Why Do People Still Care About ‘Duke Nukem Forever’ So Much?

The game was announced in 1997, but didn't ship until 2011—and sucked. A generation of gamers still latch onto a mythical, unreleased version of Duke.

Earlier this month, a surprisingly complete early version of Duke Nukem Forever, the sequel to the groundbreaking Duke Nukem 3D that introduced a generation to the concept of interacting with a digital toilet that flushed, was released anonymously onto the internet. It’s a game that looks hugely different from the one that would later ship more than a decade later to much fanfare but little acclaim, a testament to the well-documented development hell—an endless process of rebooting both the game’s design and technology—the game endured. 

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“I do not know where the leak came from, but I've certainly been having a great time strolling down memory lane,” said designer Matt Wood, who worked as a designer, animator, and modeler on Duke Nukem Forever in the late 90s, including the version that recently leaked.

Waypoint has spoken with three former members of the Duke Nukem Forever development team, and nobody knew where the leak might have come from. The version that leaked does contain documentation pointing towards the computer of a former 3D Realms employee, programmer Nick Schaffner, who didn’t respond to a message sent by Waypoint on LinkedIn.

“It could easily have just sat on that PC (or archived on their network) for years giving anyone the opportunity to copy it and later leak it,” said one former developer, who asked to remain anonymous because they did not want their speculation tied to their name. “I wouldn't be surprised if that build sat unnoticed for years until someone at Gearbox [who purchased the rights to Duke Nukem Forever in 2010] stumbled onto it buried among a bunch of Duke Nukem Forever material they inherited, but that's a completely wild guess.”

Gearbox Software, Duke’s current owners, did not respond to a request for comment, but that hasn’t stopped the former creative stakeholders around Duke Nukem Forever from using the leak as an opportunity to simultaneously reminisce and sling arrows over why and how Duke Nukem Forever went from one of the most anticipated games to a laughingstock.

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In a blog post titled “The Truth About DNF,” Scott Miller, co-founder of 3D Realms parent company Apogee and Duke Nukem co-creator, said he didn’t know where the leak came from. Miller warned that “anyone expecting much of a playable game will be disappointed,” though impressions by fans are fairly positive and while incomplete, it’s hardly unplayable

A screen shot from a very old version of Duke Nukem Forever. Image courtesy of Gearbox Publishing

DNF is the game that destroyed 3D Realms and ended up getting the company sold to an investor in Denmark (where it's still based),” said Miller. “While our games like Max Payne and Prey were keeping the company afloat, DNF was a constant money pit for the company and eventually killed the original 3D Realms/Apogee.”

Miller pointed towards the team being chronically understaffed, a lack of a development roadmap, an obsession with new technology, and a project that “adlibbed too much.” 

“It's a very sad story no matter how you look at it,” said Miller. “It brought 3D Realms to its knees, all of our development team left or was released, and the 3D Realms name is now owned by someone with no connection to our past.”

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During Duke’s heyday, Miller was connected at the hip with Apogee and 3D Realms co-founder and Duke Nukem co-creator George Broussard, who responded on Twitter to Miller’s comments about Duke Nukem Forever by calling Miller a “clueless narcissist whose actions are what led to the Gearbox suits/friction that led to us losing 3DR & the Duke IP.”

Miller hasn’t responded to Broussard nor a follow-up by Waypoint, though Apogee continues to reference the leak on Twitter. Broussard also did not respond to a request for comment.

But for a gamer of a certain age, Duke Nukem Forever and its troubled history was an obsession sparked by a singular moment: a spectacular video game trailer from E3 2001.

The Las Vegas-themed trailer promised to drop Duke into sprawling areas layered with new levels of environmental interactions, alongside screen-filling creatures and photo realistic visuals. It looked like a video game you could play in the near future. But the game that would eventually ship in a box with the name Duke Nukem Forever looks nothing like this.

This was also the moment 3D Realms infamously adopted the “when it’s done” mantra for the game’s release date, a cheeky comment that would become a bulwark from criticism.

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Duke Nukem Forever—or at least the version of the game that's in that 2001 E3 trailer—has haunted a generation of people who grew up playing Duke Nukem 3D,” said game critic Chris Franklin, who runs the YouTube criticism channel Errant Signal. “In some ways I think there's echoes of P.T.: A teaser that was incredibly well received and generated tremendous hype only for the final product to vanish, leaving everyone to wonder what could have been.” 

