Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Duke Nukem Forever

This is about Duke Nukem. If you don't care (and really, who does?) then skip.

DNF is a videogame that's been in production, full time, since 1998. It was sort of in production even before that - I know one magazine posted screenshots in December '97. DNF was (is / will be) the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, a popular PC shooter.

I was a fan of Duke 3D. The gameplay was tight. It had a blend of humor, action and scares that worked well. It had plenty of secrets. Most first person shooters are all about multiplayer; Duke's focus was on the one-player game, and the story and scenarios were crafted well to reflect that. ... Of course, we're talking 1996 here. You wouldn't play it now. Unless maybe you were bored and in a VH1-ey kind of mood.

Videogames generally take about 2 years to develop. From greenlighting the project to mass production, it's about 2 years. Plenty of games take longer, and some less time - and historically the process has been quicker. I speak as someone who worked for a console game publsher for 4 years and watched it happen. Two years is industry standard.

What this post is about is making the following case: 1) 7-10 years of development for a videogame is completely unacceptable, from the point of view of anyone - a good-faith fan, a developer with any self respect, a shareholder of Take-Two Interactive. (Duke's corporate paymaster) - anyone. 2) 3D Realms' (Duke's developer) lofty and dismissive and sneering attitude toward anyone saying "Where's the game?" is nothing but obnoxious jackassery. It's the worst kind of arrogance - unjustified arrogance. And 3) That Duke Nukem Forever (when we finally see it) cannot possibly be any good. It is destined to fail.

Let me start by mentioning a guy named Arthur Laffer. He's the economist who famously drew the "Laffer Curve" on the back of a cocktail napkin. The conventional wisdom at that time was that if the government needed more money, it had to raise taxes. Higher tax rates, more money. Let's look at a graph, shall we?

Laffer's insight was to realize something obvious. Once taxes got too high, they would start having an impact on the amount of time people were willing to work. The more government takes out of your pocket, the more they're responsible for providing for your needs. At truly high tax rates people wouldn't work at all. Why work if the government takes 90 cents from every dollar? Better to stay home and let government provide for you. Laffer drew this curve.

His point was that in a situation where taxes were high already but the government still needed more money, it might be better off lowering taxes to get more tax revenue.

It was a wacky concept, but today it's accepted as pretty much the truth. Now why am I bringing this up? I think Laffer would have had a lot to say about Duke Nukem Forever. Consider the relationship between the time a game takes to develop, and its eventual quality. I think the conventional wisdom might lead to a graph like this.

A straight line. Makes sense. The more time you invest in making a game, the better it gets. If you rush a game out the door early, it's going to be bad. Take longer, it gets better.

But then again, maybe that's not the full picture. Maybe it really looks like this.

A sloping curve. A curve with decreasing returns. This makes a little more sense. During the first year or two of development you make great strides. But after many years of development, you approach the limits of how good the game can get. The team is only so talented, there's only so much money, you can only have so much content and so much fine tuning and balancing. So in the long run, quality starts to flatten out.

But this curve is also wrong. I'm here to introduce my own curve, Laffer style. This is what game quality really looks like over time.

It eventually declines, and finally plummets. Now this has to seem counterintuitive. After all, nobody goes to work and makes the game worse. Nobody sabotages art and animation. They work on the game and try to make it better. The problem is that at some point, this becomes as hopeless a job as bailing out the sinking Titanic with a pail. There are other, powerful forces at work; forces that are working nonstop, 24/7, inexorably, to make the game irrelevant and obsolete. These forces cannot be slowed down. With every passing day, Duke Nukem Forever gets less innovative and less pretty. It's gets less technologically impresive and less exciting to play.

It's like some guy with a beard down to his knees bursting out of a basement door saying "Finally! It's done! My sequel to Gyromite! It's taken 20 years, but I wouldn't compromise - it had to be perfect! It's the best NES game of all time!!!" After a certain point, no matter how skilled a game developer you are, your work in progress will be overtaken by the forces of obsolescence and it will be ruined.

But it's more than that. With every day the fanbase shrinks, the number of people who remember Duke 3D in any detail get fewer, the number of people interested in Duke declines, the value of the overall franchise starts to crumble. With no new product, and a mums-the-word policy from the developer, people forget Duke.

Plus, doesn't an eight year delay suggest, just maybe, that these aren't the smartest bunch of guys? Am I supposed to think they can make a good game when they've shown staggering incompetence in the planning of the making of the game?

Now, Duke bought itself some time (staving off obsolescence) by restarting the project with the Unreal Tournament engine in 2001. It threw out what it had so far and started from scratch with a more powerful foundation. Maybe that was a smart idea. But it was an idea with a fatal flaw. The idea presumes that you have the team, the resources and the skill to actually complete the game in about two years. If you can't do it by then, then guess what? You have another game that's nowhere near done and is approaching technological obsolescence. What are you going to do now? Start over a third time?

And then there are the rising expectations. The more time the game is in utero, the more we expect from it. DNF has been in production, full time, for 8 years? What does a game that took 8 years to make look like? What wonders will it contain? Now, if Shigeru Miyamoto retreated to a mountainside cabin for 8 years, cutting himself off from the world, monk-like, and devoted the time to crafting some exquisite new game of his own invention, well then now THAT would be a game worth an eight year wait. That game would blow your mind.

