The making of: Counter-Strike

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. 

Johnston now works for London-based backend service developer Fireteam, having previously worked for its sister company Splash Damage on 2011’s Brink. He attributes the career opportunities he was afforded at a young age to the success of Dust. In essence, he’s not sure if he’d be doing what he’s doing today had it not been for Dust, and at 16 designing levels for a videogame was the stuff of fantasy. 

“I remember when I got the first cheque through, my mum was like, how much?” recalls Johnston. “She thought it’d be five pounds or something. She had to check the cheque to make sure it wasn’t fake or I wasn’t being conned. So it was when I got the cheque from Valve for Dust that my mum realised it was quite a big deal. It wasn’t a big cheque, but it was good enough for a 16-year old kid!”

After first designing a Counter-Strike map named Retirement Home, Johnstone was approached by Cliffe and Le and asked to design a new map for the mod’s upcoming fourth beta. Whilst excited and nervous in equal measure, Counter-Strike was still making a name for itself, thus, whilst he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, Johnston didn’t think too much about it.

He was obsessed with Team Fortress 2 at the time, therefore needn’t look far for his inspiration. By poring over official screenshots, he painstakingly crafted Dust by virtue of the CS Urban Texture set, and with the help of texture artist Chris Ashton. 

It wasn’t until the fourth beta released, though, that Johnston got the chance to trial his work. The first hint that Dust had the potential to be successful was subtle, but it’s one he remembers fondly.

“I think the first indication that people liked it was when [Cliffe and Gooseman] did a blog post on it, they put a post up a few days before the beta came out,” he says. “In the post there’s a screenshot of them testing a new map which wasn’t Dust. In the chat window, though, was someone saying: I want to play that Dust map again. At that point, I realised I’d done something right. That was really nice.”

A year later and Dust lined store shelves, packaged in its own box for the world to see and, most importantly, buy. Johnston’s classmates jeered in envy. The smart ones asked where they too could read game manuals, where they could learn to get paid for making video games, but Johnston, it seemed, was exceptional among his peers.

The rest is history, yet Johnstone can’t pinpoint why Dust went on to become the mainstay it is today. It was clean, simple, and easy to learn, he notes, and perhaps this is why players took to it in the way that they did. From the outside looking in: it got everything right at the perfect time. 

“Somehow it’s now this ridiculous huge thing,” he says. “[Back] then, though, I thought: Dust is just a map, it won’t be around forever. At that time, maps came and went with every other release and I thought it was a matter of time before a better map came along and Dust would be thrown to the scrapheap.” 

It wasn’t, obviously, but this sense of humility is shared by Le too in his overall view of Counter-Strike. When Call of Duty began gaining traction in 2005, Le was convinced it’d overtake CS - to the point where there’d be no Counter-Strike at all, only Call of Duty. 

The latter of course enjoys a massive following, but aside from its unwavering community, the rising tide of e-sports has extended the Counter-Strike lifeline tenfold.

“Surprisingly, when we were developing Counter-Strike I got a bit annoyed with the e-sports people,” admits Le. “They kept asking us to change the game, to add certain features, to make the game more balanced. I was like - come on! 

“I never really appreciated how big e-sports would become - I thought it’d be a niche thing. It wasn’t until we started working with Valve, around the original CS, that’s when Valve took a real serious look at e-sports and said: ok, we’re going to start adding some features that are going to make e-sports more friendly. They added a spectator mode, a lot of other features such as rankings - essentially various things that would make e-sports much more lucrative. I think that’s when it really blew up.” 

Lack of creative control is what prompted Le to leave Valve, after the CS 2 project he was working on folded. In 2013 he released Tactical Intervention, an FPS in the wake of Counter-Strike with a far smaller team. It received less than favourable reviews and only then was Le able to appreciate the importance of such strong community ties. He’d been spoiled by Counter-Strike’s exuberant fans, yet few could blame him for taking the leap of faith given his input the genre. He’s now works for Garry Newman’s Facepunch Studios developing Rust. 

Perhaps the most profound doff of the cap to Counter-Strike’s community is the fact that its creators didn’t meet face-to-face for the first four years of its existence. Their bond was formed figuratively online - the very place where millions would fight and friend one another over three decades.

Similar to Le, and to the hundreds of fans who’ve shared similar stories of their own with him, I sank near infinite hours into Counter-Strike in its early years in favour of studying for my SQA exams - the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs. 

Stuck to the pinboard which hung interminably above my father’s desk that housed the PC was a postcard with a quote from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy scrawled across it. It read: “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” 

To Counter-Strike this undoubtedly rings true. To the Counter-Strike battlefield, this is undoubtedly Gooseman and Cliffe. 

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