Duke Nukem Forever/Development History

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"Yes it seems that 3D Realms have been doing something other than giving each other piggyback rides for the last 10 years. In a stroke all the anticipation we haven't felt since 1998 returned like a tazer gun to the base of the spine. I just hope that 3D Realms understands that if this game doesn't turn out to be history's greatest contribution to human culture and the cure for at least one type of cancer, then I and every other reviewer on earth are going to saw its bollocks off."
Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw, Zero Punctuation (Feb. 2008)

(For the actual page, go here)


Just as numerous game developers named the third installment of a popular series "3D" back in The Nineties, 3DRealms decided to extend the trope to Duke Nukem's fourth game by titling it Duke Nukem Forever ("4-Ever"). Little did they know at the time the other potential meaning -- because when they said Forever, they weren't kidding.

DNF was the prime example of Vaporware by way of Development Hell, and widely considered the videogame equivalent of Chinese Democracy (the sessions for the album started in 1994 and it was finally released in November 2008; actual Chinese democracy is, sadly, still in Development Hell) or the infamous The Last Dangerous Visions anthology (originally announced in 1973; Harlan Ellison still insists he intends to get the book out).

The game was given the Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award by Wired News for its continued delays, an award created specifically for DNF (as it was winning the Vaporware Awards too often). When readers complained against its removal, the game returned the following year to win some more awards.

To grasp the scale of DNF's development cycle, take a look at The Duke Nukem Forever list; this page (last updated in 2009) lists off major events which happened between the announcement of the game and the page's last update; perhaps the only thing that didn't happen between the game's announcement and its release is the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, and even that was only missed by a few years (the Cubs won the 2016 World Series).

3D Realms released numerous trailers and teasers throughout development, including this 2001 trailer featuring footage tailored together from non-interactive cutscenes (according to a former 3D Realms developer) as a "proof of life" for the game. Another teaser trailer released in 2007, combined with the surprise release of Prey (3D Realms' other vaporware title), suggested Forever's development might have finally gotten somewhere.

Another video of gameplay footage was shown in George Broussard's late-May/early-June 2009 appearance on The Jace Hall Show. Gamers remained jaded after seeing this, since the game's development history never seemed to break out of alpha stages (as there would be a chance 3D Realms would restart from scratch because they weren't totally satisfied with the results). Several from-scratch restarts did happen during 3D Realms' development of the game; this Wired article details the history of the people who designed, developed, and ultimately failed the project. To make a long story short (too late): Protection From Editors ended up being the game's downfall.[1]

A few months after the 2009 trailer premiered, Take Two pulled the plug on 3D Realms' funding and released the development team -- and since the company retained the rights to the Duke Nukem name, it sued 3D Realms for damages (the lawsuit ended in a settlement). A countersuit filed by 3D Realms suggests Forever was slated for a 2010 release on PC and Xbox 360 (and later announced for Play Station 3) -- and another Duke Nukem-related game was in the works as well (under the working title of Duke Begins).

This would normally be the end of the story -- there's no development team, the game's easily the biggest joke in the gaming world, and no gamer alive expects the game to ever be released in any way, shape, or form -- but we all should have remembered one simple fact: always bet on Duke.

After 3D Realms' development ended, Gearbox Software (the makers of Borderlands, Brothers in Arms, and Half-Life expansion packs Opposing Force and Blue Shift) picked up the scraps and finally wrapped up development on the game. (Gearbox's first involvement with the franchise, incidentally, involved developing Duke Begins before it was cancelled -- and Gearbox founder Randy Pitchford himself was a former 3D Realms employee; who knew that he would complete the game 3D Realms started just after he left them?)

At PAX 2010, DNF made a surprise appearance with a playable demo, marking the first time any member of the general public ever managed to play a version of the game during its ridiculously long development cycle. After a fourteen year wait (and a minor hiccup at the end of development before going gold), Take Two released Duke Nukem Forever on June 10th (internationally) and June 14th (the United States)... to a tepid critical reception. The game sold well enough for Gearbox to say Duke Nukem 5 will likely sooner or later, however -- and this time, they'll try and make the gap between sequels a bit less than sixteen years.

As an aside: if you know of the picture of the famous preorder receipt from 2001, you should also know that it belongs to a Penny Arcade forumite by the name of "slash000" -- and he kept it. Videogame retailer GameStop told gamers they would honor any legitimate preorder receipt for the game (even decade-old receipts), so slash000 managed to secure his preorder discount -- and he snagged a bunch of swag from Gearbox, to boot.

