercial-quality output. Several movies, and TV shows such as Red Dwarf, have used it for effects, too.
There is also a built-in animation system. We didn’t look at it in great depth, but there are people using it to make top-notch animation.
Rendering is available for both CPU and GPU, but can take time. One of the more complex demo scenes took over half an hour for a final render, eating up a couple of gigabytes and leaving our PC struggling with its CPU fully occupied, but you don’t need a high-quality render until you produce your output. It would be nice to have the option to abort a render mid-way, though.
Blender is free, so you can’t go wrong with the price. There is an optional service called Blender Cloud, though, which includes tutorials, textures and other extras for $11.50 per month. We really enjoyed using the program, but it took more effort than Wings 3D. Still, if you want to learn a tool that can produce high-quality output, Blender enables you to without spending money.
- Throws you in at the deep end
Modo is another well-regarded tool that offers 3D modeling, rendering and animation. Its developers have a strong history in building animation tools, including LightWave 3D, an application used by many pioneering shows such as Babylon 5. Modo has been adopted by Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar and id Software to name but a few.
Getting to know the tool requires work. We had to dig to find the text-based tutorials after becoming impatient with the videos presented to us on start-up. There’s quite a bit of fluff in them before getting to the content, plus information that doesn’t match the latest version of the tool.
We were left grinding our teeth after a 20-second explanation of how to open the software followed a three-minute introductory spiel. Despite the languid pace, though, they are clear and there are plenty to work through.
Once we hunted down the text tutorials in the documentation, we got the information we wanted. There was plenty of good content that should have been presented to us earlier, through the start-up splash, menus or a prominent place on the website. Instead, a lot of the best content was easy to miss.
Modo Sample Objects
If Modo ships with sample objects we had trouble finding them, too. The community site had free downloadable content, but it was hard to navigate, with several pages of desks and furniture and an awkward search system. Picking “scene/project” from the drop-down menu didn’t return results, nor did several other available filters.
Browsing the top rated objects gave better results, with several pages of interesting objects available. Again, though, it was frustrating to keep drawing blanks before getting to the good content.
Unfortunately, we also had issues loading downloaded assets into our scene. We got error pop-ups because we didn’t have “assets” or “samples” folders in our root “documents” folder. We fixed that by creating the folders, but, aside from having to create them ourselves, these folders should have been placed in a dedicated “Modo” folder.
The UI, like most advanced tools, is jam-packed with buttons and menus, but everything is clearly labeled and icons are large and good at conveying their function. A picture is worth 1,000 words and that’s never truer than when the words are, “create one-sided surface strip with subtractive fusion.”
The physics and animation system are highly capable. As well as the usual objects and lights, you can add forces to the scene, which affect the movement of dynamic objects. You can also add particle clouds and procedurally-generated objects, such as rocks.
Our Thoughts on Modo
Though we liked using the tools, we didn’t find the tutorials to our taste and would have preferred to have a set of sample objects and scenes available to play around with. That said, the relaxed pace of the tutorial videos may appeal to some. For $1,799, though, you should be demanding more. Rough edges are not what you want to see in this price bracket.
Modo’s perpetual license is expensive, but it has a month-long free trial if you want to check it out. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
There’s much to like here in terms of usability and features, especially for experienced users, but we recommend looking elsewhere if you’re starting out. It’s too expensive for anyone who doesn’t need its advanced capabilities.
- Good physics & animation
- Expressive UI
- Tutorials & content browser could be improved
ZBrush is a digital sculpting tool that allows you to manipulate and control 3D objects. It feels like a much more complex version of Wings 3D and is capable of handling high resolution objects with polygon counts in excess of 40 million.
The text tutorial on the Pixologic website gives you a good feel for the basics. After that, there are video tutorials graded beginner and up,so you can just pick one and jump in.
There are plenty of demo objects included, too. Being able to use quality models as a starting point is fun for beginners and something we wish all 3D graphics software offered.
Switching Between 2D and 3D in ZBrush
As well as working in 3D mode, you can go in to 2D mode and manipulate your image as if you were in a standard paint package. The combination of 2D illustration and 3D graphics feels unusual, but offers an original way for artists to mix their skills.
The interface feels fussy, though. Moving and manipulating objects is intuitive enough, but dig into the menus and you’ll find yourself wandering a labyrinth of pop-ups and extras. While it will take users a while to figure all this stuff out, ZBrush can do a lot.
Handling objects feels tactile and powerful. Pixologic calls its workflow “Sculptris Pro,” meaning you can click on objects to add and reduce volume, which is like working clay with your hands. Objects don’t always respond how you’d like, especially at first, but you do feel you can make changes easily and the skill can be developed.
You can also paint colors onto 3D models, giving them a hand-made look. Our results might leave a bit to be desired, but the potential is there to achieve a lot with these tools. There are options for adding things such as surface noise and manipulating object geometry at a low level, too. You can even add fibers to models for a fur effect that can be brushed and blown around.
Our Thoughts on ZBrush
For developers looking to create 3D objects for their games and maintain performance, ZBrush has the tools to reduce polygon counts while minimizing the effect on your model. It also enables you to build models for 3D printing, should that be your thing.
We found ZBrush tricky to wrap our heads around at first, but we enjoyed it more as we got into it. For beginners, Wings 3D is more straightforward, but limited in features. That said, aside from the price, there’s no reason you couldn’t start with ZBrush and stick to the simpler tools while you learn about the program.
