Charting the 20-Year Journey of ‘Counter-Strike’

Adam Rorke

“What I do seem fascinated by is the fundamental game design of it hasn’t really changed in 20 years. It’s interesting how they’ve kind of kept that core mechanic the same.” – Minh ‘Gooseman’ Le, the co-creator of Counter-Strike.

In 1999, two university students got together to work on a first-person shooter (FPS) mod for Half-Life. This wasn’t their first walk in the park, having completed two successful mods: Navy Seals and Action Quake. But neither of them could have predicted the success and popularity that would come from this third title, simply named Counter-Strike (CS).

The uptake from the gaming community, from its very first beta release, was incredibly massive. Gamers fell in love with the more tactical combat approach to FPS multiplayer as well as its unique gameplay. This, in turn, catapulted the games popularity to unheard levels that, to this day, is rarely seen in the gaming world. It still attracts players, both casual and highly competitive, from all over the world.

On the eve of its 20-year anniversary, let’s take a look back at the rich history of CS, the highs and lows, the hits and misses, to find out what exactly makes this game so special to so many.

The Counter-Strike Era

1999 – 2004

There’s a first time for everything …

Counter-Strike was unique. It was the first to implement a lot of systems and dynamics we’ve since taken for granted in modern shooters. While it wasn’t the first to introduce a more realistic feel for competitive shooters, it was one of the first to implement rounds with no respawn timers and a payment system for which guns you’ll use.

Preloading your character with the most powerful gun wasn’t an option. You had to balance your economy and win rounds. You had to earn it.

Even then, there was a risk/reward component where your opponent could steal your gun if they managed to kill you. This was even more prevalent in the first beta, when “gun-running” was common — guns would stay on the ground from the previous round, and the first to grab them didn’t have to buy up.

CS was also the first game to introduce static recoil patterns into each of its guns. Unlike other shooters at the time (i.e. Quake, Half-Life, Rainbow 6), CS would have a pre-planned recoil pattern built into every gun, and the more competitive players out there would practice recoil control on walls so that every bullet would hit where they intended.

This was a big step away from the conventional system of bullets spraying randomly within in a cone. The original goal was to make the less powerful guns, like the SMGs, more attractive to players by giving them less kick. What’s even more incredible is that for such a staple element in the game, the recoil wasn’t even designed with a pattern in mind!

According to Gooseman, “I didn’t design the patterns in photoshop or anything. They were defined by numerical values that I would enter into the code, and the code would randomly generate that pattern.”

Many hands make light work

From its very beginning, the creators of CS had planned to do something that was not only new for them, but new for many other games that have come before and after it: they solely relied on the community to design and create the maps. A map’s success was based off its usage by the CS community, and this concept alone allowed the game to grow organically as time went on, and for the open source hive mind to come up with new concepts.

Successful spin-offs like Zombie Horde, Gun Game, and Surfing became so popular they warranted their own dedicated (pun intended) servers, taking the game in a direction that was never intended by its original vision, but popular nonetheless.

All these years later, we can see these ideas have had a strong influence on game franchises like Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War and many others. Staying true to itself though, less popular ideas such as the VIP game mode, were quickly and quietly forgotten, left in the past betas, never to be seen again.

CS GO surf map mode
The surfing mode was created purely by accident but remains popular.

Another major component of CS that was growing outside the control of its creators – and Valve – was the competitive scene. LANs such as DreamHack, which started out as a gathering of friends in a school basement in Malung, would play host for CS skirmishes. It hosted fun free-for-alls and highly organised tournaments, where nothing but honour and glory were on the line.

The talk amongst gamers changed from “are you good at first-person shooters?” to “are you good at Counter-Strike?” and it was this driving force that helped form the initial beginnings of what we’ve now come to associate with the term “esports.”

Organisations like the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), and World Cyber Games (WCG) were also starting out, with a modest prize pool of less than $1000. Momentum was clearly on their side though and as the years progressed, so did the popularity and prize money. Competitive CS was showing no signs of slowing down.

