Duke Nukem Forever at the BAFTAs – A Q&A with Randy Pitchford

I can remember back to Christmas 1997, when I came down the stairs and found a present waiting for me that contained an N64. It was the first home console I owned, and from that moment I considered myself officially a gamer at the ripe old age of six. I’d been playing games since I was five, after my parents had bought me a Game Boy, but that day when I first plugged in my N64 and experienced the wonders of Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 remains one of my most significant childhood memories. But there’s another event that occurred in 1997 that I’m going to focus on instead, I just wanted to put into context how long ago it happened; the announcement of a game that has gone on to live in infamy, but not for the reasons you might have expected at the time. Duke Nukem Forever.

The story of the game’s development is one that many consider to be nothing but a train wreck, mostly thanks to original developer 3D Realm’s obsession with trying to create a game that was as ground-breaking and significant within the FPS genre as Duke Nukem 3D was when it first came out. This, along with rapidly improving technology and constant innovation elsewhere in the industry, caused the project to be restarted from scratch too many times, and eventually caused 3D Realms to run out of money in 2009. Not all was lost though, as Randy Pitchford, creator of Gearbox Software, bought the property and began work on making the release of Duke Nukem Forever a reality. Next month, the former biggest punchline in gaming finally releases after fourteen years – the longest development cycle ever for a video game.

Time to hail to the King – Duke is back, baby!

To help promote the game’s upcoming release, the BAFTA centre recently held a Q&A with Randy Pitchford, allowing those of us lucky enough to attend to get a hands-on with the game and an opportunity to gain some insight into how one of the most legendary titles in the business has finally become a reality. After a representative from Gamespot UK introduced himself as the question-master for the event, a short trailer of Duke Nukem Forever (hereafter referred to as DNF) was played to remind us why we were all there, showing off some previously unseen footage and getting us pumped for the arrival of the ever-smiling Randy Pitchford on-stage, ready and raring to go.

The first, seemingly mandatory, question of “It’s been a long time, what have you been doing?” set the tone for the rest of the session, as it caused Pitchford to enthusiastically begin to list most of his significant achievements since DNF was originally announced in 1997: the founding of Gearbox Software, the creation and development of the games the studio are most known for, and the companies they have worked with, including Valve and Bungie. After all, Gearbox have a well-earned pedigree in the industry; they were involved with every Half-Life expansion and port, ported Halo to the PC, and created the Brothers in Arms and Borderlands franchises. Even when answering such a simple question you could almost feel the passion behind Randy’s words, something that became increasingly more evident throughout the evening.

Talking about his history with Duke Nukem, he explained how he grew up tinkering with computers, playing adventure games and RPGs before discovering the Duke Nukem series, and had had no idea how games were actually made, joking that he believed they were created by Oompa-Loompas. His enthusiasm for computers stayed with him throughout his training to become first a professional magician and then a lawyer, but it was his future wife who encouraged him to abandon his law degree and pursue his ambitions further, sensing that it was what he most enjoyed and would get the greatest satisfaction from in the long run. It turned out to be the right choice, and he soon found himself working on Duke Nukem 3D after choosing between working with Apogee Software (who later renamed themselves 3D Realms) or LucasArts on a Star Wars game. He eventually parted ways with 3D Realms to form Gearbox Software, but he recognises Duke’s influence in his career, boldly stating that, in fact, he owes his entire career in the games industry to Duke Nukem.

When questioned about the potential difficulties of bringing Duke Nukem to a new audience, Randy had a lot to consider.  Musing that a lot of potential consumers were probably too young to have played Duke Nukem 3D, he then pointed out that a lot of people in the audience must have played that game under-age and quipped “I hope you all turned out to be well adjusted people”. He then explained that he was initially fearful of bringing back Duke, knowing that the generation gap between iterations was a big problem, but had ultimately reasoned that if he didn’t do so, “we’d be living in a world without Duke, and that would suck!”

Spot the real King...

