The History of Duke Nukem – Two: The road to 3D

The Shift
After Apogee released Wolfenstein 3-D, the company’s focus began to change – a moment which Scott Miller recalled in an interview with Gamasutra:

It was like, “Okay. Do we want to keep making games that make us $15,000 a month, or do we want to start making games that make us $200,000 a month?” So that’s what happened; what really happened was Wolfenstein. It kind of rewrote the whole rule book on the potential of what we could earn from games. At that point, everyone’s eyes opened to the power of 3D. Pretty much from that point onwards, a lot more focus went into making games that were 3D in nature.”

Apogee had licensed the technology id built for Wolfenstein 3-D to make their own first-person shooters: Blake Stone and Rise of the Triad, which were reasonably successful in their own right, but sold half as well as Wolfenstein. Scott Miller and George Broussard knew they’d need their own technology to stay in the game with their cross-town rivals, and it came from what now seems like the unlikeliest of places; the room of a seventeen year old kid called Ken Silverman.

The Engine
Ken Silverman had been programming since the age of 12, but it wasn’t until the release of Wolfenstein 3-D that he started developing game technology. His brother’s monopolising of his computer with the shooter triggered Silverman into creating his own version of the game, nicknamed “Walken”. Walken would eventually become Ken’s Labyrinth – Silverman’s father encouraged him to send the game out for several publishers to review, including Apogee. The company didn’t pick up Ken’s Labyrinth (which Epic Megagames published in the end) but they remained interested in the technology which drove the game.

Build, by Ken Silverman

Build, by Ken Silverman

Driven by the technological enhancements delivered by Doom, Silverman continued working on his engine throughout the first half of 1993, adding a number of new features. He even settled on a name for the engine – Build.

Build is technically a 2D engine, but renders its worlds in a way that looks three dimensional. Build levels are represented on a 2D grid by closed shapes called sectors, and sprites are used to populate those levels. Unlike previous first person shooter engines, Build’s sectors could be modified in real time using sector effectors. Sector effectors are linked to tags – i.e. special instructions – which tell a sector how to act. This allowed for things such as destructible environments, underwater levels and elevators, for example. Build allowed for much more realistic game worlds than the engines that preceded it.

Silverman was approached by Epic Megagames while on vacation to sign a deal for his engine, but no agreement was reached. Just two weeks later, he was approached by Apogee and began working for the company (with the stipulation that his university education came first). Now armed with an impressive engine, Apogee could begin development on projects that would create a real stir.

The Path to Great Things
Despite teasing at the end of Duke Nukem II as to the existence of a “Duke 3D”, development on Duke Nukem 3D did not start until the day after the release of the second game. A very small team led by Todd Replogle, Allen Blum and Ken Silverman began work on the game.

Development on the game chugged away through 1994 while the rest of the company focused on projects like Rise of the Triad. The heads of Apogee decided to create a new branding strategy, whereby their upcoming 3D games would be released under the brand name of 3D Realms. The first title released under the branding was Terminal Velocity.

When work on Rise of the Triad wrapped up, George Broussard had a major meeting with the Duke Nukem 3D team at the end of 1994 to examine their progress. Broussard saw that the game had a lot of potential; the level designs and gameplay were generally good, but he hated the art style. A decision was made to pull workers off other projects like Shadow Warrior and Horror 3D/Blood and put the whole weight of the studio behind Duke Nukem 3D.

The beta version of Duke Nukem 3D that prompted George Broussard to shift the company’s resources onto the game was released to the public on January 29, 1997 – Duke Nukem 3D’s first anniversary – as a present to fans that were curious about the game’s development. Dubbed “LameDuke”, the version of the game is quite different to what was released. There are a ton of differences from the final release – LameDuke’s enemies are more humanoid and/or robotic, the chain gun is more of a plasma rifle, the RPG is shoulder mounted, Duke’s pistol has a laser sight, the melee weapon is a taser, the jetpack leaves trails – it’s really worth booting up and checking out.

Another beta made it into public hands (against 3D Realms’ will) shortly before the release of the shareware version. This version (0.99) also features a few differences from the first shareware version, most notably a bunch of DukeTalk lines which don’t appear in the final game.

