After Years in Development, 'Duke Nukem' Rides Again

But Will Fans of Video-Game Superhero Be Willing to Forgive All the Delays?

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NEW YORK ( -- So Kevin Costner, Axl Rose and Duke Nukem walk into a bar ...

It's no joke -- at least we don't think so.

In the entertainment industry, there are a few properties legendary for cost overruns and lengthy delays -- among them "Waterworld" in 1995 and Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy," which was finally released in 2008 after a 15-year gestation period. Now add to those one of the gaming world's most-anticipated titles, "Duke Nukem Forever," which might actually be coming to market after an apocryphal 13 years in development.

Duke Nukem, for those who managed to escape the firestorm of chatter on social media and blogs last week, is a crass-talking, womanizing macho action-hero stereotype and the lead character in a first-person shooter game from Gearbox Software. On Sept. 3, within an hour of the developer announcing at gaming show PAX that the title will be launched for PS3 and Xbox 360 next year, "Duke Nukem" was a top-trending Twitter topic. Duke racked up tens of thousands of blog postings along with hundreds of digital and mainstream media news stories, many among them not quite believing that after more than a decade -- a lifetime in the gaming world -- Duke would actually blast his way onto the modern-day console.

The original "Duke Nukem" was a shoot-'em-up PC game that bowed in 1991 and went to the top of shareware lists (where players could download a free trial) and stayed there for two years. "Duke Nukem II" for the PC was released in 1993, followed by "Duke Nukem 3D" in 1996. The last game has endured and in fact, became available on Xbox 360 via its Live Arcade in 2008. This latest incarnation, "Duke Nukem Forever," was first announced in 1997. At the time, "Titanic" was in theaters and the first "Harry Potter" book had just been published in the U.K.

What's been the holdup? 3D Realms, the original developers of "Duke Nukem," certainly intended to release the title. More than a half-a-dozen dates were announced -- and blown -- over a decade, and sneak peeks were shown at the E3 gaming show a number of times. However, both the perfectionism of the game creators, who changed game engines at least twice at the cost of significant cash and development time, and their inability to "lock down" the game -- that is, stop adding to it and start polishing it for release -- ultimately sealed the game's fate as perennial vaporware, according to a Wired article last year. In the interim, Duke has survived through online fan tributes and forum chats, as well as hundred of online videos.

"How big was Duke Nukem? In the fall of 1996, at the end of my final interview on one of the three major PC game magazines, my final test was a network death match with the editor in chief," said George Chronis, now an analyst with DFC Intelligence. He got the job.

With so much buzz behind the game then and now, do Gearbox and publisher 2K need any marketing at all?

THE RETURN OF THE KING (NO, REALLY): Duke may be back, but will long-jilted fans be willing to forgive all the delays?
THE RETURN OF THE KING (NO, REALLY): Duke may be back, but will long-jilted fans be willing to forgive all the delays?
"If Gearbox assumes that Twitter trending alone assures them of sell-through among core male PC gamers, sufficient for a financially successful game, they're in for a big surprise," said Brenton Lyle, analyst at Interpret, in an e-mail interview. "It is beginning to become clear . . . that internet buzz is incredibly fickle and dangerously misleading -- 'Snakes on a Plane,' 'Crysis,' 'Scott Pilgrim,' etc. . . . [The] 'core' internet gaming communities are actually part of a comparatively singular echo chamber. . . . The massive buzz and near-total awareness is, in fact, just an illusion."

Mr. Chronis, in fact, said the proof is in the playing. "There is a franchise factor that will give the title a lead-in for good sales, but the primary consideration is whether there is a good game to play. ... The key variables to success for 'Duke Nukem Forever' won't be violence or womanizing, it has to be whether each game level is fresh, funny and outrageous."

And while the waiting has created a lot of pent-up demand, it also created frustration and even abandonment by fans.

Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox and a developer on the original Duke game, said in an interview that was the reason he chose PAX, a conference of video-game players, vs. the more well-known E3 conference for industry insiders in June, to announce Duke's return.

"This is not a game one can make promises about," he said, thanks to the many years of unfulfilled promises. "We knew we would get attention no matter when we announced, but attention alone is not helpful for this title. We had to convert it from being a joke to a triumphant moment we all want to get behind." Unlike typical video-game rollouts which start with an announcement of the title followed by demos months later, DNF had to be announced with demos and real game play at the same time, he said.

The first stage of marketing will be to instill confidence. For the second, Mr. Pitchford wouldn't be specific about plans but said that Gearbox, working with publisher 2K Games, intends to get demos into players' hands, before launching what he called a traditional "large scale" media campaign. The message: "Duke Nukem Forever" is real this time.

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