Randy also mentioned the fact that Duke is one of the most iconic video game characters ever created, and between the franchise’s notoriety combined with Duke’s cult status on the internet (he specifically mentioned the “Ventrilo Harassment” video with Duke Nukem as an example of this), the generation gap becomes less of a concern. Duke’s personality is also an important part of this, as according to Pitchford “Duke is a wild guy; he’s nothing like me or anyone else in the world, he has a massive ego and has a book called ‘Why I’m So Great’, and because the world is an upside-down hall of mirrors version of our Earth, they love him for it.” He then likened Duke to Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the Iron Man films in terms of personality and presence, calling Duke a “sticky” protagonist in a world where most heroes have become “pussified”, “emo”, or prone to “take things too seriously.” “Duke doesn’t have any problems! He just kicks ass!”

The Duke Nukem franchise is no stranger to controversy, and this was addressed when Pitchford was asked “On the record… you’re not trying to take down Western Civilisation, are you?” Rather than address any of the recent criticisms head-on, Randy instead resolved to talk about the amount of maturity the industry is developing, and the fact that we as gamers and people are becoming more mature, especially towards games and their potential and, as such, we pay less and less attention to media sensationalism. When asked how he handles press towards the game, both negative and positive, his answer was very well-considered. After all, even he had to admit that he’d made more than his fair share of jokes about DNF’s constant delays.

Revealing the need for authenticity in handling the game, he drew another cinematic analogy, this time with the Terminator franchise and the several factors to keep in mind when making an authentic Terminator experience, the most important of which being the presence of Arnie. When handling something like DNF, it was important to get the right balance between authenticity and new experience – after all, new experience is important, but for it to feel right it should be rooted in authenticity to make sure it’s not getting too far away from what made it so revered in the first place. On the one hand, he reasoned, critics have been making jokes about the development for a while and, as such, have to keep in mind what they’ve said about DNF in the past when playing it, in order to live up to their reputation and the precedent they’ve set for themselves. On the other hand they had to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, it’s just a game, and the end goal is entertainment and fun. He then pointed out that ultimately the game isn’t solely his creation; he’s simply trying to help realise the vision 3D Realms had for it all along.

At this point, a quick break was taken to show us a developer’s video revealing some of the history of Duke Nukem; specifically how he was created by focusing on the first game in the franchise, with clips of that game punctuating the talk. Annoyingly, this gave way to laughter from the people in the row behind me whenever they saw the retro in-game footage during the film. Watching this mini-documentary brought some interesting facts to light: originally the game was going to be called “Heavy Metal” and a lot of Duke’s personality wasn’t immediately set, but was heavily influenced by the world of comics. The focus on movie action heroes came about as he was developed more, with his voice direction being “between McBain and Arnie”. The video also pointed out the immense pressure there was to deliver an amazing experience to the audience with DNF, with Pitchford himself claiming that he had no idea if anything could live up to fifteen years of development.

The first in a new batch of questions following the dev. video gave birth to one of the most interesting discoveries of the night. When asked who would be Nukem’s sidekick if he could choose, Randy revealed that when they were trying to come up with a back-story for Duke they created a gay sidekick, who they then “kicked under the bus”, but were reluctant to delve too much into the details of in case they brought the character back at a later date. The next question posed was whether Duke Nukem would be revived as a franchise, or if the intention was to simply complete DNF just to say “we’ve released it”. Randy’s answer was that when he bought the rights to Duke he had every intention of turning it into a franchise again, but would wait until DNF was actually on the shelves before thinking about what to do with a potential sequel. While the groundwork is strong for another Duke Nukem game, it’s something the market reaction to DNF will help decide. Instead, he was excited about addressing the fate of other games after DNF was released. Aliens: Colonial Marines was the first game to get name-dropped, then another Brothers in Arms, with Borderlands 2 completing the trio of other games to be focused on in future.

Duke Nukem Forever’s gameplay is something rooted very much in the old-school style of FPS, and Pitchford was asked if a potential sequel would retain that or if Duke would be “mixing it up with Soap McTavish?” Randy answered that “gamers would instantly reject a Duke Nukem game if it was trying too much to be like another Call of Duty game”, and then lamented that a lot of FPS games these days are too serious and like on-rails shooting galleries, telling the audience that he felt a lot of games in the genre are too narrow and focus on a single mechanic and variations on said mechanic. He felt it was a long time since an FPS game came out that has both a mixture of other genres and time for extra, non sequitur,  additions to help immersion, and that DNF was probably one of the first games since Half-Life 2 to truly contain both.

