The Web is going 3D. The problem is that it's doing it in a range of ways that don't yet link up to form a single vision. Some designers want to build realistic 3D environments and video games with real world physics and a high level of interactivity. Others want to create cartoon style Flash animations with a 3D look. Still others need to design images for banners, buttons and other graphics that, though they have the look of 3D objects, are really just still pictures.
This presents a bit of a problem to the likes of Discreet. The company’s 3D package, 3DS Max, has to span all these needs – and also attract games designers and those producing effects for the film industry. To add to this, Web designers who want to take their first steps into 3D Web work are unlikely to want to pay out 3,500 for a full copy of Max to try their ideas out on.
This is where Plasma comes in. The idea is that it's cheap – at £525 it costs about the same as the other elements in a Web design studio. It's flexible – allowing you to output Shockwave or VRML worlds, Flash animations, or render various types of still image as bitmaps or vector drawings. And it's easy to learn – with many of 3DS Max's functions and tools, but with a simplified interface.
Plasma, is not, Discreet are anxious to assure us, a cut-down version of Max (although, if you've used Max, you'll be able to pick up the basics of Plasma in a few minutes). This is a new package that takes Max's tools, trims a number of them away, adds a few new ones, and aims itself squarely at the Web design market. You can take Max files into Plasma, but not vice-versa, although Max users can install the Flash Renderer (see later) and the Shockwave Exporter as plug-ins if they prefer to work in Max.
On the design and animation side, most of Max is in place. You can create objects with the full range of primitives and 2D shapes including text. You can then modify them using almost all the modifiers you'd find in 3DS Max. This tool-set has been proven in effects work, TV and videogames, so whatever you need to build, you should be able to do it. All parameters of any object are animatable – either with keyframes or with a range of automating controllers to achieve effects like random motion, path following, or relationships between one object and another. You can also animate your creations with bones and create complex hierarchies of objects. Particle systems are included (although they're much less flexible than in Max).
What Plasma doesn't claim to be is an Authoring system (like Maya's add on, Maya RTA). This is a pity because it would be quite nice if it was one. It doesn't attempt to write the Lingo code needed to turn a 3D animation into a working 3D environment that the user can interact with. You'll need to take your work from Plasma into Director to do that. The ability to script animations and events in response to mouse-clicks, or key presses would have added considerably to the abilities of the package.
Given that it doesn't let you actually author shockwave, Plasma will still be of great interest to interactive Shockwave designers because of its design tools and because it does let you use the Havok plug-in to add dynamics to your worlds. This is pretty simple to do - you just tell the system which objects will be affected by real-time collisions, give each properties like mass and elasticity, and that's about it (see walkthrough). There's even a test function so you can play around with your scene, watching how things move, and even picking objects up and throwing them around.
On the rendering side, Plasma is limited to 640,000 pixel images. This equates to 800-x-800, but because it's a pixel limitation rather than an image size limitation, you can create very long or tall banners (100-x-6400 pixels, for example), so it's ample for most Web work. There's no motion blur, or fields rendering because it's not aimed at TV animators.
In return for the size limits, you get an additional renderer. As well as the scanline renderer used in Max which produces photoreal shading giving scenes that traditional 3D look, Plasma ships with a specially written Flash renderer – designed to create a line-drawn cartoon look. This not only gives animations a new appeal, it also makes them very small when saved as flash files.
Bandwidth is an important consideration online, and the Shockwave exporter is very helpful in letting you know in advance how large the files for your virtual world are going to be as well as how that figure breaks down into texture, animation, and mesh information. Plasma is less communicative about Flash files (for obvious reasons it's difficult to calculate filesizes before the animation is rendered).
Rather neatly, the multi-res modifier – which allows the system to reduce the number of polygons in a shape before rendering it is compatible with the workings of Shockwave – so it should be possible to build 3D worlds which automatically simplify themselves to play smoothly on whatever system the user has.
All in all, Plasma is a good attempt at tying together all the ways designers use 3D on the Internet, and producing a package that is helpful for them all. Some Shockwave authoring would have been an advantage, cutting down on switching from one package to another, and a few of the layout differences between Plasma and Max seem to have been put in to reduce the number of visible buttons, but don't actually make the package easier to use.
In addition, there's not that much you can do in Plasma that you can't do in max, so Max users will probably be a little miffed that they have to shell out for a whole new package just to get those functions.
However, if you're a Web studio wanting to get into 3D, Plasma offers a great tool-set at a very good price, and a product that has been well thought out for the Internet. It will have you surprising yourself within a couple of hours, but is powerful enough to take your design work to the edge of what is currently possible, and well beyond what you're used to being able to expect.