If someone had told me last year that in twelve months time I'd be sat in a secret London location, playing Duke Nukem Forever before shaking Randy Pitchford by the hand, giving him a manly hug and chatting to him over a beer about how you bring someone back from the dead, I'd have kicked them for being facetious. The thing is, that's exactly what I got to do last week, when a rowdy bunch of UK journalists, not to mention a small number of fans who'd won competitions or entered prize draws to be there, got to see Duke's return first-hand.
As it turned out, most of the press went in to see the game in the morning sessions, but I was quite glad to be in the slot that Pitchford termed the 'Muggles' Preview' because the anticipation and excitement in the air was palpable. So often at industry events there's a sense of restraint and professional distancing, remaining aloof to enact that most lamentable and fraudulent facade of pseudo-objectivity, and it can make some events seem rather muted. Not this one. Twelve years of anticipation will do that to you.
So how the hell did we get here? Well, helpfully Pitchford treated us to a conversational tale that he must have told several hundred times in the last few months, to sum up a rather personal account of what brought Duke to the doors of Gearbox.
'In many ways,' Gearbox's CEO began, 'I owe Duke my career.' Pitchford's early career saw him working at 3D Realms, on titles such as Shadow Warrior and, fittingly, Duke Nukem 3D. 'I left 3D Realms in 1997, work was just beginning on Duke Nukem Forever, and a lot of the guys working on it back then were still working on it in May last year [when development stopped]. But from that point back in '97, I became just like everyone else - watching from the outside - seeing the craziness unfold over the years.'
Pitchford described his own emotions over that decade or so, ranging from anticipation to worry to fury to disappointment - '[Three years] is about how long it should have taken...so we got to 2000 and started getting a little anxious. "Trust us," they said, "It'll be ready when it's ready." And we did, I mean what choice did we have? But then in 2001, that trailer came out...and when I saw it I was like "F*ck yes! I believe! I don't care about the last five years, I love you! I'm in!".' But then over the next few years, everything went silent again - 'I started, and I'm sure some of you did too, to lose the faith and go "What's going on?! It shouldn't take this f*cking long. It just shouldn't!"' - the fanbase got angry and frustrated and bored and moved on. Duke became an icon, as Pitchford maintains, but he also became a source of mockery and a testament to what Wired termed 'vapourware'.
Fast forward to May 2009 and Take Two had clearly had enough, the DNF team were fired and Duke was dead. 'There was no team, no trust and no hope,' intoned Pitchford, '...and these guys were our neighbours. Friends of mine lost their jobs that day.' Some of those artists, programmers and designers went off into the industry and found themselves new projects and new horizons, but a few - Wikipedia says nine, Pitchford counted eight - including original co-creator Allen Blum, couldn't give up the dream and, after the DNF wing of 3D Realms went under, they continued to work for themselves.
'It was a weird time for us...many of the guys here at Gearbox, myself included, feel that Duke is a part of our lives. Another one of the co-founders, Brian Martel...I met Brian while working on Duke Nukem 3D. There are a number of people who, over the years, left 3D Realms and came to work at Gearbox. In fact if you go back and look at that 2001 trailer and you go to the credits, with the exception of one name, all of those artists and designers either work, or came to work, at Gearbox at some point. So we have a lot of love for Duke. I called George [Broussard] up that day and he said to me "Randy, this is the worst day of my life."'
As Randy tells it, Gearbox seemed like the perfect middleman to pick up the pieces later that year. Take Two still owned the distribution rights to the franchise, but creatively Duke still belonged to 3D Realms. 'It was all about trust,' Pitchford continued. 'We knew the guys at 3D Realms, many of us had worked on Duke Nukem 3D so there was trust there. On the other side, though, we'd just delivered and were about to start shipping Borderlands for Take Two so there was trust there as well.' But this wasn't just a piece of intuitive creative deal brokering, this was personal:
'Imagine, if you will, that you're in your car and you've just seen an horrific accident happen in front of you. It's really horrible, the car's a wreck, there's blood and gore and screaming and it's a huge f*cking mess! The worst agony you can imagine, and it just happened right in front of you. What would you do?... Ithink different people would do different things, but our situation was a little different. Now imagine that the people in that car, involved in that accident, are people you care about, like you're brother or something, or your best friend. It'd probably affect your decision. Now let's imagine another thing. Imagine that you're a doctor. Imagine that you're not alone, you're next to a whole bunch of people, medical professionals...and imagine that you're not in a car at all but in an ambulance, surrounded by all of the tools that you need. It starts getting a little clearer. And one more thing: imagine you're not on the highway at all, but in the middle of the desert and if you don't help these people, no-one else will come. There's really only one thing you can do.
'I felt that if we didn't help Duke, I would regret it for the rest of my life.'
So Pitchford began funding the developers who were working away in their bedsits and apartments and had named themselves Triptych. Then they were brought into Gearbox once the lawsuits had stopped pinging around like pinballs and the team expanded to 72 people. The 'longest case of video game blue-balls', as Pitchford vividly describes it, suddenly looked like it would get it's release after all.
Pitchford knows there's a certain amount riding on this and proudly draws up Twitter trending figures to highlight the pressure that's now on Gearbox to deliver - Borderlands spent two hours at number, Duke held the top spot for 30. He acknowledges that for some of the guys who went out into the industry and set out new paths there might be mixed feelings about this release. He understands the scepticism more than most, having sat on, in, around and above, all sides and angles of the fence. But he's also incredibly optimistic, there's a certain amount of relief here, and also joy at the reception that Duke's return has received.
We'll have more Duke Nukem Forever treats including our hands-on preview impressions of the PAX demo and an interview with Gearbox's Steve Gibson later today!