The growing seriousness in shooters became a focus when Pitchford was asked if the release of games like BRINK and Bulletstorm would give rise to an overhaul of the genre. The given answer was that change was natural; when games get too serious we need something light-hearted to remind us we’re playing a game and are supposed to be having fun. He claimed that “we’ve proved gamers can feel hurt; we’ve proven that with our Brothers in Arms series, but you don’t always want to pay $60 just to feel depressed!” Building on this, he then talked at length about Borderlands and how he felt that the visual aesthetic and layout of that game after it had been redesigned was a good example of this need to keep games light-hearted, and helped Borderlands become as popular as it is today.

So what about all those people who have worked on DNF over all these years? Well, when asked “how many Duke Nukem babies were born during development, and how long are the credits?” Randy actually claimed to know the rough number of babies born, and said that the credits are so “astonishing” in length that “I think we made them skippable.” He then talked about their recent effort to credit everyone who had ever worked on the game in some capacity via a web portal which allowed those previously uncredited to get their names in before it was too late. It was at this point that he then said something quite heartwarming; “this industry is really quite small, and if you look at the credits I can see so many people who have moved to different companies and they’ve made so many of our favourite games, like Half Life and Uncharted, and you realise that so many people who worked on this game are some of the best people in the industry.”

On that poignant note, the floor was opened for audience members to pitch in with their own questions, and those chosen didn’t disappoint. The first question asked how Gearbox go about pitching and processing games; it was revealed that the marketability of the ideas aren’t at the forefront, and the belief in his employees shone through when Randy smiled and answered that, at the end of the day, “it’s about people. Great people give great results.”  The next question was about the controversial “Capture the Babe” mode, though not about its potential sexism, instead, asking how Gearbox have reinvented multiplayer. It turns out that the driving force behind DNF’s multiplayer was looking at what made Duke Nukem 3D’s special. The cat and mouse gameplay, spawned through use of weapons like the trip mines and shrink rays, coupled with an awareness of the environment, encouraged the player to think strategically, and resulted in gameplay that was less reactionary and more about having to play intelligently. As well as this, DNF’s multiplayer was focused on helping to ease in the non-hardcore gamer who “doesn’t have the time to play 10 hours of multiplayer a day to get really good.” Randy felt that the multiplayer aspect of the game, which began development in late 2009, helps to make sure you can have fun even if you’re playing the game casually.

Randy was then asked why the gay sidekick character was dropped from DNF, and it was explained that the character was never specifically dropped, but because they never decided on Duke’s origin story or included it in the game in the end, he was never fully realised. Sexuality is something heavily explored in the Duke Nukem universe in various different forms, and they felt that having a gay sidekick would have been an interesting theme, and would create a great dynamic with Duke’s character. In the end though it was felt that “Duke’s a one-man show”, and it wouldn’t have entirely fit his egocentric character to have to share the glory with somone else. Oh, and I forgot to mention – the sidekick was a robot. His fate in the Duke Nukem story would have come to a close when he would have to sacrifice himself, detonating his thermonuclear core in order to help quell an alien invasion, but it’s still an idea that Randy is interested in fleshing-out and possibly including in a future game.

Considering the ridiculous amount of time the game spent in development, you’d expect it to have a lot of elements that have been kept in – even some from the very beginning. Apparently not, as it was revealed that the oldest asset in the game is a model of a Pig Cop from 2006, which was kept because it “was kind of cute and also ‘plasticky’, which was the whole point of what it was there for.  “In fact, nothing in the game is more than a couple of years old, and a lot of design focus when handing it over to Gearbox from 3D Realms was looking at the idea of what Duke would have got up to in the 15 years since he saved the world in Duke Nukem 3D.  Apparently the answer was “win at everything”; Duke has acting awards, championships under his belt, his own casino and fast-food chain, he’s climbed Everest, and even been into space! Deciding what Duke had done in the meantime was a great stepping stone to making the game the version that it is today, while still retaining an authentic vision of what 3D Realms originally had in mind for the game.

Aware of Gearbox’s affiliation with Valve, another audience member jokingly asked if the wait for DNF will eventually be eclipsed by the wait for Half-Life Episode 3. The answer that Randy gave seemed quite serious, empathising with the constant pestering that Valve gets over the never-actually-officially-announced title. He also claimed “I wouldn’t be surprised if the game wasn’t even in development. We assume there’s one but clearly their priorities are different.”  He further explained that “those of us on the outside are making assumptions”, referring to an incident when he trademarked ‘Borderworlds’.  “I just thought it could be a cool idea in the future, so I trademarked it and registered a domain before a squatter could get there, but then people got wind of it and now we get asked about it all the time, even though it doesn’t exist.”

