List of Full-Featured 3D Applications

The apps tackle 3D modeling, video games, and virtual reality

The best full-featured 3D modeling software programs give you the power to create 3D models from scratch, develop video games, work with animations, and tackle virtual reality.

These software programs are professional editions often used by today's top studios and are so high-powered that you need a powerful computer to get the most out of them for 3D rendering and related tasks. These programs won't run on standard everyday laptops.

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What We Like
  • Excellent for creating animation.

  • Highly customizable.

  • Excellent free-form 3D modeling.

  • Well established in the film industry.

What We Don't Like
  • Steep learning curve.

  • Requires installation of multiple plugins.

Autodesk's Maya is the industry-leading package for 3D animation and boasts a comprehensive modeling, rigging, animation, virtual reality, and dynamics toolset. 

The software creates photo-realistic rendering and includes support for Arnold RenderView for real-time views of scene changes, in addition to live links with Adobe After Effects that show changes in that program in real time as well.

Maya also permits the use of plug-ins that allow for the application to be customized and extended.

Maya is the top choice in the visual effects and film industry, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better solution for character animation.

Other features included in Maya include a 3D text tool, OpenSubdiv support, a realistic materials builder, a platform for rendering photo-realistic liquids, and lots more. 

Because of its market saturation, Maya skills are highly marketable but also highly competitive. Its popularity carries another bonus: There are heaps of rock-solid training materials available for Maya.

The newest version of Maya works with Windows, macOS, and Linux. The minimum requirements to run Maya are 8GB of RAM and 4GB of disk space.

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3ds Max

What We Like
  • Made for architects and engineers.

  • Easy to learn scripting language.

  • Offers more precision than other tools.

What We Don't Like
  • Steep learning curve.

  • Only works on Windows.

  • Requires expensive monthly subscription.

Autodesk's 3ds Max does for the game industry what Maya does for film and visual effects. Its animation toolset might not be as robust as Maya’s, but it makes up for any shortcomings with state-of-the-art modeling and texturing tools.

3ds Max is typically the first choice for game development houses, and you'll rarely see architectural visualization firms using anything else. 

Although Mental Ray is bundled with 3ds Max, many Max users (especially in the Arch Viz industry) render with V-Ray because of its material and lighting tools.

Maya also includes features that let you edit animations with real-time visual feedback; make realistic fire, snow, spray, and other particle flow effects; simulate a real camera with custom shutter speed, aperture, and exposure, and lots more. 

Like Maya, 3ds Max is tremendously popular, which means there are both a large number of jobs and a large number of artists competing for them. Skills in 3ds Max translate easily to other 3D packages, and as a result, it is probably the most popular first choice for beginning 3D artists and enthusiasts.

3ds Max works with Windows only and requires at least 4GB of memory and 6GB of free hard drive space.

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What We Like
  • Powerful out of the box.

  • Many free plugins available.

  • More affordable than other options.

  • Fast rendering.

What We Don't Like
  • Fewer features than other tools.

LightWave from NewTek is an industry-leading modeling, animation, and rendering package frequently used for visual effects in commercial advertising, television, and film. 

Compared to Autodesk's ubiquitous presence in the film and games industry, LightWave is popular among freelance artists and on smaller productions where $3,000 software licenses are impractical. 

However, LightWave includes a built-in Bullet, Hypervoxels, and ParticleFX features to make it easier to display realistic physics such as when buildings collapse, objects are placed in random patterns, and explosions or smoke is needed.

The integrated toolset (compared to Maya's modularity) makes it easier to be a 3d generalist in LightWave.

LightWave runs on macOS and Windows computers with at least 4 GB of RAM. When it comes to disk space, you only need 1GB to download the program but up to 3GB more for the complete content library.

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What We Like
  • Well known in the film industry.

  • Highly customizable.

  • Scripting available in multiple languages.

  • Highly efficient.

What We Don't Like
  • Texturing is difficult.

  • Steep learning curve.

  • More expensive than other tools.

Modo from Foundry is a full development suite, unique in that it includes integrated sculpting and texture painting tools and a WYSIWYG editor to watch your designs develop.

