I haven't really worked with Blender too much, so I can't recommend it directly, but from what I've seen it's grown into a cool package over the last couple of years. Dunno if Blender is easy to learn though, cause the interface was always its weakest point.
I can't really give you a concrete answer to your question, cause it's like asking some other artist what sorta pencil one should use. I personally still prefer Maya over any other app, mainly because I'm so used to it and because my config is totally configured to my needs.
The games industry is mostly based on 3ds Max still and I don't think that's gonna change in the foreseeable future - I actually think Max will gain more and more popularity still.
XSI is also a _very_ cool package which is outstanding in many fields. Still, it isn't being used as much in the films / games industries as Maya / Max. It's pretty big in Asia though.
If you just want to render out sprites, I guess looking at Blender won't hurt, especially since it won't cost you a thing.
In general, whatever package you'll learn - 3d under the hood is the same thing everywhere, doesn't matter whatever package you'll decide on. It's like driving a car. Even if you're used to your Honda, you'll have no problem driving with a Mazda if you have to. Sorry for the shitty analogy
3d CG is still pretty complex and not that easy to learn - Remember, for creating appealing characters you should know a thing or two about anatomy, sculpture, texturing, UVs, you'd basically have to know the whole 3d pipeline, have a good technical understanding and also have a background or a vast interest in the art itself. I studied traditional sculpture and been working as a character artist for a couple of years now.
Really good character artists that throw out production quality work aren't that easy to find, even for high profile studios, because you really need years of training.
Sorry if that's not what you wanna hear. If you want to learn a package for your future career, I'd say look at Max, Maya or XSI. If you just want to dabble with 3d and render some stuff out, go with Blender. If you want good character art or 3d art like what I've described, consider hiring a freelance artist for that - that'll still be cheaper than investing years of your own time.