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Shooty-man: A candid catch-up with Counter-Strike co-creator Minh Le Exclusive
February 27, 2014 | By Mike Rose

Minh "Gooseman" Le is an important figure in the history of online shooters. Back in 1999, he, along with Jess Cliffe, created tactical team-based Half Life mod Counter Strike. Soon afterwards, Le, Cliffe and Counter-Strike were snapped up by Valve.

Fifteen years later, Counter Strike is still one of the most important online shooters in history, and the latest in the franchise, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, is more popular than ever, with hundreds of thousands of concurrent players every day on Steam.

Le himself split from the Counter Strike brand back in 2006 to pursue his own agenda, and released Tactical Intervention several months ago.

Gamasutra recently sat down to play some CS:GO with Le, and chat about his thoughts on Counter Strike and the industry in general. Here's Le in his own words.

On leaving Valve to work on Tactical Intervention

I was working with Valve for about five years, and I left at the end of 2006. I started a new game called Tactical Intervention. I guess a lot of people wonder why I left Valve -- everyone wants to work at Valve, right? I think at the time, they were at the stage where there wasn't a lot of push towards a new Counter Strike game. At the time they were working on Team Fortress 2, and I felt that I wanted to focus more on a game that was similar to CS.

So I left Valve for those reasons. I just felt like there wasn't really much direction in terms of doing a new CS project, that would take the existing CS formula and put a spin on it. I started Tactical Intervention using the Source engine as well.

Moving from Counter Strike development to TI

It wasn't terribly hard. I just took Counter Strike as a base, and I said "What are the things that I wanted to add that I didn't get a chance to add when I was working on CS?" There were some features, like dogs and vehicles, and having hostages dealt with more interactively.

I think with TI, I was actually trying to work a different style of level design initially, and I don't think it really worked out so well. I think most players like the CS style of level design. CS style ... very bilinear. It has various set paths, but it doesn't have more than two different routes to each bomb site in general. Some maps have three, but in general it tries not to be too much like a labyrinth, too confusing for the player.

Also it has to be very well connected. You can rejoin one of the other routes. There's also detours, that kind of thing. The CS design flows very well. CS flows so well, and that's the key point - people don't really care about the maps too much, they play the game just for the gameplay flow.

When I refer to flow, I refer to how the maps don't have any dead-ends. You can always get to one point of the map from another point without having to backtrack too much. The flow of the maps in CS always encourage the players to never backtrack. Basically, don't have any dead-ends. Simple rule.

If you look at the levels in TI, we try things quite differently than CS maps. They're a bit tighter and smaller, and they don't flow as much as a CS map. They're more simplistic.

Thoughts on Counter Strike: Global Offensive

CS:GO hasn't really changed too much in terms of the gameplay. I find myself not really doing anything different from what I did before. I think that's fine for most players. I imagine a lot of people who play CS:GO have not played the original, so for them, it's a new experience. I would imagine it's very unique for them.

For me, I've been playing FPSess for 12 years now, and I want it to try something different. I wanted to do something different with TI. What my objective was with TI was to explore some different game mechanics and modes. I think we succeeded with some of the elements of TI, but some of the other stuff we tried didn't really pan out so well at all.

CSGO.jpgCounter Strike: Global Offensive

Collecting guns in CS:GO has kinda become a meta game. I don't really care about it, but I think a lot of the people who play Counter Strike play it for the full meta game -- collecting of guns and all that. I think part of it is the whole collecting thing, kinda like Pokemon.

And it's really stat heavy now. I think that's cool though -- I think if we had this back in the day, I would have used this. When I was a hardcore CS player, I used to love seeing how I was doing over the course of weeks, and seeing how my accuracy was improving. This is something that a lot of players really enjoy.

CS:GO is still very fundamentally team-focused, and they don't add a lot of elements like kill streaks and explosives and air strikes. I find that kinda stuff really detracts from team-play. I think the Call of Duty stuff, the way they add all those, the kill streaks etc., it's more for players who aren't really good at killing people, and they wanted to add something that would be essentially a cheat. I didn't enjoy the perks in CoD. That kinda stuff took away from the skill-based gameplay. I think it caters towards people who aren't really good at shooting, who still want to play.

The modding scene in 2014

I think it's gotten a lot easier for modders to really get their product out there. But at the same time it's really made it a saturated space. It's really hard for people to get noticed, because there's so much out there. It's so hard for some of the good mods to get exposure.

I think the tools - especially Unity - are great. I've been working with Unity, and it's just a dream to work with. It's just so easy to make a game on that thing. It's definitely got to the point where making mods in general has become so accessible to the average gamer. I remember making mods on the Half Life 1 engine, and I remember how difficult it was to just get a mod going. It made it a very exclusive set skill. Now in this day and age, anyone can make a mod.

TI.jpgTactical Intervention

Financially people can now make a living off it. i think it's wonderful. I think if this was around in my day, I would have really been able to make a fair bit of money. I think it's really great for the industry. It really promotes growth in terms of creating new talent. Who knows, in the future I may want to hire a lot of the guys out there making these mods.

What happened with Tactical Intervention

I don't think FPSes are as exciting as they used to be. I tried to contribute to fixing this, but I don't think... Tactical Intervention has not succeeded in terms of addressing some of the problems. There's some stuff in TI that I really enjoy playing, but other stuff like the hostage mode, it didn't really pan out as well as I'd hoped.

