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Interview - Saving Duke Nukem Forever, by Randy Pitchford


When one thinks of Duke Nukem Forever, so many subjects spring to mind: vaporware, legal drama, a dated action hero, nostalgia, excitement, nebulous press releases, broken promises, four different gaming engines; the list is endless.

Duke Nukem Forever has been rebooted many different times - something usually reserved for entire franchises - and now, once again, the game is back. This time, though, the Duke's disenfranchised fans can, finally, be sure that a developer is able to fulfill a long-kept promise and drag the jaded star into modernity. And it's all thanks to the love and devotion of a developer with a vested interest in the hulking blond with a penchant for women and cigars.

Gearbox announced in Seattle on Friday that Duke Nukem Forever will release next year for PS3, PC and 360, and no one is more excited to be able to bring the Duke back to us than the firm's president and co-founder, Randy Pitchford.

After the reveal of Duke Nukem Forever at PAX Prime last week, Pitchford sat down with us to talk about his role in bringing Duke back to the masses. He talked about how he funded the game, supported the original developers, and ultimately put Gearbox's reputations on the line in order to show 2K that Duke was alive, relevant and ready to kick ass, kill pig beasts, and take f**king names.

VG247: How long have you guys been sitting on this, Randy?

Randy Pitchford: Well, we heard about 3DRealms running into trouble in May of 2009. The reason I went to Texas and started working with 3DRealms was because of Duke Nukem 3D. They had let everybody go that day, fired everybody and shut down the whole studio, in May of 2009. We all watched it, and read about it, but Allen Blum [senior level designer - Ed] just couldn't let the dream die.

A lot of the newer guys on the team that were fired, went off and found other jobs, but Alan and some of the others guys, who were the heart and soul of Duke, just couldn't imagine anything else. At first, they didn't know what to do, and then they were like, 'You know, why do we have to let it die? What if we just kept going?' So they started working out of their houses, with all the stuff they brought home. They did a deal with Scott Miller, one of the owners of 3D Realms, and I think Scott and George Broussard were still trying to figure it out with the legal part going on.

So, I got wind of this, and I had seen what existed, and I know Alan, and I had worked with Alan, and I knew it was possible. I decided then that I was going to help - in Duke's time of need. I believed I could be the one to help this. I offered to fund them, and it got to the point where they needed it, so I started to fund them and I started talking to George and Scott about the business to see what we could fix to make this possible.

I put it all together in a nice package and brought it to Christoph Hartmann [2K's president - Ed] and told him what I'd done. I told him that I had leveraged my knowledge of a brand I had worked on before, and the trust that both Scott and George has in me and the team has in me, and my own studio's credibility and expertise, along with our ability to ship games on all platforms. I brought all of this to Take-Two.  Since Take-Two owns all the publishing rights to Duke Nukem Forever, it's obvious they want nothing more than for this game to be great.

So, with Christoph seeing that I was able to fix the situation and enable that, he got behind it; me and my studio and this approach just allowed all of the business to work out.

That's the long story. The short story, is, yeah, we've had to be really secretive for over a year about this; this isn't the game you want to make promises about. This isn't a game where I could come out and say, 'Hey, we're gonna make it all right,' after the business was settled, because, let's face it, we've heard that story before.

Even if we had released screenshots and trailers - I mean, we've seen screenshots and we've seen trailers. We've all been jerked around for a really long time. And while the truth is we haven't been jerked around, as the guys have never given up the dream, they were in a tough spot. They couldn't put enough in to grow in this industry, but they knew they had the right formula and they didn't want to let it go, or let the game be something they didn't imagine.

It's kind of serendipitous that my studio got strong enough to help. I mean, we've been so fortunate. The success of Borderlands, our Brothers in Arms games, and the things we did in Half-Life - we've been so fortunate, and successful enough to be a position to help.

You know, somebody once said, 'Always bet on Duke'. So I did. I put myself right in the middle there and put all the chips on it and it worked out. Our strategy was to get it there, to get it to where we know it's there, we know it's happening. We have it to the polishing stage, where we have it running on all the platforms and where we know it's ready to ship.

When talking about all this, we were like, 'Let's bring this to the gamers. Let's not do announcements, let's not do advertisements. Let's bring this to the gamers, and let gamers play it.' I love the PAX show, and this was right around that time, so PAX is the place. There are tens of thousands of people here, and they're not retailers, and while there's some journalists, it's not really about that - it's about gamers. We wanted to bring the game to the gamers, and that's what we did. I mean it's been crazy. The line has gotten up to four hours long to see the game. It's trending as the number one worldwide on Twitter.

I mean, holy crap. I mean, Duke Nukem.

That just shows how much we all want to pull for him, and how important it is that he's triumphant here. I mean it's not 'just a game': it's very personal to me.

So, yeah. Duke Nukem won the internet today.


Apparently he won PAX too, Randy. The line to see him hasn't looked any different all day. It's been massive since the show opened.

Randy Pitchford: You're right, and I actually feel really bad about it, because it's tough to stand up and wait in line for four hours. I wish we could do more, but we're gonna find other opportunities before the game comes out. That's the key. We want as many people to get their hands on it as possible and see Duke for themselves.

Well, what about a demo, then? We've heard rumors about that and I know you are in the polishing phase, as you said. I asked Brian this morning if there would be a demo for those who couldn't make it to PAX or another venue.

Randy Pitchford: I think that is an important thing to do, and while I don't have a date for that...

But one of the things about being able to keep it secret - well, my understanding is that 2K just told their retailers about the game for the first time this morning.


Markus Wilding, 2K PR boss: Yes, it's true.

Randy Pitchford: There's a reason for this: if it had happened earlier, the expectation of promises could have come up and this is a game you don't make promises about.

