Why did Duke Nukem die?

Originally published at: Why did Duke Nukem die? | Boing Boing


Wired ran a good summary back in ‘09 when DNF was still in that seemingly interminable production limbo.


Duke Nukem is a crass example of masculinity, replete with dated views of women and violence/

Wasn’t that the joke - that it was, in part, a satire on exactly that? I was like 16 when I played it, and that as exactly how I interpreted it at the time - as mocking the sexism etc that existed elsewhere in gaming.


I dunno I actually think fps have expanded a lot and become a lot better both in terms of content and technology.


Duke Nukem (well, starting with the FPS versions) was always about this not because they were “dated” but because they were “edgy”. This was all consistent with the “XTREME ATTITUDE” fad in the mid/late 1990s that led to (actual, no joke) advertising like this:

Duke Nukem was basically peak “attitude” with ultra-violence, strippers, and misogyny — why? Because it could and the young men they were marketing the game to loved it.

It’s really no mystery why the sequel was in development hell. Lack of confidence in the sequel and constantly chasing the next big thing caused it to languish. The development team got burned out. The studio got acquired by Take Two who actually wanted 3D Realms to ship something. The title became a joke - the definition of vaporware. People moved on and stopped caring about it. Eventually the money train stopped. Another studio picked up the title and it finally shipped in 2011 - nearly 15 years later. It wasn’t a great game, it’s original fanbase had all but grown up and moved on, there was no longer anything novel or interesting about its XTREMEness.

I’m a software perfectionist and I understand the desire to not ship anything until it’s ready, but as someone once said to me “shipping is a feature”. If you miss the boat, then there’s not much you can do to recover.

Also someone once said to me, “nobody remembers if you ship late, but everybody remembers if you ship something bad”. That’s really stuck with me. I was a developer on a product for a time that had a really shaky release almost two decades ago, and it’s still talked about today.

In DNF’s case, it was both — infamously late and bad.


My take on it as a kid was that the toxic masculinity was tongue in cheek, not satire. Like, wink-wink-nudge-nudge look at all this wild shit we put in this game! Isn’t it over the top? Rad bro!

Satire is meant to put a spot light on something and tear our understanding of something down. Duke Nukem is a few things but it certainly does not have a point to make.


I would even argue that the “current people” who might be in the market for DNF agewise simply considered that kind of game crass and dumb. The kids are, as they say, alright, and the crap we got shoveled to us in the realm of hyper-active toxic masculinity just wouldn’t sell to them. And for us, who had grown up, we wouldn’t be caught dead with Duke Nukem now.


Definitely agree that it was more tongue-in-cheek, but there were a few disconnected jokes with some substance to them. It’s been a little while since I’ve played it, but the pig cops (specifically the “L.A.R.D.”) immediately come to mind.

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Yeah, that was a good one, which really telegraphed what the final product would be like.

Toxic work structure aside, it’s a common problem when a studio has enough money that they don’t have to produce a game to keep afloat - they don’t. (Or at least that used to be the case - few studios find themselves in that position these days.) There’s interminable tweaking and experimenting to make the best possible game (that easily turns into bad habits), though I’d suggest that the Duke Nukem team was in the worst possible extreme version of that, as the original game was a series of gimmicks and happy accidents that wasn’t really repeatable. (Destructible environments, action movie quips, some decent - for the time- levels and mod tools, “edgy” content that aged poorly…) There was no underlying, distinct design they could build on for a sequel, so they were left trying to come up with some new gimmicks, something new and compelling in the FPS world as it was rapidly changing.

(It’s interesting to see the earlier, unfinished version that recently got leaked - one of the few notable features was glass-breaking tech that no one else would do for some years after that. But it was a gimmick, a little detail that wasn’t key to the game, something that other developers could have done, but didn’t want to devote the resources to it.)

Which was a huge problem for the development, as that was happening while they were making the game. They were constantly reacting to whatever just came out - and replicating that meant therefore necessarily being left behind, as something new would come out halfway through chasing the last trend.

The way they structured their hires pretty much guaranteed it. Not shipping a game is very bad for game developers’ resumes and their morale. Paying them below market rates but promising them a big bonus on releasing the game - and then management never allowing the game to be finished - seems actively designed to make employees disgruntled.

