Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever: Development History !

If you are a video game fan, specifically a fan of the shooter genera you have in all likelihood heard of Duke Nukem. His roots started simply enough as a 2D platforming shooter in Duke 1 and Duke 2 but it was not until the 1996 release of Duke Nukem 3D that the character received both critical and commercial success. The studio behind the game, 3D Realms and series creator George Broussard where quick to announce the games successor Duke Nukem Forever. Twelve long years later and after one of the weirdest development cycles in the history of video games, Duke is finally back. Today we are going to take a special look back at one of the longest, strangest development cycles of any video game ever created.


Duke Nukem Forever is a game like none other, with a development history unlike anything seen before and a story that everyone must hear to truly understand why this game is the way it is. I feel that it would be unfair to simply neglect the twelve to fourteen years wroth of ups, downs, restarts, all together cancellations, and self resurrections that have been Duke Nukem Forever. So before I even begin to start with the game review (which will come in the form of another article at a later date) we first have to take a trip to the year 1996. In a time long before Call of Duty and Halo. A time when first person shooters were almost exclusive to the PC. The Playstation was in its infancy and the Nintendo 64 was just hitting the market. Duke Nukem 3D had just been released and developer 3D Realms was living the high life. Things could not have been better.

Duke 3D was a revolutionary title that managed to separate itself apart from an endless stream of Doom clones by providing a decidedly adult title, filled with strippers and plenty of alien maggots to blow to pieces with the help of pipe bombs, shrink rays, freeze guns, and a devastating shotgun among a host of other weapons. The game provided a level of interactivity not seen before and a unique since of humor that made Duke a character like none other. In stark contrast to Doom's nameless, faceless Space Marine... Duke Nukem was crude, rude, and in your face. He was instantly memorable and easily quotable (even if most of his lines were simply lifted from popular 80s action cinema) and gave the game a certain personality that a lot of titles still struggle to achieve to this very day. Duke was king and we where all more than willing to bow down.

So naturally 3D Realms was quick to announce a sequel to Duke Nukem 3D and in April of 1997 Duke Nukem Forever is officially born. 3D Realms takes out a license on id Software's Quake II engine and publisher GT Interactive is officially on board to publish the title. It is an innocent start to what would be a long road to completion. Work progressed at a seemingly normal pace on the Quake II version of Duke Nukem Forever including a E3 demo showed off in May of 1998. Everything seemed fine on the surface... that is until the first real key important date in Duke's development history comes along. June 15th of 1998, 3D Realms announces that they will be dropping the Quake II engine and switching the game to Epic's Unreal engine.

George Broussard, one of the key members of 3D Realms and co-creator of Duke Nukem, can be quoted as saying: "We don't feel there will be a significant development delay" and shoots for a target release date of 1999. Looking back and knowing the ultimate fate of the games over-extended development cycle, one would have to question the decision to show off an E3 demo of the Quake build of the game in May only to announce a month later in June that your dumping everything and switching to the Unreal engine? Maybe George Broussard and the rest of 3D Realms didn't realize how much of a setback the engine switch would be. Though they are professional game designers, so I find it a little hard to believe they didn't fully understand the repercussions of switching the games engine mid-development cycle.

More than likely what happened was 3D Realms seen everything else that was shown off at that years E3 and suddenly realized that their vision for Duke Nukem Forever wasn't coming true. For you see the plan all along was to make this the best first person shooter and to have the most interactive environments. Duke was going to be the biggest and baddest title ever released and when 3D Realms looked at the current Quake build of the title, they realized that while the game may have been fun, it may have been memorable, it will probably sell millions of copies and secure the company's future... it was not the best shooter ever made. Upon realizing this the switch was made to the Unreal engine. Because unlike the slightly dated Quake technology... they could really push all those envelopes and make Duke Nukem Forever king. This would be the first in a string of questionable decisions made by George Broussard.

The supposed target year of 1999 arrives and Scott Miller, another key figure within 3D Realms, announces that Duke Nukem Forever will make use of improvements made to the Unreal engine that were developed for Unreal Tournament. In October of 1999 he asks fans for name ideas for the inevitable Duke Nukem sequel. This is where things start to split and the game starts to take on a public side and a private side. In public form, we have seen an E3 demo (for the Quake build of the game... but it was a demo none-the-less) and we have been assured that the switch to Unreal tech will not significantly delay the title. This coupled with the fact that Scott Miller is asking about sequel names would lead your average fan to believe that Duke Nukem Forever is right around the corner. However privately we are seeing the first instance of a game (Unreal Tournament) directly influencing and altering the development cycle of Duke Nukem Forever. Remember Duke has to be the best game ever and if Unreal Tournament does it well then damn it Duke Nukem Forever is going to do it too!

