The revival of Duke Nukem Forever in Seattle at the Penny Arcade Expo may be the most stunning comeback story in video game history. In an interview with Kotaku, Randy Pitchford, the man instrumental in Duke's return, explained how Duke came back from the dead.
Duke Nukem Forever was supposed to be done.
Gamers can surely name a time or three when they realized, finally, for real this time, that the game was never going to come out. It started development in 1997? When it's 2009, the development studio making the game lays off most of its staff, the game publisher sues the studio for not finishing the game and, well, that's it. Right?
Duke was dead?
No. It's 2010. Duke is back. People are playing at in Seattle. (Read our hands-on impressions; check out some screenshots; video) And Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford — giddy, tired, shocked he's part of a modern software myth — is in the center of it.
Randy Pitchford is no Duke Nukem Forever newcomer. On Friday night, after the PAX exhibition hall had quieted and the lines of Duke players dispersed, Pitchford finally sat down. He started telling the comeback tale, started telling it by recalling the far-flung past of an era before anyone was even making Duke Nukem Forever.
This extraordinary Duke Nukem Forever revival story goes back a long way.
In the late 1990s, Randy Pitchford moved to Texas and became a professional video game developer. He got a job at 3D Realms, the studio of Duke Nukem. He said he owed his start to 3D Realms boss George Broussard. For the studio, Pitchford worked on Duke Nukem 3D, the series' shift from 2D action game to first-person shooter. Pitchford reveled in it, loving the outrageous ass-kicking, tough-talking action hero Duke.
One of the things Pitchford got for his efforts was a Duke Nukem 3D t-shirt. Well, he got three, which he has taken out of his closet to wear, one a day, here at Penny Arcade Expo where Duke Nukem is making his big return.
"I owe my career to Duke," Picthford said. "I left 3D Realms in 1997, and we had just begun working on Duke Nukem Forever when I left."
By 2000, Pitchford had co-founded his own video game company, Gearbox Software, where he remains the president of a studio best known in recent years for the shooters Borderlands and Brothers in Arms.
He was no longer a Duke developer. But that doesn't mean he didn't care about the big new Duke Nukem sequel that was still in development and that was beginning to seem like it was taking a long time to make.
"We were on the outside like everyone else," Pitchford said. "We went through the full range of emotions like everyone else, from 'We want a sequel!' to 'Holy crap, that trailer's awesome, when are we going to get it?' to 'What the fuck is wrong with you guys?' to 'Oh wow that screenshot kicks ass, maybe it's real this time,' and then, like 'Is this a joke now?' and 'Okay, Wired gave it the Vaporware of The Year award now for the fifth time.'
"We've all been through the full range of emotions on this thing, especially those of us who played Duke and those of us who were there when the first-person genre was being created. Duke was a part of that for us. It's been a wild ride."
Duke Nukem Forever was being made throughout the 2000s. Gearbox was growing and releasing popular games.
Somewhere along the way, Gearbox got involved with the Duke franchise. A court filing in 2009 named Pitchford's studio as the creators of some sort of game called Duke Begins. To this day, Pitchford declines to say what that project was all about.
What Gearbox was not involved in was Duke Nukem Forever. Not back then.
In the spring of 2009, things with Duke Nukem Forver were as bad as they've ever been. It was crisis time. In need of help or advice, 3D Realms co-owner George Broussard had lunch with Pitchford and the two discussed strategies for getting the game made. Broussard told Pitchford that things were getting tougher with Duke Nukem Forever. The game, a dozen years in the making and by this time the butt of so many jokes, still wasn't done and publisher Take Two Interactive was losing patience. Broussard would later contend that his studio spent $20 million making Duke Nukem Forever, but to finish, they needed more money from Take Two, and Take Two was tired of waiting, tired of paying their part.
"I thought he had six months," Pitchford said. Broussard had one week. A week after that lunch, 3D Realms laid off most of its staff and, a few days later, Take Two sued the studio, complaining that it failed to deliver on the publisher's $12 million investment.
"It felt like the dream was dead," Pitchford remembered
The events of the spring of 2009 seemed, to outside observers, to destroy Duke Nukem Forever. The truth is that the game lingered on.
One of the co-creators of the well-known Duke Nukem character, Allen Blum, was among the 3D Realms developers fired in May of 2009. He was a veteran. "He couldn't let it go," Pitchford said. "I wouldn't either. He decided to keep it going." So, post 3D Realms, Duke Nukem Forever development continued in the apartments of some of the laid off staff. It became, essentially, a garage game. "I got wind of it," Pitchford said. "I came around and checked things out."
The ex-3D-Realms guys didn't have much hope of getting Duke Nukem Forever released. They didn't have the contractual, legal rights to release the game. But 3D Realms co-owner Scott Miller worked out an agreement with Blum so that they could continue creating Duke Nukem Forever, Pitchford said. They could work on the game. But with lawsuits flying, who was going to put this thing out? Miller contacted Pitchford to see if the latter could turn this project into a reality.
