It’s been a long time coming, but Duke’s latest is – whisper it – just around the corner. We caught up with Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford to talk lengthy development cycles, parody and generation gaps.
Duke through the years
Duke Nukem – 1991
Duke Nukem II – 1993
Duke Nukem 3D – 1996
Development on Duke Nukem Forever – 1997
Five handheld and five spin-off titles released.
DNF Demo coming June 3 to First Access Club members.
Duke Nukem Forever is out on June 10 in Europe, June 17 in the US.
Meeting Duke’s savior
When you sit down to speak with Randy Pitchford you’d best be ready to think fast and interject comments and questions on-the-fly. The gregarious CEO of Gearbox Software isn’t backwards in coming forwards, and such is his enthusiasm for Gearbox’s work that he’ll happily talk long and hard about it – and a dozen disparate subjects – until the cows come home.
He’s rarely caught off-guard, but whilst drawing on a Beatles analogy when explaining how and why Duke Nukem Forever will appeal to gamers who were too young to experience Duke Nukem 3D back in 1996, he erupts with laughter when we make a make a passing comment about his age and put his slightly haggard appearance down to the current punishing international press tour.
“Wow, you had me at: ‘I’ll put it down to tiredness,’” he says, giving a wry shake of his head.
To get things back on track we suggest that he must be excited about the imminent release of Duke Nukem Forever, a title that has been awarded numerous vapourware titles throughout its protracted development cycle.
“I don’t think ‘excited’ accurately describes how I feel about it,” he offers. “I feel like a nine-year old on Christmas Eve and excitement is just too weak a word. I’m definitely looking forward to those presents under the tree.
“It’s interesting, Duke’s a big part of that excitement. Anyone who plays games and is even remotely plugged-in has heard of Duke Nukem, you can’t escape him. Frankly, the game’s great and I can’t wait for people to discover that for themselves.”
“Frankly, the game’s great and I can’t wait for people to discover that for themselves.”
He returns to his previously unfinished analogy “I remember when I discovered the Beatles,” he says, flashing a mischievous grin.
“Those guys peaked before I was born but when I discovered them for myself I felt special because I felt like I was hearing something that other people weren’t hearing. I’m seeing the same kind of thing that’s behind that feeling in people’s reaction to Duke. There’s just something about him and it’s that something that has meant folks have turned him into a meme, he’s become important to the games industry and to gamers and it’s not because of any one game because obviously there hasn’t been a game for quite a while now.
“For the guys that were clearly too young to have played Duke 3D when it came out I’m actually really excited that the first Duke game of their generation is Duke Nukem Forever because I’ve played it and it’s awesome and these guys are going to have a really great time with it.
“Gamer culture has used him over the years and he serves a purpose, there’s things like Ventrillo harassment video and the 4Chan forums took him and adopted this line ‘Always bet on Douk [sic]’, which is one of the funniest tag-lines because if there’s anything that the development cycle has taught us it’s that you absolutely should not bet that Duke is going to ship and yet here we are, a couple of weeks from launch, so I guess the bet is paying off.”
It seems then that Duke has taken on a life of his own, one outside of his original medium. He’s become an icon; like John McClane from the Die Hard franchise, the A-Team’s Mr T or Arnie as the T-800, Duke is the tough guy who’s a law unto himself. His bad boy reputation provides Gearbox with a certain element of creative freedom in both the publicity stunts that Duke can be embroiled in as well as the themes that run through the games he inhabits, including Duke Nukem Forever. So, is this why he’s managed to remain relevant all these years?
“The world that Duke lives in is similar to our world,” Pitchford begins. “That’s useful when you want to parody themes or things in our world but his world is also a different world. It’s Duke’s world. A twisted, topsy-turvy, funhouse mirror reflection of our world and that affords us tremendous freedom. It becomes this playground of infinite joy and so we can do things there that you absolutely could not get away with anywhere else, certainly we’ve never been able to get away with this stuff in any other game that we’ve worked on at Gearbox. I think that’s one of the reasons why the anticipation is what it is despite the development cycle.
“I mean, the development cycle is ludicrous, it’s an extreme edge case and the longest development cycle in the history of videogames, it’s just silly! If there wasn’t something about the game world and the context that fascinates people then it wouldn’t even be a story, it would have just dissolved into nothingness. There’s something special and unique about it that has not just kept it going, but meant it’s snowballed.
“The best illustration of that is that you can go on YouTube and search for any videogame trailer for a game that been announced but not launched and you’ll discover the Duke Nukem Forever trailer has more hits than any other videogame,” the official video posted by Gearbox in January currently sits at close to 2.4m views.
“So, according to the internet, he’s still relevant.”
On the subject of gay robots
It was widely reported last week that Pitchford had acknowledged the possibility of a gay robot sidekick for Duke during an event held at BAFTA HQ in London. We put this to him, asking if perhaps Gearbox might not consider tackling Duke’s perceived chauvinist and sexist reputation by instead including a homosexual human character and perhaps tackling the issue of sexuality in a less satirical, more head-on manner. Pitchford laughs again.
