by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
duke nukem forever, perfection, vaporware

3d realms

Behind The Scenes Of The Duke Nukem Vaporware Party And Demise

from the gotta-launch dept

Back in May the "lifetime achievement" award winner (many times over) in vaporware, Duke Nukem Forever, officially went onto the permanent vaporware list as developer 3D Realms shut down. So what happened? How could one video game be under development for a dozen years, and despite promos from over a decade ago, still never come out? Clive Thompson, over at Wired, tried to piece together an autopsy of Duke Nukem Forever.

As with just about anything Thompson writes, it's a great read, with some interesting lessons. While the crux of the story is that 3D Realms boss, George Broussard, had the earlier success stuck on his brain, it seems like there are a few other things to be learned. There is definitely this undercurrent of "this game must be perfect before it can be released" that runs through the whole story. And, in fact, that probably only got worse with time. Every year the game wasn't released, the more it would have to "prove" to eventually live up to its reputation. But even more interesting is the constant changing of game engines. Basically (according to the story) Broussard kept focusing on why the game had to be the absolute best, and so every time a new (better) gaming engine came out, he wanted to use that, and dump all the development done on earlier engines. In some ways it's a story that shows why just copying what other people do isn't enough. By the time 3D Realms "caught up" with others (often by licensing their technology), someone else had already jumped ahead and gone further -- leading 3D Realms to pull back and jump on board the next platform... leading to the same situation yet again.

The simple fact was that no one was ever going to be that far ahead of the game any more, and so there are times where you just release what you have and iterate. But 3D Realms put itself in the impossible position of both needing to be leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, while at the same time relying on the technology of others they hoped to leapfrog. That's a recipe for disaster. You can use others' technologies if you want to be incrementally better, and to then continue to improve. But you're simply not going to be so far ahead of the game that no one is ever going to catch you. And it appears that 3D Realms never got past that contradiction.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Duke, Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:10pm

    Whadda ya waitin for, Chrismas ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    That Guy, Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:22pm

    From Duke Himself

    I don't have time to play with myself...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    The Baron, Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:31pm


    Contrast the desire to make it the best game possible with the desire to purchase a third party engine.

    In my mind, that was the recipe for their own disaster - they were always going to be behind the 8-ball if using someone elses engine for the game. One cannot be ahead of the curve if you are using a "curve" designed and released by someone else!

    Shame, sounds like Take Two are circling like sharks around the leftovers though. My bet is that Duke Nukem will return...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Derek Bredensteiner (profile), Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:40pm

    Re: Impossible

    So would it have been possible to spend 12 years developing their own engine to get ahead of everyone else's engines developed, improved, developed in that same time period?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    interval, Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:42pm

    If Broussard had gone ahead with the first engine and released the game a year later it would have been great, made money, and they could have taken the money from that (after paying his underpaid developers) and started working on Duke Nukem Forever Part Deux (or whatever) with a new, completely home-brewed engine, and they would have had as much as I suspect 3 years to get that effort out, and people would have willingly waited and the game would have almost been as great as Broussard could make it, and he'd still be in business. Never, ever take all your business queues from a dreamer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:42pm

    Re: Impossible

    Half-life was written using the (heavily modified) Quake engine.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:45pm

    Re: Re: Impossible

    Possible, although not guaranteed. It seems like they got lucky the first time, and didn't know how to make "get lucky again" part of the business plan.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Lucretious, Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 4:52pm

    The tale of George Broussard isn't a secret. Matter of fact its quite common.

    Too much success, too soon, when he was too young.

    It seems he also had a state of mind that is common with many artists, musicians, etc. If he wasn't able to match the success of the original it would mean (in his mind anyhow) that the original success was due to a fluke and not talent. Continually delaying the game would keep him from having to face that fated day. It's easier to just spend your millions, enjoy your extended puberty and not deal with reality

    Not an easy situation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    ChronoFish (profile), Dec 22nd, 2009 @ 5:15pm

    Re: by Lucretious

    I think you nailed it....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon (profile), Dec 23rd, 2009 @ 3:15am

    One of the best games possible without top-notch graphics

    You know what, I never played Duke3D because of it's (back then) okay graphics but because of it's overall top-notch *gameplay*. Flying around with jetpacks and blasting each other on LAN parties was fun, there was simply no need for an Unreal engine.

    I've always thought, gameplay was the key, which is why I'm occasionally still playing some retro stuff like The Castles of Doctor Creep.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Robert Ring (profile), Dec 23rd, 2009 @ 4:54am

    I caught this article, too, and it's a very interesting read. Another important aspect of it is your classic "We can work on this as long as we Wang because we have truckloads of money" case. It's interesting how people can be in such denial that cash WILL eventually run out if you don't sell something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    nasch (profile), Dec 23rd, 2009 @ 9:40am


    I also found myself wondering as I read the Wired article if he was just doing what he loved - making a game. He didn't really care about releasing a game, as long as he could keep making it. The reality of making a game without releasing it just caught up with him. I don't know, just speculation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Tek'a R (profile), Dec 23rd, 2009 @ 9:33pm

    its funny to think that, with the current(recent) accessibility of powerful gaming engines, a publisher was unable to actually produce anything.

    I am fairly certain that if 3D realms had simply released a design bible, along with outlines of "plot" and level function, people would have been falling all over themselves to produce The Duke's latest hit, across a wide spectrum of engines and design schemes.

    They managed to dump cash and time into a bottomless pit while a contest or even an "accidental leak" of information would have brought them the forefront of the industry.. or at least made them less of a joke in the end.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    JC Dill, Dec 25th, 2009 @ 2:28am

    Dilbert comes to life

    Scott Adams illustrated this very problem earlier this month in Dilbert.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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