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Interview:  Counter-Strike  Co-Creator Minh's  Tactical Intervention
Interview: Counter-Strike Co-Creator Minh's Tactical Intervention Exclusive
May 26, 2010 | By Kris Graft

Like most big successes, Counter-Strike turned out to be a much bigger phenomenon than Minh "Gooseman" Le could have ever expected.

While in college, Le co-created the humble Half-Life mod Counter-Strike with Jess Cliffe and released the title under Sierra Entertainment in 1999. The initial release spawned a series that has sold millions of units for Valve Software (officially around 10 million at the end of 2008), which bought the series in 2000. It’s still easy to find active Counter-Strike servers.

But for Le, who worked for Valve for a period of time, Counter-Strike is the past. For the past six years, he has been working on Tactical Intervention, a new team-based FPS from Le and FIX Korea. It's based on Valve’s Source engine and is expected for a 2010 launch.

With Tactical Intervention’s closed beta due in the coming weeks, we spoke with Le about his work with Valve on Counter-Strike, the shelved sequel, why TI has taken so long to create and what’s wrong with team-based shooters today.

You've been working on Tactical Intervention for the past six years. Tell me about how you moved from Valve and the development of the Counter-Strike series onto the development of Tactical Intervention.

Minh Le: I started working at Valve immediately after CS beta 5. I worked mostly on CS-related projects and I was doing a lot of preparation work for CS2. A lot of my time was spent just learning the new Source Engine. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to come up with a clear game design on what I wanted CS2 to be, so the senior executives at Valve and myself came to the conclusion that I was better off working on my own without the burden of having to develop a product that would surpass CS.

I really enjoyed working at Valve, as they gave me a great deal of creative freedom and they really had faith in me to develop something worthwhile, so I'm disappointed I couldn't do that while I was there. I felt more relaxed when I left because I was able to just start from scratch and not have to deal with pleasing the fervent CS crowd. When I started Tactical Intervention, I initially planned on it being a small indie project that would take me less than three years to complete. I guess I really overshot that estimate.

How large was the team that worked on Tactical Intervention? Was it a full-time job, and why did it take six years?

It was always a full-time job for me throughout the six-plus years. It started out as just me for the first year but I soon added a few artists that helped me create some of the art assets. Embarrassingly enough, the first four years was mostly spent doing all the art assets. Things like 3D models, animations, textures and levels were extremely time-consuming for our small team.

In retrospect, I think my biggest mistake was not looking hard enough for extra developers to help out on the project. I think a lot of that had to do with my poor planning and not realizing it was going to take four years to produce the content. I had my head buried so deep in the content development that I lost track of the big picture. Another reason was because I'm a bit of a control freak and I enjoyed all aspects of content development.

After four years in North America, I ran out of money and a friend of mine encouraged me to come to Korea as he told me there would be many opportunities to market my game there and fund development. I spent the next two-plus years working in Korea with some really experienced programmers and some local Korean artists. The language barrier was terrible to overcome and it's still quite challenging but we make do. Lots of screaming and chair-throwing really smooths the process out.

What exactly happened with Counter-Strike 2? Did you leave to develop Tactical Intervention after plans for CS2 ended?

I can't really say for sure why CS2 never really came about. I think a big part of it had to do with my inability to come up with a strong game design. I was more of an artist and I spent most of my time developing content that was going to be used for CS2, but as the project never came to fruition, those art assets never got used. And yes, I did leave Valve because I wanted to develop Tactical Intervention.

It's been about 11 years since the original Counter-Strike launched. How do you feel your tastes have changed as a gamer? Do you feel like you're essentially the same designer and gamer as you were back then?

Yeah, it's funny. I think I haven't really changed that much. During one of our tests for TI, someone mentioned, "This feels just like CS" -- I wanted to punch that guy in the face. This was a really early test though, it happened like four years ago.

The game has really evolved since then. There are a lot of elements in it that many CS players will recognize -- thankfully, left-handed guns are not one of them -- but I think there are a lot of new features in TI that will really challenge our players (all 20 of them).

There are also a lot of things in TI that I always wanted to do in CS but never really executed them properly. The biggest addition to TI that I had wanted in CS was vehicles. Part of the challenge with adding vehicles to a game that doesn't have respawning is designing a scenario that would be fun for the entire team without being too drawn out.

From a technical standpoint, it was a really difficult feature to add to the Source Engine as vehicles were never properly implemented in a multiplayer environment on the Source Engine but I'm really happy with the way our vehicles in TI turned out. Mad props to our programmers involved in that.

What are the problems that you see in Counter-Strike today that you want to remedy with Tactical Intervention?

