How and why Gearbox shut down an ambitious, beautiful re-telling of Duke Nukem 3D
I first spoke with Frederick “fresch” Schreiber back in 2010, when the initial details of Duke Nukem Reloaded were released. The project was supposed to be an update to Duke Nukem 3D, remaking the game in Unreal Engine 3 with modern-looking textures and graphics.
Then, the project was suddenly abandoned. Schreiber is now working on an updated version of Rise of the Triad, and during a discussion about that game, I brought up Duke Nukem Reloaded, a project I had found personally exciting when we spoke years ago. As a giant Duke Nukem 3D fan, I had to know what had happened.
Punished for being too good
“We closed down the project ourselves based on what Gearbox told us, that there was no chance, little chance, that we would ever see it out, that they would allow it to ever see release,” Schreiber explained. “They saw it as a project we could create for our own sake, and that’s not what we were interested in, we wanted to share this with the world. So that was kind of how Duke Reloaded ended.”
This is why it’s always important to go over your contracts with a fine-toothed comb. Apparently the non-commercial license said the team could work on the game, and Gearbox wouldn’t shut them down, but there were no details on how it could be released, if at all.
“The contract we had didn’t specifically state a release. It specified that we were allowed to create this title under a non-commercial license. We saw it as a given that if we get a non-commercial license that means we get to work on the game for free, and then release it for free, for the fans,” Schreiber said.
The developer had visited Gearbox in 2011, a few weeks before Duke Nukem Forever was released. The first reviews had begun to come in, and things weren’t looking good for the retail game. He presented the game to four groups of people at Gearbox, and the company seemed to be passionate about the work being done. Then he met with “the executives.”
“That was a weird meeting. They were very impressed by the demo, but what was weird was that they kind of expected it to be something else. I think they expected it to be a mod, sort of the Duke Nukem high resolution pack. I think they kind of forgot to look at the updates we sent.”
The goal wasn’t just to give the existing game a coat of paint, but to recreate the entire thing in a new engine, to show what it would look like were it made as a AAA game in the modern day. The executives were reportedly impressed, but Schreiber said that he was told that under no circumstances could any of the work be shown to anyone.
“The puzzle seemed to come together. If we showed this to people they might not spend money on Duke Forever, which was badly reviewed,” he explained. “They have big investments from Take Two, and of course they spent a ton of money on the Duke franchise, so it’s their responsibility to make as much money from Duke Forever as possible. I can definitely see the decision from their side.”
“We felt like why were we being punished, and why were the fans being punished, because we had created something that was too good?” Schreiber continued. “That was how the whole thing ended. We split apart, Gearbox and Interceptor, and went to do our own things.”
I asked if they were ever tempted to just kind of release the thing, dump it onto bittorrent as a gift to the fans. He said no, the team are fans of the series and are hoping that, at some point, the game may still be finished and find a wide, legitimate release as a free game.
Schreiber and Interceptor has since worked on a variety of Duke Nukem-related projects, including helping to re-release some of the early 2D games. “Duke is our baby, even though we don’t have the rights to him. We know that Gearbox are the ones making the decisions and the final calls on anything in the future for Duke. We really respect Gearbox, they do some great stuff, they do some less-great stuff as well, but it’s a great company. We would never release it without their approval,” he said.
Still, there’s hope. “It’s been a couple of years since Duke Forever was out, and maybe the disappointment is slowly fading away and people are getting ready to see something new. Then maybe we can bring it up again.”
We reached out to Gearbox for comment, and have yet to receive a response.