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Making 3D Software Accessible Requires More Than Just Making it Cheaper

By Paul Babb
I often wonder if some of the decision-makers in the 3D-software industry have been hearing voices. You know, like the one Kevin Costner heard in the "Field of Dreams." Only this voice seems to have whispered, "if you make it cheaper, they will come." Of course, that's an improvement over the voice of just a few years ago that was touting, "if you make it free, they will come." It's not that I think the voices are wrong or that the decision-makers are wrong for listening . at least not in the short term.

Initially, the customers will most definitely come. The dramatic lowering of prices by the majority of 3D software developers recently has in fact created a new awareness and excitement in the 3D industry. At Maxon we've seen an increase in downloads of our demo version and continued sales growth (even in the current economy), despite the fact we have not lowered our pricing structure.

So the corn has been plowed over and the field is full of excited new players. What now? The real question developers should be asking themselves is, "once we have them, how do we keep them?" After all, the primary goal of every software developer is to build a large and loyal user base. The answer is, "ease their pain."

While some prices are significantly lower, 3D software is still by no means inexpensive when compared to the average software purchase. Once these users have invested in a package, they are going to have expectations. After all, they spent hours admiring the many amazing animations and images on the company's web site, and excitedly read how easy it is to do. And in many ways our programs do simplify the creative process. But unfortunately, many of these new users are expecting to create "Toy Story" in a week, not just an animated bouncing ball. However unrealistic, we as developers have to help bridge that gap between those expectations and reality.

Certainly, some of the responsibility is on the customer to make the effort to actually learn the program. Recently, a user emailed our tech support team asking, "Is there an easy way to model a person, a face, a background with grass and everything? I got this software a week ago and I can't figure it out and I don't want to read the manual." Now, one would never buy a piano and without a single lesson and expect to be able to play in a concert a week later. A first-time painter would never expect to create a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa shortly after purchasing their first canvas and oils. But countless computer enthusiasts with little to no artistic background invest thousands of dollars into 3D and other graphics programs with the expectation that they will be producing animated shorts to rival Pixar's creations in no time at all.

I confess that I have had the same unrealistic expectations myself. In the past, I have purchased thousands of dollars of software that I never properly learned or mastered. Since the product did not become part of my workflow, I did not upgrade it when a new version was released. Worse, while it was no fault of the manufacturer that I never learned the programs well enough for the investment to make sense, I still somehow felt that I was burned by the company that sold it to me.

That's why, when bringing CINEMA 4D to the US market five years ago, we made it a policy to not only put our software into the hands of new customers, but also to do our best to make them successful with it. From the beginning, the company focused on providing free online resources and tutorials, free tech support, a human being on the phone when customers called, active fertilization of online user communities, and the strong support of educational institutions with very low-cost lab licensing and student versions.

Okay, so the software is now relatively affordable and you've got some nice resources out there to help them get started. Now how do you get these new customers to utilize those resources? Unfortunately, this can be as hard as convincing a bat wielding James Earl Jones to go to a baseball game.

The challenge is that while 3D animation is an extremely complex art form, combining modeling, sculpture, painting, textiles, lighting design, articulated motion and more, the tool set of a 3D program is deceptively easy to use. Someone without even the most basic art skills can create something almost immediately. If you want light in your scene when using a 3D program, you just add a light. You don't have to paint surface highlights and shadows, or make sure that each object in the scene is highlighted in the same manner as to indicate the same light source. You don't have to duplicate how the light affects different types of surfaces. The program does it all for you. But you do have to understand all those intricacies to modify the hundreds of parameters in a light dialog, in order to re-produce the particular lighting effect you are trying to recreate (or at least the one your client demands).

So both manufacturer and customer need to "go the distance." We have a responsibility, as developers of software to provide the resources customers need to be successful with the tools we create and sell. The customer needs to understand that these programs are just another instrument by which to express himself. Just as the paintbrush cannot paint on it own, neither can a 3D application magically create without skilled input.

While this has always been a philosophy I have embraced as a driving force, it has not always been the most popular choice among business partners. At times I have felt as though I was Kevin Costner convincing bankers that plowing under half my cornfield would make everyone happy in the long run. It was a bit of a gamble and given a different economic climate, we could have just ended up losing the farm.

But something incredible happened. Our efforts paid off.

Our sales have more than doubled every year since we established the office in the US. From a virtual unknown five years ago, Maxon now ranks 3rd among all 3D packages.* To this day, our most thriving marketing avenue has been word of mouth. Our efforts in the educational arena were especially successful. Many schools, that crippled budgets to purchase one or two copies of a more expensive (and much more complicated) product, once educated, later found that they could outfit an entire lab with our software for much less. Teachers found they didn't need the most feature-laden product on the market; most of the students in the course of a semester are exposed to barely 50% of the features in a 3D package.

But, the game's not over yet. I still believe flattening the learning curve and customer service are the keys to long-term success in the 3D industry. We can always do more. Frankly, we are still not able to provide all the resources our customers and we would like and the 3D market is still in flux. Honestly, we enjoy the excitement, have a tremendous amount of respect for our competition and welcome the next revolution.

*According to the Roncarelli Report on the Computer Animation Industry 2001

Paul Babb is the president of Maxon Computer in the U.S. You can reach Maxon by visiting their website at www.maxoncomputer.com

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