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The Miller's Tale: 3D Realms' Scott Miller

In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, we talk with 3D Realms (Duke Nukem, Prey) founder and CEO Scott Miller on the dangers of original IP, why episodic content doesn't work, and the future of the company's troubled flagship mascot.

If there’s one thing you can say about Scott Miller, head of 3D Realms, it’s that he has vision. From the days of Apogee to the very successful release of Prey, 3D Realms has weathered a few storms and always comes out looking better than before. We sat down with Scott to talk about his views on publishing, digital distribution, episodic content and a certain foul-mouthed badass.

GS: What's your approach to a PR situation as the publisher or developer? For example: Prey's release announcement came quite suddenly after quite a bit of silence. Will you take this approach with further releases or was that a decision for just that one product?

SM: You’re talking about when we announced Prey last year?

GS: Right.

SM: Yeah, I think that something like that is how we’re going to go in the future, because it seemed like in the early 90s games didn’t take that long to make. It seemed cool then to announce a game when you started, because you knew you’d be done in a year or two. Now it’s hard to find a hit game that’s made in less than two and a half to three years. Some games go longer. Max Payne was a four and a half year project. So was Prey. These projects can go on for a long time.

Not only that, if you announce a game too soon, you lose your momentum. We’re going to wait until one year ‘til release. That gives you one year to get into people’s minds, and it’s not so long that they forget about it.

GS: Sort of the same thing that happened to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

SM: Right.

GS: While reading your blog lately, I noticed that you were talking about partnering with studios that might not otherwise get a chance to have a good start.

SM: Well, there’s a bunch of reasons. Where should I start? Just from our track record, lots of studios can see what we bring to the table. We bring funding to the table. We did two million dollars’ worth of funding for Max Payne and we did well over that for Prey. We’re an insurance policy that a game is going to get done to a level of polish that we’re happy with that maybe a publisher wouldn’t be happy with.

I don’t think that a lot of publishers really understand the importance of the final two or three months of polishing. A lot of games get released that gamers say, “with some polishing, this game could have been pretty nice.” We make sure they get that level of polish.

The biggest thing we bring to the table is we’re all about creating intellectual property (IP). We’re all about creating original IP. We’ve never done a licensed game and when studios sign up with us, they know they’re going to be making something original. If they go to a publisher and they’re not well established like an id Software or Epic, then they’re probably going to be handed some licensed IP. For most studios, that’s just not as fun as doing something original. In the mid to late nineties, it was easy for studios to have original IP, but now the tables have turned. So, we offer a way for developers to do an original project and also to have ownership in that project, which doesn’t work that way with most publishers.

Now, if the game’s a hit, that’s the holy grail: owning a valuable IP. If the studio owns a valuable IP, then they have lots of leverage and clout. They can reap financial rewards, call their own shots and make better deals. It changes the game for them.

By teaming up with us they get out of the rut of doing licensed games and make an original game. So far, studios that have worked with us have done pretty well and other studios have seen what happens and they want a piece of the action.


GS: When you guys partner with another studio, do they keep their own IP?

SM: What we’re looking for is co-collaborating on IP development. When that happens, we own a portion and the studio we partner with owns a portion. It’s a shared IP.

GS: It seems like a good concept, and it has worked really well, so why hasn’t it caught on? Is it too dangerous financially?

SM: Oh yes, it’s dangerous. If you don’t make a hit then it can hurt because you have a lot of your own skin in the game. I often wonder why other studios don’t do this. I guess Lionhead did it, but not in the same way we did. Epic, I think, was working with an external studio until they brought them internal. I don’t really know of anyone that does what we do. id was working with Raven for a while.

GS: With Hexen. You guys are the most prominent at working with different people.

SM: We pioneered it, going back to 1990. id Software was the first studio we partnered with. They weren’t even id then, they didn’t have a name until I approached them. I asked them if they wanted to try shareware since they were doing so well with the Softdisk thing at the time. That’s when they put together the company.