Publicly in November of 1999 we get our first look at the new Unreal powered version of the game. And it looks fantastic. Any criticisms that anyone had prior about the scrapping of the Quake engine and the switch to Unreal tech were quickly laid to rest. It really looked like 3D Realms had made the right decision and everything should be right on track. Privately, what really happened was everything from the Quake build of the game got scrapped. Duke Nukem Forever was going through its first over-haul. While various concepts may have survived from the Quake to Unreal switch, almost everything else was dumped. There would be no possible way for the game to ship in 1999 because in essence there was no game to be shipped. The early years of the games development history had been a complete waste of time. I know what 3D Realms was thinking, with no possible way to ship the game in 1999 by releasing some screenshots of the new Unreal powered version of Duke Nukem Forever everybody would see how cool the new game looked and realize that it would be worth the wait. Unfortunately for them the general public interpreted this as a sign that the game was near completion.

Duke Nukem Forever's then publisher GT Interactive gets bought out by a company known as Infogrames who in turn sells the publishing rights to Duke Nukem Forever to Gathering of Developers, a publishing studio which is a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive. Are you guys following all of this? It's hard telling what happened to Duke during the time that it switched hands from GT Interactive, to Infograms, to Gathering of Developers. It would be easy to suspect that with each eventual switch, George Broussard, Scott Miller, and the rest of 3D Realms had to make some sort of presentation to their new owners showing them what Duke Nukem Forever was all about. Anyone who has worked with these upper management types knows that in all likelihood each time the game shifted publishers they got a new, specific set of instructions on things to change, things to improve, and things to cut from the title. Your game cannot do this. Duke cannot say that. Why isn't it more like this? It's easy to imagine this being a very frustrating process for 3D Realms and George Broussard to go through. After all, they are just trying to make the best game possible. Not answer to a bunch of suits who have probably never played a Duke Nukem game in the first place.

This brings us all the way up to May 17th of 2001. Another key date in the development cycle of Duke Nukem Forever. Someone, somewhere along the lines (and probably not coming from the 3D Realms side of things) has decided that Duke needs to be shown off at this years E3. So a video package is shown and it is, no pun intended, epic. Once again to your average fan the game looks like it has to be near completion. After all the game has been in development since April of 1997 and here it is May of 2001 and we just seen a gorgeous E3 trailer. Surely it will be out holiday of 2001 or early first quarter 2002 at the latest. But remember the game has only technically been in development since April of 1997. Remember that engine switch? That early Quake build of the game? All that work is no longer relevant to the 2001 version of Duke Nukem Forever. Technically (a word we will get used to here very shortly) this version of the game has only been in development since the Unreal switch in June of 1998. It would be a pretty good assumption that the remainder of 1998 was used to get the development team up to speed on how to code for the new version of the game as well as it being taken all the way back to the planning stages of the game, in order to figure out how to best utilize the new Unreal tech. After-all there is no point in licensing new tech if you are not going to find cool new inventive ways of using it right? So technically the game had really only seen two rough years of work done on it by the time that 2001 E3 demo had arrived. Privately the game still needs lots of work... but public perception is that it is close to finished. Our split between the games public life and private life has now grown to quite a large gap.

Another wrench is thrown into Duke Nukem Forever's development cycle when in August of 2001 Gathering of Developers closes its doors and Take-Two Interactive takes over as publisher of the game. Take-Two states that the game will not be released until 2002 at the earliest. Proving my theory that since the Unreal switch the game only really had two rough years of development under its belt. 2001 comes and goes and public reception of the game is still high as are expectations. 2002 comes and goes and as we learned much later the vast majority of what the team had been working on since the original Unreal switch was now scrapped... again. Entire levels were thrown out. Ideas and concepts were completely trashed. And everything would more or less be taken all the way back to the conceptual stage of design... again. Once again the entire 2001 Duke Nukem Forever E3 trailer was completely meaningless. It represented work on a game that was now no longer in existence. It had to be painful and deflating for anyone who worked at 3D Realms to see both versions of the game get thrown away.

