Garland-Produced Duke Nukem 3D Still Has Balls of Steel After 20 Years of Alien Ass-Kicking

Games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, both of which were born in Dallas-Fort Worth's growing game studio community, may have birthed the first-person shooter genre but Duke Nukem 3D gave it character.

The game first released on PCs in 1996 from the Garland-based game studio 3D Realms had infinite playability thanks to its insane action, complex level designs, well-developed multiplayer mode known as "Dukematch" and a supremely adult sense of humor. Duke Nukem 3D also put players in the mighty feet of a real character who spoke dialogue in response to his surroundings. Unlike the leads of other first-person shooters, he had a personality bigger than the big bosses he disemboweled.

"In some ways, it's an extension of that same genre like Doom and Wolfenstein where you had those faceless characters when you didn't know who the characters were," says Trey Fondren, the owner of Plano's FX Game Exchange and co-founder of the annual Let's Play Gaming Expo. "With Duke, you also got this Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie hero who's built into your video game. It felt like a very '80s action movie for me."

Duke's a roided-up musclehead with a bleach blonde flat top who gleefully turns mutants and aliens into bloody piles of guts, spouts one-liners from movies like They Live and the Evil Dead trilogy and always gets the babes. The game that bears his name and launched a franchise spanning two decades comes full circle with Gearbox Software's Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour, a modern console and computer release of the original game with new weapons, enemies and levels constructed by the game's original designers.

"I felt like it was going to do really well but it did even better than I thought," says Scott Miller, the co-founder of 3D Realms who worked on the Duke Nukem franchise going back to his first studio venture Apogee Software. "It just seemed to be the right game for the right time and I think that we really made some good decisions to not be like id Software [the creator of the FPS game Doom] and other super serious hardcore games. The humor and other things Duke brought to the table were just at the right time."

Randy Pitchford, the founder of Gearbox Software of Frisco, who got his first job in the game industry as a designer on Duke Nukem 3D, says the game also made it possible to reach a more adult audience without skimping on its technical achievements.

"One of the things that happened was we were starting to explore 3-D graphics and the medium was maturing," Pitchford says. "Duke Nukem helped bridge the gap between games designed for adults and what they wanted in their entertainment as adults who also wanted to have fun. Duke Nukem bridged that gap and helped bring those things together. It's one of the reasons it succeeded at the time."

"Let's rock"
Duke Nukem started as a two-dimensional character in two side-scrolling adventure games first released by Apogee in 1991 that ran on MS-DOS. The graphics only had 16 colors and the sound was limited to old school video game beeps and boops but it broke new ground with in-game music and Duke's smart ass sense of humor.

"I wanted to go with a comic book model of naming games after characters because if the series continues and it's based off a name rather than a scenario, it's easier to come up with new story lines," Miller says. "I always liked the strong sounding name of Duke. I was trying to think of a last name and [3D Realms programmer and Duke Nukem co-creator Todd Replogle] came up with Nukem and I said, 'We're done.' It's got that comic book feel to it and it emphasizes the destruction aspect of the game."

Replogle and Miller developed the look and personality of the character, inspired by '80s military action movie heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, as they moved into a game with more advanced graphics. Apogee and 3D Realms co-founder George Broussard also gave Duke one of his more distinctive features when he changed the color of Duke's carefully molded flat top from white to blonde, Miller says.

"Duke didn't even have his sunglasses [in the MS-DOS versions] because there wasn't enough resolution," Miller says.

Miller and Broussard wanted to give Duke a distinctive voice and in 1991 they hired radio producer Jon St. John, who was working at a station in San Diego, to become the voice of Duke. St. John says he had only voiced one other game before Duke Nukem 3D — he was the voice of Captain America in the first Marvel vs. Capcom arcade game. St. John got the job on the recommendation of casting director and voice actress Lani Minella, who provided all the female voices for Duke Nukem 3D.

"It started with George Broussard saying that Duke should sound like Charles Bronson, so I did my Charles Bronson, and Lani said that sounded too slimeball," St. John says. "'That's not what we're looking for.' Clint Eastwood has that non-descript accent so I clenched my teeth and went, 'Go ahead, make my day,' and Broussard heard that and went, 'Now we're on the right track. But think bigger.' Duke Nukem is a big, steroided out guy so I just lowered the pitch and that's the voice. It was a very quick process."

St. John recorded around 100 lines of dialogue at his radio station for Duke to spout at various points in the levels and in response to shooting his enemies in the face with a RPG. St. John calls it "the four hours that changed my life."

"It was pretty much a three- or four-hour session," St. John says. "There weren't that many because space was limited on CD-ROMs back then and they really had to compress everything in the game. Of course, things have changed a lot since then and dialogue can go on forever and ever."

