‘Counter-Strike’ Creator Reflects on 20 Years of FPS Dominance

Jeremy Ray
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

It’s been over 20 years since Counter-Strike exploded onto the FPS scene as a Half-Life mod. Along with Starcraft, the two games practically created and sustained esports into the juggernaut it is today. It innovated features we now take for granted, like static recoil patterns for bullets. And after 20 years, its core gameplay remains much the same as it was at the beginning.

Thanks to its innovations, the community’s vital contributions, and Valve’s continued support, Counter-Strike is the game that will never die.

All our lives were changed that year, but none moreso than creator Minh “Gooseman” Le, who was catapulted into a spotlight he doesn’t embrace — he just digs making games. And he’s been doing just that; after helping Valve make Counter-Strike: Source, he made Tactical Intervention, handled the weapons in Rust, and is now working on a super secret project with Pearl Abyss, the makers of Black Desert Online.

We had the chance to sit down with Le and reflect on the enduring legacy of Counter-Strike, as well as his most recent projects, and navigating life as the creator of the world’s most popular game for many years.

Fandom: Counter-Strike wasn’t your first mod, is that correct? You had worked on a couple before that.

Minh Le: Previously I had experience working on a couple of mods, on the Quake engine. That was called Navy Seals. And the 2nd one was on the Quake 2 engine which was called Action Quake. They were fairly successful but I wouldn’t say anywhere close to what we reached with Counter-Strike. They were not super realistic but they involved guns. They were military shooters.

When the time came to make Counter-Strike, you were doing uni full time as well… How did you juggle both?

I didn’t think about it too much because I was having such a good time doing it, I was really motivated to continue working on it. So I didn’t feel much burnout because the success of the first beta, it grew so fast that it really motivated me to work faster and spend a few more hours on it. It was a good time.

We did something very interesting with CS in that we outsourced our map development to our community. Whereas at the time, a lot of other mod developers had an internal team. So by leveraging the power of our community, we were able to make maps much quicker and at the same time, have much higher quality. And I think that’s one of the reasons Counter-Strike grew so quickly.

So in essence, CS was really a community project.

When the time came to work with Valve, we suppose it was up to you to communicate that to them as well…

Actually they were very good about that, they realised a big part of the success was the fact that it was community-driven. And even though when I joined Valve it became more professional, Valve were still very keen on keeping that community-driven aspect.

So they had a very close relationship with the community as well. In essence it’s still kind of remained somewhat indie, even though it’s part of Valve, which is a triple-A company.

How do you navigate modern life as the creator of Counter-Strike? Do you define yourself as that?

So I’ve kind of jumped around between indie, and larger studios, I guess working in those different environments, I’ve taken a lot of lessons that I’ve learned from working in so many different companies. And I’m able to take it and apply it to my new role at Pearl Abyss.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons on what not to do, when making FPS games. And a lot of those experiences I’m able to bring to this new project, and help efficiently optimise the workflow in how we develop this new FPS. And also kind of advise them in some of the mistakes that I’ve learned from working on some of my other projects.

Counter-Strike was hugely successful, and at the same time some of my other projects not so much, but Rust was also a great success story. Which was also a game that was kind of out of my wheelhouse, because it wasn’t a typical military shooter. It was this open-world survival game.

So I think I learned a lot from working with the Rust team, and seeing how they developed that game design opened my eyes to a different side of FPS.

How was working on Rust? What were you doing on the project?

I was mainly hired to work on their weapon animations. And just the feel of the guns. I didn’t do much in terms of the character stuff. I would say 90% of my work was the feel of the guns, to feel satisfying, and impactful. And also some of the special effects side of things. It was really cool, I could dip my hand in a lot of buckets.

We feel like people forget how experimental Counter-Strike was for its time.

Yeah for sure. We made a lot of decisions that were… when we released a lot of the earlier versions, some of the features we included were pretty poor choices, and we were able to get that feedback from the player almost immediately, and go okay, we’re going down the wrong path. And it allowed us to kind of steer into a better course of action.

At the time it was, compared to the way other games were made, triple-A games, it was much more dynamic.

Speaking of “dynamic,” there was that whole Dynamic Weapons Pricing thing.

Yeah, the one that failed. That was a really interesting feature that came about when we worked at Valve. We wanted to mimic the way market prices were driven by supply and demand. Which at the time I thought it was a really interesting idea, and I thought it would work out.

But in the end, players didn’t really take to it too much. Because in the end, everybody just wanted to buy the AK-47. They didn’t really want to pay top dollar for it. But I thought it was a really interesting experiment, and it’s unfortunate it didn’t really pan out.

You know the weird thing is, if the game was originally designed that way, from the outset, people wouldn’t complain. They wouldn’t realise, oh wait we could’ve had it this other way. So in some sense we were a victim of our own success.

It just became so ingrained, people became so used to the current system that when we do something so radical like that they go woah! They had to relearn the whole meta. So a lot of players at that time weren’t really keen on relearning the meta of the game.

