When Randy Pitchford talks, he talks. But when Randy Pitchford talks about Duke Nukem Forever, the game he rescued from development hell, he gushes.
Here, in an interview with Eurogamer, Pitchford expresses a genuine excitement for the game we all though was dead. Pitchford was there, with muscle-bound hero Duke, from the very beginning, before heading off to found his own studio and create shooters Brothers In Arms and Borderlands. So Pitchford knows Duke better than most, and he's delighted that he had the opportunity to resurrect his fortunes.
Eurogamer: What is a Duke Nukem game? What's the essence of what you guys are doing?
Randy Pitchford: The first thing you have to know about Duke is that in his world the entire universe revolves around him. The other thing is that his world is similar to our world, but different. It's a topsy-turvy, upside-down, funhouse mirror reflection of our world.
That's very difficult to get right. There have been many attempts over the years to have a loose, funny, comedy experience in a videogame, and the secret for Duke is that in Duke's world, all of the jokes aren't jokes. In Duke's world, it's absolutely effing serious.
In our world we have a casino resort hotel called The Bellagio, and it's an opulent, beautiful place. In Duke's world, there's a place almost like it, but it's called The Fellatio. But it's not a joke. You can imagine families just going to The Fellatio and staying at the resort and moms gambling there and they're oblivious to the fact it's obviously a blowjob reference. Then when we see his world through the lens of our world, it's funny.
There are two things you get from that. One, it's all very sincere in how it's presented in his world. But the other opportunity that's presented from that is that you can occasionally tear down that fourth wall a little bit.
Eurogamer: Is that something you're retrofitting to the original Duke games or has it always been there?
Randy Pitchford: I believe it's always been there.
Eurogamer: When people were designing games 10 or 15 years ago, it felt like some of the things that are now common like having style bibles and so on were unheard of because it was all still quite innocent.
Randy Pitchford: I think they're still pretty unheard of, unfortunately! The reality is, especially with a game like Duke, the identity, the attitude, the personality and the definition of what works and what doesn't it actually resides within the people, and there are a handful of people that have been with Duke since the beginning who are still at it today. It's those people that define it and get it.
Eurogamer: If you were starting again now, is this the Duke game you would make?
Randy Pitchford: No, it's not my game. My commitment is to make sure that I and you and we all finally get to play the game we've been waiting for all this time. So the commitment that I've made with my studio is to make sure 3D Realms' vision is realised.
I was at 3D Realms at the very beginning of the project, so the influence that persisted from that point forward is very high level the top-line story of how Duke is enjoying the rewards of his successes, and some time has passed since he saved the world, and it's this world that the aliens come back into, and he once again has to rise and be the one. Also the thread of how he is in his casino in Las Vegas, and there's Hoover Dam and Area 51 and the deserts of Nevada and Vegas itself and all that stuff. That was all tied in back then too.
One of the maps I built in Duke Nukem 3D was the secret level in episode four, Area 51, and we had all gone and watched Independence Day on launch day and the next day I was like, "Ah, dude, that is so Duke," and I started working on that mission. That felt really right, so a lot of us were talking about that and it affected it.
We had a contest by the way, this is kind of stuff I've never told anybody a user contest where we said, "Hey, make maps and we're going to give a prize to whoever we think makes the bitchingest map," and this one entry, the one that Allen [Blum, Duke creator] liked the best, this guy built Hoover Dam. That's so Duke to take a real-world place and build it and blow the whole thing up or tear it apart.
Eurogamer: Whenever I used the Build engine editor, that's the sort of thing I'd do build my street or my school or whatever.
Randy Pitchford: Right, and that's one of the things that Duke 3D brought to the table. Before Duke, when we played Doom, it's a space station but that's the blue room and that's the green hallway and that's the demonic kind of walls, and it was really abstract. Duke really finally brought us to a place that's kind of real. That was a new kind of feeling.
That DNA was there at the beginning [of Duke Forever] and just the most rudimentary core has survived somehow, but over the years the real value is in the details, and that value has been created by the talent at 3D Realms over the years and evolved and iterated.
That wasn't the plan at the beginning. There was no plan at the beginning just intent and feeling and over the years we've had additions and deletions and changes, and near the end there was a vision that was like the sum of all that evolution, and it was good. It was really good.