I think one of my biggest gripes with playing FPS today is that unless I play with friends, I have a hard time working together as a team on games like CS, Modern Warfare or Team Fortress 2. I usually just end up playing "team" deathmatch, as it's just a free-for-all adrenaline rush.

I think a lot of that has to do with the lack of trust that occurs when you play with strangers. Strangers are less likely to stick with you and more inclined to play as a lone wolf. That's why you see a lot of maps that just funnel the players into the same zones so as to localize the firefights. With Tactical Intervention, we added features and incentives that will hopefully promote more team play amongst strangers.

With regards to CS, I lament on the fact that the levels in CS are really static and never change from round to round. The firefights become very predictable and I wanted to add a more dynamic environment to TI. I think with our hostages and interactive props, the players will be challenged in a way CS can never do.

Could you have imagined that Counter-Strike would still be going strong more than a decade after its original release?

No, it's a surprise. I think it just came out at the right time, and the community grew to such a proportion that it became hard for old school players to switch over to another game because they have so many ties to the community. I imagine it might be difficult for old school CS players to switch over to TI because of the radical changes in gameplay but I'm hopeful they are willing to take on a new challenge.

You called Tactical Intervention an MMOFPS in a recent press release. What is your own definition of an MMOFPS?

The lobby design allows us to hold more than 500 players at a time so that in a sense is a MMO. But to be more specific it would just be an online FPS or plain FPS.

You've admitted that Tactical Intervention isn't the most cutting-edge game, graphically. With better-looking FPS games out there, do you worry that people will overlook or judge the new game based on looks alone?

Yeah, it will be challenging to attract players in today's crowded FPS market but I still think there's a niche market for FPS games like TI. To be honest though, most of the playtests that we've had, the testers didn't really notice the fact that our graphics weren't on par with games like Modern Warfare and the Battlefield series. They seemed to be really enjoying the gameplay mechanics that TI offers.

We're probably not going to attract a large following right off the bat, but I believe if we continue to develop the game and polish it over time, and work closely with the community to fine-tune the gameplay, we can achieve some semblance of success.

Do you often play those big-budget shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield? What's your opinion on those games? Also, what do you think is the best team-based FPS on the market today?

I played a lot of team deathmatch for Modern Warfare. I never really got too much into Battlefield because I found it required a bit too much patience. Or perhaps I wasn't playing it properly. These days, I have very little time to play games so when I do play games, it has to be a game that provides me a quick fix. That's why I enjoy 60-minute team deathmatch sessions of Modern Warfare.

With regards to the best team-based FPS, I actually really enjoyed playing [Tripwire Interactive’s] Red Orchestra. It's one of the few games where I actually worked with strangers in an effective manner. I think a lot of that had to do with the players who play Red Orchestra are on average much more mature than the players who play Modern Warfare or Battlefield 2, from my experience. I find being able to play with people that understand logic and reasoning is really conducive to team play.

Do you have any interest in making Tactical Intervention more appealing to newcomers than CS, or is Tactical Intervention focused squarely on hardcore, existing Counter-Strike players?

I think the new features in TI will appeal in the same way to any player, regardless of whether he or she has played CS. You're either gonna dig TI or not. Your CS background will have little effect on your ability or inability to enjoy TI.

Having said that though, I think TI is quite a bit more complex than CS as it offers players a lot more freedom to interact with the world as well as freedom of movement. I'm not sure how casual players will deal with that. We've done a lot to make it intuitive though, with regards to the UI. Hopefully players will give it a chance and experience the fun moments that TI has to offer.

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Nathan Addison
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That was kind of sad.

Counter-Strike is one of my favorite adolescent memories. The game always seemed to do well for what I considered a variant. I was really hoping to hear some good news from Mr. Le about his upcoming title but, correct me if I'm wrong, he doesn't even seem to believe in the game. The whole interview gives me the feeling that he's apologizing for something. I just get the impression that he's designing TI just to design. What other games has he come out within the last 8 years or so? Does anyone remember?

If we don't believe in our own product then who will? For what it's worth, I want to see TI go above and beyond it's expectations just as it's predecessor did. Godspeed and best wishes for you, Mr. Le.

Jose Enrique D'Arnaude
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I think you had the wrong impression, he is apologizing for such a long game development, not for the game itself. It's more an interview on a guy who knows where he failed as leader and he describes that failure, than an interview from TI game.

Alexander Bruce
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I didn't read it as though he didn't care for the design or was apologising for it. You can't always be like "yeah this game is the best" because sometimes, even if the game is really good, you're still seeing things that aren't working with it. I think he's being honest by not being like "this will definitely attract heaps of CS players".

