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Nevercenter on Silo and Milo's Creative Evolution and Capabilities

Nevercenter's Tom Plewe shared the origin story of Silo and Milo, delved into what sets these applications apart from their counterparts, and discussed Nevercenter's licensing approach.

Introduction

My name is Tom Plewe, and I’m the founder and President of Nevercenter. Nevercenter is a small indie team, currently just three of us who all went to college together in California. I created Silo out of a project I started in college, feeling that 3D modeling could be much simpler and more intuitive than what was found in the big all-in-one graphics software packages. Originally I was building something I planned to use myself in architecture school, but after a semester of that, I decided to focus on just bringing the software to market instead and dropped out of architecture school.

I hired my brother John and our friend Stephanie soon thereafter, and we’ve been making creative software together ever since. Silo was our only product for the first few years, then kind of on a whim, we made the very first photo filter app for the iPhone (CameraBag), which topped the App Store charts at the time. So we expanded into photo editing software, eventually making CameraBag into professional desktop software (awarded runner-up desktop App of the Year by Apple).

As we explored making small video games on the side (our game Shibuya won an IGF Best Mobile Game Honorable Mention, among other awards), we saw an opportunity to make pixel art in an innovative new way for our own game projects, which led to the creation and release of our resolution-independent pixel art editor Pixelmash. The most recent addition to our software lineup, Silo’s real-time 3D renderer companion app Milo, came about from some contact we’d had with Epic Games and a Megagrant they awarded us to develop it using their Unreal Engine.

Silo

Silo first gained attention for us as developers active on our user forums, listening to what people wanted in a 3D modeler, and then adding those features and releasing updates in a very quick turnaround time. There are a million little ways you can make something like 3D modeling more intuitive and enjoyable, and we focus on trying to identify and optimize each of those things, and often the most useful features aren’t flashy at all. Something basic like how selection works, for example – Silo has really nice selection highlighting with a user-adjustable radius, so you can hover near the edge of a polygon and see it highlighted before you click to select it, and many operations can be called on highlighted geometry so you don’t even have to click. Little things like that add up quickly, and artists who use this stuff for hours a day every day notice the difference in a big way.

Selection highlighting in Silo

Image credit: Nevercenter

What Makes Silo Stand Out

Our expertise is in designing user interfaces for artists. I think we have a unique combination of attributes, being efficiency-focused artists at heart who are also able to program pretty intense graphics stuff, so we don’t have all those layers of UI designers and user researchers and programmers all trying to communicate and coordinate to add a new feature.

Something like Blender definitely has its place and is great in that it can bring together a bunch of great features in a free package, but its open-source nature tends to make it rough around the edges in terms of user interface and workflow. Autodesk stuff is way more expensive than Silo, but also is generally inherently more complicated (as is Blender) for trying to do everything in one software, and has to maintain a lot of awkward implementations for backwards compatibility and things like that. Silo is like a finely-crafted tool made to do one job (modeling) extremely well, and that’s why modelers fall in love with it and invest in buying a copy of it even if they also use Blender or Maya or whatever.

While we don’t have the bandwidth to attend to user forums as we did in the early days of Silo, we listen carefully to user feedback via email suggestions and comments on social media and still focus on churning out new versions quickly using that feedback. We recently released our fifth update to Silo so far this year.

Milo's Origin and Vision

Our pitch to Epic was to take all the best features from the Unreal Engine to use not in a game but to create software to easily view and render 3D models in innovative new ways. They were interested in expanding uses for Unreal outside the video game world, so they awarded us one of their MegaGrants to help fund Milo’s development.

The Unreal Engine of course brings with it stunningly realistic real-time graphics for model viewing, especially now that real-time raytracing has become a thing. But it also gave us VR support without much development effort. Generally, we’ve found VR to be worse than using a mouse and keyboard for hard-core modeling, but Silo and Milo link up so that you can be modeling in Silo on your desktop while you also have Milo open with the same file, and hitting save in Silo updates it automatically in Milo. Then you can pop on your VR headset and immediately view your changes in VR within Milo while the file is still open for editing in Silo.

Another neat feature we added to Milo that bridges the worlds of video games and 3D rendering is the ability to walk around in your model with a playable video game character, using a standard game controller. It’s great, for example, for architectural walkthroughs for architects showing a building to clients – often more accessible and intuitive than trying to get clients set up and taught how to use alien VR controls.

Milo real-time renderer, built with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine

Image credit: Nevercenter

Recent Enhancements in Silo and Milo

In the past couple of years, we’ve done a ton of under-the-hood improvements to make Silo even faster and lighter, like switching to using Pixar’s OpenSubdiv to power our subdivision surfaces. We’ve also added a new non-destructive modifier system recently that opens up tons of neat modeling possibilities. One recent modifier, for example, lets you do radial mirroring with a unique Scale To Fill option that will automatically radially scale, say, a section of tire tread, so you can quickly see what the tire looks like with 24 or 36 or however many segments around the full radius.

We recently upgraded Milo to use Unreal Engine 5, which brought a lot of improvements to rendering quality, and we’ve added native ARM support for Macs. We’ve been steadily adding new backgrounds, lighting rigs, and rendering effects to make it easier and easier to simply load in your model and spit out an amazing image or turntable render, with hardly any setup.

We’ve also just been putting a lot of effort into squashing any reported bugs, making sure Silo and Milo are growing in predictability and stability even as we add more and more new features.

Pixelmash

Pixel art is only growing in terms of how many video games embrace it for their aesthetic, so we thought it made a lot of sense to make software for both 3D and 2D game makers. The basic idea of subdivision surfaces in 3D modeling in Silo is to be able to make low-res models that are automatically refined to a smooth hi-res version, and Pixelmash sort of does the opposite: allowing you to paint or import hi-res images or vector art and automatically turn it into beautiful low-res pixel art with layer effects and animated transforms.

Take for example this spinning axe animation – since the artwork is vector-based, you can tweak the vectors and adjust the rotation settings and resolution to make changes to the entire animation, rather than having to go back and re-draw every frame by hand. There are still lots of times when you want to hand-draw every pixel and every frame, and Pixelmash totally supports that, but there are many times when it’s a huge time saver to be able to take a shortcut.

Using animated vector layers for pixel art in Pixelmash

Image credit: Nevercenter

Nevercenter's Licensing Approach

As a small indie team without any business people, investors, or lawyers, we’re really attuned to what our users love and hate in terms of licensing, and it’s the same things we love and hate in licensing the software we purchase and use. When you buy our software, you can use the version you bought and any versions released for the following 12 months forever (as long as your computer will still let you run them). If you like the updates we frequently make and want to stay on board with the latest features, you can buy an extension of 12 more months of upgrades each year at a discounted price. We really wish more app stores supported this licensing model – we think it’s both extremely fair to consumers and allows developers to have predictable recurring revenue.

Nevercenter's Future Plans

We have a ton of ideas we’re working on for innovative new modifiers to put into Silo, not only for geometry but also for UVs and materials, and we’re always open to suggestions for more! We’re also working on allowing 3D models to be imported into Pixelmash from Silo, which will open a really exciting new world of possibilities for pixel art.

Tom Plewe, Founder and President of Nevercenter

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