So why scrap an entire build of the game that looked so promising? Much like everything else related to Duke Nukem Forever there is a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short version is that internally the game stopped updating their code at Unreal tech version 220, a supposedly buggy version of the engine that caused many problems for 3D Realms and its team of developers (which is now estimated to being around thirty different people working on the title). The long answer, well it's because of Halo: Combat Evolved. For you see when Halo was released in November of 2001 it was a game changer. Not only was it one of the first FPS titles to be a console exclusive, but it did far better than anything else before it. Halo changed the industry, it forced players to choose between only two weapons at a time. It featured regenerating health and brought about the next evolution of online multiplayer titles. It did all of this on the Microsoft Xbox and without the need for a dedicated (and often times expensive) PC gaming rig. By comparison Duke Nukem Forever was dated, it still allowed players to carry ten weapons at a time, it was still using archaic level design that utilized health packs and armor systems, and while the game probably did feature your basic "Duke Match" style of multiplayer it was noplace near as innovative as what Halo brought to the table, worst of all it was being designed to run only on high end PC's and clearly the industry was shifting towards console dominance. Once again Duke Nukem Forever was being bested by some other series and damn it that just wasn't going to happen! Not in the eyes of George Broussard. Painful as it sounds the 2001 version of Duke Nukem Forever was scratched and another version would have to be made, one that could compete in this modern market  right along Halo.

Duke was going to be the king and the only way for that to happen was to create an even bigger and even badder version of the now five year old "concept". Because basically that is all that Duke Nukem Forever had been up until this point, is a concept. Sure there had been some work done along the way and a couple of engine changes ago there were parts of a Quake powered version of the game and a couple years later some parts for an Unreal powered version of the game but nothing that could every really be considered "close to completion" Duke Nukem Forever was always an idea, an ever evolving and changing idea of what it means to be a perfect game. The problem is that anytime it got close (or even half way) to being done... something else stepped in front of it and it was no longer perfect. I have full faith that if the Quake version of Duke was released it would have been fun and a great experience to have. I have full faith that if the 2001 Unreal version of Duke was released it also would have been awesome and probably a huge commercial success. Would either game have been perfect? No. But that's no the point of Duke Nukem, the fans never wanted perfection... we just wanted strippers and aliens to blow up with a little Duke attitude thrown in the mix.

This long and winding path brings us up to 2004 when a Take-Two CEO claims that the game will be running off from id's Doom 3 technology. George Broussard is swift to deny this rumor. These are our first signs that there is clearly some confusing going on between developer 3D Realms and publisher Take-Two interactive. I've a feeling that Take-Two really didn't know what 3D Realms had been doing all these years while 3D Realms mostly felt like they should just be left alone to work on there pet project. Because technically (there is that word again!) Duke Nukem Forever had been a self funded project. Remember this for later on in the games history.

So it's 2005 now (and I'm a senior in High School for anyone wondering) and everyone at this point pretty much accepts the fact that the game is probably not going to be coming out anytime soon. Even the most dedicated Duke fans knew this, I remember the forms over on 3D Realms falling silent. Those of us who were left would talk, mostly about other things, only occasionally bringing up Duke Nukem Forever. Most wondered if anything had ever been worked on while others seemed to hold out hope that the game would be released. It was announced in 2004 that Duke was switching it's physics engine. It's not exactly clear when the switch was made from the 2001 bug-filled Unreal engine to the current engine that powers the game but it is believed to have happened sometime in 2004 or 2005. This leaves a strange gap in Dukes development history where from 2002-2004 nobody is really quite sure what they were working on at 3D Realms. What we do know is that the physics engine switch was done because Duke was trying to keep up with the recently released Half Life 2. Yet another example of a game being released (Half Life 2) that was so influential on the gaming industry that if Duke Nukem Forever didn't upgrade it's core mechanics would feel dated in comparison. Of course during this time when 3D Realms should have been basically apologizing to fans for taking so long and thanking us for sticking around, they took to teasing us all with little thumbnail images of Duke Nukem (such as the one above) and making a mockery of everyone who had faith in them every April 1st releasing progressively un-funnier jokes about the state of the game.

Which begs yet another question. What engine is powering Duke Nukem Forever? Do you want the short answer or the long answer? Well the game is still powered by Unreal technology... the specific version, well much like everything else surrounding this game that falls into a gray area of sorts. Most people define it as Unreal 2.5 meaning that it's some hybrid version of Unreal that's been heavily modified by 3D Realms to be better than Unreal 2 ... but not as good as Unreal 3. So why would the studio spend so much time modifying someone elses engine when they probably could have just as easily created there own? When it was apparent that Unreal 2 would not be sufficient why even bother writing over top of it and save yourself some precious development time and make the switch to Unreal 3? George Broussard said it best when he said: "mistakes have been made along the way." The fact is there are no answers for why anything was done the way it was. It's all apart of the long, weird road that is Duke Nukem Forever. Exactly how much of the buggy 2001 Unreal engine survived into the current build of the game? It's anyone's guess, really. I'm sure bits and pieces of it are in there someplace. They had to be working on something during the time frame from the 2001 E3 trailer to the physics engine switch in 2004 and if I had to guess there was a lot of long nights spent stripping the Unreal 2 engine to its core and bandaging on bits and pieces of code until it got to something that resembles what the game is capable of doing today.

