Duke Nukem Forever: A Tortured History

Duke Nukem Forever: A Tortured History

The life, death and rebirth of Duke Nukem Forever would make for great movie fodder. Explosions, zombies, resurrection…what more would any movie studio need?

Sure, a movie studio would have a field day with the story of Duke Nukem Forever, but most gamers are only interested in the title’s tangled history because they want to know why they were denied the game for so long. What stalled the Duke’s busy career for 14 years? Why are Gearbox and 2K Games bringing him back? Most importantly, we’ve all got a lot of games on our plate (busy busy busy!). Is anyone going to hail to the Duke when he shakes off the cobwebs and comes out to play on May 3?

Duke Nukem Forever is a hard game to ignore outright because in a strange way, we at least owe it a second glance. After the game’s initial announcement in 1997, it changed developers and was bumped back so many times that it became the industry’s premier example of “vaporware:” A promised piece of hardware or software that never seems to materialize on store shelves. We laughed, we poked fun. But now that Duke Nukem Forever is a solid, real thing, it feels like the joke is on us, somehow–even though we’re blameless for the long spells of indecision that ultimately hobbled the Duke.

1997-1998 — The Duke was still in the hands of his creators, Scott Miller and George Broussard at 3D Realms. 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D had been a smash hit, and 3D Realms was rich in resources. Time for another Duke Adventure? Oh, yes: Time for Duke Nukem Forever. To save time, Miller and Broussard bought a license for the Quake II engine, which didn’t come cheap. Broussard funded the game’s development themselves, and gave the marketing and publishing responsibilities to GT Interactive.

The first trailer for Duke Nukem Forever appeared at E3 1998. Critics were impressed, but Broussard believed he could do better.

1998-2002 — At E3, someone suggested that Broussard should switch to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, which allowed for much more realistic-looking games than the Quake II engine. Broussard agreed to the switch, which meant more time and money consumed–though Broussard promised that Duke Nukem Forever would only be delayed by six weeks at the most. Realistically, however, nearly all the work the developers had achieved up to that point had to be scrapped.

1999 came and went, and still no Duke. Broussard told his critics that game development was far more complex than it had been two years ago. He then tortured himself and his staff further by attempting to adopt every new concept unveiled by other games. This also resulted in him upgrading to a new version of the Unreal Engine that would allow for multiplayer matches. Meanwhile, GT Interactive was bought out by Infogrames Entertainment, and the publishing rights to Duke Nukem Forever were transferred over to Gathering of Developers in 2000.

At E3 2001, Broussard released another Duke Nukem Forever trailer, and critics were again impressed. Developers hoped that Broussard would push to finish the game, but he appeared to be lacking a vision of the final product.

On the publishing side of things, Gathering of Gamers shut down its Texas offices and was absorbed into its parent company, Take-Two Interactive. Then the fun began.

2003-2006 — Up until this point, Broussard and Miller hadn’t experienced much pressure from a publisher since they were funding Duke Nukem Forever themselves. When Take-Two CEO Jeffrey Lapin reported in 2003 that Take-Two was writing off $5.5 million that year because of Duke Nukem Forever‘s delays, Broussard responded on Shacknews with an angry declaration that Lapin needed to “STFU,” and that he and Miller believed in the project, which would be done “when it was done.”

More delays followed, as well as rumors that Broussard had switched to the Doom 3 engine. Broussard denied the claim.

Between 2005 and 2006, approximately seven to ten fed-up developers left 3D Realms. Given the tiny team size to begin with (less than 20 warm bodies), this proved a problem.

2007-2009 — Several new hires were brought on through a game ad posted on Gamasutra, and a new trailer was released in 2007. Broussard still wouldn’t commit to a solid release date, but he promised the press that the end was in sight. More footage came to the fore in 2008.

Not surprisingly, funding for Duke Nukem Forever was beginning to dry up. Broussard and Miller had spent $20 million of their own money, and asked Take-Two to spot them $6 million. Take-Two offered $2.5 million up front, and another $2.5 million upon the game’s completion. Broussard rejected their offer, and suspended development on May 6, 2009

2009-2010 — The Duke Nukem Forever team was let go, and 3D Realms downsized. Take-Two said it owned the game’s rights, but had no plans to continue funding its development. Take-Two and 3D Realms went to court over the incomplete game, and the two companies settled on June 11, 2010.

2010-2011 — Though development on Duke Nukem Forever had been canceled, the Duke lived a secret life through a handful of ex-developers who worked on the game out of their houses. The ex-employees eventually formed Triptych Games, which has offices in the same building as Gearbox Software. Triptych convinced Gearbox to help complete the game’s development and put the Duke’s soul to rest. Gearbox convinced 2K Games (a subsidiary of Take-Two) to let them finish development and release Duke Nukem Forever across multiple platforms.

As things stand now, Gearbox owns the Duke Nukem IP, having bought it from 3D Realms. 2K Games will be publishing Duke Nukem Forever. The rest is history in the making.

Few game properties have struggled like Duke Nukem Forever, and fewer have had their stories publicized so thoroughly. Will anyone care about the game when it comes out on May 3? Well, it’s hard to look away from it. Even if you’re not a fan of the Duke or FPS games, you kind of want to hug the title like a lost dog; it’s fought so hard just to exist.

For that reason, when Duke Nukem Forever releases, it’ll have an entire industry eying it curiously. The real question at hand is whether or not the game will grant the franchise any kind of staying power in an industry that’s not short on first person shooters.

(Special Thanks: CVG)

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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