Hello there Cybercow.
Thanks, I'm working with the UV map right now on the "Legged" tank, which seems to take forever since there is so much detail. But It's going forward, I'm basically done with the turret. Just the Gun barrel and the M2HB left to UV map on that. Then it's the chassis turn. (Oh my God, will it never end?)
Actually, when I was using Sgi back then, I used Softimage 3D, and so did most of my friends, except a few who used Alias/Maya. I did mostly animation and used another company's Octane, so it was not mine, as it was way to expensive for me then as I did mostly freelance work. So except those times I mostly used Windows machines running on specialized PC hardware like Intergraph and such, or bog standard PCs with different pro graphics cards in. So, running Softimage 3D I did most of the renders in Metalray, both on the Windows and on Irix.
Today, my Octane with Maya on it, is most for fun, but I am hoping that I can integrate it into my working pipeline and produce something useful with it. My plan is that I will build a "dropship" in Irix Maya, and then export it to my Pc where I will use it in Xsi where I will complete my new portfolio "movie/demo reel" in. I do have an Old Maya license on PC, but I never use it since my primary tools are Xsi and Modo. Well, except that I will use the Maya on the Octane of course. But on the Pc there's no need since my primary tools are way better for that anyway, for me that is (Don't wanna step on anyone's toe here)
Regarding Physical sky and stuff like that, well. I have never had any "use" of it before, since it is "easily" faked and such, same with materials. Playing with incidence angles and stuff have solved mostly all my problems in the past. Sure, it is very nice to have some tools that lessens your work burden. But I don't see that as a must. But I guess, once you get used to have all those cool new features, it can be kinda hard to live without 'em. But certain shaders are of course hard to live without, like SSS, since it is quite hard to solve otherwise. Easy if you are going to make one image, and fake it in Photoshop of course, but animation.. (yikes)
I remember one time long ago where I needed to have photo real light in a render I did. But Lightwave I used at the time didn't have any Area light and stuff (yeah, a loooong time ago), so I had to come up with a way to fake it. I first tested with shadow mapped spotlights, but it never got any good. Then I tried with a lots of point lights arranged in a grid pattern, all parented to a null so I could move 'em and size them up. And it turned out great. Then, later, I learned that's basically how an Area light works.
So I guess, if you try to look for solutions with what you have instead of looking at what you could have, and give up, you will always come up with an answer. And if your lucky, it will be an answer you like.
Other than that I can tell you a little about my former workplace Massive Entertainment. Massive has mostly used Lightwave 3D before and has integrated that into the pipeline of in-house tools really well. We used Lightwave for most of our cutscenes too. But since the game "World in conflict" the cinematic team have moved over to Maya mostly, and the in game in-house tools also supports Maya now days. But most stuff, at least the in game realtime 3D stuff, is built in Modo because it is such a good modeller. Unfortunately Xsi wasn't used much when I worked there, but that might change, since Massive is really good at testing new stuff and as a whole, likes a new challenge. It was (is) a really great place to work with lots of cool stuff happening everyday.
If you wanna now anything else, or if this wasn't what you where out after, just ask again, and I will try to give you the answer you are looking for.