The whole Duke Nukem Forever thing has become a bit of a running joke within the games industry for quite some time now, but after countless delays it's almost ready to be unleashed. We had the chance to speak to Gearbox Software President Randy Pitchford recently to discuss, among other things, the delays, possible media backlash, and John St. John...
I have to believe that if there was a simple thing that could’ve changed to prevent the delays that those guys would’ve done that thing
Click: Can you tell our readers about your involvement with Duke Nukem Forever?
RP: I’m the President of Gearbox Software, new owner of the Duke Nukem franchise and Executive Producer of Duke Nukem Forever.
Click: For those who haven’t been following for the last decade and a half, could you give our readers a brief synopsis on what they can expect from Duke Nukem Forever in May?
RP: Duke Nukem is the ultimate action hero. Unfortunately, it’s been over a decade since we really spent time with Duke. After he saved the world back then, he sort of went into retirement as the most famous, wealthy and successful man on Earth. However, as he is enjoying the life he has so rightfully earned, the aliens come back and plan to take over the planet but Duke will stand in their way. You will become Duke Nukem and save the world.
Click: Were you familiar with the franchise before you started work on it?
RP: A lot of people don’t know this, but my first experience as a professional game maker was when I moved to Texas in the mid-1990’s to join 3D Realms and become part of the Duke Nukem 3D team. I left 3D Realms in 1997, shortly after Duke Nukem Forever began development and soon after founded Gearbox Software where I’ve been waiting, like everyone else, for Duke Nukem Forever to finally ship so that I could play and enjoy it as a fan.
Click: How complete was Duke Nukem Forever when it came to Gearbox, in terms of plot, levels, weapons, etc?
RP: The vision of the narrative game was very complete by the time Gearbox got involved.
Click: It must be slightly surreal to getting ready to wrap up a game like Duke Nukem Forever after such an incredibly long and well documented development cycle?
RP: I’ve tried to describe what it’s like before, but I don’t believe the English llanguage is sufficient to convey the feelings involved.
Click: How tough is it for a new developer to come in and take over a project that is already well underway?
RP: There are challenges, without a doubt but those challenges are very stimulating and interesting. Solving interesting problems is one of the great rewards of being a game developer and shipping Duke Nukem Forever is certainly one of the most interesting challenges the game industry has ever known.
Click: With some of the 3D Realms Duke team involved with Gearbox on the game, have you found it tricky to integrate your own ideas into the game’s development without being at odds with the vision they had for the game, or were they open to any ideas you guys threw at them?
RP: My goal when I acquired the brand and the game has not been to turn it into my thing. Rather, my goal has been to make sure that we and the entire gaming world can finally play the game we’ve been waiting so long to play. So the commitment has been to support and follow-through with the vision for the game that was created, developed and iterated on at 3D Realms. Sure, there were a few creative solutions to some of the unique challenges that come with finishing and shipping this game and that has required Gearbox’s guys to be clever and inventive, but it’s always been within the goal of supporting what 3D Realms was creating; the game we’ve been denied of for so many years.
Click: Do you worry that with the level of hype surrounding it some disappointment is almost inevitable, no matter how kick ass the final game is?
RP: I can’t allow myself to think about that. We do have standards for quality, but we cannot go around second guessing everything or the game will have to get delayed for years again. Besides, I’ve played the game and it is undeniably, great and incredibly fun. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been entertained so much by a video game – probably not since Duke Nukem 3D.
Click: Any chance you can finally put the big question to bed for us... what the hell caused all the delays?
RP: You know, I’ve thought about that question a lot and I have a lot of good insight into the people and a lot of information about the software itself and I have to say that I really can’t put my finger on a simple answer to that. There have always been so many smart and talented people that have been really motivated to do a great job and who deliver great results. I have to believe that if there was a simple thing that could’ve changed to prevent the delays that those guys would’ve done that thing. I think at any given moment, the decisions those guys made were decisions those guys felt were right for their situation.
Click: How many times, roughly, would you say that game got to the stage of being “almost finished” in the past 15 years?
RP: Just once. Right now.
Click: Has it just been the technical side of the game that has continually changed, or has the storyline suffered a similar fate on the road to completion?