Miller says that St. John's performance shaped the character's personality in new and risky ways that became one of the franchise's biggest driving forces.

"If we would have picked someone else to do Duke, he might not be nearly as memorable as he is now," Miller says. "Jon deserves a lot of credit for making Duke as memorable as he is and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that."

The game's levels also had their own degrees of personality as Duke exploded aliens in locations such as a seedy Hollywood movie theater that showed tawdry films named Attack of the Bleach Blonde Biker Bimbos, and a fast food restaurant called Duke Burger that's suspiciously attached to a dog shelter and a porno studio. One entire episode put Duke on the aliens' spacecraft fleet.

"Back in 1996, computers were barely fast enough to render 3-D in real time," says game designer Allen Blum III who worked on Duke Nukem 3D. "So it took a lot of time and effort to make areas in the game look good and have a good frame rate. Not only did an area need to render fast enough to walk around in but it needed to be fast enough to be able to fight bad guys and in multiplayer, an unknown number of players with all possible weapons."

Level designer Richard "Levelord" Gray says putting the game in the real world also made it more immersible and only added to its unique personality.

"This made it easier for the players to become immersed in the game and feel like they were really there experiencing the game," Gray says. "Allen and I spent a lot of time adding as much detail as possible to each level, just like Hans Gruber [the villain in the movie Die Hard] would have done."

The designers also wanted the levels and gameplay to have as much of a sense of humor as the game's title character. Duke carries an unusual arsenal of weapons including a Shrink Ray that can reduce his enemies to a small enough size to be squished underneath his "mighty foot" and a Freezethrower that lets Duke smash aliens into tiny, icy pieces.

They also sprinkled funny Easter eggs throughout every level for players to discover as they worked their way to each level's "Auto Destruct" button. The "Death Row" level of the "L.A. Meltdown" episode features a funny swipe at Doom as Duke encounters the disemboweled torso of the "Doomguy" and remarks, "That's one doomed space marine."

"We wanted a lot of details in the game like that for people who paid attention, to be a payoff, and also, it was just our way to kind of goof off and have fun with the world and recognize that for the most part, we were just having fun and just throwing things in there for the fun of it and let's not take this completely seriously," Miller says. "Id was a big competitor and they took their games seriously and we weren't going to be, so let's do our own thing and just be zany and have fun."

The sense of humor was unapologetically juvenile and undoubtedly adult. Miller says they wanted to reward players for trying different things in a game and reinforced Duke's bawdy, macho, un-PC personality.

"I didn't know any of the game," St. John says. "I'm looking at a script and it says 'Shake it, baby' and I would say, 'Why am I saying this?' and somebody from 3D Realms in Garland would say, 'Oh, he's in a strip club and he walks up to a stripper and he says 'Shake it, baby' and she pulls her top down.' Of course, I laughed."

The new technology that ran the game allowed the developers to add new functions and design features to the game throughout its development.

"It was definitely learn as you go as the 3-D engine was being made," Miller says. "The engine was constantly being worked on and a year before the game's release, the engine's creator Ken Silverman was always trying to add new features to it like portals and slopes. The portals made a huge difference. That was something Doom didn't have but allowed us to do things like room above room tricks."

The development team also spent a lot of time fleshing out the game's multiplayer mode in which players could blow each other up with pipe bombs and trip mines as Duke clones on a local area network or over a dial-up modem.

"That was really new," Pitchford says. "Now it's something that eSports takes for granted because it's a multi-billion industry, but before Duke Nukem, it didn't exist. It was pioneering."

"Come get some"
The game quickly became one of the most successful PC game titles of all time following its release in 1996. Game stores sold 3.5 million copies of the game, according to Wired Magazine. Demand for more Duke Nukem adventures prompted the release of expanded editions such as an "Atomic Edition" that added an Expander weapon to Duke's arsenal and a fourth episode called "The Birth." The game also spawned several third-person Duke Nukem games for Nintendo and Sony's video game consoles.

Miller says he wasn't prepared for Duke Nukem 3D's success in 1996 and he's still floored at the game's fervent fanbase 20 years later.

"I would have never predicted that back then," Miller says. "I thought back then that games had fairly short life spans because the technology kept improving. It really is a total surprise that some of these older games still seem to be somewhat relevant two decades later."

St. John says he received a copy of the game from 3D Realms and found himself playing it even though he started the game just so he could hear his voice work. He even got addicted to the multiplayer mode that he says he played online with his late brother.

"I played for a couple of hours when I first got it and thought, 'Oh that's cool,' but I was so into the game." St. John says. "I didn't even need the sound on anymore. It was the first game that really sucked me in and not because I was in it. It was just so intense."

Word of mouth helped drive sales as adult and teenage male gamers sought to experience the game's naughty nature mixed with its gleeful violence. Fondren says he first played the Nintendo 64 version that the video game company toned down to please its family friendly fanbase. Eventually, he found an uncut version.