Trying to beat CS is a big task, even if it was his own game. There are going to be expectations there.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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I think the main problem with team-play in CS is not that it's difficult to work together as a team, but that no one *cares* about their team winning the match. They only want the best personal score. Is this because they are selfish non-team players? Only partly. In CS there is virtually no sensory reward for your team winning a round or a match. At the end of the match, the scoreboard quietly displays both teams' score but the most noticeable thing on it is the order of the players and their scores. This alone leads to a focus on individuals over the team. Most matches I never even notice which team won because it was not made obvious enough!

A few changes to the interface would make a big difference: A simple message stating which team won with some kind of congratulatory sound effect. Larger text for team scores compared to individual scores. Perhaps a quick montage of kills made only by the winning team. This combines the "look at how good I am" aspect with the teamplay. These little tweaks could make a significant difference without even affecting the gameplay or structure in the slightest bit.

Wojciech Lekki
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I agree with Mr. Le. One of the biggest problems on the online multiplayer FPS games is that in most cases you are playing a solo game with humans instead of bots. This is especially true for the casual or even hardcore gamers that don't play clan matches. When you have a clan you play in your team and the situation is totaly different but many hardcore and all casual gamers don't play clan games. This leads to a fact that they are playing a solo game with humans.

If this can be resolved by good game design multiplayer FPS's will become a lot more apealing to casual, less hardcore gamers. This however will not be easy to acomplish. Making a bunch of complete stragers who just met on a random server to work together in achieving an objective is definitely a non-trivial game design task :)

Hermann Rauth
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That's probably one of the most honest interviews I've ever read. He could've masked his mistakes but instead he gave us a real perspective of what happened. That's invaluable for us as devs.

Bryson Whiteman
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Minh Le keeps it real. Great interview.

Mark Venturelli
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This is disappointing. Le just lucked out on Counter-Strike. The game only got interesting after 1.0, when he was not calling the shots anymore. All I hear from him now, unfortunately, is bad news.

Rashidbek Sadriddinov
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Prash Nelson-Smythe, I agree with your opinion about team-play in CS.

Developers should create instant upgrading leader-board. it could be nice if (hardcore) teams could register themselves somewhere online that could show their rank...

As you know problem of the modern FPS games (less fun) is that developers concentrated on the level design not on the gameplay. If players will have a lot of fun through the mechanics, gameplay of the TI, Minh Le shouldn't much worry about design aspect of the game.

Kevin Reese
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Spending 4+ years developing art assets for a Source engine game. I don't know. Just doesn't seem like a recipe for success in such a competitive, narrow market.

CS was a such a landmark game in so many ways... but the fps gaming landscape has changed much since then. In many ways because of the success of CS. I don't know if this game has what it takes to go up against the contemporary leaders of the tactical fps. Just from what I've read, it doesn't seem to have anything particular seizing or engaging beyond what CS has already done. Admittedly I have not read all that much about the game though.

I think for pretty much any game creator or artist, if they have one big super-mega-hit like CS or say a big first music album, film, or whatever, it is probably a better idea to go in a very different direction for your next project, otherwise it seems you are just often trying to recreate the success of your first effort, when that is often impossible, because of how quickly everything else around your project changed since..

Nathan Addison
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I see your point. Yes, his honesty is refreshing. In the end we all benefit from sharing our experiences; especially the ones that didn't go as well as we planned.

All in all, I'm going to try to get a hold of this game for at least old time's sake. Who knows? He started something amazing once. What's to say he could do it again?

Andrew Grapsas
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Just because the man designed a product doesn't mean he can run a team. It sounds like he could have benefited from someone supplying a framework and structure for him to work within. Four years on content? That's just outlandish. By the time you get it out, it's already out-dated.

The gameplay vids of TI are on YouTube. They really look sub-par.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Long time no siege! Whatever happened to release, release often? CS and patches... The biggest issue is the way out dated Source engine version TI will probably be using. I'm sure their team has added stuff, but still.

Helped with CS

Source engine (Well known, works with lower end PC's - Which is beyond important for a PC game)

CS, CoD, whatever, FPS'ers are still beyond popular

I'm sure it'll sell, but to catch up to CS is gonna take quite a long time. Look at the Steam Stats Page, it's huge.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Also, when you say freedom of movement, I hope 1.3ish movement returns! 1.4++ is complete poopie

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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hehe just some examples...




cl_backspeed "300"

cl_forwardspeed "300"

cl_sidespeed "300"

cl_upspeed "300"

cl_minspeed "300"

cl_maxspeed "300"

sv_backspeed "300" // "0.8" // "1.0"

sv_forwardspeed "300"

sv_sidespeed "300"

sv_upspeed "300"

sv_minspeed "300"

sv_maxspeed "300"

sv_stopspeed "0"

// sv_friction "4"

// sv_maxvelocity "400"

// sv_accelerate "5" // "10"

sv_airaccelerate "999" // "10"

// sv_gravity "600"

// g_gravity "600"