RP: The top-line story, interestingly enough, hasn’t really changed much from even when I was still on the team in 1997. The high level point and situation is the same as I remember what we were discussing back then. The details have changed over and over as the guys involved came up with better and better ideas. We had the means and motivation to iterate and improve but the theme and situation has persisted through all of it, so that’s really interesting.
Click: Given the outrage from Fox News and other reactionary media outlets to Bulletstorm, are you guys preparing for a similar backlash given the Duke’s penchant for tits and guns?
RP: I don’t know how one would prepare for such things, but there certainly seems to be a number of folks that are anticipating that there will be some controversy there. We think the game is just super entertaining and we know that edgy material always tends to get the attention of some more conservative aspects of society. I think in the end, though, that all free people respect the importance of expression in arts and entertainment and so it all tends to work itself out.
Click: Are you worried that the sense of humour may be lost on some people?
RP: Actually, no. The game is super funny, but even if it had no humor, it’s really a good game. There are incredible action moments and some really fun challenges and other unconventional game play that provides a sense of variety and experience that we’re really not used to seeing any more. On a lot of levels, it’s a great ride. The comedy works great when it is there; the game is amazingly fun just on its design merits.
Click: A high level of focus has clearly been placed on interactivity within the game’s environment, which helps to make the game stand out in today’s repetitive FPS market. Was this your way of saying “you know what... we’re going to shake up the status quo here and give players something a little different”?
RP: Actually, interactivity was one of the places where Duke Nukem 3D really stood out from the crown and, in fact, there aren’t really any games that have matched or exceeded that level of interactivity since then.
So, now comes along Duke Nukem Forever which takes that goal of interactivity to an entirely new level. It’s really astonishing how entertaining and memorable these interactive moments are as you discover them throughout the game.
Click: Was there much convincing needed to get John St. John back on board?
RP: Jon has lent so much personality and flavor to Duke Nukem, it would hardly feel right doing it without him. I think he felt the same way and we’ve had a lot of fun working together again on this project. He’s got Balls of Steel!
Click: It’s far from an ugly game but seems to lack some of the graphical sheen of other next gen titles – was there a sense in which you were tied to older technology and was there ever a point where you had to decide between (another) engine upgrade and actually getting the game out this year?
RP: I know what you’re saying. I think the game looks great for what it does. Everyone has the same system resources to work with and Duke Nukem Forever fully utilizes every ounce of power that the system can give it. The thing is that Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t just spend all of the power on the image – it spends a lot of power on the simulation and on interactivity and things you just don’t see in a lot of games anymore. When the area is more controlled and confined, such as in the stadium, a lot more of the system can be spent on the graphics and the fidelity of the scene and in my opinion it looks as good or better than most of the stuff you’re seeing out there that is actually coming out. The larger areas of the game or the areas with lots of interactive stuff are smart to make the tradeoffs in order to give that level of feedback and interactivity. Play for about five minutes and you’ll find yourself just being caught up in it. If you play the game just thinking about judging it and looking really hard for signs that it’s a game that has been in development for a long time, you’re going to be able to find things. But here’s a secret: you can do that with every game! If you really want to do apples to apples, you can look at the stadium scene and you can compare that to some of the best looking games out there and realize that Duke, honestly, looks really good now. It is about your frame of mind and what you want out of the experience. Duke Nukem Forever looks great, but Duke has never been about trying to be the best graphics on the planet. Duke has always been about a one-of-a-kind over the top experience that you just cannot get anywhere else.
Click: Are you finding you have to re-educate gaming audiences unfamiliar with the franchise?
RP: Surprisingly, everyone seems to know who Duke Nukem is. He’s become this super, larger than life figure that is and has been an important piece to gaming culture. He’s like our Chuck Norris – not just a character, but a meme. It’s really interesting to consider that, especially when we think about where Duke came from and what he represents. I think it’s because he’s just so over the top, was the original video game badass and is gloriously one-dimensional. I love him. I think we all do in a way.
Click: And finally, any chance we’ll not have to wait 15 years for the next one?
RP: Who knew that forever was such a long time, right?