Autodesk ships 3ds Max 2021
Originally posted on 24 March 2020. Scroll down for news of the official release.
Autodesk has posted the online documentation for 3ds Max 2021, the latest update to the 3D modelling and animation software, including a number of significant new features for game development work.
The update adds support for PBR materials, plus a new PBR-compatible Bake to Texture tool; adds new OSL shaders and support for Substance .sbsar files; and makes Arnold the software’s default renderer.
Updated 25 March: 3ds Max 2021 has now been released. You can see Autodesk’s breakdown of the new features in the release on its updated public 3ds Max roadmap.
Key changes: PBR materials
3ds Max 2021 makes significant changes to the software’s materials and rendering toolsets, not least of which is better support for PBR (Physically Based Rendering) workflows for games and real-time work.
While PBR shading models are already supported in 3ds Max’s Physical Material, the 2021 update adds support for other PBR features.
Both standard PBR workflows are supported, via new Metal/Rough and Spec/Gloss materials. Autodesk describes them as “simplified scripted materials … with a front-end UI provided for the Physical Material”.
Users can drag bitmap files directly from Windows Explorer to any map slot within the materials, with 3ds Max handling some steps involved in generating PBR maps automatically, including setting linear gamma.
Key changes: new Bake to Texture tool
PBR is also supported in 3ds Max’s new Bake to Texture tool.
Superseding both the old Render to Texture and Render Surface Map tools, it provides “faster performance” and “more streamlined workflow” when baking lighting or geometry information into texture maps.
It also supports material overrides, increasing flexibility in production pipelines.
In addition, 3ds Max can now both generate MikkTSpace tangent space normal maps – used in game engines including Unreal Engine, Unity and Lumberyard – and display them in its own viewport.
Key changes: Arnold replaces Scanline as the default renderer
Baking to Texture can be done with either the Scanline renderer or Arnold, which brings us on to another key change: in 3ds Max 2021, Arnold is now the software’s default renderer, not Scanline.
Autodesk describes Arnold as providing a “modern, high-end rendering experience [with support for] new AOV workflows”.
3ds Max 2021 ships with Arnold 6.0, the latest major update to the renderer, which means that it officially supports GPU rendering for production.
Viewport: new controls to improve interactive performance
3ds Max’s viewport gets new options to toggle shadows from the skylight for better performance in interior scenes; and to control the speed at which the skylight, area lights and DoF are progressively rendered.
Viewport settings can now be saved as presets.
In addition, AO and shadows are now on by default, and the Physical Material now supports Roughness.
Modelling: new Weighted Normals modifier, updated Chamfer modifier
Modellers get a new Weighted Normals modifier, which should better preserve sharp edges when shading models, as shown in the image above.
Users can adjust output by setting smoothing, blending and weighting properties, with the option to weight normals according to the size or corner angles of the faces of the model.
There are also further small improvements to the Chamfer modifier, a focus of the 3ds Max 2020 updates.
Shading and materials: more OSL shaders, updates to the Substance map and Scene Converter
Outside of PBR support, other changes to shading and materials include an expanded set of OSL shaders.
The new shaders include an Environment/Background Switcher, making it possible to use one map as a background and another for environmental reflections; and an HDRI Lights shader.
There are also new shaders for colour correction, and for camera, object and spherical texture projection.
Key changes include the option to load .sbsar files directly, rather than having to export materials from Substance Designer as texture maps; and support for 8K textures.
The Scene Converter, designed to convert scenes created for third-party renderers to 3ds Max’s native materials and lights, gets a UI update and improved workflow for creating custom conversion rules.
3ds Max 2021 also now ships with Scene Converter scripts for converting V-Ray and Corona Renderer materials to 3ds Max’s native Physical material, which previously required a third-party utility.
Performance, I/O and audio improvements
Performance improvements include faster saving and autoasaving of scene files. Autodesk doesn’t quantify the speed boost, but says that it increases with the number of assets in a file.
ProSound, 3ds Max’s audio editing toolset, gets support for 24-bit WAV files, 88.2kHz and 96kHz sample rates, and an unlimited number of audio clips. Users were previously limited to 100 clips.
For pipeline integration, 3ds Max now supports Python 3, with Python 3.7.6 used by default.
Updated 27 March 2019: Early user feedback mixed
As has been the case with recent updates to 3ds Max, initial feedback on community sites like CGPress has been mixed, although more positive than for many annual releases.
Positive comments praise “steady progress”, and the updates to the viewport and shading; negative ones single out the lack of changes to the rigging, animation and simulation tools.
Perhaps more interesting is how little comment the release has elicited online so far.
It took almost a day for posts to appear on the AREA, Autodesk’s own community forum, and so far, most have been to ask whether settings and plugins can be transferred from 3ds Max 2020.
Pricing and system requirements
3ds Max 2021 is available for Windows 7+. The software is rental-only, with the price of a subscription rising to $205/month, up from $195/month, or $1,620/year, up from $1,545/year.
Plugins compiled for 3ds Max 2020 are compatible with 3ds Max 2021.