Duke Nukem Forever: What Went Wrong
Finally, it happened. It took 15 years, countless previews, broken promises and more ‘the longest-running jokes in the games industry’ references than anyone could keep track of, but, finally, it happened. Duke Nukem Forever was sitting on store shelves.
Only one problem. It was dire. “Not only is Duke Nukem Forever not worth the wait, it’s not worth any wait. Ten years ago it would have been bad. 15 years ago it wouldn’t have been worth playing. Today? It’s a joke, and one that’s just not funny,” wrote Ian Dransfield in issue 206 of Play.
He’s not the only one who thinks so. “Duke is an 18-rated game made for 13 year olds, and yet it is the gameplay that is the biggest disappointment,” says X360 magazine, while 360 magazine says, “infrequent moments of potential are soiled by bottom-rung production values, sloppy execution and dated design.”
So from the excellent Duke Nukem 3D to its awful sequel Duke Nukem Forever, what actually went wrong? We tracked down the original Duke Nukem 3D team to get their thoughts and find out what they’d do differently, how far Gearbox strayed from the original and how male genitalia almost made it into the game.
While most reviews read like a shopping list of problems, one of the main complaints levelled at Duke Nukem Forever is that the tone is completely off, taking the tongue-in-cheek overtones of Duke Nukem 3D and cranking it up to embarrassing levels.
It was embarrassing for us and even more so for the original team, who agreed that new Duke had gone too far with pushing the crude aspect of the character.
“I was personally not entirely comfortable with that aspect of Duke’s character,” says Duke Nukem 3D’s creative director Greg Malone. “Though in perspective we purposefully kept it at a very low level in Duke Nukem 3D.”
1998: The original Duke Nukem Forever is revealed.
“Our use of Duke’s street-persona characteristics were used more like seasoning on a steak. Just enough, but not too much. I give Duke Nukem 3D’s executive producer George Broussard much credit for seeming to have a good sense of how to strike that balance.”
“It seems, though, that the new Duke has gone over the top with most categories of male-limbic brain language and themes, female exploitation, juvenile bathroom humour and so on.”
“I am sure that the design team of the new Duke Nukem were a fine group of folks, but somewhere along the line they decided that ramping up Duke’s offensiveness would be an easy way to make the game more controversial and fun for those that get into that mentality.”
“As history shows, though, if one relies too much on a simple formulaic gimmick too much, many see right through the manipulation and wind up with an opposite response than desired.”
“I do remember a time when Greg Malone came into my office and asked me to create a ‘gib’ of male genitalia for the game,” explains Stephen Hornback, in charge of the game’s art.
“For the few who don’t know, gibs are body parts that fly when you kill a character in the game. I complied. After work that day I went home to my wife who asked, ‘So what did you do today?’ My answer, ‘Well, I… ummm… hmm.’ Somewhat to my relief, that never made it into the game.”
Another game that was notorious for delays and development trouble was Prey, which was also being made at 3D Realms. Its engine was so far advanced at the time, it may have piled pressure on the Duke Nukem Forever team to come up with something even better and prompted the over-ambition that stalled the game for 15 years.
2001: With a different storyline to the final release, this version of Duke Nukem Forever featured a number of unique ideas.
“I heard talk about Duke Nukem Forever at that time,” says David Demaret, who worked on Duke’s art. “There was a lot of talk and ideas at the time, Quake was just out, things were really hot at 3D Realms.”
“They decided on the title ‘Duke Forever’ immediately and wanted to start work right away but the Prey engine that was being worked on back then… the Prey engine was way ahead of the competition with advanced lighting, destructible environments and portal technology.”
“They started to work on Duke Forever on a modified Build engine (the one used for Duke Nukem 3D) with tons of cool and crazy ideas that couldn’t be possible with original Duke, like using 3D models and a ‘real’ 3D world for a start.”
Programmer Ken Silverman, who left the developer immediately after work on Duke Nukem 3D wrapped up, thought the problem was that the team didn’t really know what they were doing and didn’t have a plan.
“After Atomic (Duke Nukem 3D expansion pack), the Duke team messed a little bit with voxel sprites, but by that time Build was old, my future with 3D Realms was in question and they lacked any direction.” Ouch.
One of the other main grumbles is that Duke Nukem Forever contains an uncomfortable mix of its old design awkwardly meshed together with modern nods to gaming. Yet those who are blaming Gearbox for including those modern touches such as recharging health and the two-weapon limit might be aiming their ire in the wrong direction.
“Oh, the team certainly kicked around similar ideas,” says Malone when asked if they were original touches or Gearbox’s attempt to freshen things up.
2003: The latest build highlighted a darker tone and the new ‘Ego’ Mechanic.
“These are not new concepts to gaming. For instance, I used Karma and other personality traits to represent energy and other capacities in my Moebius series of games a decade earlier.”
“But I do remember well how we chose to keep functions as basic and easy to grasp as possible, preferring to put emphasis on gameplay balance.”
“Some of the initial ideas remained with the game, such as having Duke live in Las Vegas in his own casino,” adds Hornback, reasserting how much of the old vision lives on in the current game.
“I remember doing a bunch of work on textures regarding the Hoover Dam. I think both of those locations are still in the final game. There was also the plan to continue on with Duke’s high level of irreverence.”