It’s fair to say that Duke Nukem isn’t entirely an original hero, seeing as he’s purposely meant to be a stereotypical action hero, and one particular influence was Bruce Campbell – someone Pitchford admitted Duke stole from when asked if he’d be “borrowing” any one-liners from other people for DNF. “Duke stole from everyone: Bruce Campbell, Rowdy Roddy Piper, even Bruce Willis!” Randy laughed, but to him it was more interesting that the original lines they created for the character in Duke Nukem 3D went on to become the most popular phrases attributed to him. “Balls of steel” was a phrase he was surprised had gained so much attention, as was “Always bet on Duke”   He asked the crowd,”why would you do that?! Here’s a guy who for years has shown that all evidence points away from betting on him, yet, here we are with people saying ‘always bet on Duke!’”  Sadly, he refused to reveal any potential one-liners in DNF, so anyone waiting for a new “balls of steel” is going to have to wait until release to see what phrases become the most popular. He did however tell us that the popularity of the original phrases led him to adopt the mantra of “steal less, invent more.”

Moving the focus temporarily from DNF, Pitchford was then asked if Gearbox intended to create anything for the PSN or XBLA. The cinematic analogies returned when Randy then spoke about the animated shorts that are shown before Pixar movies, expressing a sincere desire to play with the premise of being able to do such a thing in video games without worrying about the business aspect. Sadly, he felt that services like XBLA were too business-focused to launch the sort of project he’d want to take on, and that, while it’s something Gearbox may explore in the future, for now the company has to be intelligent about the risk of doing so. Afterwards we were thanked for being able to get through the discussion without joking about the PSN downtime, with Randy then telling us to not ask him what he thought about it either.

Duke gets his weapon out

Did fourteen years of development not feel long enough? Well, it could have been even longer, according to someone in the audience who asked Pitchford why they were releasing the game now, when they could easily have waited another five years. Randy responded by talking about the day that 3D Realms went bust, and how the company’s CEO George Broussard told him on the phone that it was the worst day of his life, telling us that this incident had cemented his desire to see the game released the way 3D Realms had envisioned it, as well as mixing in new experiences. The reason they knew that they were able to release it now, as opposed to sometime in the future, was because Gearbox were able to figure out when the end state of the game would be after changing and updating assets and implementing the multiplayer.

Of course, Duke Nukem’s fame comes from how revered Duke Nukem 3D was, and it was with this in mind that an audience member enquired if Pitchford felt that Duke Nukem Forever would end up becoming as iconic a game. Randy likened someone discovering Duke Nukem 3D in the common era to discovering Led Zeppelin for the first time, years after they’d broken up, and his hope was that as DNF will be the first experience of a Duke Nukem game for an entire generation of gamers, that this would allow the game to indeed become as iconic as its predecessor. Was working with three studios on the game problematic at all? Pitchford didn’t seem to think so, and spoke highly of 2K Games for allowing Gearbox to do what they wanted with DNF, saying “When you’re handling Duke, it’s great to be published by the people who also publish Grand Theft Auto.”

While the following wasn’t the final question asked that evening, I feel that it’s the best one to end on here. Now, making Duke Nukem Forever’s release a reality is no small task and the pressure must be immense – something an audience member was sensitive to when asking Pitchford how stressful it was to take on the franchise after it was initially cancelled in 2009.  In response, Randy told the audience that the best analogy he could think of was “imagine you’re driving down a road, and you see a car in front of you crashing, and it’s flipping and getting smashed and there are blood and limbs flying everywhere”, playing up the devastation of this hypothetical crash more and more, before simply asking us “what would you do?” He then took it a step further: “now imagine you’re not in a car, but you’re in an ambulance, and you know you have everything in there to help the people in the crash and save the car. Now, imagine that you witnessed this crash happen in the middle of the desert, a hundred miles away from anywhere else. If you don’t stop, it’s all over for them.”

