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Features > A tribute to Build > Scott Miller interview

He's the owner and partner of 3D Realms that are rumoured to be making games still. Without him, we wouldn't have had Duke3D. So I figured I'd ask him a few questions about his involvement in making the legend come to life.

It's 1993 and an 18 year old called Ken Silverman begins work on a game engine that would go on to power numerous games and draw praise from the likes of John Carmack.
How did 3DRealms come to use Ken's engine, why exactly was it chosen?

Ken originally contacted me and showed me a game engine that rivaled the Wolfenstein 3D engine, within a game called Ken's Labyrinth. The game was flat out terrible, and I told Ken that we were not interested in the game, but we could probably work with his engine. He declined, as he wanted to finish his game and see it published, and so he contacted Epic, who eventually released his game.

The story I remember is that Ken wasn't happy with the sales of his game and to an extent blamed Epic. Of course, the truth was that the game stunk. ;-) So, when he later began work on his Doom-style engine, he brought it back to me again, and this time accepted the suggestion that he remain the engine design, while my company puts together teams to build games with it.

We choose to work with Ken because he was clearly on the leading edge of engine technology, and very receptive to design input on the engine. Carmack himself said at one time that he was very impressed with Ken's work, and that Ken was the one engine designer he considered at the same level as himself.

Kingdom of Kroz, written by Scott Miller.

Was the possibility of licensing id software's Doom technology ever considered?

We might have, but after seeing Ken's engine, even in its early, raw state, we knew that he had the chops to handle Carmack-level engine development.

During the development of Duke3D, was there ever a point that you are other team members felt that betting the farm on the build engine was perhaps the wrong choice?

Never. That thought never crossed our minds because the engine was remarkably fast and effective from an early stage. Most of the later work on the engine was more about non-essentials, like adding slopes, higher screen resolutions, and improving multiplayer support. We never believed that we had made a bad choice.

At a time when creating a levels and modifications for Doom required third party tools and a leap of the imagination, Duke3D came with all the tools to rip open and re-build the entire game.
Why was this done and was it an easy decision to reach?

It was an easy decision made early on, because we firmly recognized the power of giving tools to players. We saw this back when we released Wolfenstein 3-D, and so did Id, which is why they purposely made it easy to modify Doom with the WAD file format. Id's development platform was the NeXT computers back in those days, though, and so it wasn't easy for them to release they map tools. For us, though, with all of the tools on the PC, it was a no-brainer.

What stands out in your mind as the defining feature of the build engine?

Build had a few features over the Doom engine, such as sloped surfaces, looking up and down about 30 degrees each way, variable screen resolutions, mouse-look, and we could build rooms over other rooms using portal tricks. But really, the engines where otherwise fairly equal. Duke 3D didn't succeed due to the more advanced Build engine, but because of the gameplay innovations and the personality of the lead character.

3D Realms helped Remedy bring Max Payne to market.

If you could go back in time and add one more killer feature to the build engine, what would it be?

Never have thought about this. The engine had voxel technology built into it, but it was never used in a game. Perhaps had the voxel tech had been a little more polished, we would have seen objects in the game with curved surfaces, and that would have been cool.

Do you regret not being able to hold on to Ken Silverman so he could work on future 3DRealms projects?

Ken was relatively young at the time the first Build games were released, and I think he wanted to finish his college career. He was working on a full 3D engine to compete with Quake, called the Polytex (for poly texture), but it just wasn't coming together, especially since he was back in college. I think we would have loved to keep working with Ken, but at the time he had other priorities.

The Duke Nukem brand was created long before Duke Nukem 3D was released, but it was with this iteration of the series that saw the broadest acceptance of the game and character than ever before.
Why do you think this game made such a lasting impression?

Duke Nukem 3D, besides being the first 3D game in the series, was also the first to really give the lead character a personality, through his actions (like crapping down the ripped off neck of a defeated boss), and through speech. Until that game, lead characters in the FPS genre were faceless or without personality. Duke Nukem broke that mold and gave player's a voice, saying things that they themselves might have said while playing the game. Duke 3D also had a brashness not seen before, such as the cursing, and the strippers. The FPS genre needed a celebrity character, and Duke was the first to answer the call.

The Duke character has been heckled by many people, calling him a Bruce Campbell 'Ash' rip off, to just a generic game action hero.
How do you think of Duke, what is he?

Shadow Warrior was another Build powered games, that had new technology like voxels. Although it was never as popular as Duke3D.

Duke has over 100 lines in Duke 3D, and only three can be said to have any connection to the Evil Dead movies. We also used a few lines from other movies, and over 90 were original lines. The idea was to use these lines because we are fans of these movies, and we thought it'd be fun to have Duke say them. That's all. We'll probably do the same with future Duke games -- it's part of what makes Duke a fun character, and one you don't take too seriously.

The Build engine behind Duke3D went on to power many other games at a time when Quake was demonstrating the true power of 3D for games.
How did you manage to get the Build engine licensed to so many developers?

First, it wasn't ridiculously expensive to license. And maybe most important, it was a very easy engine to use, and could be used to quickly make a game. And with the success of Duke 3D, it was a proven engine.

Duke3D was released way back in 1996, yet there is still a massive following for the game and a community still extending and improving on the original game.
Why is there still such a large community?

My only guess is that Duke is a great fantasy character. He gets all the girls, he doesn't have a boss telling him what mission to take, and he loves to kick butt just for the joy of it. He may not a deep character, but he gets the job done against impossible odds and looks good while doing it. It's fun to step into his boots occasionally and kick ass like only Duke can. I love the line from the 2001 E3 Duke Nukem Forever video, where a wary, beaten soldier looks at player and says, "Wuddaya gonna do, pal... save the world all by yourself?" Playing as Duke we get to smile and say, "Yes. And get outta my way while I do it." That's the appeal of Duke.

Thank you for your time

Do you want to know more?
You can read the latest thoughts from Scott Miller's mind at his blog Game Matters