There was a feedback effect on multiple levels there. Management knew they didn’t have a core vision or anything “great” which is why they were constantly chasing the next big thing - which ends up being the last big thing. It’s an impossible treadmill given the dev cycle for a game like that. (They were developing it as “AAA” games came into existence, so when they started off, they plausibly could have released a sequel in a year, but by the end, 4+ years was typical. At the same time, the genre and tech was evolving, so every year or two the new hotness came out and they started over.)

If they had released a game a couple years after the first, as they planned, it would have been mediocre (they had nothing new to add and had already used up all the good action movie quips) and the entire series likely would have been forgotten. I’m sure they knew this and were desperate to avoid it. The longer the delay, the more expectations rose - and I’d argue a game isn’t judged by its quality, but by how much its quality matches expectations. They couldn’t meet expectations at any point, but certainly not after some time had passed. So the game effectively got “worse” over time until they had no choice but release something.

It was a “joke,” but describing it as deliberate satire is probably giving the developers credit for far more self-awareness than they actually possessed.


Also, I grew up on Duke Nuke’m and Duke 3d. It was targeted directly at me and kids my age. I say that to preface this:

At no time did I or any of my friends who were also targeted by this game think it was some kind of joke. We thought it was a bit wild and a bit counter culture, what with killing pigcops and all that, but we never really “got” the joke. We all kind of thought we were secretly playing a game that our parents would never approve of, and many of us envied Duke and wanted to be like him. Even the people who worked on it later said it was meant to be a “straight” character.

Obviously now nearly 30+ years later I feel like an asshole for ever even wanting to be this guy, but I definitely can’t deny that at one point in my life, he was the coolest thing ever.


I’d more interested in knowing why Gordon Freeman died.


“But, like the Police are like “PIGS”, dude! PIIIIIIGS! That’s like rad satire to the max!”


This is also why I’m skeptical there will be as much demand for all those new Avatar movies as James Cameron seems to believe there will be.


Bethesda has entered the chat. Cloud Imperium has been in the chat for ages.

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I’ve been enjoying the Borderland series, although it does take me a while to get around to purchasing when a new one comes out. (It also takes me a long time to finish one as I’m a bit of a completionest.) I’ll note that B3 received a lot of criticism for storyline and just assumed it was due to the quality of that found in B2. Once I started playing it, I realized what these “critics” meant was that it has a lot of openly queer content. Apparently the prior queer content was too subtle?


But they’re actually working on games - the scale just means it takes a while.

Bethesda isn’t necessarily immediately jumping to work on sequels, as seems like studios alternate which franchise they’re working on. They’re not like the publishers that pump out a sequel every year by tasking four different studios work on the games at the same time (cough Call of Duty cough).

Cloud Imperium is… a whole other matter. The DNF team knew they would eventually run out of money and had to release the game before that to stay in business, but they got stuck in a rut and couldn’t manage it. Cloud Imperium really only exist to put out one game - if they do so, it’s unlikely they’ll exist beyond that, so they have less incentive to release it compared to a normal studio. (Individual developers are highly motivated to ship the game, but the company as an entity, not so much.) Although to be fair, every indication is that they are working towards that goal, it’s just that when you raise that kind of money, the scale of the game inflates to match - as does the development time. If you have the budget to make six AAA games, it might take six times as long. (A big company can effectively develop those six games in parallel, but that means already having 1000 developers in multiple studios - and a much higher proportion of management. It’s also not a structure you can really build from scratch for one project.)

One of the core issues is the same - the studio doesn’t need to immediately release the game to survive. Valve’s even worse, as they never need to release any games at all, as their income comes from Steam (and other people’s games) now. Worse, developers at the studio supposedly choose which projects to work on based on what interests them at the moment, so there’s no one at the very top saying “we’re all doing HL 3 until it’s finished, now.” (In reality, it sounds like developers get forced to work on whatever games strike the fancy of middle management, but it has the same effect.)

Another element is similar - there’s expectations. The longer the sequel doesn’t come out, the more expectations grow. Which in Valve’s case means the crushing weight of those expectations makes developers not-so-eager to work on it. It’s why the last Half-Life game wasn’t a sequel - it was a way of dodging expectations and doing something that got developers excited with the world and tech. I’m sure staff there return occasionally to work on a Half-Life sequel when they feel like they have interesting ideas to add to it, but it never gets the critical momentum it needs to escape as a release. Someday it might - or might not.


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