The latest release of Discreet’s 3D tool offers new functionality which may well change the world of game design.

3ds max is used in over 80 per cent of the top rated games in the world. Discreet has not been resting on its laurels over the past year, and the latest instalment of the award-winning 3D animation and rendering software smashes technological barriers to bring the most powerful and innovative technology - found most notably in Doom 3 - to desktop PCs across the globe.

3ds max release 7 presents an absurd amount of functionality and new features that threaten to revolutionize the look of our favourite games and usher in a new generation of ultra-high resolution graphics.

Old dog, new tricks

While numerous features have been added to the already comprehensive 3ds max, the buzz surrounding release 7 has mostly concerned two non-descript words: normal mapping.

Let's take a second to examine both what this technology is and how it's going to revolutionize the gaming industry (graphically at the very least).

As you’ll already know, 3D rendered graphics are made up entirely of small triangles sometimes referred to as "faces"or "tris" and the magic of a really good rendering program lies within its ability to smooth or mask those triangles into solid-looking objects.

Traditionally, the more triangles in your model, the more detailed it will look; however, the number of triangles that your average gaming rig can deal with depends heavily on the amount of power in its processor and so game developers have been limited in their ability to create truly realistic and highly detailed graphics in their games.

Those days are gone. Many will have seen the amazing graphical feats in Doom 3, where extremely detailed characters move fluidly through pools of dynamic lighting (lighting that changes with time or position - for example: a bad fluorescent light swinging around casts shadows as it moves and blinks) casting and receiving shadows from their environment. What is responsible for those graphics is a new 3D rendering technique called normal mapping.

With normal mapping, a 3D modeller can make a highly detailed model using as many triangles as they'd like with no concern for the memory or processor power of the hardware they are designing for and then turn that model into a kind of skin which covers another model that uses far fewer triangles and therefore way less memory and processor power.

3ds max does this by looking at the high resolution model and recording every pixel's location in a special map referred to as a normal map, where RGB values are used to represent XYZ axes.

In this way, a texture is created that contains all of the information of the high resolution model, but uses very little system resources. Consequently, while the models in Doom 3 look remarkably detailed, the actual underlying shapes that make them up are extremely simple and easy for most computers to deal with.

So, what does this mean for gaming? Well, for one thing, it means ridiculously better looking games.

3ds max is one of the most utilized software packages in the gaming industry, and has been for quite some time. You have probably already seen numerous examples of this powerful program's output - Halo 2, Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Fable, Jade Empire and the Armored Core series are but a few of the titles that have used Discreet's software.

All of those games (and that list barely scratches the surface) make use of 3ds max to produce brilliant CG cutscenes, in-game characters and environment models. So, with all of these respected game series already using this software, gamers can expect a quantum leap forward in the amount of detail represented on their screens.

What does it mean for gamers?

Okay, so this program is breathtaking, but it also costs upwards of £2,500 and, even though Discreet has made seriously successful efforts to make this program as user-friendly as possible, it takes effort to master.

So why should gamers be interested? Because gamers always want to try making games themselves at some point - usually when playing a game and thinking "Hey, I could do better than this!”

If you’re a gamer and want to get to grips with 3ds max, there’s is a free 30-day trial of 3ds max available from Discreet's website. Alternatively, there is a totally free 3D modelling package offered by Discreet called Gmax designed specifically for modding existing games such as Half-life 2.

Gmax is based on 3ds max, but lacks the renderer for instant output; consequently, it is a little less intuitive since you can't instantly see exactly what your model will look like in-game. Currently, Gmax has been downloaded over 700,000 times, which means geeks all over the world are way ahead of you, which is very good news for beginners--it means that there is a terrifically huge knowledge base from which you can draw advice (just Google Gmax and see what happens).

You can download Gmax from TurboSquid and get started designing your own characters and environments right this second.

Breaking into the industry

Employers like fancy schools on your resume but will be far more impressed if you walk in with a portfolio of actual game content, whether that be in the form of a typed design document, a portfolio of sketches and drawings, a demo reel, or even some playable code if you can manage it.

Whatever the case may be, if you want to work in games, you've got to get started someplace and Gmax is free and incredibly similar to an actual gaming software environment. And, of course, it‘s great practice for when you land that Lead Art Director position at Ubisoft...