When two awesome forces collide... Ed meets Randy Pitchford

Throughout the Q&A session, you could tell how passionate Randy Pitchford is – he’s a man who has a lot of history with Duke Nukem, who has brought one of the most iconic characters in video game history back from the brink of destruction, and is excited for the release of DNF not just as CEO of the company but also from the perspective of an actual fan of the series. He’d mentioned several times throughout the evening that he’d completed DNF five times already, and he wasn’t shy in praising those who worked on the game for the tremendous amount of work they put in to make the release a reality. After all, he’s a massive gamer himself – something I found out for myself when he got his 3DS out after the Q&A had finished and yelled “Alright! I got five new people on streetpass!” It was so unexpected that I found myself almost collapsing with laughter. His smile never wavered throughout the entire event, and it’s the smile of a man who believes so totally in the product that I can’t help but get even more excited for the release myself.

Granted, I don’t believe it’s going to be the be-all-and-end-all of shooters, and it may not even be the most significant title of the year for many gamers, but I honestly won’t mind if it doesn’t end up as ambitious and important for the genre as Duke Nukem 3D. As Randy said, games are meant to be about fun, and DNF will be no different. In a genre that’s become saturated with Call of Duty clones, it’ll be fantastic to have balls-to-the-wall action, and a ridiculous protagonist in a game who simply doesn’t give a damn. That to me is what the game will be about, and if it delivers, I’ll be beaming as broadly as Randy Pitchford.

They say to always bet on Duke… and I’m all in.

Last five articles by Edward



  1. Samuel Samuel says:

    It’s an interesting glimpse at how Pitchford runs Gearbox, as well as at how they think Duke Nukem Forever will do. I have to admit, I’m not convinced after all this time that the game looks like being anything special. I also don’t agree with Pitchford’s assessment of the wider shooter genre. The idea that nobody has made a shooter that mixs up genres and includes non-main-plot elements since Half-Life 2 is absurd. Clearly he’s never played Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3 or New Vegas, or Left For Dead 2, or any other number of games. Not all shooters have become deadly serious either. I just kept thinking that despite his relationship with Valve they can’t have allowed him to play Team Fortress 2 yet, which is as silly and fun a game as you’ll find.

    I suppose a degree of bluster and hyperbole is to be expected, he is there to talk up his new game and make people believe it’s the most awesome thing since sliced bread. It’s a glorified sales pitch, even though presumably everyone there would already have been planning to buy the game. But the way he’s glossed over so much, and massively over-exaggerated other things, I find to be simply off-putting.

  2. Chris Toffer says:


    All sounds very awesome man. I’d never bet against the Duke to make a killing when it’s released. As much as the generation gap is there, at the same time, so much hype and history is behind this that I honestly believe it will do well!

    Great article mate

  3. Ben Ben says:

    Have about as much excitement for Duke Nukem as I do for catching chlamydia. It might still be an iconic franchise, but times have changed, I’ve moved on.

  4. Pete Pete says:

    Chlamydia really is an iconic franchise! ;)

    I may keep an eye out for this one :) I recall playing Duke Nukem in some form before… think it was a really old PC game but it’s so long ago the memory is hazy!

  5. Adam Adam says:

    I played Duke 3D when I was a wee nipper, I shouldn’t have but I did. The only thing I enjoyed about the game was that I shouldn’t have been playing it and I didn’t ever really take note of anything about the game that made me thing, wow, this is where games are headed and I like it.

    The DNF saga is fantastic. To think that everything that touched it, crumbled to dust is astounding but showed that perhaps 3DRealms were simply just to set in old ways to ever think outside the box like a good games company should.

    Gearbox are that good games company and I respect everything they have ever worked on. They have a lot of talent at that studio and it starts at the top with Pitchford. I don’t think I’ll buy DNF, I’m not sure I’ll even play it. Something inside me is so jaded that it doesn’t want DNF to succeed which is competing massively with the part of me that wants Gearbox to continue to do well.

    I think that DNF is going to surprise a lot of people. Reading Ed’s article here has confirmed that we shouldn’t be writing this one off so readily, a lot of passion, dedication and talent has gone into reworking this entire game and I’m buying every word that Pitchford is selling on that matter. I only hope that we’re all willing to give it a fair chance :)

    Really, really enjoyed every word of this Ed.

    Thank you :)

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