We tried … we failed …

Through CS’ 22 releases over just five years, there were many adjustments and features that were added, but after community feedback (or unforeseen bugs) were later dropped. The more veteran (read: older) gamers who grew up through these various betas and releases, will remember items such as Night-Vision Goggles and Riot Shields. Or even when the Colt was the most popular gun because it had a handy scope. These would suddenly disappear after a new released emerged.

Sometimes the APC would drive and the next minute it would sink into the ground. And then the Ts would come by and just shoot their heads.”

At one point the creators even tried to experiment with vehicles during Beta 6 and some of the mappers would create special maps to incorporate them. The most popular map, cs_siege, was one that included a driveable APC, but it was so buggy that if more than four people got in, the fifth person who touched it would immediately die.

Gooseman explains: “Sometimes the APC would drive and the next minute it would sink into the ground. And then the Ts would come by and just shoot their heads.”

There was even an attempt at a standalone release that included a singleplayer campaign called Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. When this news initially broke, fans were very excited across the world. Any new information, screenshots, or trailers that were released would immediately go viral.

As months went on, it became more obvious that the game was suffering from development hell and by the time it was released in 2004, people had already lost interest and the game flopped… hard.

The disappointment wouldn’t last long however, because Valve were about to release something much better…

The CS: Source Era

2004 – 2012

The split

After enduring a lot of delays and the infamous Source Code Leak controversy, Half-Life 2 was readying itself for release.

Boasting a gaggle of new and amazing features that the new Source Engine could provide, Valve were also ready to blow its fanbase’s minds with a new trailer, a direct sequel to CS, known as Counter-Strike: Source:

CS: Source would come bundled with Half Life 2 and in doing so would open itself up to a new generation of gamers. A new engine gave CS new life and whilst there were many fundamental changes and balances, the core gameplay remained intact. But not everyone was smitten — a rift had begun to form between the old and new players.

One of the major and glaring changes was the removal of the static recoil patterns, and in its place a random spray pattern. Instead of adjusting for a predictable pattern of upward skewing bullets, players could only aim at the feet and hope for the best — or as CS players call it, the “spray and pray.”

This gave more fuel to the salty rage fire when players would claim a shot was luck, rather than skill. Source players hailed the game’s many additions and improvements, while 1.6 players denounced it as “random.”

Counter-Strike Source Dust 2 B bomb site
Source included mild physics elements like shooting barrels over a planted bomb to frustrate the defuser.

The older fanbase claimed that elements like this were making the game too accessible, and were worried it would divide the community rather than growing it. After initially swapping to CS: Source, the rift was so big that the World Cyber Games even moved back to CS 1.6, up until the organisation’s demise in 2011.

In the end, gamers eventually jumped on board and the player numbers for CS: Source spoke for themselves, clearly outnumbering its predecessors in large amounts.

Bringing balance to the force

One of the things Gooseman and Cliffe both tried to adjust and fix during their development was weapon balance. Having 24 guns didn’t mean a thing if players used four. Over time, minor adjustments to damage and cost were tried, but in October 2006, they attempted something quite radical.

Called Dynamic Weapon Pricing (DWP), the developers attempted to balance weapon usage within the game, governed purely by players’ gun purchases. This was meant to work by making the popular guns more expensive and making the least popular guns more attractive by being cheaper.

On paper this was a solid idea and prices would dynamically change every week, with the end goal to finally bring some semblance of balance to the game’s weapons. That’s something the original game had always struggled with, and it always struck newcomers as odd that the starting pistols were better than those you could buy.

Reality hit hard and fast though… DWP completely broke the game. For example, a Desert Eagle would end up costing $5000, making it more expensive than an AWP. Some weapons became more expensive than the maximum amount of money players could have!

