Shooting Up My Ride: The Development History of Duke Nukem Forever

(Written as of 2014)

Duke Nukem Forever, though by in large a terrible game, is considered one of the most historical titles in the history of the business. Development started back in 1996 and the game was finally released in 2011 by a different development company. Back in earlier gaming generations, many people believed that if a game took a long time to be released, it was simply because the developers wanted to make it as well as they could. But there was a lot more than that going on behind the scenes during the development of Duke Nukem Forever.

The buzz surrounding the game all began during the late 90s, following the release and commercial and critical success of the third game in the series, Duke Nukem 3D. Made in the same vein as Doom and Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem quickly became one of the leading first-person shooting franchises, with Duke Nukem 3D being regarded ad one of the best games of all time, with a fourth game seemingly round the corner. For the longest time, many people believed the title Duke Nukem Forever referred to the development cycle, but the real joke slowly became lost on people, as the word forever was intended as a pun on the number 4, just as 3D was a pun on the number 3. But there was a huge array of factors that led to the development cycle being as long as it was.

Following the overwhelming success of Duke Nukem 3D back in 1997, consumer confidence was high for the sequel. The development company 3D Realms, formerly known as Apogee Software, first announced the game in April of the same year. The original plan was that it was to be released the following year; likely for the Nintendo 64, PC, and the original PlayStation.

The first derailment came in the form of an engine change. To develop Duke Nukem 3D, 3D Realms used an engine called the Build Engine, but they felt that it wasn’t enough for what they wanted to do with the fourth game. So they abandoned it in favor of the more powerful Quake II engine, which they had to license from one of their main competitors; id Software. Though development costs would already through the roof (3D Realms reputedly spending in excess of $500,000 to license the engine), the development team felt adamant about doing this as opposed to building a new engine from scratch. Believe it or not, they thought that doing so would save time. Another factor of this was that at this moment in time, the developers could afford such a fee. Duke Nukem Forever was being self-funded by the two creators of Duke Nukem; Scott Miller and George Broussard. Following overwhelming sales of the previous game, they felt very confident in the idea.

The first glimpse of Duke Nukem Forever was first published in an issue of PC Gamer Magazine, but screenshots were quickly revealed to be false, as 3D Realms hadn’t actually acquired the Quake II engine by the time the magazine went to print. Footage of the game was first shown at E3 in 1998 and got everyone excited about how well the game would play out, and how great it looked for the time. The problem was there were certain members of the development team who were unsatisfied with how development was progressing. The Quake II engine had issues with rendering wide open spaces in the game, in particular the open desert level. The choice was ultimately made to scrap the Quake II engine in favor of the even more advanced Unreal engine, which they licensed from Epic Games. But this meant the development team had to start from scratch. So everything was effectively thrown in the bin, and 3D Realms subsequently announced later in 1998 that Duke Nukem Forever would be “delayed significantly”, that it would take them up to half a year tops to get back to where they had been, and falsely stating that none of the content shown at E3 was lost.

The pressure was mounting by 1999 to come up with something, as development was not progressing according to plan. Broussard simply attributed their dilemma to that “Games are complicated” and reasoned that it inherently takes longer to released greater modern games than simpler older ones. But behind the scenes, Broussard was actually largely the cause of the problem by constantly forcing changes on the project. He observed new features coming out on different games in the meantime, and he would want to add a lot of these features to Duke Nukem Forever. It was said that by this point, the game simply became a collection of features as opposed to a fully cohesive concept. When the next trailer was shown at E3 in 2001, it was a success and got gamers extremely excited about the gameplay and features as well as its level of detail. So from the surface at least it looked like the game was on the right track, but unfortunately, it was a very different story behind the scenes.

GT Interactive, who had published Duke Nukem 3D was facing ongoing dilemmas, and eventually merged with Infogrames Entertainment, and the publishing rights to the Duke Nukem brand fell to a company called Gathering of Developers. But soon, they also faced struggles, including the tragic passing of co-founder Doug Myres and progressively deeper financial issues, and the company was finally absorbed into its parent company, Take-Two Interactive. Take-Two descended like vultures onto 3D Realms, calling shenanigans on the development of Duke Nukem Forever by citing factors such as there were merely 18 people developing the game. 3D Realms struck back by saying “they were financing the game on their own, they could do it however they wanted, and that it’ll get done when it’s done. Take-two responded by pointing out how 3D Realms issues were affecting their stock prices as well as the company itself. In an interview, Broussard controversially responded by telling Take-Two Interactive to “STFU”.

