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The Strange, Twisted Saga of 'Duke Nukem Forever'

First announced during the Clinton administration, it is a videogame title that has been declared dead time and again, yet always manages to come back. After what seemed a devastating (and final) blow in 2009—the disbanding of the game’s development team and a titanic legal battle—the game has surfaced again.

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Now planned for a 2011 release on the PC, Microsoft Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 3, “Duke Nukem Forever” was on display at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo on Friday. The 150,000 attendees got to play it themselves, something most gamers thought would never happen.

The person they have to thank for that is Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software.

As the legal battle between and Take-Two Interactive Software began to get ugly last year, Pitchford stepped in and convinced the developer to sell him the intellectual property rights to the “Duke Nukem” franchise, while simultaneously convincing the publisher to drop its suit.

“The tension between George [Broussard, 3D Realms co-owner and founder] and 2K [Games, a division of Take-Two] was really, really strong,” says Pitchford. “They tried, but they just weren’t able to come together … We have a great relationship with Take-Two, and they got behind this … Where we’re at now is a drama-free world where everyone is focused on making it work.”

Pitchford began his career in gaming at 3D Realms and is a poker buddy with Broussard. He actually worked on “Duke Nukem Forever” briefly before leaving to co-found Gearbox in 1999.

That studio has gone on to create several hit franchises, including “Brothers in Arms” and last year’s “Borderlands,” which was a surprise smash for Take-Two. The question now is: Can Gearbox make “Duke Nukem Forever” a hit as well?

It’s a tall order—but not impossible. The character of Duke Nukem is beloved by the gaming world. Rather than the brooding action heroes that populate so many of today’s first-person shooters, Duke is an butt-kicking, wisecrack-spouting throwback to the classic days of gaming. His dark sunglasses, flattop haircut and steroid-infused physique are an icon to action fans, who cheer his complete lack of political correctness.

But the game itself has evolved into something of a laughing stock over the years, plagued by delays and hyperbole, often blamed on Broussard, a dedicated developer whose pursuit of perfection in the game was often cited as the cause of those delays. It won Wired Magazine’s annual “Vaporware” award so many times that the publication gave it a Lifetime Achievement award so editors could focus on other products that failed to materialize.

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Are gamers willing to move past the jokes they’ve enjoyed at its expense and buy a copy? Or has the gaming world changed to the point where Duke Nukem no longer fits in?

Gearbox, predictably, is confident the finished product will silence critics.

“When you think of this industry, there’s no other title that has had this much attention paid to it,” says Pitchford. “It’s almost sad to break the tension. We could always trust that story [of continual delays] was always going to be there for us. But all great stories have to have an end … We’ve got to end it.”

If the game is a hit, it could be a big win for Take-Two. “Borderlands,” which sold over 2 million copies in its first three months on shelves last year, helped the publisher exceed analyst expectations in its first fiscal quarter this year. That same game was a strong driver of Take-Two's digital business, thanks to downloadable add-ons.

Seemingly, Take-Two has also not modeled “Duke Nukem Forever” into its 2011 forecasts either—which could give the stock a bump. That would be a double dose of good news for investors. Take Two shares jumped Friday after the company’s surprise forecast that it would be profitable in 2010, the first time it would have managed to do so in a year without a “Grand Theft Auto” release.