When the subject of vaporware comes up, the conversation inevitably turns to 3D Realms and games like Duke Nukem Forever and Prey. While Prey finally shipped last summer, it spent 11 years in development, a staggering amount of time for any computer game, even in the days of extensive MMOG production schedules. Duke Nukem Forever has been in the works for nearly as long. As it states on the 3D Realms website, “There’s no possible joke you could make about the game’s development time that we haven’t already heard.”

I headed up the adventure games division for Human Head Studios from 2002 through 2004. While I enjoyed working on our tabletop games, I spent a lot of time peering over the shoulders of most of the others in the office, checking out and playing with their work on the company’s top-secret project, code-named Dark Harvest, better known as Prey.

3D Realms had officially given up on the game back in 1998, after a number of aborted attempts. The first of these went south after a number of key employees left to form the Ion Storm and Ritual Entertainment studios. As 3D Realms’ CEO Scott Miller says, “We had to hire new people, and when those new people came in we ended up going with a more ambitious design, too. So, things snowballed, and after another two years we reached a point where we knew the game was still too far from being complete, and so we cancelled the project.” This seemed like the last nail in the coffin. “At that time, I did not expect Prey to ever be a finished game.”

During its stint with the publisher Gathering of Developers (later purchased by Take 2 and now known as 2K Games ), 3D Realms toyed with resurrecting Prey again. This time around, though, with Duke Nukem Forever still on their plate, they decided to farm out Prey‘s development. They’d done this with another game, Max Payne, which had been a wild success.

Miller says, “We knew of Human Head by our mutual association with Gathering of Developers, and therefore it was an easy choice to ask them if they wanted to take a stab at the project. Luckily, they agreed.”

Tim Gerritsen, who recently left Human Head, was the company’s CEO at the time. As he recalls, “They approached us in late 2000 about working on a title together. We discussed a number of options well into 2001 and eventually settled on recreating from whole cloth the Prey franchise, which they had ceased production on in 1998.”

The strength of Prey‘s concepts sold Gerritsen and his partners on the game. “The original vision that 3D Realms had was extremely strong and ahead of its time. 3D Realms allowed us to take that vision and remake it in the image we wanted to. It was that combination of the original vision of the teams that came before us and our ability to take the best concepts from those early days and apply our own creative vision that made us really enjoy developing Prey, even during the hardest of times.”

Miller agrees, which is why he returned to the Prey concept he’d long thought dead. “In the ’90s, Prey was truly a game that was ahead of its time, and that’s one of the reasons it was so hard to complete. The game featured environments that could be totally destroyed, it had portals, and it had a unique angle with the Cherokee lead character and Native American mythology. It turns out that in 2001, when we were talking about reviving Prey, these same things were still relevant and interesting.”

Of course, Prey didn’t hit shelves until 2006. Back in 2001, no one envisioned another five years of development. The new Prey started out being developed with the Unreal 2 engine, but that quickly changed. Gerritsen says, “We realized that some of the things we were trying to do with gameplay were going to take us longer to accomplish than a typical game development cycle, and that by the time we released, Unreal 2 would look fairly dated. We didn’t want to come out at the end of an engine’s life cycle, and at that time Epic had not even begun work on what would eventually become the Unreal 3 engine.”

Fortunately, Human Head had other options. “After looking into the tech base and content pipeline, we decided that Doom 3 would be a great fit for what we wanted to accomplish with the engine, so we became the first official licensee of the Doom 3 engine.”

Despite this good news and the progress the team made on the game, they labored under a thick veil of secrecy. According to Gerritsen, “Since Prey had a really storied history, all the parties involved agreed that Prey would be under a complete development blackout until the game was at an advanced level of completion. We knew that the game would take a fair amount of time to complete, and the last thing we wanted was for people to start calling the game vaporware. … We even gave the game the code name of Dark Harvest, which was a reference to the code name George Lucas used while filming Star Wars, which he called Blue Harvest.”

Even with everything all set up, the project still had its problems. You would have been forgiven if you’d thought Prey was cursed. It gave Gerritsen and his team some nail-biting moments. “Though I can’t discuss details due to non-disclosure agreements, I can say that Human Head worked without a publishing contract for about 18 months due to our dispute with our publisher. That was pretty frightening since Human Head is an independent studio, and we were dependent on our milestone payments to pay for production.

“3D Realms, however, believed in the game and what we were doing with development, and they funded us during that period. This kept the company, and the project, alive during that period.”

That sort of support from a third party is rare in the game industry, but 3D Realms thought enough of what they’d seen so far to put their money where their corporate mouth was.

Much of this, of course, goes back to 3D Realms’ well-known policy of only shipping a game “when it’s done” (WID). Many other companies would have forced the developer to shove Prey out the door when the funding ran shy, no matter what shape it might have been in. I asked Miller if he thinks this is a core reason for the company’s success.

“Success, and failure. Clearly, WID has backfired with Duke. WID only works within reason, and we have stretched it to absurdity.”

In the end, though, keeping Prey going worked out well. “What ended the dispute was the arrival of Christoph Hartmann and the creation of a new brand within Take 2, and that was 2K Games,” says Gerritsen. “Christoph had a specific vision for 2K and a professionalism that totally reinvigorated our relationship with Take 2. We settled our dispute, and from that moment forward, all parties came together again. Prey was once again on track with a committed publisher.”

Prey shipped in the summer of 2006, and Gerritsen left the company just months later. To an outside eye, it might seem he was another casualty of Prey, but it’s not so.

Gerritsen explains: “During the production of Dead Man’s Hand [which shipped in 2004], I had seen some limitations in our approach as a company that I wanted to change. Despite being in the role of CEO, we were an equal partnership as a company, so I couldn’t just dictate how I wanted things to be. I deeply respect all six of my partners, and I decided that getting all of them to leave their comfort zone to do things my way was a dauntingly uphill climb and not good for either myself or them.

“I am also very loyal to them and decided that there was no way I could leave them in mid-project, especially on a project as large as Prey. I resolved to remain on the Prey project until we finished it, and [to] secure our next contract before moving on. I think it’s a testament to our respect for one another that we handled the transition as smoothly as I think it could have gone.”

With Prey a smash-hit, should that give us hope we might see Duke Nukem Forever soon? Miller sounds cautiously optimistic. “The projects are entirely unrelated. Duke is another one of these super-ambitious projects, and that ambition has definitely come back to bite us. But I think we have a shock collar on that dog now, and things look like they’re well under control.”

Insert joke here.

Matt Forbeck works on tabletop games, computer games, novels, comics, toys, magazine articles for dozens of companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, Mattel, Playmates Toys and IDW Publishing.

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