GS: That was around the time of Apogee?

SM: Yeah.

GS: The large majority of games coming out nowadays are console releases. Are you guys planning on focusing more on consoles now or sticking to the PC? I know that you have a history of FPS games which are more PC-centric.

SM: That’s true, but going forward, any studio needs to look long and hard at focusing on consoles first. That’s where the bigger money’s at. Even though our background is in PCs, there isn’t any more difficulty now making a console game. It used to be a problem because of the computing power differences between PCs and consoles. Nowadays, it’s not that big of a gulf. It really comes down to whether the game idea is good, has good gameplay, technology and story hooks. If it does, then it’s going to work on any platform. You just need to keep your controls simple and make sure it’s going to work on a console, then it’s not a big problem switching over. We’re definitely going to be more focused on consoles than PC development in the future.

GS: What games have you been playing and enjoying lately?

SM: Man, what have I been playing lately?

GS: I know the feeling.

SM: (laughs) I’ve actually not finished many games. I’ve been testing the waters. I think I’m going back to Company of Heroes because it started off so terrifically nice. Let me look at my shelf here and see.

GS: I’m a notorious game grazer.

SM: That’s what I’ve been doing. I haven’t been playing as much as I want to. I haven’t really completed anything. Oblivion.

GS: Fan of golf games?

SM: I was for Mario Golf on the N64.

GS: Great game.

SM: Yeah, it was.

GS: Has there ever been a game mechanic that you saw and wished that you’d have come up with it?

SM: Well, I like how you don’t have a health meter in Call of Duty. I also like the lack of a user interface in the King Kong game. As far as a breakthrough game mechanic, like bullet time, nothing comes to mind. What about you?

GS: I would probably say bullet time. Oddly enough, I was talking to John Gaeta, the special effects developer for the Matrix, not long ago.

SM: Actually, bullet time was never used by them in association with the movie.


GS: Lately you’ve talked a lot about downloading content, but the partnership with Triton didn’t really work out. What happened there? Is there a chance of a network like Steam or Total Gaming developed by 3D Realms? Would you be happy to partner with someone like Valve to get content out there?

SM: It’s not in our game plan to develop a service like that. It’s a really big distraction.

GS: That’s a lot to take on.

SM: Yeah it is. I would rather there emerge a leader in the market that isn’t associated with a game company. I’m not a big fan of using Steam, because I’m not a fan of a strong competitor of ours having access to our download stats and revenue totals. I’d rather keep that private. Not only that, but we’re lining their pockets as well.

I’d love to see Steam spin off as their own company. That would be a smart move. That removes the conflict of interest issue and it would give Steam focus as a separate company. Since they’re buried in Valve, if Valve doesn’t do well for a game or two, Steam will get cut before their internal game development. They have to consider Steam secondary. I don’t know why they hang on to Steam as an internal thing. They’d probably rule the game industry if they did. A truly independent company is going to come along, and I know of a couple of start-ups. I think one of these companies will emerge as the product leader and they should be able to take Steam’s spot.

My overall impression is that digital distribution is definitely going to be a huge force in the future. I’ve said for quite a while that the next generation consoles will have this built in from the start. Day one releases will be available online. I think brick and mortar places will lose a lot of business this way. Microsoft and Sony have to be saying “if we cut out the retailers, we get a bigger piece of the pie.” There’s no issue with it, you just need to get people bigger hard drives. Digital delivery is going to be a key part of console revenue.

GS: It’s strange that there isn’t a company that is really independent. You have Valve with Steam and Stardock with Total Gaming.

SM: From the ashes of Triton, there’s a company starting up that will do things much better. Triton had some internal problems that hurt them from the beginning. They were a dead man walking situation from the start.

GS: Speaking of digital distribution, how would you feel about older 3D Realms products, like Duke Nukem 3D, appearing on Xbox Live Arcade.

