Retro Interview: Stephen A. Hornback
The artist behind the Duke Nukem series talks his passion for art, joining Apogee, his legendary work on the classic franchise, his sudden and bitter departure from the company and proof that there is life after Duke.
Behind every classic game there are many creators that help bring an idea to reality. Usually, unless someone is a figurehead of a company, they often go unknown and unappreciated for their efforts. However, when it comes to the Duke Nukem franchise, a series that is best remembered for its slick, gritty and impressive visuals, the name Stephen A. Hornback should be ringing in your ears. Originating from a small town in Southern Ohio that focused on the steel industry, Stephen’s love for art started at an early age. In fact, his bio on his website proudly proclaims, “My passion and my life is art.” Through interviewing Stephen, this is undoubtedly true. His passion hits home when he not only speaks of the old days of Duke, but also when he mentions his latest artistic endeavours. Duke Nukem’s unsung hero sits down with us to discuss his lengthy career, a career that as had its fair share of ups and downs.
I’m originally from a smallish town in the American midwest, southern Ohio to be exact. Steel was the town’s livelihood, though my father ran an office supply store. This gave me a little more access to art supplies, and so I dabbled in art quite a bit as a child. When I was in high school, I had to make a decision as to whether to persue art or the sciences. I couldn’t imagine making a living back then as a starving artist, so I picked the sciences; but I still maintained art as my hobby.
I went to college, but ran short of funds. So I worked for many years in industrial jobs – locomotives, climbing 400 feet up smokestacks and, after completing my degree, as an engineer for Westinghouse. During that time I finally got a chance to start working on games.
How would you describe your art style and how you approach your work?
I love making things as immersive for the player as possible. My style is often more realistic than fantasy as I want the players to feel like they are in a real place. I’ve always worked hard to create a cohesive environment for any game I’ve worked on.
How did you come about landing your role at Apogee?
While an engineer at Westinghouse, I had gotten my first computer and was looking for inexpensive software for it. Someone showed me a catalogue with something called “shareware”. As I glanced through it, I saw some rough clip art graphics (some were pretty bad too!). Well, I had already been playing around with drawing some digital pictures which I felt were better than the art in the catalog, so I sent them off to that shareware company for possible inclusion in their catalogue.
They not only got in the catalogue but won second place in a shareware submission contest they were sponsoring. I was beaten by a game – Duke Nukem. Well, apparently, Scott Miller at Apogee had been checking the results of that contest. They needed an artist for their next game, and he saw where I’d gotten second place to Duke. So one night (believe it or not I was playing Commander Keen at the time) the phone rang, and Scott asked if I’d be interested in working on their next (then un-named) game. I agreed, of course; and spent my days at Westinghouse and my night’s working on the game at home. I was even lucky enough to name it: Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure.
Duke Nukem 2 arguably defined the look of future Duke Nukem titles. Give us an idea on how you approached your work on it.
Well, I did create the Duke 2 character, but George Broussard touched up the head to make his face a little leaner/meaner. Duke looked great. Back then we used a program called Deluxe Paint and Deluxe Animation. You really were a pixel pusher and I was still stuck with only 16 colours for Duke 2 as well. The overall look was often inspired by movies of the time. Sci-fi thrillers like Total Recall come to mind.
Early into development, Rise Of The Triad was actually being created as a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D. Tell us about the original plan for the sequel to Wolfenstein 3D.
Yes, Rise of the Triad was originally supposed to be the sequel to Wolf 3D. To my knowledge, though, it was to have been more of the same stuff that was in the original with a Tom Hall twist. But things changed one day when I was told that someone insulted id during a meeting, and with Doom coming out; id immediately cancelled the project. The engine was then re-written, and the game changed to Rise Of The Triad. In our game we had the ability to look up and down; Doom didn’t. So the programmers went over to id, told them about it, and that’s why you can look up and down in Doom.
Just to mention how archaic things were back then, Tom and the programmers made a decision to get the animations by building a giant turntable (artists were looked down on and almost never consulted about anything then). On the turntable were mounted costumed Apogee employees who were posed in an action position, and then filmed while spun around in 45 degree increments. It was really entertaining to watch people trying to keep their balance as the turntable was rotated. It was my job then to cut out and touch up each image. We had almost double the number of characters that would have ended up in the game. But due to floppy disk restrictions, about half were cut. This probably wasted about six months of my work from this mistake.
Tell us about how you approached creating the 3D Realms logo.
