On Friday morning, Gearbox Software and 2K Games dropped a bomb on gamers and industry alike at Seattle's Penny Arcade Expo. Not only was Duke Nukem Forever alive once again, it was playable. On Sunday, they dropped another one.
3D Realms, the company that gave birth to the cigar chompin’, alien ass-kicking muscleman, had sold the rights to Gearbox. The story behind that is nearly as winding as Duke’s march to retail has been.
Gamasutra spoke with Gearbox co-founder and CEO Randy Pitchford the day before the gaming world learned of Duke’s resurrection and he walked me through how the icon found a new home at Gearbox.
“I wouldn’t have my career and I wouldn’t be in the games industry if it wasn’t for Scott [Miller],” says Pitchford, whose first job was at 3D Realms, where he worked on Duke Nukem 3D and even spent a little time on DNF in its early days.
“Over the years, we’ve all kind of watched the story unfold about the tumultuous development the game has been under. One thing has been consistent, though. The guys that were on it were committed to it.”
When The Ship Went Down
Last May, after 3D Realms laid off the entire Duke Nukem Forever development team, Pitchford saw his friend (and 3DR co-founder) George Broussard at a weekly poker game both attend.
“He told me it was the worst day of his life. I was worried about him. He was committed to the thing. He loved it so much that he wanted it to be perfect.”
While some of the 3DR team scattered and found other jobs, Pitchford learned that Allen Blum, who helped create Duke Nukem, was working with a handful of other former 3DR developers to keep Duke Nukem Forever moving forward.
“When they shut it down, I don’t think he could let it die,” says Pitchford. “For Allen, Duke was his life. He and some of the other guys, they just didn’t give up. They didn’t know what else to do, so they kept going at it, working out of their houses and trying to keep the dream alive.”
'We Can Fix This'
After consulting with Gearbox executive vice president Brian Martel, the pair had an idea. “We felt we were in a spot where we can fix this,” says Pitchford. “We’re local. Everyone trusts us. We can keep Duke alive.”
First, they talked with Blum and the developers who were working on the game, then – about a year ago - they approached Broussard and Miller. “I think George was still going through some of the stages of grief. Scott’s a businessman, though, and said ‘we’re in a situation where we have to do something.’ We figured out at Gearbox how to ship the game and be multi-platform.”
An agreement in principle was reached 11 months ago. Months later, the deal was signed in ceremonial fashion at Gearbox’s offices. In addition to the principals of 3DR and Gearbox, key members of the studio and any employee who had worked on the game at some point before joining Pitchford & Co. were on hand. All totaled, roughly 50 people in the room.
When the paperwork was finished, Dom Perignon was poured and Pitchford, Miller and Broussard each addressed the group. “It was a passing of the torch moment. It wasn’t somber. We were celebrating. Scott was very excited. He’s a businessman and was like ‘I’m finally going to be able to monetize this thing!’ I was watching George – and he has such a personal stake in this – but he was bouncing. What it meant, more than anything else, was his dream wasn’t dead.”
At the time, though, there was still the matter of the legal brawl between 3DR and Take-Two. The next morning, Pitchford was on a plane to California to meet with Christoph Hartmann, president of 2K Games, to tell him of the IP handoff.
“Ultimately, when I acquired the brand, I acquired the liability. I was now the person having to defend the lawsuit with Take-Two. Fortunately, we have a good relationship with Take-Two and they got behind it. … I was able to help clear the drama away... where we’re at now is a drama free world, where everyone is focused on making it work.”
'There Was A Lot Of Work There, But There Wasn't A Game'
What Gearbox inherited when it bought the Duke Nukem intellectual property, says Pitchford, wasn’t a game that was as complete as some might think. And there were no console versions at all. “There was a lot of work there, but there wasn’t a game. What there was was a lot of great tech, a lot of great features and subsystems, a lot of great gameplay mechanics. It was a lot of stuff, but it wasn’t assembled into a game.
”But the guys like Allen had been with it so long and they knew it so well that when ‘let’s ship this game’ became the goal, they were able to build a very efficient and effective plan to use what was there.”
Today, the game is in the polishing stages, says Pitchford. The trickiest part was keeping the whole thing a secret. Gearbox knew that given the history of Duke Nukem Forever, it couldn’t make any announcements until it was 100 percent sure it could back them up.
“We recognize that this is a brand you cannot make promises about. There has been too much talk and not enough walk. We decided let’s not talk and brag. Let’s not beat our chest. Let’s just show up at this show with the game – and give people the opportunity to play it themselves."
He added: "What we hope is that a lot of the people that do that will talk about it and that will get over the skepticism. I mean, we’d rather do that than a press tour. If gamers are looking at it, it’s real. If I read another article about it, even if it’s a respected journalist, I’m not going to believe it.”
Keeping The Big Secret, And Moving On Up
There were a few leaks and rumors before the PAX unveiling Friday. A Twitter post by Broussard of a picture of pigs flying got people wondering – and unconfirmed media reports of Gearbox working on DNF surfaced in August. But no one knew how far along the game was – and no one discovered the game would be playable at the show.
To ensure the secret stayed safe, Gearbox and Take Two didn’t even put up any logos or signage on their booth for the game until shortly before the doors opened to the general public, since some journalists were walking the floor the day before the show. “I can’t believe we pulled it off,” says Pitchford.
As for Duke Begins, the Gearbox Duke Nukem game whose name surfaced in that legal battle between 3D Realms and Take-Two, that’s on hold for now.
“I wasn’t too happy that got mentioned [in the lawsuit], since it was a speculative thing – and now there are expectations,” says Pitchford. “Right now, all of our attention and focus is on finishing Duke Nukem Forever."
The Gearbox CEO concludes: "Now that we’re the caretakers of the brand, we’re going to be very interested in its success and building its future. What will happen beyond Duke Nukem Forever? We have no plans. We don’t have all the information yet to be able to make that decision."