SM: Yeah, we’d love to see that happen. Microsoft has a pretty tight lid about what they’re putting on the system now. They’re trying to not hit the same genres over and over again, and since Doom just came out on Live, they probably won’t want Duke 3D on Live anytime soon. I’ve had some casual talks about this, but you never know. We’d like to see that happen, it’s just a matter of making it happen.

GS: Epic's Mark Rein has been criticized sharply for his issues with episodic
content, but you seem to agree that episodic content works less well than some
might think. Why all the hype for it, and where are people going wrong when they
advocate it?

SM: Waiting eight or twelve months between releases is a long time. For episodic content to work, the release windows need to be much shorter. One of the biggest problems that it has is that if you miss out on the first one or two, it’s harder to jump in later. By that time, the technology of the third or fourth one is so far ahead of the first two that you don’t want to play them or it’s a lot of money to catch up. I also think that it’s a bad idea to have each episode end with a cliffhanger. I can see why you’d want to do that so that you can encourage people to get the next one. I think they work well on a weekly TV show, but for something that comes out ten months later it’s not the way to go. It’s more disappointing to not have a wrapped up ending.

You make a much bigger splash when you make a complete game. It’s a major event. With episodes, you water it down. You probably won’t get game of the year honors with an episode. You know, three episodes probably make a full game. You make more money off of a full game release.

GS: Kind of like a glorified expansion?

SM: They’re like expansion packs. It’s just not as much to get excited about.


GS: Why do you think game developers, and especially publishers, are so often afraid of original IP?

SM: There’s not much of a success rate – it’s a risky proposition. Publishers are spending a lot of money on new games. Nowadays, the budgets are probably averaging around ten million, if not higher. When you can attach an existing brand to it, a license to it, then publishers are thinking, “well, surely this will get us to at least break even.” My position has always been the opposite of that. They usually work against you because they come from linear media and don’t have the built in hooks for good gameplay. Most licenses, like Minority Report, Survivor or Da Vinci Code, don’t really have any inherent gameplay hooks that make them worthy of making a game out of. The only thing that has any interest is the license itself and I don’t think that’s good enough.

GS: Pandering to fans?

SM: Yeah. Another problem that publishers have is that they know the license is going to sell so they don’t make a good game in the first place.

GS: Why spend the money when it’s going to sell anyway?

SM: Yup. I know that for us it just makes sense to make an original game because you have a clean slate to begin with and you can make sure it has story and gameplay hooks. Everything is built from the ground up to work with the game market. That’s a way of reducing risk. It seems more risky to build something that wasn’t made to work in this market and try to reshape it to work in the game market.

GS: There’s no real need to rehash the history of Duke Nukem Forever...

SM: (laughs) Yeah.

GS: What happened to the version that looked so good? I remember the screen shots that came out around the same time as Quake 3 Arena. Whatever happened to that?

SM: The E3 video?

GS: Yeah.

SM: What you were seeing there was a bunch of incomplete level slices. What else can I say? I probably shouldn’t say much on that.

GS: Ok. Since it’s been so long since Duke 3D, do you think that will impact your interest with younger gamers?

SM: Probably, but the way I see it was when Duke 3D came out it was an unknown brand – we only had the two sidescrollers. The fact that it was a great game made it a huge hit. As long as we make a great game, then I feel that Duke Nukem Forever is going to do the same thing.

GS: What’s the biggest problem that 3D Realms has ever overcome?

SM: Duke Nukem Forever, I guess you could consider our biggest problem. It’s hard to argue against that.

GS: Are you guys actively looking at the PS3 and Wii for future content? Does the Wii fit into your plans at all?

SM: We certainly haven’t ruled it out. The way we see it is that, with every game we make, if we can get it on as many platforms as possible, we’re going to try and do that. It’s just a matter of whether those platforms have the computing power or memory to handle it. If we can get it on there, and it still lives up to the original goals of the design that we want to accomplish, then we’ll get it on there. We don’t have a platform preference. The more the better is the way we see it.

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