Duke Nukem Wiki

Randy Pitchford is the co-founder and CEO of video game studio Gearbox Software.

A key figure in the development of Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition and Duke Nukem Forever, Pitchford has a long and complicated history with the Duke Nukem franchise. He has expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work on Duke Nukem, stating, "I owe my career to Duke," and has described the franchise as deeply personal to him.

Early life

When he was 11 or 12 years old, Pitchford wrote his first game, a 16-room text adventure, on a CPM machine that his dad built. Before transitioning to video game development as a fulltime career, Pitchford worked as a professional magician in Hollywood, occasionally performing at the well-known Magic Castle between classes at UCLA.

History with the Duke Nukem franchise

Recruitment to 3D Realms

In the late spring or early summer of 1996, George Broussard recruited Pitchford to 3D Realms after noticing his talent for level design, based on Duke Nukem 3D user maps Pitchford had posted online.

During his time with 3D Realms, Pitchford contributed at least three levels to The Birth, which was a new episode packaged with Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition. These included It's Impossible, Area 51, and The Queen. He also created a new multiplayer game mode known as Duke-Tag, available only on The Queen.

Duke-Tag documentation written by Pitchford is still publicly available (see here), and one of his earliest user maps, DukeMatch One, was included as part of the sanctioned Duke!ZONE add-on and is still free to download (Pitchford's accompanying notes and the free download can be found here).

Alleged plagiarism and exaggerated contributions

Pitchford is also credited with a fourth level in The Birth known as Pigsty. However, Pitchford's purported contributions to Pigsty became the subject of controversy almost immediately following the game's release.

Specifically, Richard "Levelord" Gray claimed that Pigsty, among other levels in The Birth, was mostly his own work, yet Gray was not credited for his work on any of the levels in the episode. Although Pitchford was not the only designer accused of plagiarizing Gray, Pigsty was singled-out as the map that Gray felt was the least changed from his own rendition. The dispute was never definitively resolved, but Pitchford and Gray have since been heard speaking on friendly terms and even collaborated on a new map, Bloody Hell, for the 20th Anniversary Edition. (See The Birth#Disputed authorship for more information.)

Among online fans of the Duke Nukem series, this incident spawned the first of many informal accusations, continuing into the 2020s, that Pitchford has a habit of exaggerating his contributions to the franchise or of taking credit for others' work on Duke Nukem. This has led to notable changes in how Pitchford discusses the franchise in interviews. In some interviews (e.g., A, B, C), Pitchford makes it a point to diminish his own contributions to the series, and he has made it a habit to mention Allen Blum whenever possible, arguing that Blum has never been properly credited for his outsized contributions to the franchise.

First decade at Gearbox Software

In January 1999, Pitchford and five other developers co-founded Gearbox Software. In their first seven years, Gearbox Software was uninvolved in the Duke Nukem franchise.

In late 2007, Gearbox Software was contracted by publisher Take-Two Interactive to develop Duke Begins, a Duke Nukem console-exclusive that was licensed by 3D Realms. However, the project was halted in April 2009 so that 3D Realms could focus more funding towards Duke Nukem Forever, which had been in production since 1997 but was making insufficient progress and threatening to bankrupt the company.

Acquisition of Duke Nukem

In 2010, Randy Pitchford was approached by George Broussard and offered a deal to purchase the Duke Nukem franchise as part of an effort to save 3D Realms from bankruptcy. At the time, the acquisition was widely considered financially risky; Duke Nukem Forever had already cost 3D Realms approximately $30 million over 14 years with little to show for it. In fact, Duke Nukem Forever was widely described as "vaporware" and given an ironic award with that title, and its prolonged development cycle had already become a running joke in the industry, with games like Serious Sam 2 explicitly mocking it as far back as 2005. Nevertheless, Gearbox Software purchased the franchise and proceeded to finish development of Duke Nukem Forever.

Responsibility for Duke Nukem Forever

Pitchford immediately recruited Allen Blum and several other key developers to finish Duke Nukem Forever. Out of a sense of obligation to the franchise that launched his career, Pitchford said he felt a personal responsibility to bring the game to the market. A full year before the game's publication, headlines like "How Randy Pitchford Saved Duke Nukem Forever" were run in mainstream news outlets like Wired, adding to the pressure. During a candid interview, Pitchford once stated that his wife promised to give him a "Chilean miner" if he ever completed the game, a quote that continues to follow Pitchford to this day. (At the time, articles about a group of Chilean miners trapped in a collapsed mine were front page news.)

