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How Not to Build a Franchise: The Duke Nukem Experience

Designers should have concrete plans of action before any serious work begins on their games. It is simply impossible to create any quality media product based on vague references to other products.

 

File:Duke Nukem box art.jpg

In the January 2010 issue of Wired, Clive Thompson reveals the untold story of Duke Nukem Forever. The story chronicles the mistakes of George Broussard, founder of 3D Realms (see "The Duke Nukem Trap" for additional background information).

Many people have commented on Thompson's article, claiming that Broussard had a "god complex" or that the pitfalls were all too obvious. Yet, the problems encountered at 3D Realms are familiar to veteran video game designers and producers like Tim Ryan. Ryan recently wrote an article titled, Lead Designers Who Only Say 'No', in which he asks, "Have you ever had a boss who couldn't make up their mind on the design?"


They make edicts about what will not be in the game, but the most they can contribute to what is in the game is a vague reference to other games. Even with the things they're sure about, they'll back away from those decisions and toss out weeks of work.

Designers should have concrete plans of action before any serious work begins on their games. It is simply impossible to create any quality media product based on "vague references" to other products. Film producers begin with a script, then they hire senior staff, such as directors, cinematographers, art designers, etc. Story boards are prepared, costumes are made, and talent is hired. All this is done before a single frame of film is exposed. Video game designers should take a similar approach. Broussard's subordinates were quick to lay blame on their perfectionist overlord. After successfully demonstrating the game at E3, one member of the team thought the end was finally in sight. “I was hoping for George to come in and say, ‘OK, that was great, we got what we wanted, let’s get this done now! But he never did.” In truth, not all the blame can be placed on Broussard. As Ryan notes, senior developers need to intervene when projects look like they might be derailed.


Good design leads... show backbone not just to their team but to their boss. Heaven knows bosses don't always know the impact of their suggestions, but a good lead will explain the impact in a way that helps a boss or co-worker or subordinate rethink their suggestion. In theory the design lead was hired to make decisions, not just do what they're told. They shouldn't be afraid to say "No". Good design leads are capable of prioritizing and pushing for the best and most important ideas and dropping less important ones when negotiating with art and tech directors for implemented features. Whether you are a lead designer, manage one, or just aspire to be one, you should understand the importance of being able to say both "Yes" and "No" in design decisions. It's a balance that you have get right if the game will be successful.

One thing developers need to realize is that the road to success is not only paved with the latest graphics, artificial intelligence, and other technical merits. Gamers want interesting story lines, challenging puzzles to solve, and memorable experiences. Having a great game engine is only one part of the equation. By all accounts, the Quake II version of the game had what gamers were clamoring for. The Unreal version was also compelling. Had Broussard not abandoned the project each time a new game engine caught his eye, the company could have released three or more sequels by 2003, thereby building the type of franchise Broussard had envisioned in 1996. Earlier in the article, Thompson quotes one of Broussard's former partners, Paul Schuytema, who suggests that,


“George’s genius was realizing where games were going and taking it to the next level. That was his sword and his Achilles’ heel. He’d rather throw himself on his sword and kill himself than have the game be bad.”

Had Broussard really understood where games were headed, he would have executed his product strategy differently, with planned product releases timed to coincide with the release of new development tools. Nor is there any indication that the prototypes were in any way "bad." In fact, the various demos shown at trade events over the years suggested that 3D Realms could have had another hit game to sustain the company for years. Instead, 3D Realms fell into an inescapable performance trap that would eventual lead to the company's demise. On May 6, 2009, "Broussard took [a] last photo and then bid his creative staff good-bye." The quiet shuttering of one of the most promising game studios went almost unnoticed.

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