I've just read a comment on one of my other posts asking about what I think about the free modeling tools available. The reply to the comment became too long so I decided to reply by way of this post.
Despite how my blog may appear, I'm not as confident about 3D modeling as I sound. I've just been learning it for nearly two years on and off so have some experience! Based on my school results some 30 plus years ago, I do have an aptitude for technical drawing. I think that helps a bit.
The type of models I produce tend to be architectural. When it comes to more organic shapes I have to get others to do those.
About 2 years ago I tried most of the free modeling tools. Some were difficult to use, some too simple for game models and for some there were no working FBX or DirectX exporters suitable for XNA. I ended up with just three that I gave any serious time to.
I had a brief look at the commercial products but the popular ones used throughout the professional games industry have a price tag of about US$ 3,500. I suspect that a lot of the people using those for Indie games would be the first to complain about their game being pirated! Some hobby developers can get away with educational licences. I want to distribute my game for the Xbox which Microsoft have forced to have a price tag. Therefore any game released for the Xbox is commercial, no matter what the intention or how low the cost is.
That left me with the shareware, open source or free products. Without much effort it is easy to establish that by far the most fully featured, continuously developed and suitable tool is Blender. I have never used 3DS or Maya but from what I can tell Blender is as powerful and in some areas probably more feature rich than those paid for products.
Blender is a powerful tool but like nearly all complicated products it requires quite a while to master. Having tried it and become very lost, especially with a non-Windows style interface, I looked at other products first.
The three tools that I had reduced my list to were, the free Autodesk Mod Tool, Blender and the free version of Google SketchUp.
To quickly dispense with one of those, Mod Tool. I tried it, found it's pipeline so confusing I could not work out how to export a model and the whole layout just put me off. I think but didn't give it much of a chance, that it attempts to simplify some of the technical details about 3D modeling but in the process loses the plot! I have not looked at it since.
The product I do like is Google SketchUp. I have only used the free version and I have not spent much time using version 8 but I did use version 7 quite a bit. It is very quick to learn and easy to produce buildings and things. The interface is very natural to use. I wish more powerful tools had this simple and well thought out UI.
For XNA there is a snag with the free SketchUp. It does not come with any suitable exporters! The official FBX exporter only comes with the paid for Pro version. However, if you hunt long enough on the Internet you should find some third party FBX exporters that work with the free SketchUp. Also SketchUp files are just compressed Colada files and Autodesk do a free converter from Colada to FBX.
SketchUp gets tricky when you want to have more controls to optimise the result for use in game. Controlling the UV map to minimise the number and sizes of textures or reducing the number of vertices is tricky and may not even be possible in SketchUp. It's at these times that I kept ending up in Blender to finish a model. Also I have no idea if SketchUp can do boned animations which I need for my game. Another plus point for Blender.
Once I had decided that I would need Blender, I spent two weeks just learning the very basics. Remember I was learning both the product and 3D modeling from nearly scratch. Over the last two years I have watched numerous tutorials on line and have even purchased two Blender training DVD's. I also laminated the Blender Hot Key chart and have it permanently to hand.
What I now have is a huge respect for 3D artists. There is no quick fix that us developers would like. As a developer I think nothing of spending hours on one small method to get it just right. That time and more goes in to the fine detail of each good model and each texture on those models. The work on some of the individual models in AAA games must be as much as I have spent modeling... ever.
All modelling tools, except perhaps SketchUp require a lot of practice to be able to work with. I decided to concentrate on knowing just one rather than a little about all. I now almost exclusively use Blender.