Although it was not initially clear whether Pitchford's gamble would payoff, his team was ultimately able to finish and publish Duke Nukem Forever within one year.

Cognizant of his online critics, Pitchford has always maintained that his contributions to Duke Nukem Forever were strictly in a project management capacity, and he has praised the original development team for spending 15 years of their lives on the game, a contribution that he acknowledges he cannot match.

Criticism of narrative direction

Duke Nukem Forever was heavily criticized for its notable shift away from the techno-dystopian elements of Duke Nukem 3D and for its doubling- or tripling-down on the tacky humor only heard in Duke's occasional one-liners from the prequel. Because Pitchford was the most high-profile individual associated with the game, he received most of the blowback for this change in creative direction. Although Pitchford has always defended Duke Nukem Forever, he has actually never taken credit for the game's creative direction and does not seem to have played any role in this shift. In fact, Duke Nukem Forever developer Charlie Wiederhold — who is not even credited as a writer in the game's credits — has publicly stated that he feels partly responsible for the decision, which he has described as a very deliberate decision by the entire team and, in Wiederhold's opinion, a regrettable betrayal of the franchise's original vision.

Lawsuit against 3D Realms

According to a June 2020 article in Digital Trends, Pitchford was in negotiations with an unnamed publishing company for another "big-budget" Duke Nukem game in early 2014. During negotiations, the publishers learned that 3D Realms had just licensed the production of Duke Nukem: Mass Destruction without the involvement of Gearbox Software. Apparently due to the resulting uncertainty around the ownership of the Duke Nukem intellectual property (IP), Pitchford's deal with the unnamed publishing company never materialized. Consequently, Gearbox Software filed a lawsuit against 3D Realms, who sold them the IP in 2010. The case was ultimately settled out of court in Gearbox Software's favor.

Stagnant period

Because Gearbox Software was never able to sign their "big-budget" contract for a new Duke Nukem game, development of the Duke Nukem franchise was almost nonexistent in the decade following the publication of Duke Nukem Forever. It is unclear to what extent Duke Nukem: Mass Destruction was responsible for this stagnation, but it quickly became apparent that Gearbox Software was adopting a much stricter legal policy regarding use of the Duke Nukem IP.

In the years since the publication of Duke Nukem Forever, all of the following Duke Nukem games in development were canceled due to legal pressure from Gearbox Software:

Although Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour was released only one year after the resolution of Gearbox Software's legal dispute with 3D Realms, fans developed the impression that Gearbox Software was trying to sabotage the Duke Nukem franchise. Pitchford has historically been the individual most directly responsible for decisions regarding the franchise's development, so fans and outside observers have largely blamed him for the franchise's perceived stagnation. This impression was further cemented when, around the same time, Pitchford stated at a public event, "I love a good joke. I mean for f***s sake I own the Duke Nukem franchise." This quote and the accompanying video are often circulated in videos criticizing Pitchford.

In one interview, Pitchford carefully and diplomatically noted that Gearbox's publishing house under Steve Gibson has actually rejected publishing deals for new Duke Nukem games, even when somewhat backed by Pitchford, on the grounds that they are "sexist and racist."

Development of Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour

Rather than develop an entirely new Duke Nukem game, Gearbox Software sought a safer option by expanding upon the established Duke Nukem 3D. In 2016, Gearbox Software published Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour. Although the classic engine was kept as an option in the game, the game was ported to a modern first-person shooter engine, and new levels were contributed by Allen Blum and Richard "Levelord" Gray, the designers of the classic levels. Bloody Hell, one of the new levels, was partially designed by Pitchford. Pitchford, the two designers, and others contributed to developer commentary for the game.

Discouraged by negative reception

On social media, Pitchford explained that he felt discouraged by some of the negative reception of World Tour. In his view, he felt he had done everything he could possibly do to appease fans of the classic title by bringing back the classic designers, adding eight new levels, reprising scrapped enemies, reprising a scrapped weapon, and offering a modern graphics engine. Citing criticism of the $20 price tag in the Duke4 forums, he found it difficult to understand how to appease them, and he did not understand their continued antagonism towards him in particular.