"I kind of got myself in the middle there," Pitchford recalled. The Gearbox boss didn't want to go into all the details at PAX of the business deal that would revive Duke. He offered the abbreviated version.
"The short story of it is: Because of my history with Duke, because of my relationship with Scott and George, because of the trust and respect that Gearbox and Take Two were able to build through our work together with Borderlands, and through the capabilities that I have built with my team to be able to ship games on these platforms — because of all of these things, I was in a spot that, if I took a bet and got in there and put myself in the line of fire in the middle of this thing, I knew that I could bring all these pieces together and that I could save Duke.
"I just knew it was going to work. I took the risk. I bet on Duke."
The Take Two lawsuit was settled this year. Last month, Kotaku broke the news that the Duke Nukem Forever game was being revived through Gearbox.
Pitchford said they've been working on the game for a year and are in the polish stages.
The Duke Nukem Forever game that is finally playable by the public, the one here at PAX, is a mix of old and new. Some of the design elements, Pitchford said, date back to the project's late-90s inception and have been tweaked for the last 13 years. Other elements are six months old.
Pitchford described the current Duke Nukem Forever as "a Gearbox game," but one being made with a lot of talented help. A Vancouver studio called Piranha Games is on the project as well as a studio called Triptych. Duke co-creator Allen Blum works in Gearbox's Texas office, every day, Pitchford said, on the 10th floor, turning Duke Nukem Forever into a reality. Pitchford described Blum as the heart of the project. This is no Gearbox takeover. As Pitchford described it, there are people on Duke Nukem Forever who are deeply invested in it, who have a dream they want to make reality.
Duke is, of course, still outrageous. In Pitchford's mind, that doesn't make the game parody. "It's not slapstick," he said. "In Duke's world this is all real shit. These fucking aliens are here and they're fucking our planet up and they're taking our chicks. There's a reason for that, and Duke is the only guy who can stop them. In his universe, that all makes perfect sense. As a result, he is the most important person in his universe. And he knows it. He enjoys it. He franchises it! He's got Duke Burgers opened up all over the country. It's a weird universe, but it works for him. He's the king!"
The game shown at PAX, trailer included, is outrageous. It's a wild shooter with plenty of sexual innuendo. The game has not passed through the video game ratings board, though, so Pitchford can't say for sure which envelope-pushing content will make it into the final game. He intends, he said, to respect the boundaries of acceptable ratings. He has a safe hunch the game will get an M rating.
The public demo of the game shows Duke Nukem Forever as a first-person shooter that includes at least one driving section. The full game, Pitchford said, is a varied experience. "It's a large, large game," he said. Players couldn't be shown the breadth of the game in a 15-minute demo at PAX.
"You know how we sum up games by stats?" he said. referring to counts of how many guns or levels a game might have, or how many hours it might last. "Duke has never been about stats. You don't buy Duke because it's got however many levels it's got. If you play the game and it's too short, you're disappointed. It's not too short. If you play the game and you're having a good time and, at any moment, are gratified and rewarded and entertained to the point when you are excited to know what happens next, then it's fine. That's the principles and methodologies that drive Duke game design."
Duke Nukem Forever will have multiplayer — "How could we fulfill the dream if I don't get to shrink you and step on you?" he laughed — but beyond that and what we've been shown in the PAX demo, Pitchford maintains a good reason for not wanting to talk about any other features. Given the project's history, who is going to believe any promises that aren't proven by playable evidence? When it comes time to deliver more, Gearbox will. The game is supposed to come out next year, for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Big video games are often revealed at big gatherings of the video game industry. You find out about new consoles and franchise games at an E3 or a Tokyo Game Show. PAX is a place for the indies. Smaller developers show their unusual and interesting games and draw attention from the blaring booths of the big companies like Microsoft and Ubisoft. If you think of Duke Nukem Forever as a big game — a legendary game in the making — PAX might not seem like the place where its rebirth would be demonstrated. But if you think of PAX as it is, as a show, open to the public, for gamers, as the premiere gathering of the gamer population in the United States, then the tumbling tale of Duke Nukem Forever feels like the right story to add the first happy chapter to in years at this event. It's a story for the emotions. It's a story for people who cheer.
Pitchford had been talking to gamers all day by the time he sat down with Kotaku to tell his tale. He'd finally been able to talk about Duke Nukem Forever out loud. The gamers he talked to were thrilled.
"I think everybody feels the way I felt when Duke was in trouble in 2009," he said. "Yeah, we've been jerked around. But we kind of want him to be triumphant. In Duke's time of need, we almost want to support him. And I'm feeling that kind of love."
(Images for this post include a shot of Pitchford's T-shirt, as worn on PAX day 1, painting of Duke Nukem that adorned the PAX Duke Nukem Forever booth and a photo of Pitchford and your author in a Duke cutout.)