The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fail, Baby!

One of my all time favorite pastimes isn’t baseball, it’s reading bad reviews of movies and video games. The worse they slam it, the better. So when I saw Gamespot gave Duke Nukem Forever – a game that took 14 years to “make”– a death sentence of 3.5/10, I jumped on it. Then I remembered a great Wired article that made the project sound like the saddest story ever told. Then I saw that 2K Games’ PR guy was fired for defensive remarks about the bad reviews.

What an amazing life the franchise has had.

Duke Nukem Forever has run it’s course – it’s finally over after an agonizing 14-years of development. Now that the shrapnel and bullet casings have settled from the Duke debacle, it’s safe to say there’s a lot you can learn from the guy. The DNF project, team, budget, marketing efforts and aftermath were one of the biggest lessons on failure to anyone with an idea.

Speaking from second-hand experience (ok, I’ve played a lot of games), developing and publishing any major title is on par with releasing a feature film. You’re directing a project that includes cinematic video, special effects, plot, a music score, rich interaction, level design, character development, and a million-dollar marketing effort. It ain’t an easy task, and failure is common. Even still, DNF’s fail was epic amongst them. Here’s some of its biggest mistakes and how they’re relevant (or similar) to the creative business.

Keep your idea simple. The creator of DNF was obsessed with always including the latest new thing. If he saw a great level design in another game, he told his team to put it in. If he heard about a new game engine with better graphics, it became the next must-have. Too many times, when crafting your perfect idea, you second-guess your best one – whether it’s because you see something on TV or because you have some extra time on your hands. Focus on one great idea and knock it out – don’t muddy it up with trends and fads. On the DNF project, the creator literally had no idea how close he was to the finish line each time he approached it, and kept reinventing the game.

Too Much of a Good Thing is a Bad Thing. 3D Realms, developer of DNF, made a fortune off previous Duke Nukem games – money was never an issue. And since they were marching to the beat of their own drums, there was no real timeline. They could take as much and as long as they wanted. So they took 14 years. Imagine if you looked back on the last decade of your career and hadn’t produced one campaign? That’s what many of the DNF team did, and then they left 3D Realms in search of other jobs. Endless time and money sound great – our first thought is we’ll have longer to massage the idea, and a bigger budget to make it innovative. But if you’re not careful, it’ll turn into the plot line of Wonder Boys.

Let the People Decide. DNF was precious – it had to be perfect. The longer its creator stared at the project, the more he wanted to make changes. It never saw the light of day until after several lawsuits, team dismantling, and its purchase by 2K Games several years later. The longer we own a project, the more we’ll want to modify it. Often we forget who the best acid test is: the user. If we want real feedback, we need to get a prototype out the door so the crowd can give us its 2 cents.  It’s hard to remember, but we’re often not the end user, no matter how close we are to the project.

Keep Yourself and Your Team Happy. People had had it with 3D Realms and the now-infamous DNF project. Half the team quit or was ready to walk away. On top of that, they were underpaid in comparison to other local developers. The game’s publisher, Take-Two Interactive, was growing more and more tired at the deadline extensions and budget increases – to the point where it made several public jabs at the project. A friend of mine who had once owned a startup said “Everyone has ideas. It’s the people who execute that get noticed.” You can’t execute when you have no team, and you won’t stay on track if your partners are unhappy. In DFN’s case, selfishness and ego prevented the creator from considering many of these factors. Your campaign or web site is not a one-man show, no matter how talented you are, and it’s a difficult thing to keep all the players happy.

The Duke Nukem Forever story ends with 2K Games buying and releasing the game as an undercooked pile of junk, but it’ll still make money off fans who’ve waited 14 years. Plus 2K Games can say they did the unimaginable by finally releasing it in 2011.

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