The other unintentional impact this caused was making guns that were easier to use (SMGs) more popular and the more difficult to master ones (Rifles) used significantly less. The backlash from the community was swift and merciless. They criticised this new feature, forcing the developers to remove DWP a few months after its introduction.

CS Source Office hostage
An autosniper on Office. Brave indeed.

A league of their own

In the world of competitive esports, things were really shifting into full gear. Organisations that were there from the beginning were starting to attract big dollars for their CS tournaments. In 2006, one such organisation that really started to make some big statements was Intel Extreme Masters (IEM). Born out of the ESL (Electronic Sports League) company, IEM saw an opportunity to take the competitive CS scene international, outside its normal European circuits and specifically in the North American markets.

From its humble beginnings, these organisations were now attracting teams from all over the world with prize pools upwards $130,000. This in conjunction with other organisations like CPL, WCG, MLG, and even DreamHack, were now turning what was once thought of as a hobby or pastime, into proper Leagues. Leagues that were now attracting big sponsors that would form teams with the best players from around the world.

All good things must come to an end though, and after eight years, CS: Source was starting to dwindle with a new generation of gamers looking elsewhere for their FPS itch. Even though CS paved the way, titles like Call of Duty were beginning to take centre stage.

Valve wasn’t done though. Coming towards the end of 2012, a new engine and a new sequel was about to hit our digital shelves.

The CS:GO Era

2012 – Current

A new game for a new generation

After two years of development, Valve released CS: Global Offensive (CS:GO) in August of 2012. A new engine, a new game, for a new era, CS:GO was the sequel no one was really asking for, but the one we definitely deserved.

Valve clearly wasn’t looking to rock the boat — the graphics and core gameplay looked surprisingly similar and fans of the series felt right at home from the moment it was released. This was achieved by making many small and subtle changes that would overall make the game feel more modern and achieve a semblance of weapon balance.

CS:GO was developed with competitive gaming in mind. Much to the joy of the CS community, the static recoil patterns triumphantly made their return. Spray accuracy could be achieved once again through practice and perseverance. Weapons and maps would be routinely refined to add balance, and they continue to see alterations to this very day.

Not ignoring the just-for-fun players, the popular “gun game” mode was now a permanent feature of CS:GO, titled Arms Race. Starting as a mod in previous versions, players are given weaker guns as they kill more — eventually finishing with the knife, when a kill will win you the game.

Where do we go from here?

From its humble inception, Counter-Strike has had a dream run over the last 20 years and still remains relevant today. New content is consistently added, with a battle royale mode “Danger Zone” being one of the more recent additions. No one can deny the influence it had on the FPS genre, from static recoil shooting, to round-based combat, to objective-based goals… CS started it all and set the bar high.

Even now, CS consistently shows strong player numbers of around 500,000 – 600,000. The competitive esports scene is showing no signs of slowing down with IEM Sydney recently passing us by and DreamHack gearing up for its 2019 event — both with a $100,000 prize for the first placers. As anybody could tell you, it’s impossible to predict the future and foresee where CS will go from there. Whether it continues with new updates, modes, or even if a direct sequel is on the cards, it’s anyone’s guess what chatter is going on behind the closed doors at Valve.

CS has proven itself to be something incredibly special over the last 20 years. Gameplay was born out of accidents and additions that the creators clearly had completely different intentions for. Though that in itself was by design, and its core ideas like recoil and weapon buying were intentional.

Even Cliffy and Gooseman originally framed the game to be a 20-versus-20 skirmish, and felt that’s where the game’s strengths truly were. Instead we’ve found that teams of five with the first to win 16 rounds is the accepted competitive format.

The developers were clearly planting the seeds, but it’s the community that grew the game organically from the ground up, and this is the reason CS has surpassed itself as more than just a game. As we watch that 20-year anniversary pass by, one can only hope that we continue to see it for many more years to come.

Adam Rorke
Freelance Writer, lover of all things esports and proud member of the Australian FGC. Games critic of the days when you could remember every sound your modem made when it made its connection to the internet.