Talking Duke Nukem Forever With Gearbox Software's Steve Gibson

By Garnett Lee, Sep 10, 2010 11:00am PDT Shacknews founder Steve Gibson spent plenty of time covering Duke Nukem Forever over the years. His move to Gearbox Software now puts him working for the very developer that hopes to finally finish the game. Seeing both sides firsthand gives him a unique perspective on the story. So I sat down with him at PAX to see how he feels about becoming part of the game's saga and how Gearbox plans to make Duke Nukem Forever a success.

Gibson shared that initially he wondered if getting into Duke Nukem Forever wasn't along the lines of inviting bad karma, much like the legendary Curse of the Bambino. But the reassurance, he told me, was that they knew the game was good. And it made sense to get involved because of the unique position Gearbox held with both 3D Realms and publisher 2K Games, with which they enjoy a healthy relationship. "We were the only middle party that happened to have a trusting relationship [with 3D Realms] and the resources available to hold both sides and make that happen."

Already several months into working on getting the game done, Gibson said they are at the stage of polishing it for release. They decided to wait to show the game, though, because "we've got this game; nobody believes it's coming. So we kept it quiet. Clearly if you make an announcement of hey, we're picking up Duke Nukem Forever everyone is just going to laugh." Then they decided to unveil at PAX where everyone could hold a controller, play the game, and see that yes, it's really coming. Their thinking behind this strategy was to, "let the gamers make the decision because they're not afraid to say what they really think because they're not worried about their credibility. Whereas a press guy worries what if I say this is great but I'm actually wrong."

My full conversation with Steve follows after the jump and if you weren't one of those at PAX who braved the line to play the game, check out Brian's hands-on preview of Duke Nukem Forever.

Shacknews: After covering the Duke story for so long for Shack, what was it like when they walked in said, "hey, we're looking at finishing up Duke Nukem Forever" to you?

Steve Gibson: Mostly hilarious, I think really. You go through the stages of like, "Okay, you're joking around; there's no way," because we were all aware of the lawsuits going on. Then there was, "oh, you're serious, really?" That kinda seems like a...you think about things like the Curse of the Bambino situation. This is a thing that'll sink a studio.

But we knew it was good. There never was a real question of how good the game was. Just getting it all together, as one cohesive piece you could play front to back, fitting it within memory, all the optimizations and trying to get it on console platforms -- that was the thing. Making the game fun, they know how to do that; they had that for a long time and everyone knew it. That's how so many developers are still attracted to come work at 3D Realms, because when you see that game, you're like, this is fun as hell. I want to work on this thing. I want to make this thing get out the public. It was always good; it was just a matter of putting it in a package.

Shacknews: It sounds like what we'd heard about the work on the game over the years being fractured, and there being lots of pieces but no whole, was pretty accurate?

Steve Gibson: That's pretty much the way it was and when the studio did shut down in 2009, there was some real hope that this game was going to ship in the next year.

Shacknews: Right, it was going to be the April Fool's "joke" and release on April 1.

Steve Gibson: The producer at the time on Duke Nukem Forever was Jason Bergman, who Shackers certainly know because he was a writer there, so yeah, once the company shut down and Jason felt like okay there's no way this thing is going to happen, might as well say, "well, this was the plan: we were shooting for April first. That was real; that was in the plan. And then money ran out and that didn't happen."

Shacknews: What's the state of the game you guys wound up with and what are the priorities you have to tick off in order to get Duke out the door?

Steve Gibson: We are straight into polish mode now. We have the game assembled; you can play the game front to back.

Shacknews: That seems awful fast. How long have you been working on it?

Steve Gibson: We made the deal in 2009. And development, even when 3D Realms shut down, it did not fully stop. There were guys like Allen Blum and David Riegel. Like Allen Blum, that guy is the co-creator of Duke Nukem, the very first, and that guy has stuck through the whole thing. So what happened was when the studio shut down, these guys started working out of their homes. Like, we're going to finish this thing. All the legal stuff was not worked out but these guys had tunnel vision on finishing the game.