Is there anything you’d change about modern Counter-Strike?

So when I created CS, I originally had it like 12 on 12. I think we had 24 players. And I kind of enjoyed that larger aspect, having more players for me felt like it was chaotic, it was unpredictable. It was more fascinating, because you see more scenarios pan out in a more unpredictable fashion.

Whereas with 5 on 5 it can be much more predictable and for me as a casual player, it gets a bit more stale. But I think it’s more geared towards esports because esports demands balance and something more predictable, like a Chess match. But yeah, I actually kind of favour games that are more chaotic like Battlefield.

It’s interesting to hear you describe yourself as a casual player when you designed the biggest esport…

Yeah it is weird! I’ll be honest with you, in CS when people were bugging us to change some features, it was kind of a hindrance, because I don’t wanna cater to this scene. *laughs*

Nah, you know what, it was a challenge. Because you really had to balance the game. And that’s definitely a big task to do. A lot of games don’t get it right. So we spent a lot of time on that aspect of it.

We spent a lot of time on the level design. Our level designers, they kept revising the levels so many times. And that’s why making levels for CS is much more difficult than making levels for something like PUBG. Because PUBG is not a balanced game, it’s more of a random game. So I think the level designers spent a lot more time just going through revisions.

What do you think the magic is in a good level in CS?

Oh I think it has to have a good flow, each team should definitely be meeting in the middle. That’s kind of an obvious one. And also it should have lanes to support dynamic gameplay, so definitely shouldn’t have more than three or four lanes.

I remember that was one of the rules we had when we talked to our level designers, we told them don’t put more than three divergent paths, because players don’t like that. It causes too much confusion, and the teams get separated too much. So that’s why you’ll notice a lot of the good maps in CS are really kind of only two or three lanes.

Over the years, the AWP must’ve been one of the more controversial weapons in gaming.

I kind of regret introducing that gun. *laughs* I regret it because it made it very difficult to balance the other guns, like nobody was buying the other guns. So when we introduced the AWP I didn’t realise it would be so predominant that people wouldn’t even buy the lower end guns.

So people now, they really only buy the AK, the M4, the AWP… Maybe 10 years ago when I was playing it only really came down to three or four guns. So I felt it was kind of a waste to have 20 guns if only four were being used. So I kind of regret not balancing that a bit better. Which is why we introduced the DWP thing, but that didn’t work out.

Was the static recoil pattern a completely new idea for shooters?

Yeah it was, because at that time, Quake didn’t have any kick or recoil. What they did was they just had a random cone. So your crosshair would not move up, but it would just kind of randomly spray the bullets around your crosshair.

So CS was probably the first game to introduce a kick. I just thought it was cool because it forced the player to be more mindful of the way they were shooting. And it added an actual layer of skill, so that was actually my reasoning.

And also I felt that by having that kick, I could diversify the guns more. So I could give that SMG less kick, and the AK more kick. And my train of thought was by doing that I could encourage people who didn’t like kick to just use the SMG.

That was the reason I introduced pricing. Because I didn’t want people just picking the AK-47 all the time. So by making the higher guns more pricey I tried to make the weaker guns more used. But I don’t think I priced the AK high enough.

How did you go about designing those recoil patterns? Would you draw them out in an imaging tool?

No, it was just sort of a feel. Like I knew the SMGs wouldn’t have as high a recoil, so the patterns would be tighter. So the general rule of thumb was to give the SMGs a tighter pattern and the other guns a more wild pattern.

So as far as the pattern that came about, it was actually very random. Because 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, based on these values that I punched in.

There’s a lot happening in the FPS space these days. Is there anything you’re excited about?

Even with these new games, the way I see it, it’s a diversification of the FPS genre becoming more granular. Players are able to find a game that perfectly matches their taste and style.

Because when I look at CS:GO and when I look at a game that’s really similar like Rainbow Six Siege, they each can exist on their own, because they each have subtle differences. In-game mechanics.

So what I’m seeing is the FPS industry as a whole becoming more granular and more focused on niche. So I suppose in 10 years’ time we’ll have much more individualised games that cater to a particular playerbase.

The con is the playerbase isn’t as large. You get this dilution of your playerbase where they just fit into their own following. Only the new trends are the ones that get the most players. Like at the moment it’s battle royale stuff. So it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Even with the battle royale (BR) numbers, there’s still a very healthy playerbase for CS. I look at the player numbers, over the past year, when the BR stuff was introduced, and the numbers don’t drop at the same rate the PUBG stuff goes up, so it’s my understanding that a lot of players playing these BR games, not all of them are coming from CS or other games. I think a lot of them are coming from non FPS stuff as well, so I think the BR stuff is attracting non-FPS players.

And I think part of that is BR is an interesting concept that people who don’t have traditional FPS skills can play. I have a friend who’s like 60 and every time he plays he gets like one kill at most. But he tells me “oh, I placed 2nd in PUBG.” But he only ended up killing one guy. So to me that just shows, that type of game you can cater to non-traditional FPS players.

