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What If Duke Nukem Forever Had Been Released 13 Years Ago?

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Posted June 24, 2011 - By Guest Writer





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What If Duke Nukem Forever Had Been Released 12 Years Ago?

Duke Nukem Forever’s release and subsequent damnation by dozens of critics has many wondering why even bother, after 15 years in production, shipping such a shoddy product. Indeed, much of the reason for the delay was a staunch commitment to releasing a game that would not only be amazing, but would be the best video game made up to that point.

So what if DNF had launched at any of the various dates it was supposed to? What if it had been the greatest video game up to that point? Here we take a look at the what ifs of Duke Nukem Forever, before it was a gigantic failure.

DNF Releases In Mid-1998 – defeats Half-Life

In 1996, 3D Realms was on the top of the video game world. Their free-to-play; cost-to-play-more business model was innovative and made its owners millionaires. They had published one of the most groundbreaking video games of all time in Wolfenstein 3D and they had just finished making Duke Nukem 3D, which sold 3.5 million units purely on word of mouth. Both games had been revolutionary and 3D Realms was committed to making DNF look like it was a generation ahead of the competition.


The game was first announced in 1997 with an intended mid-1998 release. This was appropriate as the games of the late 90s only took about a year to develop. From mid-1998 to late 1998, 3D Realms moved from the original Build engine to the wildly expensive Quake II engine to the Unreal engine. These switches would ring the main death knell to DNF’s early production.

But let’s say that in 1997, right after Forever’s announcement, that 3D Realms had not decided to license the costly Quake II engine, instead going with the new (and technologically superior) Unreal engine, which was released in December 1997. With a much easier engine to work with and oodles of time, 3D Realms shows off a polished Duke at E3 1998, and pushes the launch date to late 1998. Without significant delays, no one at 3D Realms fights to overhaul the game and production rolls on smoothly.

Duke Nukem Forever launches, after just a year and half in production, in November 1998. Using the Unreal engine to great effect, it immediately enters a battle with another gaming marvel that launched in the same month – Half-Life. However, Duke has the upper hand, with a rabid fanbase, a well-established IP and a long-standing company. After all, Duke Nukem was one of the only icons of gaming at the time; only Duke, Mario, and Pac-Man stood out in a sea of faceless protagonists. Half-Life, on the other hand, uses a modified version of the original Quake engine, comes out of a brand-new company, and has almost no advertising budget. Duke Nukem Forever wins, hands down.

This isn’t to say Half-Life doesn’t receive the praise it deserves; it’s still a great game, but it remains in Duke’s shadow, and even its modding community is eclipsed by that of Duke’s. Duke Nukem Forever does what Half-Life did in 2002 and ports an improved version over to the popular new PlayStation 2, breathing new life into the series on console. This becomes the first game to usethe  Unreal 2 engine instead of America’s Army and stuns the gaming community again with the same game.

Duke Nukem: Fever Pitch releases on PS2 and Duke Nukem: CrazySexyCool becomes a launch title for the PS3 using the Unreal 3 engine. These games don’t even have to be good anymore; the name alone and a steady release cycle ensure that Duke is an established juggernaut. 3D Realms becomes a household name and a well-known publishing company.

DNF releases in 2001 – Gets A Two-Year Jump On Halo 2

We’ll go back to 1998 and say that the original delay proceeded as usual. 3D Realms wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Quake II engine, which they ultimately abandoned for Unreal. Fast forward to 1999, and production was still slow and meandering. Much of this was due to 3D Realms director George Broussard’s notorious habit for trying to incorporate other new games’ ideas into DNF.


At this point DNF’s completion hinged on the decision-making capabilities of one man, but his continued indecisiveness crippled production. In 2001, the product was no closer to complete than it was in 1998 but for whatever reason, Broussard released an amazing trailer at E3 that year that ended up causing serious excitement for the game. The trailer was a mock-up and didn’t reflect any actual gameplay, but it still stirred the crowd. The video wraps up with an arrogant spit-in-the-eye of a release date; “When it’s done.” In reality, Broussard merely shrugged off the excitement generated by the trailer and continued his haphazard development cycle. But let’s pretend that he actually cared about his fanbase; now clamoring for the game, and began development in earnest.