That's what we're supposed to be playing. It's my mission to make sure we get to play that.
Eurogamer: I thought when I was playing it that some of the references, like the Doom keycard or the Starship Troopers one... As someone who's followed it for 13 years, it gave it a sense of history and place.
Randy Pitchford: Yes! Some of the jokes or bits, you can tell they're years old, but they survive, they're OK. There is more that has been cut away than persists, and it's still a huge game, but it's interesting because they come in at different times. There's some that are very recent.
Eurogamer: It almost feels like the fact the game is 13 years old is vital to it.
Randy Pitchford: There's nothing else that's ever been like this. Yes. And the fact that you can feel that whole time period is interesting. You're right, we don't have that anyone else.
That's not by design. I promise you that the guys wanted to finish!
Eurogamer: Somewhere there must be the guy who OKed the name "Duke Nukem Forever".
Randy Pitchford: The name started as a 2D side-scroller. Keith Schuler was producing this game while we were working on Duke 3D, and it was "Duke Nukem 4Ever" and the idea was it was going to be the fourth game. The first two Dukes were side-scrollers.
This one was awesome-looking for the time, but when we shipped Duke 3D we looked around and thought the world was a little bit different and we probably couldn't get away with another side-scroller.
But that name... It was so perfect for the fourth game, and when we cancelled the 2D game and began development on an iteration from Duke 3D, in first-person, there was just that desire to keep that title.
For a while we stuck with "4Ever", but then it was like, "Wouldn't it be cool if it was Forever, this epic thing?" And then the irony kind of kicked in a few years later.
Eurogamer: Do you think good game design is timeless enough to withstand all the technological pressures and the evolution of game design in general?
Randy Pitchford: Yes and no. The "yes" is that there was a formula that was invented or maybe it was some iteration and invention with Duke 3D. It certainly gets a lot of credit for innovation on two fronts. One front is on pacing, and how offshoots to that pacing create opportunities for entertainment, and the other is in the tools and weapons themselves and actual function of the mechanics of the gameplay.
OK, so that first point about pacing. You go from this intense, high-adrenaline, high heart-rate shooting loop, where it's a skill test there's the enemy, I've got to get my cursor on him and you clear the room and want to move ahead. And you'll encounter a puzzle or exploration.
The puzzle-solving is really interesting. Tell me if this is what it felt like. It's supposed to feel like you're kind of moving forward but then there's a little bit of confusion, and you wonder what you're supposed to do. Maybe... Then you realise, ah, it's that. Then you have to work out how to do it. Then you get it and it's a lightbulb moment.
Then it goes back to action. And it's not just action-puzzle-action-puzzle, because sometimes it's action-action-action-puzzle. You mix the pacing up. And then you insert variety into it.
It's kind of weird. We have this old thing where we say, "It's time for a tank mission." It's a time where we really mix it up. We've had an action-puzzle loop a little bit, and then we get in a car.
Eurogamer: Or shrink Duke.
Randy Pitchford: Exactly. Let's change the physics of the situation and turn this on its head a little bit. Sometimes it's simple and you just need to mow stuff down for a little bit with a turret. Sometimes it's about making you feel fast or powerful, like getting in a plane or a car. Those are sprinkled in like A-bombs on the pacing schedule.
Then there's the offshoot thing, which is stuff like interactivity and secrets. The interactivity is there there's a pinball machine. It's not required, it's off the beaten path, and it's not going to be the objective, but it's just fun to mess around with.
Now Duke 3D had all those things in an earlier, simpler time. That was a good formula, and it totally applies today. You can take the Duke Nukem out of it and use it for other things. For example, Half-Life uses the exact same formula. Maybe less about the interactivity with Half-Life and more on the physics puzzles and the pacing part of it, but it uses that same formula and it works brilliantly.
For Duke Forever, some of the rules have changed, and that moment you were talking about the fourth wall breaking moment about the door and the keycard, both say to the customer and acknowledge the reality that the things that worked well back then, some of them are obsolete now.
Eurogamer: I thought it also looked quite of its time. There are updated bits like depth-of-field, but it does feel like it comes from that time visually
Randy Pitchford: That's incorrect. That's actually incorrect. The game pushes the system to its absolute maximum. The thing we're struggling with now is actually performance and memory constraints.