Duke Nukem Forever's development features examples of the following tropes:
  • The Ace: The promo art for the game depicts Duke as an astronaut, MMA champion, and a recipient of some kind of an award. Also on a snowy mountain with a sign that says "HAIL TO THE KING EVEREST". He also fishes for sharks. With his bare hands.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: In the 2011 trailer:

Narrator: When the invaders came back, they came back angry. They tore our planet apart, bit by bit. But they made one mistake... they shouldn't have gone after our women.
Duke: Dammit. Why do they always take the hot ones?

  • Bowdlerised: Zig-zagged, in a sudden cross-over with No Export for You, the Russian release of the game not only features Broken Base-inciting voice actor casting for Duke, it also went through the pains of translating all the swearing... and then bleeping it out. And there's no way to un-bleep it. And locking out the usual Steam ability to change a game's language. And retaining the game's 18+ rating because nothing else was censored!
  • Cue the Flying Pigs: A few days before the unveiling at PAX, 3D Realms president George Broussard (who once said it would be ready "when pigs fly") tweeted a link to... guess it. Hell, even Duke has his fun with this trope.
  • Follow the Leader: A weird case of this: Now that the game is actually out, there have been complaints about how "dated" certain parts of the game is and that it has been done before, such as realtime keypad tapping as shown in Doom 3, protaganist-based storytelling and physics puzzles as in Half Life, destructible terrain in Red Faction, etc... But truth be told the features would have been groundbreaking if the game had been released, a decade earlier (or in some cases even half a decade earlier), if the trailers for Duke Nukem Forever showing these features were any proof. Also an interesting case of Older Than They Think.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Even the game's announcement press release calls the release "shocking" and claims, "Seriously, flying pigs spotted heading towards Penny Arcade Expo!"
    • The trailer has a pretty nice one, after Duke uses a pig cop's rough hide to light a cigar:

"What? Did you think I was GONE forever?"

  • Preview Piggybacking: Owners of the Borderlands Game of the Year Edition, another Gearbox game, could sign up for the Duke Nukem Forever First Access Club to be among the first to play the public demo version of Duke Nukem Forever. Members of said club also get the first DLC, the "Hail to the Icons" pack, for free.
  • Rated "M" for Manly: The ESRB classification for this game is "M for Mature", and has the entire rating box filled out. And then there's the description.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Expected. Gearbox was worried that the game would be too crude, and were surprised they didn't have to cut out any of the "Strong Sexual Content".
    • The game's special edition is officially titled "Balls of Steel".
    • When the game met with a delay in the final launch date, Gearbox announced it with a video that, at one point, stated: "Duke never comes early."
    • Gearbox eventually decided that the sheer, absurd vulgarity of Duke's world was one of the shining traits of it. The lead developer expressed that things like people visiting the Fellatio Hotel (and thinking nothing of it) were key to the 'Duke World'.
  • Saved From Development Hell
  • Self-Deprecation: Gearbox knew fans would not be happy when they announced a delayed release date, so they threw the first punch at themselves with the announcement trailer.
  • Sequel Gap: Duke Nukem 3D came out in 1996. Most of what happened in those 15 years warranted a whole site.
  • Sir Not Appearing In This Game: All of the Forever trailers up till Gearbox took over featured the prospector, Gus. He had been dropped sometime before Gearbox took the game, however. At first he was going to give you a donkey to ride back to Las Vegas on. 3D Realms eventually just decided to turn the donkey into a monster truck to quicken the pace of the levels and got rid of Gus.
    • Revealed in the Collector's Edition art book: there was originally a Distaff Counterpart to Duke named Bombshell who was supposed to not only appear in the game as an ally, but also get her own spin-off game. She was dropped in favor of EDF Captain Dylan. See What Could Have Been below for the other reason Bombshell ended up shelved.
  • Take a Third Option: Invoked in a gameplay clip.
  • What Could Have Been: During the whole development cycle, there were insistent rumors of Duke meeting a female sidekick named Bombshell. A model of Bombshell for the current iteration of the game was made, but Gearbox decided to scrap the character and replace it with Captain Dylan. Word of God says Captain Dylan ended up becoming more popular than Bombshell, but an examination of trademarks shows the Bombshell trademark still belongs to 3DRealms (who renewed it [dead link] on December 15, 2011). Since Gearbox never gained ownership of the trademark, it didn't have the rights to include Bombshell in Duke Nukem Forever.
  1. George Broussard's notable Protection From Editors led to the opposite problem of most instances of the trope; rather than blocking out all criticism, Broussard's perfectionism led to endless revision of DNF to avoid flaws in the final product, regardless of the budget or any lingering deadlines.