At $895, ZBrush is, at least, cheaper than Maya. It has a 45-day free trial if you don’t have that kind of money laying around, though it isn’t easy to set up. Overall, ZBrush is a good tool with some unusual, but powerful, features.
- Lots of sample objects
- A lot to learn
Maya is one of the biggest names in the 3D business and widely used in the gaming and movie industries. One of its key strengths is its customizability, but that’s beyond the scope of this article because we’re looking at its vanilla form. If you do want to get into modifying your workflow, though, Maya is a great bet. It enables you to create custom AI and supports Python and Mel.
Mel is Maya’s powerful scripting language and it can help you take command of your pipeline with a wealth of options for automating tasks. All the standard UI actions are displayed in its interface as if they had been done in code, so after doing things with the mouse and keyboard, you can go into Mel’s window and see how they translate into code to learn as you go.
Learning to Use Maya
Maya’s documentation is comprehensive, but it’s easy to get lost. One issue we found was that there were so many old versions of the software, online guidance was often outdated. Parent company Autodesk’s documentation also seemed dated.
The tutorials consist of YouTube and, curiously, flash videos, which is annoying for those who prefer to read when learning a new tool. The videos are good, though, and don’t force you to sit through too much padding to get to the content. There are plenty of included objects to play around with, too, but they’re hidden in the content browser.
More content, such as 3D objects and textures, is available from Autodesk, but that requires you to pay around $125 per month.
The UI is crowded and dense, but manageable, despite containing a lot of information. The menus are full of tantalizing sounding options and they’re readable enough to find the things you understand while learning.
Moving the camera to the correct position and setting it up can tough in all 3D graphics tools, but Maya gives you the option of bookmarking your camera positions and flicking between them.
Maya and Animation
There are lots of options for animating, too. Maya is capable of producing full-fledged 3D movies. There is a comprehensive rigging system, allowing you to give objects a skeleton that can be manipulated. Doing that well is an art in and of itself, but you can find free high-quality, pre-baked downloads if you look around.
Moving the scene view involves holding the alt or option key down, which is less intuitive than other tools. Hold the right mouse button down to switch between manipulating objects, vertices or faces, among other things, all of which can be pulled about to your heart’s content.
Maya comes with its own renderer called Arnold. It’s an optional install, so you’re free to pick another if you prefer. Arnold has its own menu in Maya, which enables you to add lights — you won’t see much unless you do — and it is straightforward to generate a basic image from your scene. Getting things to look good, with the right lights and tuning, takes more work, though.
Arnold replaces Mental Ray, which was getting long in the tooth. Beware however as some older content might be dependent on the older renderer as we found when hunting for samples.
Arnold is CPU-based, rather than GPU-based. Though that makes it suitable for rendering large and complex scenes that require huge amounts of RAM, it can be slower than a GPU-based renderer. You may find it slower than Blender’s renderer, for example.
Our Thoughts on Maya
On the downside — and this is a biggie — Maya costs an eye-popping $1,500 a year. It is cheaper if you’re a student, though. In fact, it may be cheaper to register as one than buy it outright.
At that price, you have every right to expect a lot from Maya and it doesn’t disappoint. It has more features than you can shake a stick at. For example, those wanting to use Maya for game development, which you can read more about in our best game development tools article, will be pleased to find you can export objects to Unity or Unreal.
If you want to model things such as water, hair or fire, Maya gives you a load of options, so those looking to create realistic scenes will have plenty of tools to do it. In addition to hair, you can simulate cloth and liquids. There is also support for motion capture.
Maya is expensive, but does come with a free trial, which we were able to get running after some trial and error. That might have been because of Windows Defender’s recent bouts of over-protectiveness, but it would have been nice if Maya’s setup software failed gracefully while Microsoft threw wrenches into the works.
Overall, Maya is probably the most comprehensive tool we looked at and a blast to use. Though challenging, it is slick and intuitive and, if you can afford it, is immensely capable.
- Comprehensive animation system
- Well-crafted tools
- Tons of powerful features
Those looking to get into 3D graphics have many tools at their disposal, ranging in price from free to costly. As we’ve seen, even the free options have a lot to offer. The more expensive tools offer more features and are capable of producing professional results, but all the options here are powerful tools that can create quality 3D artwork.
Wings 3D is a great starting point that’s easy to begin using. Blender is another free and fun option, offering many more features. Things get more serious with the more expensive tools, but they do offer free trials, so you can dip your toe in before committing.
ZBrush feels powerful and gives the impression that you can, eventually, do whatever you want with it. Maya is an exceptional piece of software, but its hefty price tag means it’s off-limits unless you are serious about 3D modeling.
The scope of what you want to create is important when picking a tool. For basic 3D objects, Wings 3D is adequate, but it’s no good if you want to animate. If you are creating something for use in gameplay, then rendering will be handled for you, but for a cut-scene you’ll want software that can do that well.
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Even the simplest of these tools offer a lot of scope for expressing creativity and you can expect to put long hours into them if you want to get good.
Despite limited artistic ability, even we found much to enjoy with these tools. If you have an eye for such things, there’s nothing stopping you from creating graphics as good as the professionals. Once you master the basics of object manipulation, you will have gained a powerful skill, which you can enhance with the more advanced tools in these software packages.
Other tools worth considering that didn’t quite make the cut include Cinema 4D and SketchUp, which we didn’t like as much as the others, and Autodesk 3ds Max, which wouldn’t let us sign up for its free trial without a credit card. We wanted to cover a spread of tools and Maya was our preferred option among the heavyweights.
Let us know if you’ve used any of the tools above and tell us if you have other recommendations in the comments below. Thanks for reading.