The History of Duke Nukem – Part Five: Journey to Forever

3D Realms announced that they were working on a successor to Duke Nukem 3D in April 1997. The name of the game was Duke Nukem Forever. A month later at E3 1997, 3D Realms announced that they would be licensing the Quake II engine for the game, rather than producing their own technology. At this point in time, 3D Realms expected to ship the game in 1998. 3D Realms were financing the game themselves, with GT Interactive set to act as a distributor.

The US edition of PC Gamer got the scoop on the game for its August 1997 issue. George Broussard later revealed on the 3D Realms forums that these images were mock-ups done in the Quake I engine to keep the masses interested – they didn’t get the final Quake II engine code until November 1997, right before Quake II was released. For the majority of 1997, most of the 3D Realms team was focused on completing Shadow Warrior – work on Duke Nukem Forever was being done ad-hoc while they waited on the engine code.

At E3 1998, 3D Realms revealed the first trailer for Duke Nukem Forever (see below). Critics were blown away by the trailer, but Broussard was unhappy with the progress they had made. While everyone focused on the explosive action in the trailer, Broussard felt that the game’s visuals needed improvement.

After the positive reception to the trailer at E3, 3D Realms shocked everyone by announcing that they had licensed the Unreal engine, and were in the process of switching everything over. Some questioned whether the game they saw in the trailer was real or not. Broussard stated that it wouldn’t take them more than a couple of weeks to be back on track for release in 1999. The switch to Unreal was rationalised by the fact that Epic’s engine was better at rendering wide open spaces, which the team wanted in and around Forever’s Las Vegas locales.

3D Realms went dark with Forever after the engine switch, until late in 1999, when they released the first media from the Unreal engine version of the game, announcing at the same time that they had switched up to a new version of the engine that had driven Unreal Tournament. A month later, the 3D Realms Christmas card indicated that they expected Forever to be released in 2000. History repeated itself a year later, when the Christmas 2000 card from the company indicated a 2001 release date.

Publishing Rights
Duke Nukem Forever was originally going to be published by GT Interactive. Flush with cash from the success of Duke Nukem 3D, 3D Realms accepted a meagre $400,000 advance from the publisher. GT Interactive ran into financial trouble and sold the publishing rights to Gathering of Developers for $12 million in 2000. Gathering ran into financial difficulties in 2001 and was absorbed by Take-Two Interactive, who wrote off the Duke Nukem Forever publishing rights as a loss in 2003.

The two companies had worked together on console based Duke Nukem projects without any dramas, but Duke Nukem Forever became a sore point for Take Two as development stretched out into the mid 2000s.

Duke Nukem Forever resurfaced in a new trailer (see below) that 3D Realms presented at E3 2001. The trailer was a huge success – the game looked brilliant, the level of interactivity was beyond anything else on the market and it had that all-important Duke Nukem feel to it. Everyone was blown away, but the new release date of “When it’s done” raised many eyebrows.

That trailer would be the last time Duke Nukem Forever was seen for many years. In 2002, 3D Realms went on a hiring spree, bringing in fresh blood and throwing out an estimated 95% of the work they had done on the game. They switched over to an early version of Unreal Engine 2, though it is believed that 3D Realms had basically rewritten everything except UnrealScript and the net code. Broussard stated that they were never less than two years away from release on the Unreal Tournament engine.

The Original Game
At this point in time, little is known about the original incarnation of Duke Nukem Forever. The game that we’ll be playing on the 10th/13th is said to be substantially different to what was being shown at E3 in 1998 and 2001. Some of the concepts from those versions still exist, but almost everything that 3D Realms had done was thrown out and started over a number of times.

Duke Nukem Forever

An early glimpse of what was in store

As far as we know, Duke Nukem Forever was set in and around Las Vegas, where Duke Nukem had retired to after defeating the alien menace in Duke Nukem 3D. Aliens attack the city and gain control over the Earth Defence Force, a military team sent to counter the alien threat. Duke is coaxed out of retirement by the military to fight the alien threat.

Early talk about the game mentioned Dr Proton returning in the game, but he has never appeared in any trailer. The 1998 trailer shows an armed blonde woman accompanying Duke in some sequences, but she does not appear in the 2001 trailer. The enemies in the 1998 trailer are cockroach-like, whereas they are generally infected humans in the 2001 version.

Gearbox is said to be in possession of all of the work done to date on Duke Nukem Forever, and is considering their options with regards to revealing some of the material. Tidbits of things scrapped during development have come out – Randy Pitchford mentioned that 3D Realms had considered a “gay robot sidekick” for Duke at one point. Company representatives said that they are not sure if they can get any of the old code to run correctly on modern hardware and operating systems, however.

