Interview with Minh Le
May 30, 2001 Page 1 of 2
Tell me a little about your background: how did you get started in the game industry?
About five years ago I was in first year university and Quake came out. I think the SDK was released around that time, and I picked it up. At the time I was really into games; I've been into games since I was a kid, so it was natural that I picked up the SDK and started to play around with it. It took me about a year to make my first mod for Quake, which was a really cheesy mod called Navy Seals—it was a single player mod. It was nothing special. It was great because that was when I got really interested in making games and I knew that I wanted to do this for a living. Actually, at the time I didn't think that I could make a living doing that because it just seemed like a hobby. I really planned on just becoming a programmer, and just working for some big company, you know, living a normal life. I guess that changed.
Were you still in school when you worked on Counter-Strike?
Yeah. When I started I was in my last semester, and I was doing it in addition to school. I spent about 20 hours a week on Counter-Strike. I was taking a light course load, so it worked itself out. I actually spent more time working on Counter-Strike than school.
Why do a mod on Half-Life as opposed to any of the other games?
I think at the time there really wasn't much out there. There was Quake 2, Unreal Tournament wasn't out there at the time, Half-Life, and I think Sin was out. So, there was really only one choice for me because I'd already worked on Quake 2. I'd tapped all the good resources [from Quake]. I just got sick of it, so I just wanted to move on to a new engine, and I think Half-Life was the logical choice for me.
Counter-Strike is a team-oriented Half-Life mod.
Have you tried any of the other mods that are out there for Half-Life?
Actually, I really don't have any to time to even check them out. The amount of time I have left is sparse. I barely have time to eat, really. I see a lot of them out there that look really cool. There's quite a few out there right now.
Do you think that making mods endangers the profitability of retail games?
It's hard to say. I suppose with CS it's a bit of an exception I guess because it's become bigger than what everyone expected it to be. As far as it affecting other games, arguably it could have done something bad, but hopefully there won't be many CSs out there. But I wouldn't worry about mods taking over the whole industry—I don't think it's going to happen. I don't think that it will change the way that people make games. Professional game development companies are still going to make them the same way. If anything, they might make them more open to mods this time. That's the way to go, to keep the longevity of your game going, you really have got to make it editable. Other than that I really don't see much changing.
Were there ever any ownership problems with the project? Who has ownership of the mod?
When we did sell the rights to Valve, it was pretty clear who had the rights to CS. Up until then, we knew who was in control: it was just me and Cliffe. When we sold it to Valve, we didn't have much of a choice because I was just graduating and I really needed to turn this into something more than just a hobby, I needed to actually make a living off it. It was a good decision, I think, on my part.
How important is it to play competitor's products while you're designing a game?
I don't do that, so I can't really say. Personally, I think it's important. I mean, it helps because you get to see what's out there. You get to see the competition, you see what features they have, and how they're doing certain things. For me, I don't do that because psychologically, I don't know why, I don't like seeing the competitors. You know, it's like if you're in a race, you don't like watching the other people race, you just race. You just concentrate on what you do best, and try to make the best game you can, and don't worry about what the others are doing because sometimes it will throw you off your groove. If you see someone else doing something, you're like, "Oh my God! This is awesome! I've got to redo this. I've got to redo my game. I've got to change my game so it beats it." If you keep doing that, you're never going to get your game out. That was the whole thing with the Beta. That's why I released Beta's so often. I needed to play it a lot, and get feedback because I wasn't playing anyone else's games.
Speaking of feedback, how did you even get people to know that the mod was available?
It just grew by itself. With Beta One, there was a really small community. It just blew up after about Beta Six or Five. I think that the most important thing is if you keep releasing new versions, it keeps the interest going. People tell their friends, and that sort of thing, and it just grows and grows. If you just release one version and you expect people to like that one version, it's hard to get a community that way.
What was the most difficult part of designing Counter-Strike?
There was really no difficult part, just time-consuming parts that I would rather not do again. For instance, doing the models was super time-consuming, tedious work. Actually, if there was a difficult part, it would have to be the initial Beta One coding because it was my first time working with the Half-Life code. Usually, your first time, you just make a lot of mistakes. We had a lot of bugs. We had a lot of crashing bugs and stuff like that, so it was frustrating trying to find out why it was crashing. That was definitely the most difficult part.
How long did it take you to do the whole programming process?
For Beta One, it was about a month and a half, I think. It wasn't too long for the coding part. The most time-consuming part was definitely the models: I spent about six or seven months on that.
How long was it before CS was really playable?
When I first got the SDK, I think I got Beta One out in about two months. But before the SDK for Half-Life came out, I was already working on the models. If you remember correctly, the SDK came out about six months after Half-Life was released. When Half-Life was released I said, "Okay, yeah. This is a great engine. I'm going to make a mod for this." That's when I started making the models. So, I started way before the SDK was released. Once the SDK got out, I just did the code - that pretty much took about a month.
Counter-Strike provides the player with an experience that a trained counter-terrorist unit or terrorist unit experiences.
How much of this project did you do by yourself?
I didn't do any of the maps - that was strictly done by professionals. I've never actually done a map in my life. I got help with the sounds - some sound effects I got from other people. The models and the coding I did myself.
How did you find the people to do your maps for you?
Cliffe, my partner, was really the guy that did all that. He recruited these mappers. Actually, at the time, I think we had a playable version of Beta One, so he just showed it to them. He's the guy that attracted all the mappers to Counter-Strike. For our initial Beta One, we didn't really have many, we just had maybe three maps, or four. (laughs) They were pretty basic.
Did you do interviews with these mappers before bringing them in to the project?
No, not at all. We just asked people to make maps for us, and if it was playable, if it wasn't complete crap, we would accept it. At the time, we had some pretty low standards.
How do you protect yourself? Let's say a map designer comes up to you and says, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have your damn game. I want some of that cash too."
We haven't really prepared for that I guess, but if it does happen, I think we'll decide what to do then. It's not something we think about. But no one's done that, so I think that's a good sign.
Because nobody is getting paid when you're making a mod, how do you deal with the different levels of commitment to the project?
That's pretty much why I try to do as much as I can with the mod. I do as much as I can so I can have a playable game. I mean without the maps, of course there's nothing to play on. That's the part where we just rely on the public. They haven't let us down. There are people out there that really like the game, and they're just going to make the maps. We don't really tell mappers, "Okay, we need this map done by X amount of time." They know that there's a deadline for every Beta. We just say, "We're going to be accepting maps up until then. We're just going to look over them up to that point." They just try to get the maps in on time and that's pretty much it.
I haven't really had to tell people, "Yeah, you've got to get this done in X amount of time." And stuff like that. I really don't like doing that kind of thing. I don't like relying on other people to do something in a certain amount of time because it sounds kind of bossy. I just try to do as much as I can.
Now that you're working with Valve, and you're not allowed to do everything anymore, how do you find the "I try to do most of it myself" mentality works?
Actually, Valve has been really great with me. They haven't really changed the way I work. I pretty much do the same things that I did two years ago: I do the modeling and the coding. They haven't said anything about it. I think they're really fine with it. It's great.
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