I have been thinking for a while about how to most helpfully give a contribution to this thread. The original question posed by the OP is a tough one. So for anyone trying to choose a program, I offer you this.
There is such a wide variety of 3DS programs out there now and their workflows and interfaces vary wildly. You need to know something about what your looking for before you begin searching, if that makes any sense?
For example, depending what you are trying to achieve, your workflow will have several steps. Break that workflow down and try to find all the basic functions to achieve your desired results. If you are baffled or frustrated by the way a certain program handles something, don't despair! It may be handled in a totally different way in another program, and there is nothing stopping you using different programs for different things of course. This is what makes it so difficult to make a recommendation.
A few basic questions a total beginner should ask themselves:
1. How do I manipulate the camera and view controls
2. How do I add objects and how do I add, subtract, sculpt, manipulate and otherwise influence those objects in 3d space
3. How do I add materials and textures (creating those textures is a whole other issue
5. How do I create rigging (Attaching to the avatars bone structure, not always required)
4. How do I export to COLLADA .dae format (you should probably check that at the beginning really
) most programs have plugins available of they do not offer native support.
You should also read up on basic concepts in low poly modeling for video games in general.
I use Maya, but many peole HATE
Maya with a passion for reasons too long and boring for the casual reader to recite here. I have those same reasons for hating 3DMax. Recently I picked up Blender just to take a peek and I must say I am very impressed with how far it has come since I last looked (a year or maybe more ago). The problem with the radical interface re-designs is that there are now a billion irrelevant Blender tutorials out there to frustrate and confound you, though it seems to be a very active community and you can usually find what you need if you use the wiki. I cant speak at all to Sketchup but have heard positive things in general.
So I guess what I am saying is shop around, you can at least try
most things these days for free. Find something that clicks, try a basic project like a chair or table and replicate it in any program you try and this will give you a feeling of what is most comfortable and intuitive for you
. Best of luck!