2006 marked the first time that 3D Realms appeared to be having any major problems. As it had been reported that several employees had left the company. The team which once comprised of thirty or so members had now shrunk clear down to around 18. Worse still in April of 2006 Computer Game Magazine visits the 3D Realms HQ and reports that they are only shown  "pieces of the game in progress and tech demos", such as "an early level, a vehicle sequence, a few test rooms." confirming suspicion that the game had been restarted from the 2001 E3 trailer to yet another build of the game. For those keeping score at home we have the early Quake build (version 1), the 2001 E3 build (version 2), and now a new version of the game that is apparently really early in the design process (version 3). So while technically it is the year 2006 and the game was officially announced all the way back in 1997 so it theoretically makes the game nine years in development that is really not the case. Duke Nukem Forever had been started, stopped, and completely overhauled twice before. The current build of the game only has about a year development at the time Computer Game Magazine seen it in April of 2006.

December 19th 2007 is another keynote date in Duke Nukem Forever's now long delayed and far overdue development cycle. As 3D Realms releases a small teaser trailer. While only showing little gameplay footage it is the first time in over six years that the public has seen or heard anything significant from the game. Public perception is high but skeptical as to wither or not 3D Realms can actually deliver this time around. The last official bit of good news that we would get from 3D Realms comes at the end of the recent port of Duke 3D to Xbox Live Arcade, in the from of two brand new screenshots from Duke Forever. As May 7th 2009 3D Realms is forced to shut down its doors citing "funding issues" even though earlier George Broussard himself claimed that the game was self funded. In other words the company had blown a lot of money and instead of making one or two really good Duke Nukem titles they instead opted to create a proverbial perfect title that was impossible to finish.

And this, my friends, is where things start to get interesting. You see what happened next would ultimately be one of the final blows to Duke Nukem Forever. With the entire development team laid off the project, Take-Two Interactive decided (and probably rightfully so) that enough was enough and sued 3D Realms for "the failure to complete Duke Nukem Forever" on May 14th of 2009. Development of the game was now officially at a stand still, which for a game that was already based on tech that was aging every single day and design concepts that were not getting any fresher... a complete stop in its development cycle is not a good thing to have had happened to it.

Of course this game being Duke Nukem Forever it didn't just simply die, even though Take-Two and the games long standing development studio 3D Realms were fighting it out tooth and nail in the United States legal system. Somehow, some way, nine of the games key developers (including Allen Blum) started working on the game from there own personal houses in 2009, forming an independent development studio called Triptych Games. The 3D Realms / Take-Two court battle would go back and forth before finally ending in June of 2010, though nobody is quite clear on what terms it ended.

What we do know is that Triptych continued work on the title throughout 2009 until, and this is where it gets even stranger, 3D Realms sold the development rights of Duke Nukem Forever to Gearbox Software who, along with Triptych games, would continue (and subsequently finish) the title. However, they would not do it alone as somehow 2K games got contacted by Gearbox to shell out the rest of the money needed to finish the tile as well as a company called Piranha Games who was promptly hired to handle the games multiplayer modes and console ports.

Just to recap how many different studios, developers, and publishers have worked on this one single game over the years we have 3D Realms, GT Interactive, Infogrames, Gathering of Developers, Take-Two Interactive, Triptych, Gearbox, 2K Games, and Piranha Games have all... at some point had there hands in Duke Nukem Forever. This is including countless coders, moders, shadders and other creative individuals who built the game over its extended life cycle and who knows how many more company CEO's and other "yes men" who may have indirectly influenced the title throughout its many years. June 10th 2011 would be the date that the game finally became available to the public and through hell or high water Duke Nukem Forever is currently available on store shelves for the Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and of course the PC. So stay tuned because in the coming weeks we are going to dive deep and review Duke Nukem Forever! Hail to the King, Baby! In the mean time, here are some of the surviving video resources that show off all the different builds of Duke Nukem Forever!






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