The reason people cared so much about Duke Nukem Forever was because they cared about Duke Nukem 3D, a game released the same year as Super Mario 64 and Quake, a game that would have a profound influence on the future of games, even if it’s hardly credited as such these days. And for anyone who wasn’t experiencing gaming in real-time, it’s hard to crystalize exactly what was so appealing about what, with hindsight, is blatantly a misogynist weirdo Schwarzenegger-type running around spewing Evil Dead quotes.

“Why was Duke iconic?” said former PC Gamer editor Jason Bates, who wrote the first cover story for Duke Nukem Forever in November 1997, back when it was thought the game would arrive months later. “Because Duke Nukem 3D had dialogue, any dialogue. Back then, video game dialogue was almost non-existent. What little existed was so terrible that even a pastiche action hero cliché that served up warmed-up Army of Darkness quotes and Aliens movie references was more entertaining than the anonymous nobodies we used to play.”

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(Fun fact: The PC Gamer cover for Duke Nukem Forever was approved by Star Wars: Rogue One screenwriter Gary Whitta, who at the time was PC Gamer’s editor-in-chief.)

The original PC Gamer cover for Duke Nukem Forever from 1997. Image courtesy of Half-Life Inside

Duke would comment on how good they looked when the player glanced at the mirror, an action that doesn’t seem consequential in 2022 but was wild in 1997, because up to this point, you didn’t expect to see anything in the window! And you certainly didn’t anticipate being rewarded with a response after interacting with objects as innocuous as a light switch or toilet. Doom was a game where players smashed the spacebar (aka “interact”) to find hidden doors, Duke Nukem 3D was a game where players smashed the spacebar to see how deep the rabbit hole went in the environment. You were usually rewarded for it, too. 

“Duke was a character whose running commentary made it feel like he was playing the game right there with you, snarking about the gameplay as it happened,” said Franklin. “You could root for him, or hate him, or think he’s funny, or think he’s a sexist dinosaur. But the fact that you were thinking about him at all made him unique when so many games worked to place a ‘you’ as the hero.’”

Duke Nukem Forever was announced in April 1997—a day after the publication PC Gamer leaked the news was coming—by developer 3D Realms, with a press release titled “GT Interactive secures exclusive global rights to 3D Realms ‘Duke Nukem 3D’ Sequels.” It’s largely forgotten now, but the announcement also alleged a Duke Nukem 5 was coming, too. 

“Duke Nukem Forever—or at least the version of the game that's in that 2001 E3 trailer—has haunted a generation of people who grew up playing Duke Nukem 3D.”

The game was to be built on id Software’s cutting edge Quake II engine. ”What more can players ask for than combining the technology of Quake with the attitude and interactive gameplay of Duke Nukem!" said Broussard in the release, before revealing the decision to work with id Software’s technology, rather than 3D Realms’ in-house engine, was to give the studio’s other upcoming video game, Prey, breathing room.

“Our goal is to release Duke Nukem Forever no later than mid-1998 and Prey late that year,” said one woefully optimistic Scott Miller in a separate news release at the time.

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This was an era when huge video games were made in less than 24 months, but Duke Nukem Forever would not actually ship for more than 10 years. Prey would take a little less than that, though 3D Realms would be forced to contract a different studio to bring the idea to life. Gearbox, the studio behind Borderlands, bought the property and shipped a “finished” version of Duke Nukem Forever in 2011. In the process, 3D Realms eventually went out of business.

“That Duke Nukem Forever would never release literally never occurred to us,” said Bates, whose PC Gamer cover story ended with the line “we’re not fortune tellers, but we have every confidence Duke Nukem Forever will be one of the biggest—and perhaps the best—titles of 1998.”

This perceived confidence, combined with an aura of cool and edginess, made Duke Nukem Forever a very attractive project to work on, and the kind of game people left good jobs for.