Now that the cat's out of the bag we can actually make those plans. No we can get with retailers and figure out the launch window, and figure out demo timing, and work with the first-parties on that. We weren't able to do that until this point, because if we did we risked damaging it even further.

It's like making more promises. You know, even if the promise is real - which it is - people won't believe it until they see it themselves. We just wanted to bring it in front of people, and people will believe them, and we want more people to see it, because everybody needs to see it for themselves. That's important before it launches, and this is the first step.


Well, sure. I mean, it was first announced in 1997.

Randy Pitchford: That's when I left 3DRealms. In fact, it was May of '97 when I left the studio, and it was May of 2009, a dozen years later, when they had to shut down.

Right, and because of that it's been a massive joke to people: 'Duke Nukem is vaporware.'

Randy Pitchford: We've been through the whole range of emotions, from wanting the sequel, to, 'Oh my god what the hell's wrong with this thing,' to, 'Wow, that last trailer was awesome and that means its real again,' to, like, making fun of it and calling it vaporware.

I mean, yeah, it was getting Vaporware of the Year award in Wired magazine every single year, and finally Wired's like, 'You know what? Duke Nukem Forever now has a lifetime achievement award.'

But here's the thing about Duke. He's the king. And he's gonna be the King of everything - even vaporware. You gotta hand it to him, you know: you can't kill the king.

I was looking over some of the comments on our site after the reveal, and quite a few were wondering about a trailer. When do you think we'll get one, and will it possibly be a demo of what we saw out there?

Randy Pitchford: That's a very good question. We showed bits of the game today. We knew the hands-on people were going to get only around 15 minutes, so we wanted to show all sorts of gameplay and environments; it's a really big game. But as far as the trailer goes, we're gonna have to figure that out, because as far as putting trailer and stuff out there goes, it's like we're making promises; we want to walk the walk, not talk the talk.

We'll see how this goes, and once we get over the shock and awe, then we can reassess and figure out that strategy. But we know a key part is that people need to believe it for themselves before it comes.

I know you said you would announce multiplayer at a later date, but when looking at the demo earlier, and all the vehicle combat, it made me wonder if there would be any co-op.

Randy Pitchford: [It's] one of the things I want to avoid right now. Duke Nukem is all about the entertainment, and I know we're living in a world right now where all anyone wants to hear about are the features, like how many vehicles are in it and all that, but think that kind of takes away from the bigger picture.

The goal, and the reality, is that this is the Duke Nukem experience. It's like what we could imagine when we played Duke Nukem 3D, but it's today, and it's in today's world of gaming. That speaks a lot to it - I mean, sometime later we'll talk about multiplayer after the shock and awe settle, but I think the biggest story is that it's actually here.


To be honest, I was a bit surprised when you said multiplayer; other than DukeMatches, he was pretty much a lone wolf.

Randy Pitchford: Right. But you gotta remember back in day, when we played the single-player campaign, we loved playing DukeMatches. Like, I loved shrinking Brian and stepping on him or freezing him and bashing him to bits. So, we've got big plans for that, and many fans were online back in that early era and had a lot of fun with that, and it's something we have to fulfill, and we'll get around to talking about it; we can go beyond this scope in the conversation just talking about that alone.

Do you think Duke is going to appeal to the 18-25 crowd as much as the thirty-somethings who remember him from way back?

Randy Pitchford: That's a very interesting question, and I think it's a very good question. I have a blast with it. I mean, I have a son who is 10 years old, and I actually showed him some stuff on this [massive groan from PR]. I know, I know, but I am a parent, and I can make that choice, and all parents should make a choice they think is right for their children.

But he thinks it's freaking hilarious. He's ten years old, and he loves the thing. But I honestly don't think Duke Nukem would become the worldwide trending topic on Twitter for six hours straight if Duke Nukem wasn't relevant to people that are on Twitter.

I mean, Duke Nukem won the internet today, according to the internet. And that's where we are - 10 years old all the way up to my age.

Now that it's all finally out in the open, will you be able to shift focus back onto some other projects? I ask that because I don't know if your focus was pulled from other projects to focus on Duke Nukem, and because you said in an interview once that Colonial Marines was sort of stopped because Borderlands pretty much took over.

Randy Pitchford: My studio is really powerful when it comes to that, and it's why we were able to help Duke in his time of need. But yeah, we have some very exciting projects, and during our panel on Sunday we have some more announcements on Duke, and I will be covering some of the other games we've announced and some other things going on at Gearbox.

I mean, Colonial Marines has always been very important to us, and we are fully committed to that project. Aliens, the movie, really inspired me. I mean, look at Duke Nukem 3D - you have face huggers.

I know that Aliens is kind close to your heart. So to speak.

Randy Pitchford: We have never wavered in our commitment to that game. Now, we have maintained radio silence on it for while. I mean, with Borderlands, we had a huge amount of our attention on it, and when launching it we loved it. We're still playing it today. In fact, there are more Borderlands things to come. The new Claptrap DLC that we recently announced is actually launching September 28. We're really, really excited about that, and we've got more Borderlands to come.

And because Gearbox is a multi-team studio and we have multi-team projects, when one game gets its day in the sun I know people tend to worry about the other games. But there' no need to worry at all.

Today is Duke's day, and we should all get behind him. Hail to the king man. We need him to make it through this. But seriously, no one needs to worry about Borderlands, or the Brothers in Arms brand, or Aliens - we care about these games and what they mean to people.

Regarding that panel on Sunday - when I look at your website on Monday, will those three 'coming soon' spots no longer be blank?

Randy Pitchford: Probably. We'll see. Some of them. You'll just have to go have a look and see for yourself.

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