Monday, November 14, 2011

Times Change

Duke Nukem Forever got pretty much universally panned by critics when it was released. People have come up with various explanations for this, from the idea that after a 14 year wait it could never live up to it's own the idea that the various developers were puerile idiots who hate women.

Personally, I think it goes a little deeper than that... and to understand exactly why Duke Nukem failed, you have to go back in time.

It's 1996. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are at the height of their popularity, everyone thinks 'The Fugees' are a good band for some reason... and contemporary PC's are so powerful when compared to their console counterparts that my Pentium 200 made the original PlayStation look like an Atari 2600.

Unlike today, where you can go buy one of a bajillion first-person shooters, there was only really one game in town...and that was Doom by id Software. Hell, we didn't even call first person shooters first person shooters. We called them 'Doom Clones'.

Oh, there were other shooters, and some of them were actually really good, but to most gamers Doom was the 'real' game. Why would you play one of the knock-offs if you had the real thing?

Then Duke Nukem 3D came on the scene.

I can only speak from personal experience here, and draw from what me and my friends talked about in the schoolyard but, to the mainstream audience, Duke Nukem was the first FPS we played that we didn't actually refer to as a Doom Clone. In fact, it was the first game that anyone would admit...gulp...might actually be better than the daddy of FPS's themselves.

Why? Because 3D Realms had 'pulled a Nintendo' ten years before Nintendo did.

You see, back then, FPS engines were a little primitive. The original Doom was released in 1993, and it would be literally years before games started to appear where you could look up and down.

In 1996, id Software was getting ready to unleash Quake...the first FPS game to feature fully 3D bad guys. Up until then, bad guys in FPS's were sprites: flat two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. It's unthinkable today, but back then, if you walked around a character, you'd see it head on, then as you got past a certain point, the sprite would change to the same badguy from a 3/4 view...then the side...

Basically, id Software had cornered the market. After Doom and Doom 2 they had enough money to throw into R&D to stay light years ahead of just about anyone else when it came to technology... and they'd also become the hallmark for big guns and ultra-violence.

So, whether it was a conscious decision or a happy accident, 3D Realms decided to compete with id Software by not competing with them.

Basically, instead of going for bleeding edge technology and ultra-violence, they went a completely different way. They didn't bother worrying about how many polygons the engine could render or how high the texture resolution was and, instead, went for innovation and humor... and instead of getting their edginess from blood, they got it from a touch of sexual content.

The sexual content is what everyone over 25 immediately thinks about when you mention Duke Nukem. While it's hard to imagine kids today getting excited about a  a pixelated, cartoon-character stripper who would swing her nipple-tassels at you (in a 2-frame 'animation') if you gave her a virtual dollar...  that was cutting edge stuff in 1996. More importantly, it was perfectly suited for the teenage demographic...we're talking about the same kids who would get half an hour's fun out of typing 5318008 into a calculator and then turn it upside down so it spelled 'boobies'.

But, more importantly, while everyone remembers the strippers, everyone seems to forget the innovation.

You could fly in Duke Nukem... and while every shooter out there had the pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher and screen-clearing superweapon...Duke had things you'd never seen before. What fun was a rocket launcher when you could a shrink ray that let you shrink your enemies and stamp on them? Or the freeze ray that let you freeze your enemies solid and then shatter them with a kick?

Also, while the 'Build Engine' that Duke was built on was a 'standard' engine for the time, it was also about as good as it could possibly be. The rockets left smoke trails and, even though it was 'faked' with a palette switch, you could have different colored lights. Quake was a technical marvel for its time...but it was also really fucking ugly. Its characters might have been fully 3D, but they were made up of about 15 polygons each. Duke's bad guys may have been flat, 2D cutouts...but they were gorgeous for their time.

Basically, Duke Nukem was the resplendent horse drawn carriage to id Software's rattle-trap, 5mph, suspensionless, wooden-wheeled automobile. The car may be technologically better in every single way...but which would you rather ride in?

...but the visuals don't even matter. At the time, there were hundreds of shooters, all offering almost exactly the same experience at various levels of sophistication. Duke, on the other hand, offered us an over-the-top action-hero protagonist who swore and stuffed dollar bills into stripper's g-strings. He threatened to rip off the end boss's head and shit down its neck...and then did it... and all the while giving us cool things to do that you just couldn't get anywhere else.

So why was the sequel such a massive failure?

In a single word...timing.

I won't go into the full story because its so readily available elsewhere, but Duke Nukem Forever took a massive fifteen years from announcement to release.

You know what Duke's core fanbase did during those fifteen years? We grew up.

I was 15 when I first played Duke. I was thirty when the sequel hit the shelves.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a childish 30 year old. As the clock ticked past midnight into my 30th birthday, I was watching Star Wars while playing Mario on my DSi. However, while I'm still essentially the same person I was at 15,  my sensibilities have changed and my sense of humor is  more sophisticated. I don't snigger (as much) at poop and butt jokes. I'm not going to buy a game just for a flash of side-boob... and as a 30 year old, a game that features a virtual turd that I can pick up and throw at people for no reason other than 'LOL POOPS!' is just...well...stupid and childish.

Basically, this game just wasn't aimed at me anymore... and if it's not aimed at me, then it's not aimed at anyone in that original core audience.

But, of course, there's a whole new generation of fifteen year olds who should find this hilarious, right?

Well...not really, because today's fifteen year olds are a lot more sophisticated in their tastes in media than I was at the same age.

In 2011, the First Person Shooter is a well-known, polished genre. When Duke Nukem' 3D came out, videogaming was the realm of a few social outcasts and nerds. Today, a First Person Shooter holds the honor of being the biggest and most successful entertainment lauch of all time.

Kids today are used to FPS's with Hollywood level stories, multi-million dollar production values and well written-characters voiced by A-list stars. Duke Nukem Forever was a game with a cliched story, no notable voice talent and, thanks to being 15 years late, featured no innovations whatsoever. It was written to appeal to teenagers fifteen years ago, and those kids don't exist any more.

Sure, there's still the sex and adult humor angle, but even in that area, today's teens are far more sophisticated. They're from a generation that has never experienced not being able to instantly access any type of pornography that it's possible to think of. A video game character in a short skirt that makes a blowjob joke isn't exactly going to make them run out and buy a game.

The best analogy I can come up with for Duke Nukem Forever is 'The Black and White Minstrel Show' from the seventies. In it's time it was just considered normal, every day, entertainment until its audience grew enough to see just how horribly offensive it was... and today, we've progressed so far in terms of shock value that its not even noteworthy for its offensiveness.

That's what Duke Nukem' Forever is. It's a product aimed at an audience that simply doesn't exist anymore.


Evan 08 said...

...I don't snigger (as much) at poop and butt jokes...

I, on the other hand, do.

rayray said...

can we even say "snigger"?