Gearbox Software got wind of that. Randy started investing in that, trying to make that happen. It was certainly a complicated situation to get worked out because you had people throwing lawsuits around. You've got a really contentious relationship between 3D Realms and Take Two. Gearbox was in a unique situation. Two of the founding partners of Gearbox worked at 3D Realms. They were there, and helped ship Duke Nukem 3D, and were around for the first little bits of Duke Forever. So George knew these guys really well and trusted them. So we had a good relationship with 3D Realms because of that. And, we were just getting wrapped up with Borderlands at the time. So we had a really good relationship with the publisher who was like this game is rockin' and you guys know how to ship games and it's great. So we were the only middle party that happened to have a trusting relationship and the resources available to hold both sides and make that happen. It was an amazing coincidence of circumstances that we were able to do that.

Shacknews: Did you bring those guys on then?

Steve Gibson: Yeah, Allen Blum and those guys, they're actually now in the Gearbox Software building on the tenth floor. We brought them in; they're now connected to the Gearbox infrastructure and our central team of animators and modelers and sound engineers. So it's a collaborative effort now to wrap this thing up and put it in the box.

Shacknews: How did you guys feel about facing the world going out there and saying Duke is back, again?

Steve Gibson: When we were planning on the announcement we were like, man, alright, we've got this game; nobody believes it's coming. So we kept it quiet. Clearly if you make an announcement of hey, we're picking up Duke Nukem Forever everyone is just going to laugh. So the whole plan was we need to work on this thing, and work on it for a long time. Get to the point where we know we're going to ship that game 2011, and we know we will. And then, you don't announce that either. You just show up at the show, put controllers in people's hands. That's the only way to do it.

We wanted to put it in the gamers' hands first. No press played the game. At the opening of the show, there were gamers in line getting to play that before even the press did. The reality is, a lot of those guys have seen the game for so long that we're sure those guys are far more jaded to this. A lot of the press has been at this and watching this for ten years. There's a lot of games who just think okay, I heard this game is never coming out. And we knew that we could get those guys on our side. We bring them a quality, fun game and we could do that. Instead of some press guy hedging because he's not sure he wants to commit, put it in gamers' hands. Let the gamers make the decision because they're not afraid to say what they really think because they're not worried about their credibility. Whereas a press guy worries what if I say this is great but I'm actually wrong.

Shacknews: You've had more time with it than even the gamers, what are some of the things that you really like in how it's coming together?

Steve Gibson: Well, Borderlands was a whole lot of fun, right? It was irreverent and you can do a bunch of crazy stuff in it but it was a sci-fi fantasy world. So things like toilets and all the contextual humor of real world situations--obviously hyper-world with Duke--you can put the craziest most obscene, absurd things in this game and it's fine. When we're in our develop thing we're thinking okay, we know the game is going to be M rated, how close can we get to the line of AO. That's the thing. How offensive can we be? It's nuts. There's a blowjob scene in our game, in the very first demo people are seeing. You don't see that too often.

Shacknews: You have to be really careful with that, though, I'd think. It's easy to cross the line like say a Shadow Warrior did.

Steve Gibson: The thing was they went into the world of being racist. You stick to the 12 year-old humor but not stereotypes. You don't touch stuff like that. You should just sort of carry that as a mantra in your life. Don't be a bigot.

Shacknews: To wrap things up, one of the biggest topics people are talking about is the move to two weapons at a time. What's with the decision on the limit?

Steve Gibson: I wasn't part of that decision. I can understand and sympathize. You've got to also look at the reality of where games were 12 years ago, and who was playing games, and who plays games now, and how to make a successful game. You've got to realize who your audience is. It's a lot different audience now. I'm having a hard time imagining, these days, someone thinking numbers one through twelve of what my weapon is. Try to imagine sitting down with, like, your uncle who hasn't played games before and saying "don't forget, number seven is the rocket launcher, number six is the freeze ray." I imagine that was a lot of what the decision was. I'm not the guy making the call.

Shacknews: Thanks Steve.

Steve Gibson: Yeah, thank you. I miss the Shack.

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