But head-up-his-ass, God-complexed, Hostess-snack-eating pompous asshole George Broussard is not Miyamoto. And Duke Nukem is not King Lear. It's a standard FPS that uses T&A and one-liners to distinguish itself in the crowded FPS marketplace. Or, rather, it did. In 1996. This middling franchise has earned 8 years to make its next game? Why? On what grounds? And its crack development staff is so gifted that we must not disturb their genius? We're not allowed to ask how it's coming along? Who else gets this priviledge? Why Duke?

Oh, you didn't know about the 3D Realms attitude about handling DNF inquiries? No questions are allowed. Broussard answers to no one. Not even the CEO of Take Two, his publisher. The CEO, Jeff Lapin, was fielding questions during a stockholder's meeting and was asked what the story was with Duke. All Lapin said was that he suspected it wouldn't be done in time for a 2003 release. (A sensible statement, considering it's 2005 and there's still no sign of the game). Broussard's response (in an internet forum) was that Lapin needs to "STFU, imo". Consider that. Not only is George telling the CEO of his corporate parent to shut the fuck up, but he's doing so in his capacity as lead designer of videogaming history's most failed project. The game industry's perrenial laughingstock. The game that was given not just the Vaporware game of the year award, but a Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award. Where does one get the balls? Perhaps from the same place one gets the ability to take a franchise like Duke and steer it down into a mountain.

Here's what's going to happen when DNF finally sees the light of day. It will temporarily benefit from the increase in buzz and attention that comes from being a game that was in development for 10 years. Duke's marketers will misattribute this attention as being a reflection of genuine enthusiasm for the game, which it won't be, and this will send them into an overdrive of superlatives - claiming Duke is the most covered game of the year, the most talked about, the most anticipated, etc.

The game will debut to reviews that will be unfairly negative. The urge to compare it to other delayed failures like Daikatana and to continue the 10 year habit of mocking it will be too strong. So it won't get a truly fair shake. But the reality is that it will be a passable next-gen Duke entry, not too weak, not too strong. But it will not blow any minds, and nothing about it will justify its gestation time. On this score alone it will be considered a great failure. Other shooters (made in normal spans of time) that are as good or better than DNF will come out both quickly before and quickly after Duke, further underlining how unecessary the 10 years were. The erosion of the fan base will have taken its toll, and this will be reflected in sales. Only about 5 guys worldwide are going to laugh at those scripted moments in the game that are tongue in cheek references to earlier Duke adventures.

The game won't recoup costs, and the franchise will not recover. And so now, finally, after years of patience, I say goodbye to Duke. I've been a fan all this time. I've waited. My hopes were high. But it's over. DNF will not deliver.

It's time to forget about Duke, move on, and chew bubble gum. And I'm all out of gum.


Anonymous said...

I've been (was) a fan since Duke3D was released. For the billionth time I saw something in a magazine that referenced DNF, and once again I started searching the net for any NEW news. This, of course, was unproductive. Everything you said was spot on; from 3Drealms'unacceptable manner in which they address (or don't address) their fans, George Broussard and his obvious campaigning for a "douche-bag of the industry" award, and finally, what will happen to the game when or if it ever comes out. You even nailed how the popularity of the game will be spun, overlooking the fact that many people will buy it out of sheer curiosity or as a "collector's item" to sit on the shelf next to Daikatana.

You're post is now a little over a year old, and we're about to enter the tenth year of development. At this point, I'm not even sure whether or not I'll buy it. That's not to say I won't play it; I feel I've spent at least $50 worth of my time trying to stay informed/interested over the past ten years. If it turns out to be decent, I'll pay for it. Many others probably feel the same, and will out-Geek any copy protection to avoid giving 3Drealms money they don't deserve.

It's worth noting that they at least care about their fans enough to tell them not to build a computer in preparation for the game right now, as anything you buy will be outdated by the time Duke is out. So, instead of saving money for a new machine, I'm developing a one that can play vaporware.

Someday, there will be an official DNF announcement, and a gaming magazine with a blood-red cover that says "George Broussard's about to make you his bitch" in black lettering.

This rant would have been posted on 3Drealms' DNF forum, but Joe Seiger or whatever the hell his name is would delete it almost as fast as it got there- a true testament to their allocation of time.

Here's to Dukeatana ;)

Rowsdower said...

It's been awhile since I've paid any attention to Duke. I've actually come to a new theory about DNF in the last year. Have we considered the possibility that Duke Nukem Forever..... may not exist? That's it's all a big hoax and the joke's on us?

I mean, I remember hanging around the 3DRealms message boards in, I don't know, 2001, and people were making posts like "So, will there be a freeze ray???" And when I checked there now, it's still basically the same questions. I was at the E3 where they showed the Duke footage, 2000 or 2001, and from a fan perspective, there's been zero progress since then. I can only assume at this point that it's all some gigantic joke, and 3DRealms just works on Prey and Max Payne and stuff like that.

Anonymous said...

I bet 3Drealms has been breathing easier since E3 has evaporated. Now they don't have to stand face to face with disgruntled "fans" every year and try to weasle their way out of "WTF" questions. For George Broussard's sake, I hope you're wrong about DNR being a joke, because if it is, people will be on him like, well, George Broussard on a cup cake.

How can there still be a DNF forum? There's only so many ways to speculate aspects of the game, and without ANY real status updates, speculation is all it is.

DNF better be one hell of a game in terms of how it plays, because it will be impossible for them to update the graphics in a timely manner should something spectacular (Half-Life 3) come out in the meantime.