“I have to say that that if there’s one brand that’s undoubtedly the best place to really dig deep on social issues it’s Duke Nukem,” he says, somewhat sarcastically. “Look, I was at BAFTA and I was asked if Duke were to have a sidekick who would it be. I answered that he wouldn’t have a sidekick because he works alone but I was pushed for a ‘what if’ so I was kinda having fun with the premise and said wouldn’t it be interesting if it was a gay robot. The thing that nobody has caught on to is that there’s a robot that people have speculated may be gay in another Gearbox game, so I was playing with that a little bit and nobody has cottoned on yet.
“Duke is what he is, so we use that for the purposes of entertainment and parody.”
“Duke is what he is, so we use that for the purposes of entertainment and parody. Duke’s ego is fed by the love of others so it’s fun to play with that, to look at what that means for sexual experiences and how does that fit in to it. The aliens he’s battling use this too, they capture women to turn mankind’s reproductive system against itself and breed an alien army, they have technology with the biological capability to turn the male of our species into pigs ‘cos, y’know, all men are pigs, of course! It’s for the purpose of our amusement.
“Whenever a new approach is taken within our medium or when a new medium appears, we tend to feel a generation gap. I think videogames expose the biggest generation gap of all time: you have a whole generation or even several generations of people that grew up and became adults in a world where videogames did not exist. Many of these people are also policy makers and it’s scary to some of them, some are smart people who can figure it out but to some of them the fact that their children are engaging with an entertainment medium that they themselves don’t understand is frightening and instead of taking the time to understand it they’d rather just be afraid of it.
“The reality is it’s just an entertainment medium like any other, it’s interactive which makes it engaging, but it’s a form of expression and it must be respected as such. The good news is that a lot of our policy makers that didn’t grow up with videogames had their own generation gap with Rock & Roll. To them, it was absurd that their parents and their grandparents felt that a song like Louie Louie or the Beatles was going to bring forth the downfall of Western civilisation. So, they can hopefully draw comparisons between their experience and videogames.”
Gearbox and the multiplatfoprm market
It would be criminal to have time with Randy Pitchford and not pick his brains about current industry trends. With this in mind, I ask him about Gearbox’s traditionally multi-format approach to development and what he thinks of recent announcements by Capcom and Ubisoft in which they’ve reiterated their support for PC development.
“[The PC market] absolutely has a role to play in pushing videogames forward, but it’s also a great category in itself,” he says. “There are lot of people with PCs and it turns out that pretty much everyone on the planet consumes some form of entertainment, so there’s an opportunity there.
“We choose to be multiplatform because the reason that Gearbox software exists – and the reason I exist – is to entertain people. The goal isn’t to find the most exploitable business model, obviously I have to be smart about this because I have to make more than I spend, but the goal is about entertaining people and so the metrics that we use measure ourselves are how many people have we reached and to what extent have we gratified our customers.
“For us it becomes interesting to think about entertainment that can work on a number of platforms because different customers play games in different ways and I’ll tell you what, diversification is really nice because things change a lot. Sometimes you’ll see a burst in demand in one area and then that changes. Or something disruptive happens like right now with PSN being down and we’ve just seen the first information of how that’s affecting the market place, so imagine if you were not diversified and that was your only platform.
“In addition to the diversification helping with our entertainment goals it also fits with different business goals and makes it easier for us to take bigger risks and make different types of games. So, we can do stuff like take on the challenge of shipping Duke Nukem Forever or to create a game like Borderlands because of how diversified we are.”
As we’re winding up, we ask about another of Gearbox’s projects, Aliens: Colonial Marines. Announced back in 2007 little has been said about it other than to confirm that it’s still being worked on. So, will Pitchford tell us more about where it might be?
“Yeah, it’s in development,” Pitchford smiles. “It’s not up to me to talk about such things, unfortunately. You should talk to Sega about that. It’s frustrating to me that it’s not quite the right time for me to offer that information but at the same time I can say that that doesn’t mean that we’re not behind it and committed to it, we’re just doing what we need to do in our own space and when we’re ready to open that up we will do.”
We suggest to Pitchford that, given Duke Nukem Forever’s lengthy gestation period, the four years that Aliens has been in development is nothing, so should we expect to see the game before 2020?
“Well, y’know, we’re just barely getting started,” he jokes. “Seriously though, I don’t want to offer too much information because every little bit of new information is interpreted as a promise and if I’m going to be doing that I better be making a promise that I’m clear about and I’m committed to.”
Right now, Pitchford and the Gearbox team are most definitely committed to Duke Nukem Forever. In a few weeks time you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether the promises made over the last fourteen years have been kept and whether it really is safe to always bet on Duke.
Duke Nukem Forever launches for PS3, 360 and PC on June 10 internationally and June 14 in the US.