George Floyd tweets

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Pitchford tweeted, "I was tormented at starting in this industry in [the] wake of the Rodney King riots - you could feel it in our art (pigcops). Injustice persists, frustration grows. ... [W]e've been dealing with this for a long time. How do we create a world where no cops are Pigcops?"

Outraged mobs of Twitter users accused him of trying to capitalize on the protests in order to sell more games. Pitchford subsequently deleted the tweets when he realized they were open to misinterpretation.

Leaked Duke Nukem Forever prototype

Public perception of Pitchford slightly shifted — both positively and negatively — in response to the leaking of the Duke Nukem Forever 2001 prototype. On the positive side, some fans (for example, in this popular YouTube video) felt the prototype cleared Pitchford of any responsibility for the notable shift towards tacky humor in Duke Nukem Forever (see Criticism of narrative direction above), since the narrative story of the 2001 prototype contains many overlapping elements from the final release. On the negative side, fans have faulted Pitchford for repeatedly denying that there was much that was playable or salvageable from the Duke Nukem Forever prototypes when specifically asked in public interviews (such as this one).

Other controversies

Falsely accused of carrying child pornography

In 2018, a former employee filed a lawsuit accusing Pitchford of leaving a USB stick at a restaurant with child pornography stored on it. The USB stick and its contents were discovered by another customer at the restaurant. It should be noted that the incident supposedly occurred in 2014, but the former employee did not raise this concern until after he was let go in 2018 for allegedly misappropriating company funds for personal expenses. The lawsuit also accused Pitchford of hosting parties for pedophiles, which, according to the plaintiff, were known as "Peacock Parties."

Later that year, a judge dismissed the case and stated there was evidence exonerating Pitchford of all the allegations. According to Pitchford, the pornographic video in question showed a camgirl performing a magic trick, and the accusation stemmed from a misreading of the camgirl's username. This pornographic video was the only file on the USB stick. The video was saved by Pitchford because, as a former magician, he has a long-time habit of trying to decrypt other magicians' performances, which is a common practice among magicians. Pitchford freely conceded that he enjoys watching camgirls, but the reason the video was isolated on the USB stick was because of the magic trick. Moreover, the alleged "Peacock Parties" had a more straightforward explanation; Pitchford and his wife would frequently host large gatherings at the Peacock Theater, where famous actors and actresses were invited to perform. Numerous attendees could attest to the content of these theater performances, completely undermining the plaintiff's credibility.

Some critics have mischaracterized Pitchford's explanation as claiming that the pornographic video was "like" a magic trick; in fact, Pitchford has described the video in explicit detail in public interviews, explaining it was literally a pornographic magic trick. (Note that the details of the video cannot be repeated on Fandom without violating the terms of service.)

Accusation of physical assault

In 2019, another former employee who had recently been fired accused Pitchford of physically assaulting him. When describing details of the incident, the employee elaborated that he was shoved by Pitchford when he crudely mentioned the court case in which Pitchford was falsely accused of carrying child pornography. Pitchford denied that he physically assaulted the employee, and the employee never pressed charges.

Purported $12 million bonus

In 2020, gaming news outlets reported that Pitchford had accepted a $12 million contractual bonus that was deducted from the sum that would be distributed to pay other members of the Borderlands 3 development team.

The bonus amount, which is not unusual for a CEO at a large company, was never explicitly disputed by Pitchford or by official communications from Gearbox Software. However, Pitchford and Gearbox Software have instead described the accusation as misleading; employee bonuses were merely lower than anticipated. However, the reason employee bonuses were so low was actually unrelated to Pitchford's bonus. In reality, it was because the profit-sharing model of the business depended on forecasted profits, which the game failed to meet even despite its record sales. In fact, there was a straightforward explanation for this; the game needed to be ported from one game engine to another in the middle of development, which was unplanned and far more costly than expected. Nevertheless, some critics feel the profit-sharing model, which is not unique to Gearbox Software, is inherently unfair. Meanwhile, other critics have mischaracterized the incident as Gearbox Software "promising" specific payments to employees and then failing to meet those promises, but this is a common misconception and is not how profit-sharing works.

Pitchford has alleged that the controversy was largely concocted by online media companies and YouTube channels that profit by engineering outrage and soliciting more clicks.

Notable awards

Pitchford accepted the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences award for best PC Action Game in 2000 for his production and direction of Gearbox Software's debut title, Half-Life: Opposing Force.

External links