How Success Killed Duke Nukem

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Clive Thompson explains how success killed Duke Nukem:

To videogame fans, that logo is instantly recognizable. It’s the insignia of Duke Nukem 3D, a computer game that revolutionized shoot-’em-up virtual violence in 1996. Featuring a swaggering, steroidal, wisecracking hero, Duke Nukem 3D became one of the top-selling videogames ever, making its creators very wealthy and leaving fans absolutely delirious for a sequel. The team quickly began work on that sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, and it became one of the most hotly anticipated games of all time.

It was never completed. Screenshots and video snippets would leak out every few years, each time whipping fans into a lather — and each time, the game would recede from view. Normally, videogames take two to four years to build; five years is considered worryingly long. But the Duke Nukem Forever team worked for 12 years straight. As one patient fan pointed out, when development on Duke Nukem Forever started, most computers were still using Windows 95, Pixar had made only one movie — Toy Story — and Xbox did not yet exist.

On May 6, 2009, everything ended. Drained of funds after so many years of work, the game’s developer, 3D Realms, told its employees to collect their stuff and put it in boxes. The next week, the company was sued for millions by its publisher for failing to finish the sequel.

Sometimes you need to learn to let go — which is hard to do when you’ve learned to set ludicrously high expectations, and you have the money to burn:

When Duke Nukem 3D came out, Broussard’s Duke Nukem engine — called Build — produced the best-looking game around. Barely a year later, though, it looked antiquated. Broussard’s key rival in the Dallas gaming scene, id Software, had announced its Quake II engine, which produced graphics that made Build seem blocky and crude. Broussard decided to license the Quake II engine, figuring it would save him precious time; programming an engine from scratch can take years. Though 3D Realms never confirmed how much it paid for the license — Miller referred to it as “a truckload of money” on a gaming news site — the price was said to be as high as $500,000. When the engine was released in December 1997, Broussard’s team quickly began creating game levels, monsters, and weapons around it.

By May 1998, the team had created enough material to show off at E3, the annual videogame industry convention. Duke Nukem Forever was set in Vegas; in the game’s plot, Duke operates a strip club and then has to fight off invading aliens. Broussard showed a trailer featuring a dozen different scenes, including Duke fighting on the back of a moving truck, jet airplanes crashing, and furious firefights with aliens. Critics were awed: “It sets a new benchmark for making a 3-D game more like a Hollywood movie,” Newsday proclaimed. Broussard was clearly obsessed with making his product as aesthetically appealing as possible. When he brought a few journalists over to a computer to show off bits of the game, he pointed out the way you could see individual wrinkles on characters’ faces and mused over how to make his campfire more realistic. (”As soon as we mix in some white smoke and some black smoke, I think we’ll be there,” he said.)

Behind the scenes, though, Broussard was already unhappy with the results and was craving better technology. A few months after the Quake II engine was released, another competitor, Epic MegaGames, unveiled a rival engine called Unreal. Its graphics were more realistic still, and Unreal was better suited to crafting wide-open spaces. 3D Realms was struggling mightily to get Quake II to render the open desert around Las Vegas. One evening just after E3, while the team sat together, a programmer threw out a bombshell: Maybe they should switch to Unreal? “The room got quiet for a moment,” Broussard recalled. Switching engines again seemed insane — it would cost another massive wad of money and require them to scrap much of the work they’d done.

But Broussard decided to make the change. Only weeks after he showed off Duke Nukem Forever, he stunned the gaming industry by announcing the shift to the Unreal engine. “It was effectively a reboot of the project in many respects,” Chris Hargrove, then one of the game’s programmers, told me (though he agreed with the decision). Broussard soon began pushing for even more and cooler game-building tools: He ripped out the ceiling of a room at the 3D Realms office to assemble a motion-capture lab, which would help his team in rendering “complex motions like strippers,” he noted on the 3D Realms Web site.

Broussard simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of Duke Nukem Forever coming out with anything other than the latest and greatest technology and awe-inspiring gameplay. He didn’t just want it to be good. It had to surpass every other game that had ever existed, the same way the original Duke Nukem 3D had.

But because the technology kept getting better, Broussard was on a treadmill. He’d see a new game with a flashy graphics technique and demand the effect be incorporated into Duke Nukem Forever. “One day George started pushing for snow levels,” recalls a developer who worked on Duke Nukem Forever for several years starting in 2000. Why? “He had seen The Thing” — a new game based on the horror movie of the same name, set in the snowbound Antarctic — “and he wanted it.” The staff developed a running joke: If a new title comes out, don’t let George see it. When the influential shoot-’em-up Half-Life debuted in 1998, it opened with a famously interactive narrative sequence in which the player begins his workday in a laboratory, overhearing a coworker’s conversation that slowly sets a mood of dread. The day after Broussard played it, an employee told me, the cofounder walked into the office saying, “Oh my God, we have to have that in Duke Nukem Forever.”

Broussard and Miller had spent $20 million of their own money on Duke Nukem Forever before they went hat in hand to Take-Two, their game publisher, to ask for $6 million to help finish the game. They didn’t get it.

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