From this point, Duke Nukem Forever began its descent into development hell. It became the butt of all industry jokes, winning Wired Magazine’s Vapourware award eleven times, having been removed from contention for a period (first, when it given the lifetime achievement award, and second when the project was thought to be dead in 2009) until it was added back by popular demand. Broussard got into public spats with publisher Take Two Interactive after CEO Jeffrey Lapin mentioned that he didn’t expect the game to ship in 2003 or 2004.

Development on the game continued, but Broussard refused to show the game to the public, preferring to tease the denizens of the 3D Realms forums. By 2006, reality had begun to sink in – Miller and Broussard became aware of the ridiculousness that Duke Nukem Forever had become. Broussard admitted to journalist Tom Chick in 2006 that they had thrown everything out and started again. Eventually, members of the game’s development team started to leave the project, fearing it would never be completed.

It wasn’t until Brian Hook joined the development team that the project began to gain direction. Broussard went on a hiring spree in order to get the game done. Hook was the first person who pushed back when Broussard questioned adding new features. The size of the team doubled from 18 to 35 and the push toward finishing the game began. Footage of the game leaked at Christmas 2007 as part of a company Christmas card.

All was not rosy at 3D Realms, however. Years of continued development of Duke Nukem Forever had taken a toll on the company’s finances – development of the game was estimated at about $20 million at this point, and they had little to show for it. Shadow Warrior was the last game the company had developed internally, and although they made money selling the Max Payne and Prey IPs, it was getting to be a long time since they had any injections of cash. In October 2007, they headed to New York to strike a funding agreement with Take Two. The deal with Take Two brought them an advance royalty payment of $2.5 million for the development of Duke Nukem Forever against sales of a new Duke Nukem game called Duke Begins, which would be developed by Gearbox Software and published by Take Two by mid 2010.

What sunk 3D Realms?
In 1996, 3D Realms was one of the main forces in PC development. In 2011, they exist as a shadow of their former selves. How did we get from point A to B? These are the factors we believe led to the downfall of 3D Realms.

  • The success of Duke Nukem 3D. All eyes were on 3D Realms, and expectations for the quality of the next Duke Nukem game were through the roof.
  • 3D Realms became reactive rather than proactive in the design of the game. They were continually on the lookout for what the next big thing was, and implementing that into their game. Members of the development team were said to have joked about preventing Broussard from seeing new games.
  • Team size. 3D Realms was operated on what some called “a 1995 mentality”. In an age where development teams number into the hundreds, Duke Nukem Forever’s development team rarely topped 35.
  • Control. George Broussard was the emperor of the development team – what he says, goes. If George wanted something added or removed from the game, it was done.
  • No vision for the final product. It is said that until Brian Hook joined the team, the team didn’t know exactly what they were working towards.
  • Independence. Most development companies have a publisher funding the project to keep them in check, and for whom they need to complete milestones for. 3D Realms was rich with cash and could fund the game themselves.
  • One project. Duke Nukem Forever was the only game being made at 3D Realms. They participated in the development of Max Payne and Prey in a producer role, but they were not making anything else that could bring in fresh cash.

The October 2007 deal was enough to keep development going for a short time, but not enough to get the job done. Between January and April 2009, they visited Take Two seeking an addition $6 million in funding to complete Duke Nukem Forever for the PC, and commence work on an Xbox 360 port. Work on the port had commenced after Take Two promised additional funding for said port. Take Two initially agreed to the same, then lowered it to $5 million, then slashed it in half to $2.5 million. 3D Realms walked away from the deal, and in early May of 2009, released all of their internal development teams.

Lawsuits were flung from both sides – Take Two claimed that they were owed the $12 million they paid to Infogrames to gain the publishing rights, and tried to wrestle the Duke Nukem IP away from 3D Realms as payment. 3D Realms countersued, claiming that Take Two had purposely scuttled development of Duke Begins in order to avoid having to pay further royalties to 3D Realms.

Despite having the development team having been laid off from 3D Realms, work on Duke Nukem Forever continued. Duke co-creator Allen Blum and eight other ex-3DR employees worked on the game from home.

The lawsuit between 3D Realms and Take Two was settled and dismissed in May 2010. 3D Realms approached Gearbox Software to see if they would be able to help Blum’s team complete the game and port it to consoles. Gearbox co-founder Randy Pitchford had previously worked on Duke Nukem: Atomic Edition at 3D Realms, and briefly worked on Duke Nukem Forever before leaving the company. Pitchford picked up the project and provided offices for Blum’s team, now called Triptych Games, to work in. He also approached Take Two label 2K Games with a plan for completing and releasing the game. Suddenly, Duke Nukem Forever was happening again.

The news was announced to the public at the Penny Arcade Expo in September 2010. The game was publicly playable for the first time ever, and received a riotous response. Gearbox heavily promoted the game in the following months, with a May 2011 release eventually revealed – though a slight delay caused a slip to June 2011. After 14 years in development, Duke Nukem Forever is now (finally) available.

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

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