Due to Luxology's unprecedented emphasis on usability, Modo initially built its reputation on being one of the fastest modeling toolsets in the industry.

Since then, Luxology has continued improving Modo's rendering and animation modules, making the software an ideal low-cost solution for product design, commercial advertising, and architectural visualization.

The shading tool lets you create realistic materials from scratch in a layering format, but you can select lots of preset materials from within the software.

Linux, macOS, and Windows are the platforms that support Modo. For a full installation, Modo requires up to 10GB of space. It's recommended that the video card includes at least 1GB of memory and the computer has 4GB of RAM.

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What We Like
  • Easy to use.

  • Streamlined functions.

  • Highly functional.

  • Integrates with Adobe.

What We Don't Like
  • High price tag.

  • Modeling workflow not as advanced as other tools.

On the surface, Maxon's Cinema4D is a relatively standard 3D production suite. It does everything you want it to do. Modeling, texturing, animation, and rendering are all handled well, and although Cinema4D isn't as forward-thinking as Houdini or as popular as 3ds Max, consider the value proposition.

Maxon's stroke of genius with Cinema 4D has been the inclusion of the BodyPaint 3D module, which retails for around $1,000 on its own. Body Paint might have Foundry's Mari to compete with, but it's still an industry standard texturing application.

Having multichannel texture painting directly integrated into your 3D suite is invaluable.

Use the knife tool to slice up models in even, symmetrical cuts. It works as a plane cutter, loop cutter, and line cutter for different scenarios.

There's also a polygon pen and a method to extrude, stitch, and smooth edges, as well as to analyze an object for faulty parts.

Cinema4D works with Windows running an NVIDIA or AMD graphics card, as well as macOS with an AMD video card. For the GPU renderer to function at full capacity, your computer needs 4GB of VRAM and 8GB of system RAM.

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What We Like
  • Powerful modeling tools.

  • Efficient rendering system.

  • Powerful fluid dynamics.

  • Fast rendering.

What We Don't Like
  • Steep learning curve.

  • Updates often cause confusion for users.

SideFx's Houdini is the only major 3D suite designed around a wholly procedural development environment. The architecture lends itself well to particle and fluid dynamics simulations, and the software has been popular in visual effects houses where rapid prototyping is essential.

Procedural instructions known as nodes are easily reusable and can be ported to other scenes or projects and adapted as necessary.

Despite its hefty price tag, Houdini's procedural system is capable of solutions that simply cannot be achieved in other 3D software suites. 

Some of the quick-hit features you get with Houdini include a particle creator for small things like dust or large things like crowds, the Finite Element Solver that stress tests objects, and the Wire solver for creating extremely thin shapes like hair and wire.

Its uniqueness can also work to its detriment, though—don't expect many of your Houdini skills to carry over into other packages. This also means that a talented specialist is worth his weight in gold to the right employer.

Houdini works with Windows, Linux, and macOS. Although 4GB of system RAM is the minimum requirements, at least 8GB of system RAM or more is encouraged. Likewise, although Houdini with work with only 2GB VRAM, 4GB or more is preferred. Two gigabytes of hard drive space is required.

Houdini Apprentice is the free version of Houdini FX.

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What We Like
  • Fast rendering.

  • Highly customizable.

  • Free to download and use.

What We Don't Like
  • Slow performance at times.

  • Layers can be difficult to manage.

  • Lacking in motion capture.

Blender is the only piece of software on this list that's free. Surprisingly, it might also possess the most extensive feature set.

In addition to modeling, texturing, and animation tools, Blender has an integrated game development environment and a built-in sculpting application.

Blender features include UN unwrapping to break down the mesh for painting or texturing, support for rendering inside the program, support for multilayer OpenEXR files, and simulation tools for creating destructible objects as well as water, smoke, frames, hair, cloth, rain, sparks, and more.

Its status as an open source project has meant that development of the software has been almost constant, and there isn't a single aspect of the graphics pipeline that Blender can't incorporate.

At best, the interface could be described as quirky, and Blender lacks the polish of the pricy high-end packages.

Blender works on Windows, Linux, and macOS systems that have at least 2GB of RAM, but 8GB or more is recommended. The program installer itself is less than 200MB.