When Minh Le and Jess Cliffe joined forces to conceive the ambitious Half Life mod “Counter-Strike” in early 1999, the pair had never met face-to-face.
When it was released later that year to a modest but dedicated audience, the pair had never met face-to-face.
When Valve bought the rights and released Counter-Strike as a standalone game the following year, the pair had still never met face-to-face.
It wasn’t until 2003, just months prior to the launch of Counter-Strike Version 1.6, and Valve’s flagship digital distribution service Steam, that Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess “Cliffe” Cliffe finally met in person. By then, Counter-Strike had redefined the landscape of first-person multiplayer videogames. It had captured a multitude of awards, not to mention the hearts of thousands of digital draftees along the way.
“When Valve first contacted us, Cliffe and I were like putty in their hands,” explains Le. “We were just so happy that they’d gotten in touch. And then they wanted to meet up!”
Born in 1977 and raised as a child of the '80s, Le’s introduction to videogames came courtesy of the Commodore 64. His formative years saw him graduate to the IBM XT 286, before working his way through most of - if not all of, he reckons - the personal computers that released commercially thereafter. He paid little attention to the burgeoning console hype train championed by Nintendo and Sega at the time, instead burying himself in Ultima and Wing Commander and, latterly, Doom.
By 1996, Le found himself torn between a computer science degree at Simon Fraser University, and a penchant for 3D modelling, often siding with the latter. Much of his student life was spent scouring resources online in order to expand his self-taught programing prowess whilst fueling his interest in the same. In ‘97 he released his first Quake engine mod named Navy Seals. In ‘98 he helped release another - The A-Team’s Action Quake 2.
It was around then that Cliffe stepped in. He worked as a community liaison for an Action Quake 2 website and saw potential in Le’s “bare bones” Counter-Strike premise. He reached out, offering to help coordinate the community to develop Counter-Strike maps, and from thereon releasing before the millennium became their target.
Hailing from Vancouver, Valve’s Seattle office was a relatively short journey from Le’s parents’ house and with Cliffe stationed on the other side of the States, Gabe Newell’s esteemed outfit first approached Gooseman on his lonesome in 2000.
“It was really quite informal,” recalls Le. “I remember the meeting - it was me and Robin Walker and we just chatted about my game development history and what I wanted to do with my career. At the time he wasn’t there to ask me if I wanted to work with Valve, he just wanted to touch base with me.
“Shortly after that they approached us over email and asked if we wanted to work with them on Counter-Strike and basically sell the rights to them. There was little hesitation on our part because, you know, we were happy that they’d noticed us at all.”
Whilst Le admits the numbers weren’t markedly impressive in Counter-Strike’s first outing pre-Valve, they were still laudable - enough to justify pushing on at the very least. At this point, the mod comprised just five guns, two characters, and two maps. Yet the numbers continued to multiply. By the time Valve reached out, Counter-Strike had more players than Team Fortress Classic. By then, they knew Le and Cliffe were onto something.
Cliffe would finish school, agreed Valve, and eventually join them in Seattle, whilst Le would work remotely from home. Shortly after the takeover Counter-Strike passed the point of no return. Its community had become a key player in its own right and it snowballed so fast that the game’s developers struggled to keep up.
By Version 1.3, says Le, opinions as to what worked and what didn’t were so staunch, so resolute, that even a whisper of revision heralded waves of protest from the ever-intransigent camp. It got to the point where even the thought of change had become almost trivial. By Version 1.6, the latest and final overhaul of significant degree, the team realised it was time to step back.
“It wasn’t until Counter-Strike 1.6 when everybody - myself, Valve, everyone involved in CS - sort of noticed that the community were beginning to become resistant,” says Le. “It became much more difficult to change the core gameplay. I think at that point we realised it’d become the perfect game and we shouldn’t mess with it too much. It was then we realised this was basically Counter-Strike from now on.”
With its developers now taking a back seat, Counter-Strike’s impassioned community had gained autonomy over its day-to-day management. Policing itself, however, was another matter entirely. Whilst the decision to shy from an in-game levelling system gave players of all experiences an equal playing field, it also left the game vulnerable to cheats. In the absence of recognised systems, newcomers and veterans alike, so determined to win, turned to whichever unscrupulous methods they could to get ahead - wallhacking, where the cheater can see other players through walls, a pertinent example.
As a result, Valve rolled out its Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC) initiative alongside Counter-Strike in 2002, in an attempt to quash bad behaviour online. To date, over 300 games support VAC via Steam, and, according to VACBanned.com, 2.4 million players have been permanently excluded for breaching its standards as of this year. Although arguably for the wrong reasons, this nonetheless highlights the fierce and fervent disposition of the Counter-Strike community as a whole.
Its maps, on the other hand, are a standing testament to what makes Counter-Strike’s community so admirable. Thousands upon thousands of community generated-maps, of varying standards it must be said, await those who fire up the game’s servers today, each with its own quirks, kinks and idiosyncrasies.
“My favourite?” ponders Le. “Hmm...” He pauses silently, as if lost in thought. I double check our Skype connection hasn’t failed. “I have a few, actually. It’s hard for me to narrow down one specifically. There was this one map that was based on a Goldeneye 64 level that was called cs_facility and that was definitely one of my favourites because I like maps that are tight and have a lot of CQC - a lot of people don’t, but I really like it. I like Siege a lot. Also, Militia was a favourite of mine and obviously Dust. I used to play the hell out of Dust.”
Dust and its older sibling Dust2 are above and beyond the most popular maps in the history of Counter-Strike. Designed by Dave Johnston, a teenager at the time of creation, the Middle Eastern bomb defusal map has featured in every variation of Counter-Strike to date.