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Randy Pitchford: Duke's world is "like an upside down, topsy-turvy version of our world"

After a hands-on session with Duke Nukem Forever at a press event this week, we were given the opportunity to sit down with the game's savior and biggest promoter, Gearbox's Randy Pitchford.

Shown to us in Las Vegas, the venue was rather fitting for a game based on a crass, cigar-chopping, ladies man like Duke, but one can't help but wonder if those flocking to the card tables in Sin City were aware that another gamble was being taken by Gearbox Software - a development studio which swears by the mantra: Always Bet on Duke.

During our chat we not only became well-versed in the game's long developmental history, but we also found out a bit more about Pitchford himself: he is a massive fan who will finally put Duke back into the hands of long-suffering gamers, and his enthusiasm shows.

Seeing that we haven’t really seen Duke properly since the 90s, do you feel he is still relevant today as a character? Or will the blatant sexism p**s off a lot of ladies and girlfriends?

Pitchford: I don’t know. The goal isn’t to p**s people off. The goal is just to be entertaining and to be silly about it, you know? I think the humour, to me, is kind of like South Park or Family Guy, you get into it almost sarcastically. It’s kind of like the American stuff with Duke. As an American, I grew up in California and now live in Texas, it’s like you almost push him to the point where you’re lampooning that attitude. You know like big American flags behind Duke. I can imagine the truly patriotic people are kind of like “Dude, don’t be on my team” because we’re trying to be sarcastic about it too. We’re trying to be sarcastic about that male, macho culture. It’s kind of sarcastic about it. It depends on the lens we consume it through.

What’s interesting about Duke’s world is that it is kind of like our world but it’s twisted. Like an upside down, topsy-turvy version of our world. It’s only what we react to because we are looking at it through the lens of our world. And all of us have slightly different lenses but when we see things like, for example, in the real world there is a hotel called the Bellagio but in Duke’s world there is a hotel called Fellatio. What’s funny about this is that in Duke’s world that this is normal. I can’t imagine families going there, like children, and not noticing that the whole f**king place is a reference to blow-jobs. That’s why it’s funny because in his world it’s serious. Some of it is commentary and satire and sometimes just silliness.

"We need to finally have the vision that 3D realms created for us and so I’ve been trying to follow through on that vision."

I was asked just now if I thought about feminist groups would go after it and if I had already thought about what my response would be, and my answer was that I haven’t. I’m kind of in an odd spot as I took over the brand and took over the game. I mean the game has been in development forever and my biggest commitment was we need to play it. We need to finally have the vision that 3D realms created for us and so I’ve been trying to follow through on that vision on a game that they fucked up for so many years, frankly. So that has been my number one commitment.

Beyond that, when I think about the controversy and stuff I have actually kind of taken the role of, I can change it, I can censor it even, but I’ve kind of taken this role where like I don’t want to tamper with it because it is almost sacred to me. That is what was supposed to happen that we never got to feel. When I thought about that question, how do I to react if there are feminists, first of all I haven’t prepared should that actually happen but I also thought, honestly when people raise issue with things like especially when they go after music, movies or videos, usually they have an agenda and they’re using some famous thing to bring attention to their agenda. Now some agendas are worthwhile and some aren’t. I felt that if some group can use Duke Nukem to bring attention to feminist issues or human rights and equality then I’m all for it. That’s about as far as I can get on that one.

I mean, some of the jokes are not always going to hit. With a movie like Airplane, the whole secret to that kind of comedy is like a machine gun, not all of it is going to hit. The fact that it continues to shoot until it hits means that sometimes you’ll laugh and others times you’re just going to cringe. They are just trying to have fun with it.

Would you still have the same passion for the project without Duke Nukem being involved with it?

Pitchford: It’d be different because there some unique things that come with Duke. But I’ll tell you what, there is something very rare about this type of gameplay that we haven’t had a lot of and it’s something that Duke 3D pioneered. If you wanna just break down the gameplay by itself and what I’m talking about is with a lot of shooters now are none stop skill tests punctuated by scripted moments, big high investment moments. What Duke 3D did, what it really innovated on was a few things; on a pacing point of view it was about alternating between a combat moment where there are obstacles in the way, aliens whatever and you gotta have the reaction time skill test of a shooter you’ve got to overcome that, and then you have kind of a cognitive moment where you gotta get back on the critical path but there is kind of a puzzle and you actually have to figure out “that’s where I need to go but I can’t reach that. Maybe if I push that over there and I can knock that outta the way or maybe if I turn this head on and melt the thing” and there’s cognitive puzzles to it, that pacing back and forth and sprinkled in there is alternate gameplay where you playing with the remote control car or turret stuff, you know alternative gameplay to kinda spice it up.

So that is kind of the core loop where you’re doing this pacing between a skill test and exploration, discovery and cognitive kind of puzzles. Every once in a while a little platformy stuff too, sprinkled in. And then on the side you got interactivity, so there’s this constant pulse of “I wonder if I can play with that? Holy crap I can!” right? And that’s fun and you get surprised by some of it. Some of them react the way you’d expect and some of them react in a way you don’t expect that makes perfect sense that makes it funny and surprising. On one side you have secrets and on the other some off shoot things so that is one part of it. The other part of it is back when Duke 3D first did it all of our games were kind of abstract, Doom was supposed to be a space station with that’s a blue room, that’s a red room kind of thing but Duke the first game that put us into the real world. We have more fun with that, we can get more into that, and the fact you are in a real place. We can bring those places alive which then brings that interactivity pulse. Then another angle of that is in the tools that Duke uses. Now, in what you just played you got the opening sample, we could bounce you around but then you’d pass it as not very honest as you’d think that we’d only be showing you the good stuff. It deprived you of all the escalation, you didn’t get a freeze gun, and you didn’t get a shrink gun. You should have got trip mines and you can throw the pipe bombs and use the car remote to detonate and play around but this brings some alternative ways to deal with your challenges, which was something Duke originally innovated on and we don’t have anywhere else.

