When Gearbox's Duke Nukem Forever was unveiled at PAX, the shock spread fast and far. Duke Nukem was Twitter's top trending topic in North America within an hour; in two hours, it was the hottest topic worldwide and stayed there for 30 more. There was disbelief, too, among those who didn't play that demo for themselves in Seattle. It didn't seem possible that a game that had spent 13 years trapped somewhere between development hell and vaporware limbo was suddenly playable at a public show.
At the time of the announcement, Gearbox cofounder Randy Pitchford had been sitting on the secret of a resurrected Duke for some time, and it has been over a month since PAX. But the disbelief, even for Pitchford himself, hasn't quite gone away. "Can you believe this?" he asked the assembled press at the UK's first presentation of the game. "I'm right in the middle of it and I still can't believe it…Duke Nukem Forever is like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. It's kind of become mythological, legendary."
Pitchford weaves a good tale about the game's long and troubled history at 3D Realms, lawsuits and all, reminding us that Gearbox shipped 15 games in that same time. As he tells it, though, today there are no hard feelings on any side; the Duke commands a lot of loyalty, it would seem, and everyone has come together to get the game in stores next year. Gearbox has the resources to finally get Duke Nukem Forever across the finish line, with "over 70 people on the project," says Pitchford--when former developer 3D Realms shut down, it had 30 people.
We talked to Randy about the game, the public reaction, the pressure, and his debt to the Duke.
GameSpot UK: You've said you owe the Duke your career. How much is getting Duke Nukem Forever to market about repaying that debt?
Randy Pitchford: I know that given the situation we were in, and the position we were in to help, and the position that Duke was in, Duke needed help. Duke was dead. I felt like if I didn't do it, I would regret that for the rest of my life. It's not low risk. It's hard to imagine something riskier in this industry than betting on Duke, but they say always bet on Duke, right, so I had to do it, and the team did too.
There are so many people from Gearbox who have been part of it over the years. If you go back to that 2001 trailer and look at the credits at the end of it, with the exception of one name, every single person listed as a designer or an artist at some point had either left 3D Realms and joined Gearbox or is now part of the project. There's a lot of love and a lot of ownership that the Gearbox people feel for Duke.
GSUK: It has been a long struggle for the game so far. Did it ever seem to you like a cursed project?
RP: Everything happens because people do them, and I know the people involved. And so the way that development went kind of made sense to me, given the fact I know the people. And I think every step they took made sense to them too. I know they were committed through and through to making it. And I also know they had a lot of resources and not a lot of the same kinds of pressure, so they were able to make decisions that others might not, like starting over or changing engines and things, and each time they did this they would change the landscape.
I think what they didn't discover was as time went on and new generations appeared, the market changed and the complexity went up and the challenge changed, and because they were kind of adapting, there was another kind of difficulty that surprised them--and they got to the end of the risks they could take and they hadn't quite gotten across the finish line yet, and I know it broke their hearts.
GSUK: The surprise presence at PAX seemed miraculous at the time. How has the reaction been since?
RP: It's been wild. I mean, it's really weird. I was nervous going into PAX, but it turns out there's a lot of love for Duke. It's kind of like we all need Duke to be triumphant. I know that I need it, and that's why I got involved, and I'm feeling that [same thing] around the whole industry and around gamers, and that's kind of nice, kind of neat. That's inspiring.
GSUK: Duke Nukem is a character of his time. Duke Nukem Forever's roots go back such a long way. Is this a game about embracing anachronisms?
RP: It's a new game, but you can't succeed with a new game that's something like Duke without homage or fan service to its roots. But it is a new game, so it balances that, I think, pretty smartly with being a modern new game, but not forgetting the things that we remember, that we love, that we're going to need to experience again--or else we're going to be upset with it.
You can't imagine playing Duke Nukem Forever without using a pipe bomb, like from Duke 3D, or without using some of the classic weapons. I want to get online and play against my buddies, and I want to freeze somebody and break them into little ice cubes, and I want to shrink somebody else and step on them. I've got to be able to do those things or I'm going to feel like it's not an honest successor. Then again, if it's only a remake of the past, it's not fresh, it's not exciting, it's not new, and I might get bored. So it has to be a new game first.
GSUK: So it isn't relying on nostalgia alone?
RP: I don't think it could. If it was nostalgia, you would just port the old game and see what happens. No, it's not a nostalgia game at all. It's a new game. It doesn't have 8-bit graphics. It's a new game, it just remembers why we love the original and plays tribute to those things as well.
GSUK: You've said everything's at the polishing stage. When will we see more?
RP: We've announced that the game will come in 2011. Earlier this week, it was announced that the Borderlands Game of the Year edition, which launches on October 12, will include the Duke Nukem Forever first access pass. People can use the unique key code there to register with us, and they're going to get first access to a demo and some other things. And you can imagine at that stage it won't be long after that that a game comes. We'll announce more of those details as we're ready.
I know what things are going to happen within about a two-month gap of accuracy, and every day that [gap] gets narrower and narrower, things become more and more clear. The publishing partner has to manage a worldwide effort to coordinate this, and we were top secret up until the moment of PAX. They didn't tell the retailers until Friday morning at PAX, and same with the first parties, Sony and Microsoft, so now we've gotten them involved and Take-Two has to coordinate with all of that and 2K Games has to figure that all out. So they can figure out, OK, this is the right moment in the market, this is when everyone can do their part. They'll tell us what that is. Till we figure that out, they've asked me to be no more specific than 2011. But I'll give you something; I'll narrow it down a bit: it will come before Christmas of 2011. So I've given you six days.
GSUK: Thanks. Won't it feel pretty fantastic announcing a date for Duke Nukem Forever?
RP: I'll tell you what will feel really fantastic. When the game's done, and I go to the store, and I buy my copy from the store shelves. That'll be a great day. That'll feel weird. Every day it feels like, "Wow, this is actually happening." But that'll be a surreal moment.
GSUK: You're not saying much about multiplayer yet.
RP: There have been so many promises about the game. We want to be able to bring the multiplayer out soon, maybe let people play it, or maybe release some kind of stress test of it, or something, and that's where people can get it. I don't want to go into features and stuff. The thing I can say is, you can't have Duke Nukem Forever without multiplayer. I feel like I have to have it, and of course we're going to have it. But I want people to discover it, I don't want to spoil it, I don't think it helps to make promises about this game any more.
GSUK: The way you tell the story behind the game so far, it sounds like there are no hard feelings on any side. How can that be the case?
RP: Everybody's goals are aligned. I think you'd have to ask each person how they feel about things. I think George [Broussard of 3D Realms] has some regrets, but one thing that's consistent is that he's been passionate, committed, and dedicated towards this game and this brand. He's a dear friend of mine. I play poker with him every week, and right now it's cool--I feel he's really excited about the fact that it's happening. I also think he kind of feels relieved of some of the pressure. He more than anything wants his customers, his fans, to be happy. He felt such tremendous pressure, and now he's still a part of it, he's got a stake in it, but the pressure is not on him anymore, it's on me. And so I sense that relief in him. He's able to kind of enjoy it more, actually. And I'm happy to be there.
Our first game at Gearbox was a successor to Half-Life, so I've felt pressure before. We brought Halo to the PC and let people play on the Internet for the first time. We've built our own brands. I've felt different kinds of pressure, and I also know that I can't even think about the pressure, because if I do it might lead me to make some bad decisions and redo stuff--and right now we just need to focus on delivering the vision that these guys created.GSUK: Thanks for your time, Randy.