"I thought it was right up there with Doom and Wolfenstein 3D," Fondren says.

Duke Nukem 3D's insane success prompted demand for a sequel to the first person shooter. 3D Realms attempted an ambitious sequel called Duke Nukem Forever that took longer than anyone would have liked. Twelve years of development only produced trailers with a release date of "When it's done," massive layoffs at 3D Realms and a legion of disappointed fans that turned the Duke Nukem name into a synonym for development hell. Gearbox Software took over the franchise and released Duke Nukem Forever in 2011 for Duke Nukem 3D's 15th anniversary. Fans were ecstatic to learn that they would finally see the game but its release was met with lackluster reviews and lower than expected first quarter sales, according to IGN.

"I think George's mindset was this is the new bar and we have to raise our game and add new features to it," says Miller, who moved from the Duke Nukem sequel to work on other titles like Max Payne, Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project and Prey. "The game was plagued by endless feature creeps and it just got stuck in this development loop where we would get a lot done and things would have to be redone because the new game had to be set to a new standard."

"Damn, I'm good"
The Duke Nukem franchise may have taken some hits in the years between the rise and fall and rise of Duke Nukem Forever and its 20th anniversary but the original still has a fanbase who play the game even though some know every inch of every level. Gearbox's release of the 20th Anniversary World Tour edition brings the classic PC game to modern consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The new edition adds a brand new fifth episode called "Alien World Order" with eight new levels designed by Gray and Blum that take Duke through alien-infested locations such as an Amsterdam pot shop, Egypt's Great Pyramids and the Golden Gate Bridge.

"In the original first level on the street, I would get 20 frames per second [fps] on my computer in 1996," Blum says. "On my current machine in 2016, I now get 1000fps. So it was great making new maps without the painful frame rate limitations I had before. You can see the level of detail I was able to add in the first level of World Tour."

Gray calls working on the new World Tour levels as one of his favorite projects in his 22 years in game design.

"I spent almost every waking moment there making levels. I have many, many memories attached to that place," Gray says about his 3D Realms days. "Then, like a light switch turning off, it was over and I was making levels for Quake. I never played Duke Nukem after that. Twenty years later, I was back in building and so many things kept flooding my mind. I had real intense flashbacks. I would be at home making a level and get an involuntary impulse to turn around to ask Allen a question, as though I was back in the 3D Realms office 20 years ago."

The Duke Nukem franchise may not have the steadiest history but a lot of the people involved in the original production owe a lot to Earth's roid-riddled protector.

St. John eventually left the radio business after Clear Channel's greedy growth made it impossible to hang on to a job. These days, he's a commercial and video game voice actor for franchises such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Counter-Strike and Half-Life. He's currently working on a new game for Gearbox but notes that it's not Duke Nukem.

"There's nothing I want more than another Duke Nukem game," St. John says. "Short of that, an animated series or maybe even a motion picture."

St. John still receives invitations to game and comic conventions around the country, a corner of his career that started in 2001 when he says he wasn't even aware that Duke was a cult character. Fans ask him to do Duke's voice for their friends and hang out with the closest human connection to Duke Nukem 20 years later, even though he insists the voice is the only thing he has in common with Duke.

"They treat me like a friggin' king," St. John says. "They fly me first class and they pay me to be there along with all the expenses. Why? They go because fans want to meet you. Then it clicked. 'Oh my God, I have fans. How cool is this?'"

Blum and Gray both got to work on other groundbreaking video games following Duke Nukem 3D, such as the gritty police serial Max Payne and id's Gothic first-person shooter Quake.

Miller is revered as one of the game industry's most influential designers. He has since overseen a number of titles at 3D Realms as well as the collaborative mobile game development studio Dream Team Partners.

Pitchford went on to found Gearbox where games like the Borderlands series became the studio's flagship franchise. The Borderlands games are first-person shooters with RPG elements along with touches of humor and hyper-violent weaponry that feel inspired by Nukem's exploits.

"The first-person shooter genre owes itself to Duke Nukem," Pitchford says, "and I owe my career to Duke Nukem."

Miller says he feels Duke Nukem 3D gave the game industry a lot of gifts that modern gamers take for granted, such as multiplayer modes, heavy levels of interactivity and character personalities.

"I'm sure a lot of this stuff affected future games like Halo and Gears of War," Miller says. "Would Fenix from Gears of War have a big personality if Duke hadn't shown that players wanted that sort of thing?"

So does this re-release of Nukem's most famous adventure mean that Duke will get another shot at video game glory?

"We haven't announced any new titles but the 20th Anniversary will not be the last the world has seen of Duke," Pitchford says. "I can guarantee that."
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.