I think I'm running out of ways in which I can come up with stuff that can really push the genre. I think FPS games have gotten to the point where there's not much more you can add to it. Battlefield has really pushed it, and there's not a whole lot more you can do to it.

How many users play the game? About five [laughs]. We're just not doing very well. I think our max player count is usually on Saturdays, and we get a peak of about 600 people. It's not enough for us. We're doing what we can to improve it, but it's really hard.

To be honest, I think the FPS genre is just so saturated, and CS:GO has really just made it difficult for FPS games to compete in this market. CS:GO has done a great job of making the experience so polished. It's got everything you'd really want from an FPS game. The whole presentation and everything is so... it's just really difficult for us to really draw a crowd away from these guys.

The perils of free-to-play

Truth be told, I think our game would have done better if it wasn't free-to-play. That's my opinion - I don't represent the opinions of the people that I work with. If I was in charge, I wouldn't have gone that route. Free-to-play works for certain games that really allow you to have a lot of items and a lot of cosmetic visual upgrades.

League of Legends does it really well. You can see your character, and there's real value to buying cosmetic items. Games like FPSes, you're really limited. It's hard to sell character skins and that kind of stuff. Whereas in LoL, it's real enticing.

Also the balancing issues - you can't really sell anything that will affect balance. With TI, we stayed away form that. I think that might have hurt our bottom line financially. But I guess the majority of people who play our game like the fact that it's not a pay-to-win game. But unfortunately it's not sustainable, financially. We're losing money. It's kinda obvious that we're not doing well financially.

CS.jpgThe original Counter Strike

Initially when I started TI eight years ago, I didn't plan on it being free-to-play. I wanted it to be a game that you bought outright. The initial game was centred around that - making it a standalone game.

When I decided to work with this company in Korea about 5 years ago, they were really insistent on going down the free-to-play route, because they thought that free-to-play was the emergent thing. They were saying free-to-play would be the future, and all games would be free-to-play.

I was kinda skeptical about that and even to this day, I don't think that's going to be the case. But they were really adamant about making TI a free-to-play game, so I didn't have much of a choice. I had to try and redesign the game to allow for it to exist in a free-to-play space.

In order to do that, we had to rewrite a lot of the game design. A lot of things had to be changed in order to accommodate free-to-play. We had to make sure that it wasn't going to be unbalanced, but at the same time, we had to come up with things we could sell, because if you can't monetize your game, there's no point putting it out there.

So there was a huge challenge in making a realistic shooter free-to-play friendly. There's only so many items you can introduce before the game becomes too unrealistic. You sort of see that with CS:GO, with the whole skins for guns etc. It's not realistic, and kind of takes away... there's no consistent art style, the guns are just sort of wacky and crazy. That's the route you have to go down to monetize your game - you have to be really creative.

That's why I feel free-to-play only works for games that are based in fantasy or sci-fi, or games that aren't tied down by the rules of reality. I think it was a huge mistake on our part. We just bit off more than we could chew. They didn't realize the full scope of making a free-to-play game. You had to make the game, and then constantly produce content - it's almost like making a sequel. It's never-ending unless your game goes out of service. Every month we have to come up with new items to sell. It's been a lot of work for us, and I don't think we've been able to tackle it as successfully as we would have liked.

Could Tactical Intervention be revived as a paid game?

That did come up during discussions. I'll be honest, the success of TI is just not there. The free-to-play model is just not working on the Steam platform. So there we thoughts about saying OK, let's sell this game for a set price, and maybe make DLC.

But I think the consensus was that it was unheard of -- I don't think there are many free-to-play games that have then sold for $15. And I think it makes it difficult for us to justify it in terms of the people who have already spent a lot of money on our game, for us to say it now costs $15.

It's a huge slap in the face to those people, who supported us. I didn't feel it was right for us to do that. The decision to go free-to-play was made, and that's just something we have to live with. If it means the failure of our game, so be it, but I don't think it was right for us to screw the people who paid a lot of money to support our game. I think the best thing for us to do is do the best we can to raise exposure for TI, and try to take it from here.

What's next for Gooseman

I'm still doing some TI, like new content. We have a really small team -- two programmers and two artists, as well as myself. Being a free-to-play game, you have to be constantly adding new content, and that's one of the things that we weren't really entirely prepared for. We knew what we had to do, but it's a lot of work. You're almost never stopping adding content. We can't leverage the community because, the way our game works, we have to do all of the models, all of the levels ourselves, whereas with CS:GO you can leverage the community.

Otherwise, I'm looking towards mobile games, because I think the level of polish in mobile games is not as large as PC games. It's a really saturated market for sure, so you've got to really come up with something that's different. I want to make a cheap mobile game that is quick to produce. I can't afford to make another game that requires two years of development.

Would Le go back to Valve and Counter Strike?

It's something that I've casually thought over in my head. I've never approached Valve about it, and I've never talked to them about it. They might be interested in it. But I don't really have much to add to the genre. With TI I tried a lot of things that I felt would improve the genre, and if I came back to work at Valve, I'd probably just say "Let's add the stuff I added to TI." [laughs]

It's hard for me to think about moving away from TI. There's a part of me that has entertained that thought. Who knows. Stranger things have happened. I'm sure I could give some benefit, [as] part of the Counter Strike franchise again.

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