Sort of like Overwatch, with the cone aiming…

Yeah, Overwatch has different classes where non-traditional FPS players can support their team by going something like a medic class. So that’s interesting the FPS genre is becoming more casual and appealing to a larger audience.

I remember playing CS and it was dominant, and it was easy to find a server full of players. And it was a nice time. But I still think in this day and age, even though the playerbase is not as big as 10 years ago, the experience is still the same, because every day it’s a new guy, so it doesn’t matter if there’s a million players total, as long as it’s above a certain threshold. As long as it’s above 30k users, it’s a healthy playerbase.

It’s a rare amount of games that grow very organically like that.

For sure. The way that they grow in this day and age, it’s much more like a boom or bust. The growth is so fast. You don’t see those shallow growth types of game where the playerbase starts off small. Because those types of games are more expensive to develop, because the developer has to support this game. Even when the playerbase is so small. And that’s a really daunting endeavour to do that.

But I will say that Rust, when I developed Rust, that was a really good experience because I got to see how being a persistent developer and consistently supporting your game, you can see your playerbase grow. And that’s what I saw with Rust. It started off pretty modest, but now it’s right up there in the top 20 on Steam.

So I think players can appreciate that. If the developer spends the time and dedication… Same with Rainbow Six Siege. It started off very bad. And now it’s top ten on Steam. So not many game developers can afford that long tail. It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of patience.

What’s the best map in Counter-Strike?

From a personal standpoint, I would say cs_siege. That one really resonated. Maybe a close tie with Facility. Which is based on a Goldeneye map. Because they have these chokepoints where 20 people would be in this huge hallway. The firefights there were just insane. Having these small chokepoints. I don’t know why, I just enjoyed that aspect of it. Having very busy firefights.

Is there any story/lore behind the T factions?

We didn’t want to use real terrorists, obviously. At the time I was really young and scared they might come after me. *laughs* So I wouldn’t use any real terrorists.

I just used my imagination, I just looked at pictures on the internet and picked guys that looked bad. I remember one time, I made this terrorist guy, and when I put an image of him on our website, people said oh that guy looks like Luke Skywalker. And I was like what, it does? If you google Luke Skywalker terrorist, you’ll see this image I created.

But we never ended up releasing him, because I was so ashamed. Everybody was just like sh–ing on it. But he eventually became the Phoenix Faction.

What was it like working on Tactical Intervention?

We had a really small team, I think it was only about four guys. My favourite part was the bond that I formed with the small crew. Also I think I enjoyed being able to experiment with new game ideas. Like for example the driving mission mode, and stuff like that. It was creative, allowed me to exercise my creative energy.

But in the end it failed because we developed in a closed environment. And when you develop a multiplayer game like that, and you’re not testing with thousands of people, at an early stage, you end up not realising what’s fun or what’s not fun.

In that time we got so good at the game, it was fun for us, but new players were like “what the f–k?” We got a lot of complaints because people would play the driving mode and people would be like what is going on? And we lost sense of that, we didn’t realise it was confusing for new players.

So that was our biggest failure, was just not having that sense for what works for people in the real world as opposed to what works in a bubble.

Even though a lot of people found it confusing, I would say the driving was one of the more successful aspects that I came up with and I think if I spent more time fleshing it out, making it more intuitive, I think that mode would’ve been more popular, for sure. People tell me that mode was the most fun. We did a lot of things right with that mode. But the biggest problem was the learning curve was too difficult.

How big is the team on the new project at Pearl Abyss?

Oh it’s much bigger. Bigger than four people *laughs* It’s definitely a much larger team. The researchers I have at Pearl Abyss are far greater than I’ve ever had at my previous companies like Rust or even at Valve. Working on CS we had a team of like 20 or 30 guys. And they were really talented but 20 or 30 was not something that you need for a triple-A, a really beautiful game.

So I’m really excited to be working at Pearl Abyss because I’m surrounded by a huge amount of talent. Just some of the best artists that I’ve worked with in my career. I think people are going to be really impressed by what comes out.

Do you remember this odd trend of players naming themselves Blaster?

Oh God, yeah. Oh you know what happened, was the default name… So whenever the player would join in CS, the default name was Blaster. And the default name was Cliffy’s idea to put in there.

It was the sign of a new player. Like someone who didn’t know how to change their names. So whenever you saw a Blaster you were like, that guy’s an idiot! So I remember one version of CS, I remember I was so frustrated, people didn’t know how to change their names. So I just changed the default name to “You’re an idiot” or “I’m an idiot.”

So there was a bunch of people on the scoreboard called “I’m an idiot.” Man, how hard is it to change your name in this game. I was just having fun, it sounds mean but I was just frustrated, like geez guys just change your name. And that’s where Blaster comes from, it was the default name.

So whenever you joined a team and it was full of Blasters, you knew you weren’t going to win. *laughs*

Jeremy Ray
Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.