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100th Strife celebrations - Interview with Scott Miller

3DRealms big cheese Scott Miller steps out of the shadow of Duke Nukem and tells it like it is.

Back in the dark computer ages of 1997, 3D Realms teamed up with Remedy to help nurture the Max Payne brand and game into the smash hit we’re playing today. How did you first hear about Remedy and what triggered your involvement with them?

In early 1996, one of their principle founders, Markus Maki, was going to the University of Austin. He contacted us and offered to show us a game his teammates in Finland were working on, Hi-speed. George Broussard, my partner, and I saw good potential in the game and quickly decided to work with Remedy. The game was renamed to Death Rally and came out late that year. It did okay, but was more than anything a good first-project for a just-formed team.

Remedy was ready to take on the world! Seriously! They then approached George and I with three project proposals, one for a space combat game called Void, a racing game, and finally a crime action shooter that had a similar perspective as Loaded, a game released by Interplay not too long before. Remedy was interested in 3D Realms funding all three games. But, George and I were only interested in handling one game. Not necessarily because we didn’t like the other two, but because we thought it would be entirely too difficult for a young studio to take on three ambitious projects simultaneously. The game we choose was the crime shooter, which at the time Remedy called Dark Justice.

It was around this time that I had a good meeting with the principles of Remedy, including Petri Jarvilehto and Sam Lake, and gave a big picture talk on how to create a franchise brand based on a strong character, like 3D Realms had already done with Duke Nukem. George and I were most impressed with how fast Petri and the others latched onto our methods, and a new course was charted for Dark Justice, beginning with the game’s name.

We all brainstormed for months before finally settling on the Max Payne name, and as with Duke Nukem this not only became the lead character’s name, but the name of the game itself. We also changed the 3D perspective from an isometric top-down camera view, to a behind-the-back third-person camera, putting the player into the game itself, rather than as a god-like viewer, which makes the game that much more immersive.

Of course, during this time Tomb Raider was all the rage, and we quickly determined that to position Max Payne as something special, we needed to stay clear from being considered a Tomb Raider clone. This lead us to coming up with novelties, such as a cinematic flare, strong story telling, and an avoidance of swimming and climbing. Not to mention that Max Payne takes place in present-day New York, an entirely believable setting. A little over four years later, we had a game!

Who is Byron Muller?

This is a bit of a joke, but anyone who’s read Masters of Doom will probably know what it refers to. It’s a long story, but the short version is that back in mid-1990 I wrote John Romero several fake fan letters, using various names that sound like my name (my full name is Brian Scott Miller). The idea was to get John to contact me, but to not make his employer suspicious by outright asking him to contact me. You see, I wanted to contact John to entice him to write a shareware game for me. His employer at the time, Softdisc, would have not passed along my letters to John had I not acted like some everyday fan.

Anyway, John finally noticed that all my fan letters, using different names, all came from the same address! That’s when he finally sent me a pissed-off letter calling me all sorts of names, but at least it opened the door for me to contact him directly because he included his phone number. And that’s how I got him, Carmack and Tom Hall to make their first shareware game, Commander Keen, released by my company.

In those days a radical concept called shareware was really helping games like Commander Keen and Duke Nukem 1 sell. What was it that gave you the confidence in shareware to really push it as *the* way to distribute and sell games?

It’s one of those things that you try out because you don’t have a lot to lose. I had been selling my personal games as shareware, most notably my Kroz series, since 1987, and it was doing well. During this time I had a nice day job working in the computer industry, but finally in 1990 I decided that the time was right to quit the day job and give Apogee my full attention.

The shareware industry was just coming into its own in those days, and quickly Apogee became the must successful of them all. Others, like Epic Megagames, soon followed.

Even with relatively few Duke Nukem games released, he has become an established character and brand name. How did you achieve this?

It only takes one spectacular game to establish a brand. And although the original Duke Nukem, a side-scroller, was a giant success in the shareware market, selling not too far behind Wolfenstein 3-D, it was Duke Nukem 3D that broke the damn wide open on Duke’s popularity, exposing him to 25 million players via the shareware version, and 1.5 million via the PC retail version.

One of the things that sets 3D Realms apart from the majority of games developers is that you’re self funded, isolated from publisher pressuring. Is this something you’d ever want to change and are there any downsides to this situation?

I’d guess that most all studios wants to be financially independent, because it allows for the freedom to make the games YOU want to make, inventing new properties and being in charge of your destiny. Having to depend on money from publishers, who more often than not do not see things as you do, and generally do not think for the long-term, is not fun at all.

Are there any choices or missed opportunities you look back on in your career and think "If only I’d…" ?

I’m happy with the way things have turned out, so I don’t have much to complain about. In fact, when I look back, I shudder thinking about some of the opportunities I may have missed that had such a dramatic positive impact, like quitting my job, buying an IBM PC rather than an Apple II, making contact with John Romero, and about three dozen more. I’ve been quite lucky.

What games are installed on your PC at home right now? And what games are you really looking forward to getting hold of?

I remove games immediately after finishing them. Currently, I’ve got Diablo 2 going, as I’m playing through it a second time with a new character (assassin/martial artist). That’s it!

But I’m looking forward to a slew of games, all the usual suspects, as well as XIII, the next Mario Kart, and Prince of Persia.

As a younger man, I played and very much enjoyed the original Duke Nukem. Is it true you did the level design for this game? If so, does this mean we’ll be seeing some special Scott Miller DNF levels?

I created all of the levels that were in the game’s first episode, which was the entire shareware version of the game. I also created all of the game’s sound effects. This was the last game in which I was heavily involved with content creation – a part of the process I still miss today, but I leave those matters to the experts.

As for DNF, I’ve seen how much effort goes into making those levels, and with all the detail involved, it would take me a full year to construct a halfway decent level! Not gonna happen.

Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to all the Duke fans reading this?

When it arrives, all questions will be answered. Or something like that. ;-)

To read more by Scott, you can check out his new game industry blog:

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I am Peter Bridger -- That Strife: 2000 - 2005 Version 4.1