A screen shot from Duke Nukem 3D. Image courtesy of Gearbox Publishing

“I started on DNF sometime in 1998,” said Matt Wood, whose name is listed in the credits of the infamous 2001 trailer. “I was originally hired as a level designer to work on the second iteration of a game called Prey. The Prey team kind of fell apart and some of us shifted over to help Duke. It was right around the time they had ported the game to use the Unreal Tournament engine. Secretly, I wanted to work on the sequel to Duke 3D all along, so being given this opportunity was a dream come true. And boy, did I pour my heart into the game!”

Wood stuck around for a few years, eventually leaving because of a decision to shift the technology powering the game in a direction that, to him, wasn’t “trying to sell the game on its gameplay merits, we were just chasing tech.” It was also clear the game was years off.

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Things turned out okay for Wood: he left 3D Realms for Valve, and contributed to the studio’s strongest string of releases, including Half-Life 2, Portal 2, Left 4 Dead, and Counter-Strike.

He’s also “happy it [the leak] is out there,” because it’s a chance for the rest of the world to see the potential that not only players hoped was there—but Wood saw inside 3D Realms. 

And because the saga of Duke Nukem Forever is never over, Wood said there exists a more complete version of the game from 2002 with the AI “working well,” more interesting enemies were now in the game, and the team “feature creeped a whole bunch and implemented a lot more interactivity and the levels started to get a lot more interesting and refined.”

A screen shot from the original version of 'Prey' in the late 90s. Image courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

To be a PC gaming fan in the early 2000s meant reading a select group of websites, like Shacknews and Blue’s News. (Both of which are, miraculously, still around.) But to be a PC gaming fan obsessed with Duke Nukem Forever meant you were also reading Duke4.net, a website that did not launch until 2005, years after 3D Realms said the game would be done, but well into the endless trickle of new information promising it would be done…eventually.

“George Broussard and Scott Miller were people I really looked up to as a kid and my dream was to be like them,” said Robert “Yatta” R, who co-founded Duke4.net and still helps maintain it, and asked to keep their last name private to avoid unwanted public attention. “My friends and I made Duke4.net as my own way to live a small part of that dream.”

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Yatta, like a lot of hardcore Duke fans, found themselves on the 3D Realms message boards in the early 2000s, an era of Geocities and Angelfire, websites that offered the average person the possibility of running their own website. This is before the term blogs was coined, but in essence, it was an opportunity for fans to easily start their own fan blogs. It’s the kind of place that had a person who was dedicated to creating and curating Duke Nukem fan art. 

Yatta was barely a teenager at the time. These days, he’s a 32-year-old lawyer. 

“A decade or so ago, this guy had listed all the things he had done while waiting for Duke and it was half in jest, half of it was sad reality,” said Yatta. “He was waiting for the thing to be released, so he'd written how he developed a career and built a family and such and such and such. So many events had happened in his life, and I think we can all relate.”

Some of what contributed to keeping the myth of Duke Nukem Forever alive was the drip drip drip of information from people who formerly worked on it, like programmer Brandon Reinhart, also credited in the 2001 trailer. In 2021, Reinhart used Twitter to share a bunch of old screen shots from the game, showing off the kinds of features that players had always been hungry to learn more about, like the ability for players to freely write in a notebook. 

“I made a bunch of stupid features back then,” wrote Reinhart in a now-deleted tweet.

Once of the deleted tweets from former programmer Brandon Reinhart.

“I worked at Epic and was a developer on Unreal Tournament back in the day,” said Reinhart to Waypoint recently. “For whatever reason, after UT, I decided I wanted to work on DNF so I approached George [Broussard] and took a job. DNF was a troubled project, but I met a lot of lifelong friends there and moving to Texas was a net good for me.”

Reinhart ended up shuttering their Twitter account soon after sharing the screen shots.

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“I tweeted those at one point, figuring much of the legacy of the game was dead,” he said, “but I later changed to believing this was unwise given that the history of DNF still has vocal stakeholders and they might want to manage how the game is perceived. Ah well.”

But Reinhart’s tweets explain people’s sustained curiosity about “what if?” Maybe being able to pee on people on multiplayer—a feature Reinhart said Broussard “really hated”—was obviously juvenile, but other ideas were more inspired, like the ability to use an in-game computer to use a fully working email client called “ezMail” to send emails from Duke.   