Shortly after Rise Of The Triad was completed, Scott Miller and George B. came into my office. They needed a new logo right away. This was about four in the afternoon. When I got home that evening, I sat on my sofa sketching concept after concept for many hours. Eventually I designed a version not too dis-similar from what became the final logo. The idea was simply to stress the 3D aspect in the name by making the letters 3D and rotating the 3 and D to again emphasize the 3D aspect that 3D Realms’ games would be taking. That next day, I had it finished, and when Scott and George came in, George said, “Looks like we got a keeper”.
Many gamers see Duke Nukem 3D as the pinnacle of the series. Give us an impression of the attitude and feeling inside 3D Realms at the time.
With Duke 3D, everything seemed to go right. Apogee/3D Realms had hired a good director. I was highly motivated as I was told at the beginning of the project that I was to receive a 3 per cent royalty. So, yes, we had an extremely talented group of individuals, everyone was working very hard, and we were trying to make the game as fun as possible.
But after the project was completed, things changed. I was told my royalty would not be 3%, but only 1%. Not only was it a slap in the face, but to me that was the same as them stealing $100,000.00 – 200,000.00 right out of my pocket. Greg Malone left the company, Several talented programmers, an artist, and a level designer left to start Ritual Entertainment. Chuck Jones left to go work for Valve because he was unhappy with the way he was being treated. He wasn’t even invited to go to E3 when Duke 3D was finished, and I remember how bad he felt about being left out of that. So a lot of wonderful talent left then, and 3D Realms would never be the same.
Why did you leave Apogee/3D Realms?
When the in-house development of Prey was cancelled, I wasn’t given much work for DNF, but I tried to get as involved as I was being allowed. Artist/level designer bonds had already been established, and I felt a bit like an outsider in relation the to DNF team. Then I experienced a medical problem. While mowing the lawn at home, I suffered a major heart attack in April of 2000. I worked hard to recover and get back to work as quickly as possible. Upon returning to work a short time later, I was promptly terminated a few weeks after my return.
I was called into George B’s office, and the three higher-ups were there. I was told by Scott Miller that I was being laid off. Steven Blackburn (office manager) said “It’s not like we’re going to replace you or anything.” George B made some comment like my art wasn’t good enough for 3D Realms. Anyway, that was that. A short time later I interviewed with Rogue Entertainment who was making American McGee’s Alice. When asked why I left 3D Realms, I told them what Miller and Blackburn had said; and I was immediately informed by one of the interviewers that 3D Realms was indeed seeking a new artist. Boy, did I feel like a fool! Don’t believe everything you’re told! I guess it didn’t matter because Rogue hired me anyway. That was really a great place to work.
Another sad end to that story was that my termination contract specified that Apogee Software, Ltd. (aka 3D Realms) was to pay me certain amounts of money when Duke Nukem Forever reached certain milestones. Several of these milestones have already been reached, but they have informed me that they will do nothing to honour these obligations. I tried negotiation, but to no avail. I certainly do not wish to take legal action against them, but they leave a person little choice.
In 2000 you worked on American McGee’s Alice, a vast departure in terms of design from previous titles you were a part of. How did you the approach this dark psychological horror?
Working on this project at Rogue Entertainment was a fabulous experience. A great group of very talented developers, awesome managers, and a delightful working environment made this one of the best times I ever had making a game. The idea was brilliant, and I was happy to lend a hand wherever I could. It was great to be back to creative production again. I was very happy with how the project turned out. It was sad, though, when EA decided not to move forward with the PS2 version of the game, and Rogue went out of business soon thereafter. Many of the development team went on to form Nerve Software. I often wish I’d have gone with them. Great developers over there!
You’re currently one of the owners of Soldak Entertainment. What do you think they offer in terms of new game experiences?
Steven Peeler, Soldak’s president, is an absolutely brilliant game designer. I was honoured when Steven asked me to join the company full time as an owner. Soldak states its goal is focused on bringing new and unique gameplay to the entertainment industry. With real-time interactive worlds, our games provide a player with a new and different experience with every game. I got sick of testing Duke 3D because it was the same thing every play-through. But I never tired of testing Din’s Curse because every game is different. I know that gamers will always get their money’s worth when buying a Soldak game. Another great thing about Soldak is that they actually listen to their fans and take their comments/suggestions/criticisms to heart. That way we can make games for gamers.
Have any last words for our readers?
Buy Soldak’s latest title Drox Operative so I can eat something other than beans on toast!