So under even further pressure, 3D Realms announced the estimation that the game would be released around mid-2004 or early 2005, amidst a rumor that they were now using the Doom 3 engine to develop the game. But when magazines started publishing the rumor as fact, Broussard came forward and finally said it wasn’t true. But no news was given until 2006 when 3D Realms claimed the game was more or less done, and the finishing touches were being put on it. But when it was next shown in a demo, it turned out to be in an obviously unfinished and unpolished state, resulting in Broussard profusely apologizing and acting frantic. In response, Take-Two Interactive re-negotiated payments to 3D-Realms, who would be receiving significantly less then before upon the game’s release, but offered a bonus of around $500,000 if they could get it out by late 2006. In response, Broussard clarified that the game would not be released by then, acting as if the expectation was ridiculous, despite the fact that the game had now been in development for over a decade. This prompted many of the staff to leave the project, hampering development considerably, since there were only 18 of them. Some reasoned that Duke Nukem Forever was the only game they’d worked on in all that time, and their CVs rendered unimpressive as a result.

However, Broussard ignored the problem and began to hire a lot of new staff, who were all actually surprised at how close the game was to being finished. Founder of HELM Studios, Raphael Van Lierop was a new hire at the time, and he was quoted as saying that if they could get the game out in a matter of months, then people would be blown away by it. But once again, Broussard dismissed the idea and claimed that the game was at least two years away from completion. It was at this point that Broussard’s previously silent partner, Scott Miller, came out and said that something had to happen as soon as possible. In 2007, screenshots were revealed confirmed to be screenshots of gameplay, and more people were hired, including a new project leader able to assert himself against Broussard’s constant demand for change.

A new trailer was also shown later on that year, but rumors of the game being released the following year were once again shot down by Broussard, who reverted to “when it’s done”. Once more, the game failed to make an appearance at E3 in 2008, which Scott Miller disregarded since he considered E3, the biggest video gaming event of the calendar year, to be irrelevant.

Following this, 3D Realms claimed the game was almost done, and they needed another $6,000,000 from Take-Two Interactive, as the company had finally run out of money to fund the game themselves. Take-Two responded by saying they would give them $5,000,000; half immediately and half upon completion. But Broussard unbelievably rejected the offer, and as a result, the staff at 3D Realms was dismissed and development on the game came to a halt, with Take-Two Interactive claiming that they would not fund the game. Take-Two subsequently sued 3D Realms, claiming they had spent $12,000,000 on a game that would never be released. 3D Realms countered by claiming that they never said the game wasn’t going to be released, and that because the staff had been laid off didn’t mean people weren’t still working on it. At about the same time the court case was settled, screenshots and concept art was also unceremoniously leaked out onto the Internet.

However, it turned out that 3D Realms were somewhat correct, since whilst people weren’t officially working on the game, people were in fact working on it. Several employees who had been laid off actually continued to work on the game at home, forming their own company named Triptych Games, eventually finishing it. It was at this point that 3D Realms contacted a different development company Gearbox Software, telling them that people they’d laid off had finished Duke Nukem Forever, and asked if they would help them. It turned out that Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox Software, was a big Duke Nukem fan and wanted to see the series revived.

So Pitchford subsequently contacted 2K Games and convinced them that he would be able to attain the funding required to port the game to both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. So the developmental rights fell to Gearbox Software, and the publishing rights fell to 2K Games, and the game was shown in a fully playable form for the very first time at the Penny Arcade Expo in 2010, and a release date was subsequently announced; May 3rd, 2011. There was more delay, as the game wound up being released on Jund 14th of the same year, but Duke Nukem Forever, after so many setbacks throughout a developmental period of 15 years, finally saw the light of day. And though it didn’t sit at all well with fans, it turned out to yield a profit for Gearbox Software, and Pitchford has since even expressed an interest in creating a fifth game in the series. Here’s hoping that if the project is greenlit, it doesn’t take anywhere near as long as Duke Nukem Forever did.

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