Like Wood, Reinhart left 3D Realms for Valve, contributing to games like Left 4 Dead and Portal 2. Reinhart later became project lead for the company’s digital collectible card game Artifact, which shut down active development in 2021 after struggling to gain an audience.

“Maybe for some it had become their white whale and what eventually shipped was not THEIR whale, in their eyes. And they ain't wrong. The game that ultimately shipped was not what we were making back then.”

There were long periods where there wasn’t really any information to deliver—but Duke4.net persisted, thanks in part to tweets from Rinehart and an ongoing creator community around Duke. And later, when 3D Realms shut down, it seemed like the dream was dead. But Yatta kept the site going. Even now, after a version of Duke Nukem Forever shipped, he’s updating Duke4.net, because for many, the real version never did, and there was this hope that someday the community would get a better understanding of the game from 2011. It was also a coping mechanism, given how mediocre the 2011 version from Gearbox turned out. Sure, Gearbox’s take on Duke Nukem Forever sucked, but maybe this one was good!

“Maybe for some it had become their white whale and what eventually shipped was not THEIR whale, in their eyes,” said Wood. “And they ain't wrong. The game that ultimately shipped was not what we were making back then. So I think like me, a lot of people went, ‘yeah, great, but I still want to see the thing they were making in 2002!’”

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The reason many found out about the leaked version of Duke Nukem Forever, the one closer to what Wood was working on so long ago, was because Duke4.net wrote it up. And if another version of the game—like, say, the 2002 version that’s been teased—appears, it will most likely be Duke4.net breaking news, too, because Yatta wants to keep the site around.

Another screen shot from that fabled early version of Duke Nukem Forever. Image courtesy of Gearbox Publishing

“Our mission was to just keep it going forever, kind of a pun on the name of the game itself,” he said. “And so a part of me personally has always wanted to keep it going because it's not just nostalgia, it's this simpler time. Whether it was because I was much younger, but also because maybe the political atmosphere of the country was different. The time where you were excited to eat pizza and play video games and didn't really think about bills and problems of the ordinary nature that all of us have in our adulthoods. So keeping the website going, to some extent, may have been just maintaining a link to that simpler, happier time.”

Duke Nukem 3D was, at best, a crass satire centered around a sendup of 80s Hollywood action heroes. It treated women poorly, but the game seemed to be winking at the player, knowing Duke was a jerk. It’s not surprising for satire to age poorly, but Duke has aged particularly poorly because of the 2011 Duke Nukem Forever, which left the referential humor and knowing nods behind and celebrated its sexism and misogyny without irony. 

Last year, it was revealed a new Duke Nukem project—which could be anything from a movie adaptation or a new game—was being considered. But it’s hard to nail down exactly how Duke fits in. Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein: The New Colossus showed it’s possible to drag an old shooter into modern times and give it real depth and pathos, and people often joke about how you might be able to pull off a “progressive Duke Nukem.”

“70 percent chance of it being annoying but it'd be funny if they pulled a Wolfenstein and made progressive Duke Nukem,” said Highlight Reel editor Chris Person on Twitter, “like he's still into getting pussy *GUITAR RIFF* but NOW he's into dick too *THRASH METAL GOES HARD*”

“"Shake it ladies! Or don't!” joked another person on Twitter. “Whatever you feel validates you as a person!" *guitar riff*”

That sounds funny as hell, actually. You could even keep the classic Duke voice.

“It's important for whoever is working on Duke to answer the question ‘who is Duke?,’” said Wood, who is now making his own thing, an adventure game about a cat wandering around a city and wearing cute hats, Little Kitty, Big City. “To my friends and me playing Duke 3D, he was an outrageously crass caricature which to us at the time, was hilarious. But I know for some fans (and developers who worked on him), he wasn't a joke. So once you decide who Duke really is, you have to think hard about how you want him to be represented.”

“I do think there is a way to make Duke into a real character that isn't just a one dimensional, misogynistic, quote spewing machine, but is it worth it?” he said. “To me, Duke was interesting because of the world and the game that he inhabited. Duke as a character appealed to my teenage boy mind who spent my days quoting movies and being crass, but I think for him to succeed beyond the Roblox crowd these days, he needs to grow up a little bit.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

Duke Nukem, duke nukem forever, 3d realms

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