“Damn, those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride,” exclaims Duke Nukem, before cracking his knuckles, cocking his gun, blasting his way through a nearby roof vent, and careering down its chute to the alien-infested alleyway below. Themes of “babes, bullets and bombs” to the Nth degree follow in what quickly becomes an unrelenting hedonistic whirlwind of explosions and gunplay, flat tops and biceps, cigarettes and sunglasses.
In 1996, the eponymous Duke as he appeared in Duke Nukem 3D epitomised the over-exaggerated, action movie-inspired alpha male protagonists than were à la mode on the big screen. It’s funny, then, that the man behind the character describes himself as a “typical geek” in his formative years. Twenty years prior, George Broussard cut an antithetical figure: a pocketful of change and amusement arcades better reflected his leisure pursuits against the Duke’s tendency toward firearms and strip clubs.
Broussard would eventually go on to co-found development studio Apogee Software, later known as 3D Realms, with best friend Scott Miller in 1987, who, as a team, co-created Duke Nukem. But in their youth, Broussard and Miller dedicated their weekends to beating cabinet classics such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, and whichever other games they could lay their hands on.
“Scott and I would run around video arcades with other friends, or hang out in the computer lab at school where you could connect to a mainframe downtown via an acoustic coupler and a printer terminal,” Broussard tells us. “[At home] I had a VIC 20 and a C64 before moving to the IBM PC and the Amiga. I played all the early Infocom games like Zork, Starcross or Planetfall, as well as C64 games like M.U.L.E. or Jumpman. I was a total game addict.
“I also worked in several videogame arcades in the early 80s at their height. I made a couple of small shareware games while Scott was doing his first shareware games. Toward the end of high school we also worked at the same Whataburger fast food joint, then a video arcade called Twilight Zone. This was all a decade before 3D Realms existed.”
In 1991, four years after founding Apogee, Broussard and Miller released Duke Nukem - a 2D-run and-gun sidescroller, a style that was very popular at the time. It was received well, however by the time its sequel rolled around just two years later, the industry was beginning to make the distinct transition from whimsical, two-dimensional sprite-based games to those championing 3D models.
Sidescrollers, it seemed, had seen their day, and Wolfenstein 3D’s release in 1992 further outlined a shift in the gaming landscape towards three-dimensional affairs. Duke Nukem II shipped in December 1993 just one week before Doom hit store shelves. Once the latter arrived, that landscape was altered forever. In a market in flux, Duke Nukem II didn’t sell anywhere near as well as its forerunner, which was the last indication that the Duke’s next outing should take place in a 3D world. Naturally, with this came a host of new challenges.
“I'd say we initially set out just to feature clone Doom,” says Broussard of making the leap to 3D. “There weren't any reference points apart from Doom, really. We were all in uncharted territory. So, you just made things quickly and kept what was fun and what worked, and removed things that didn't. We did try to push as far past Doom as we could with features like slopes, lots of big moving sectors, jumping, ducking, jetpacking and interactivity. After a while you just have a big toolkit of features and you sculpt a game out of it, test, and repeat.
“Key vision features like Duke talking and real world level settings all came online very late in the process once we had solid footing. I remember us adding the pool table to the bar maybe three weeks prior to shipping the shareware version. None of us had ever made a 3D game before so all we could do was study Doom and veer off the path and see where it led us. You learned as you went. For multiplayer in particular. Things like the wall blowouts were used to open up levels and make them circular and more fun for Duke Match but you had to stumble upon stuff like that through testing and experimentation.”
Beginning in 1994, work on Duke Nukem 3D ran until mid-96 and was overseen by a core team of 15 people. Quality assurance teams, Broussard says, weren’t commonplace in the 90s - “it was the wild west back then” he playfully remarks - thus testing the game fell squarely on the shoulders of the Apogee team themselves.
They’d spend hours “endlessly” testing the game, running multiplayer analysis two, three, and four hours after regular working hours - sometimes two people to test out a gun; other times eight people to stress test a full load. When folk had completed their day-to-day work, idle hands were directed towards a keyboard and mouse.
While Doom was Duke Nukem 3D’s main source of inspiration, Broussard et al were keen to force their own style and personality on it, which is evident through its world, its pop culture references and its monsters. Departing from Doom’s extra-terrestrial-inspired narrative and spectacle, portraying a relatable real-world playground meant the team was never shy of inspiration. “Whatever sounded cool” made it in, says Broussard, so long as it was filtered through the lens of not being too serious.
What made Duke Nukem 3D stand out most, however, was the Duke himself. Until the 11th hour of development, the protagonist was silent, much like the majority of other games at that time. Renowned voice actor Jon St. John was brought on board to bring the Duke’s anger and comedic sensibility to life.