In mid-2001, three years into development, Duke Nukem Forever sees serious, meaningful overhaul. Its main concentration now includes multiplayer following the success of multiple game modes in Unreal Tournament (1999). 3D Realms is racing for a mid-2002 release and seems right on course. That is until the release of a little title in late 2001 called Halo: Combat Evolved. LAN parties began to dominate households and changed the face of multiplayer gaming. True to his nature, Broussard demands another renovation, this time to include the console faithful.

Having worked with the PlayStation in the past producing moderately successful titles Duke Nukem: Time to Kill (1998) and Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes (2000), 3D Realms decides to work simultaneously on a PC and PS2 title in late 2001. Production has slowed, but excitement remains, and a supportive fanbase, now eager for a console iteration remains patient. The mid-2002 release date is no longer possible, but 3D Realms assures fans it will take no longer than late 2002 to finish the title.

At E3 2002, 3D Realms makes the stunning announcement that DNF will feature online multiplayer utilizing the new PlayStation Network Adapter set for release in August 2002, and already in use in Japan. The game is playable on the show floor on both PS2 and PC, and with more than four years of development and a year of polish; it’s met with sweeping praise. Sony works with 3D Realms to have DNF’s release coincide with the release of the PlayStation Network Adaptor in August 2002. Its only competition is the pedestrian Socom: Navy SEALs and DNF quickly dominates the online market.

The real power of this 2002 version of Duke Nukem Forever is not its graphics, well thought-out story, or great usage of modified Unreal engine. It is the massive boost it gives online gaming. Getting a two-year jump on Halo 2, Forever makes the PlayStation a dominant power in online gaming; drawing other developers into utilizing their network adapter. Duke Nukem himself is back to life, and although having spent over four years in development hell, has come back swinging. 3D Realms is in fine standing to develop a swan song title on the PS2 or even a launch title for the PS3. Most importantly, Duke Nukem Forever isn’t a complete turd.

Other Possibilities? Not Really.

A release date between 1998 and 2002 is possible, but not likely. Because the original belated switch to the Unreal engine occurred in June 1998, much of 3D Realms’ work was entirely lost. Between 1998 and 2001 Broussard became condescendingly entrenched in the idea of shipping the game “when it’s done,” and without any serious motivation to move the game, it never became “done.” Only the E3 2001 trailer could have shifted Broussard’s gears from “mopey” to “excited” after fans showed their support of the game.

 

Duke Nukem Forever Launch Trailer »


 

However, without any major catalyst, Duke Nukem Forever was doomed to be vaporware from the first engine change in 1998. 3D Realms had enough money to keep themselves afloat for years to come, but began bleeding employees in the early 2000s. By 2003, they only had 18 employees working on Duke Nukem Forever; a number that clearly showed a lack of commitment to the title. Even had it come out after this date, the IP was so stale and the parody of 90s action flicks was so tired that the jokes would not have been well-received. Duke was dead in 1998 and should have stayed dead.

Another possibility that existed the entire time was licensing the game to another company to develop. One such possibility was Id Software, who had previously worked with 3D Realms on Wolfenstein 3D. They had some serious downtime between Quake III Arena (1999) and Doom 3 (2004) that they certainly could have filled with some Duke Nukem Forever. n-Space, who had developed two licensed Duke games would have also been more than happy to get their hands on the Duke Nukem Forever title, even if the game would have been less than satisfactory.

Unfortunately, none of these what ifs came to light. Instead, after 14 years in production hell, Gearbox Software was handed a crumbling heap of a game spanning three generations and countless overhauls. Duke Nukem Forever is a video game seemingly dredged out of a landfill and handed to gamers without the courtesy of wiping the most of the sludge off of it. It exists now not only as a disappointing end to a long and tedious story, but as what should be the nail in Duke’s coffin. George Broussard really should have stuck to his old mantra – anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.

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