Eurogamer: Sure, but you're going down a street and you're looking at buses and cars and stuff and they look old compared to lots of things you see in current shooters.
Randy Pitchford: Well, there's trade-offs though. And I also disagree with that. It depends on which games you play. If you play a game that doesn't have anything and it's just a shell focused on the scene, yeah you can get higher fidelity, but when you want to put in more simulation, more things to do in the environment, you have to trade off those resources somewhat.
If this exact game had come out earlier in the cycle, when everyone else hadn't picked their angles and maximised the hardware, there'd be nothing that looked as good. The game absolutely looks better than the first generation Xbox  and PS3 games. In this world, today, there are games that look worse than it and there's games that look better than it.
Now Duke was never about graphics it's not that kind of thing, like I'm going to sell you on the best-looking scene, because when you're talking about the performance of the CPU it trades focusing only on image with other features like interactivity, fidelity in the situation how many different reactions the enemies have when you're hitting them, being able to shrink them down, freezing and breaking them to ice cubes, playing with the tools in the environment. When you sum all that up, it's a different use of system resources, but it's maximising the system...
And it's absurd to say [what you said]. If you honestly take a look at anything take the worst image from Duke Forever and compare it to Duke 3D, come on... You're disingenuous to your readers if you try to make that claim.
Eurogamer: I'm not being disingenuous. Do you not think when you look at the lighting model, for example, when you're walking around the penthouse, the way it's lit is not what we have come to expect?
Randy Pitchford: That room isn't trying to be lit like a dramatic room, but when you get into the alien hive you're going to be like, "Holy f***, this s*** looks gnarlier than Gears of War," and that's a one-to-one fair comparison, because you're in this alien hive cave and you've seen that in another game and you go, "Holy s***."
I'll tell you what you're right about though we have this in our heads. Because we know the game's been in development for so long. So pardon me.
More on Duke Nukem Forever
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Eurogamer: It's OK.
Randy Pitchford: We have some of... on my team, dozens of the most talented engineers and artists in the industry killing themselves to make sure it doesn't just feel like old graphics, and working around the clock to make sure that's paid off.
But there are decisions we need to make, as a Duke game, about how we use the system resources. It's a much better decision for the game to have all of that richness in gameplay and options and simulation than just trying to make the most beautiful scene.
What you take away, what you remember years from now, is the experiences you have. And Duke is all about experiences.
Eurogamer: What was it like for you, given your history, sitting down in front of the work-in-progress Duke Nukem Forever for the first time?
Randy Pitchford: Man, that's a great question. I don't remember. [Laughs] That's terrible. I'm really bad at this. OK, so let me just recall.
So Gearbox is in Dallas, 3D Realms is in Dallas, there's lots of people at each studio who have relationships with people at the other studio, so I've had different opportunities over the years to have a look. So it wasn't just like a black box and then suddenly I'm getting the Tarantino light on my face.
But honestly, there was a moment when Scott Miller brought me a hard drive, and he said, "Here." And I plugged it in on my computer. I had to muck around a little bit to get the engine running, and load up something, and you're like, "That's kinda cool," and you load up something else and it's like, "Holy f***." It's a bit. And this is f***ing good. And I'm just digging through it myself and I felt like a videogame version of Indiana Jones, going through the cave and there's a gold statue.
Eurogamer: Did you feel almost like you were the only person on the planet?
Randy Pitchford: In a way. There was a time when I had that hard drive, and the team had already been scattered to the wind, and I actually hadn't opened a dialogue yet with Allen and the guys who just didn't give up. So I was thinking, "There's probably a lot of people who would like to sit in this seat right now."
That was a pretty cool moment. "Holy f***, I'm having lunch with Bigfoot right now." Like all those blurred photos! There's no Loch Ness Monster! Well dude, I'm having a conversation with him right now and he's telling me what's up, and what he's been up to for the last thousand years.
I did feel the gravity of that situation.
Eurogamer: Final question: Do you think Duke Nukem Forever will be successful?
Randy Pitchford: Well, I made a decision to purchase the franchise and to become the responsible party for shipping the unshippable. When I made that decision, I probably thought about it a little bit, and I probably decided that was a good decision to make.
So you probably already know the answer to the question, but yeah, I made the bet. And I made the bet with a lot less information than I have today. When I made the bet, we were still in 2009. I think my crystal ball is pretty good for me on that one.