Duke was the first shooter that introduced that idea of like a pipe bomb where I’ll lay a trap and prepare instead of relying on reaction time so you can almost out strategize them. That is kind of fun to bring those elements into it. Frankly I like that kind of gameplay and we don’t really have that in the shooter genre. The only other game that does that really well is Half-Life. Now they do it in a totally different angle, so this relates to your question. If you take Duke out of it, the personality and such, the game design holds. It could be anything. It could be like Half-Life. We know this too because other games have attempted to replicate the jokes but the gameplay been more shallow, maybe it’s been nothing but shooting and that’s not enough to sustain it. The pacing, the other things to do with interactivity, the variety of tools that allow you to create tactics on the side, all of that kind of makes a really good game design.

You kept eight of the people from 3D realms who wouldn’t give up on Duke Nukem Forever. Why did you decide to leave it to just them rather than have Gearbox studio work on it?

Pitchford: What happened was, 3D Realms of May 1999 ran out of money and Duke was dead. It was very upsetting. After all this and that’s it? It was bullshit! That day was not cool. I worked on Duke 3D back in the day and a lot of us at Gearbox had been part of the project at some point and some had given up and moved onto us because we’re just up the street. So there is history there and I knew we could help. I had no choice. You have to stop, you gotta do it! So, we did it. They’re human beings, people needed a livelihood. Some people came to us and others went to other studios scattered across the winds. There were some guys, including Allen [Blum], that couldn’t give up. Allen created Duke, he’s part of the reason I moved to Texas and be part of his team and he just couldn’t give up. So, there were eight of them and they worked out of their houses and they ate ramen and mac n’ cheese and when I got wind of it I started investing in them too because between them was all the institutional knowledge of everything that has transpired and stuff so those guys went through war together and that day in May 2009, their world was yanked out from under them. It was a lot to ask of them to trust so what I did was I invested in them and supported them to be their own entity.

In fact, they are on the 10th floor and they’re on the system but they feel like they have each other which was really important for their commitment, their own moral and their sense of comfort and I’m, not going to disturb that. As far as I’m concerned Allen can have whatever role he wants now and forever with Duke because Duke is his. Now, business being what it is, I own the brand but whatever Allen wants in in terms of his involvement he’s going to have that and right now it’s going to make sense for those guys that they are their unit and that’s sweet.

"As far as I’m concerned, Allen can have whatever role he wants now and forever with Duke because Duke is his."

The other thing though that is interesting, is that if you go back and look at that trailer in 2001 for Duke Forever, if you look at the end credits every single artist and designer bar one at some point had joined Gearbox, left 3D Realms and joined Gearbox or is now part of the project so it is the team. It is that team! Brian Martel, is one of the founders of the partners who formed the studio together, I met while working on Duke. So it’s part of him too. In many ways we have gotten the band back together, the core team together. Still there are some folks who from different points who have had enough in 2004 and work at Sony now, but the core are there ,and I’m just glad that this game finally gets to come out. I feel humbled that I’m in a spot where I get to make that happen.

Now, it’s tough I gotta tell ya. I can’t imagine anything that could live up to 12 years of expectations, so I realised what I had to do. I realised that I had to commit myself to shipping. I mean the game has been in development forever and my biggest commitment was we need to play it. So, like you can second guess on everything, like I don’t like how this mirror is low, it would look better if it was higher. Why is this that colour? I could do that all day with the game and that’s properly why we’re in this mess. Half of the stuff is coin flips. The reality is if you take the big picture, I’ve played it and what those guys did is brilliant. It’s fun and every time I play it I just want to know what is going to happen next so I feel like "okay, we’ve got it," I just have to make sure the world can have this too before it’s too late and before it blows up.

So, we went in there and re-did a lot of the content to make it next-gen and make the graphics feel great, but we made sure not to second guess every decision because I didn’t want to deny us the experience any longer. Which I felt was a wise thing to ignore all the pressure and make sure this comes out. It’s good, it’s amazing. I’m nervous as hell and we’re going focus testing constantly and it’s really encouraging. Everyone knows who Duke is. Every time we do a typical play test, we ask what the purchase intent is now and then they play it and we ask again and we get a 71 percent increase on purchase intent which destroys anything we have ever seen. Like with Borderlands, kills it! So, I’m like okay, this is going to be fine because we lose objectivity too. I mean, I think the whole industry loses objectivity because we’ve all been so close to it and we’ve all had a relationship with Duke so we all lose objectivity so it’s hard for us to kinda see it, but we’re almost there.

I’m sure Duke will have some demands of me and I’ve gotta work on Borderlands 2, right? (laughs)

Editor's note: Please be aware Randy was joking at the end there. He did not confirm Borderlands 2 was in the works, despite what other sites are claiming. For further clarification, please see a comment on the matter from the man himself here. - SN

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