Broussard also brought some fresh faces into the 3D Realms offices, one of whom was Richard “Levelord” Grey, who had been working on Blood with Q Studios. Grey, who designed half of the levels in the full version of the game, recalls the game’s development being a highly collaborative yet heavily scrutinised process: “Duke Nukem was the hit it was for multiple reasons. We got to spend most of our time making it fun and we playtested the hell out of it. We played every level over and over – every night we would playtest the game.”

The team was driven by a distinct need to do things differently from the first-person shooters that came before Duke Nukem 3D. The game world needed to resemble something that players could relate to – a contemporary “real world” setting, as opposed to the futuristic space stations of Doom or the labyrinthine castles of Wolfenstein 3-D. Science fantasy was not completely abandoned – many of the weapons and the entire middle chapter of the game are influenced by popular culture – but it was introduced in a way that meshed perfectly with the game’s more realistic setting.

As a result of the heavy collaboration and polishing, Duke Nukem 3D didn’t begin to come together until the end of production. One member of the development team would come up with an idea and two others would polish it and it would end up in the game.

Some ideas would start off simple and blossom into bigger things that would have a profound impact on the game. One such example is the Enforcer poop; the enemy would occasionally defecate on the ground – players could step in it and Duke would leave poo-coloured footprints behind. This was expanded so that Duke would walk through pools of blood and leave bloody footprints behind – a much more frequent occurrence, and something that really sticks in the player’s mind. The design team also added in a large number of pop culture references, paying homage to Doom, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, the then-ongoing O.J. Simpson trial and many more.

In addition to creating a more grounded setting, the team pushed themselves to make the game world more interactive. This included flushing toilets, smashing glass bottles, giving money to strippers, working mirrors and much more. George Broussard considered this to be one of the most important portions of the game. In the Making of Duke Nukem 3D article in Retro Gamer, he said “Do they remember shooting the 100th Pig Cop or the pool table? I think that stuff added a lot and was one of the core reasons DN3D was a success. The interactivity added depth to the game. We wanted to make a world that was fun to stop and play around with for a few minutes. It’s nice to have other things to do besides simply shooting bad guys.”

Roughly 12 months after Broussard threw the full weight of the studio behind Duke Nukem 3D, the game was complete. The team was satisfied – they all knew they had a good game on their hands. Apogee had established a publishing relationship with FormGen Interactive, meaning that the game would have a full retail presence in addition to direct orders (when the full version was ready). Ads were featured in the major PC magazines, which were also running highly positive pre-release coverage. When the shareware episode of Duke Nukem 3D launched on January 29, 1996, the response was beyond the company’s wildest dreams.

The Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition team (sans Ken Silverman)

The Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition team (sans Ken Silverman)

Injecting Personality
Signs of Duke’s ego-driven, ass-kicking persona had shown up in the introduction and cutscenes of Duke Nukem II, but the hero remained silent until very late in the development of Duke 3D. The injection of personality of the character was influenced by the need to be different from the other first person shooters on the market. Player characters in first-person shooters before Duke 3D were almost entirely mute, so the 3D Realms team set about creating a flesh and blood character – one that would encompass personalities from their favourite 80s action movie heroes, and give the game an injection of humour without turning it into a comedy.

Jon St. John

Jon St. John looking pissed

Once a script was written, the team sought an actor to voice the character. Jon St. John, a veteran radio announcer turned voice actor won the role. St. John recalls the original recording sessions as being “some of the best fun [he’s] ever had”. He has reprised the role of Duke Nukem in every production since, and has even lent his voice for fan made projects.

Roddy Piper’s character in They Live and Ash from the latter two entries in Evil Dead series provided much of the foundation and dialogue for the character. Bruce Campbell, who played Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy, was not particularly thrilled with 3D Realms drawing influence from his character. In an interview for Tachyon: The Fringe (a game in which he voiced the main character), Campbell stated: “They’re blatantly ripping it off and if I was any kind of litigious guy they would’ve gotten a phone call by now. It’s depressing and I think it’s wrong. That’s why Tachyon: The Fringe will kick little Duke’s ass any day.”

Few remember Tachyon: The Fringe.

This article originally appeared as part of
Retro Gaming Australia’s Duke Nukem Week,
reprinted with permission.

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