So it seems that the Duke Nukem Forever we have now is in some ways the same Duke Nukem Forever that 3D Realms wanted, even if the humour missed the mark. So how do you update Duke Nukem and make it relevant in a world of BioShocks and Battlefields?
“That’s a difficult question,” says Hornback. “Poking fun at himself was something that was appreciated in Duke Nukem Forever by some. Since many of the gamers of the world have become a bit more sophisticated, it might be a good idea to come up with humour that’s a bit more sophisticated.”
“However, this is a razor’s edge. Too much sophistication would ruin Duke’s persona. Gearbox might want to hire some talented writers to come up with some clever lines for Duke if there’s a sequel.”
2007: After years of silence, this teaser trailer reveals some of the final models.
However, Demaret thinks the opposite and says that updating Duke Nukem would go against his character. “Well, he sure is outdated but it’s a trademark after all. Updating his look would feel ‘stupid’ like what they do in Hollywood with their so-called reboots.”
“Duke is Duke and changing it too much would be a huge mistake. Just take a look at the new Dante, for example. For the sake of ‘coolness’ and ‘modernity’ he looks stupid as hell now. So no, except for a little tweak in the clothes, I would keep Duke that way. I think they did a good job with the final Duke Nukem Forever version.”
There are mixed stories about times working at 3D Realms, with the most illuminating coming from Ken Silverman. “I was the engine guy,” he says. “My obsession was all about sectors and frame rate, and not what Duke eats for breakfast on level 17.”
“It was great working with a team of people with a similar drive and goal. I loved seeing others show off their latest stuff. It was also a lot of fun doing network ‘testing’.”
“On the bad side, I hated asking people for rides, as I was too young to rent a car. Sometimes I didn’t eat enough and went home hungry. With multiple teams in the same building, many people stole ideas and feelings were hurt.”
“What I remember most is George Broussard sitting behind someone, stealing a fry, sipping his coke, and saying ‘cool’ to something while not appreciating the work that went into it.”
We then ask what he thinks of Duke Nukem Forever now it’s out. “I would like to wish success to Allen Blum (assistant director). Beyond that, I don’t really care. I have not played the game.” Ouch.
2011: Duke Nukem Forever is finally released, 14 years after development began.
Yet most of the team seems to have got along. Demaret says he still talks to some of the old Duke Nukem guys and happily reels off anecdotes off his time there.
“I’m a French guy and as you know we love eating food and baguettes,” says Demaret, happily conforming to stereotype. “Having to live in Dallas was really hard for me.”
“One day Richard Gray (Duke Nukem 3D level designer) and I went to a sandwich store named Subway. Of course, I’d never heard of it. I saw what was on display and the different ‘breads’ that they had on display, I immediately said out loud ‘that eez not bread, that eez shit!’ with a typical French accent!”
“I was really shocked because we love bread so much in France. Richard laughed his ass off and told that story to the whole team… we always talk about that episode.”
But ultimately, it comes down to one thing – Duke Nukem Forever just isn’t that good. The pacing is poor, the difficulty uneven and the execution awful.
It falls awkwardly between old-school first-person shooters (Unreal Tournament III, Serious Sam 3) and the new modern breed of cinematic shooters (Modern Warfare, Battlefield, Homefront).
Silverman doesn’t want to get drawn into the argument of whether modern-day Duke Nukem Forever is any good, having not played it. “I was not too involved with the content of Duke,” he says.
“I can only comment on the Build engine. They rarely suggested ideas that weren’t already in some other game, such as Quake.” He does, surprisingly, suggest that it was multiplayer and not single-player that created the Duke legacy to begin with.
Boss fights were just one of the disappointments of Duke Nukem Forever.
Likewise, Hornback hasn’t played Duke Nukem Forever but he’s followed its progress (“I have read many of the reviews, including Play magazine’s”) and he thinks that Duke Nukem could be updated to fit into modern gaming’s new era.
“I haven’t played Duke Nukem Forever because I’ve been busy working on Din’s Curse but I believe Duke can be brought into the 21st Century,” he says. “It will take a bit of clear thinking, but I believe that Gearbox can take Duke to the next level.”
“For example, James Bond is still quite popular and is the only character I know who could emerge from a horrific fight still wearing a neatly pressed tuxedo.”
“Bond has been updated over the years, and Duke should receive the same treatment. Fans of the franchise would appreciate it.” Yet the last word falls to Greg Malone, who feels that while critics may have been unfair, it was also the fault of those who took over Duke Nukem Forever for not coming up with a good enough game.
“I do wish the Duke Nukem Forever developers better long-term luck than they seem to have had so far, in terms of the mixed reception,” he says. “I know they must’ve put in a tremendous amount of effort.”
“It is possible that they were too close to the trees to see the forest in terms of making it a fun game, and, as I said earlier, they may have relied too much on the potty-mouth gimmick for the game’s own good.
“I do suspect that with the infamous 15-year spectacle of DNF (also known as Did Not Finish) struggling to reach the market, the reviewers have been sharpening their knives in anticipation of finding fault with the game. That said, again, it’s up to the designers to counter that possibility with an extraordinary design effort.”