Counter-Strike At 20: Two Hackers Upend The Gaming Industry

Choices matter. You’ve only got one shot to fulfill the objective. A single coordinated effort is required to defuse the bomb, release the hostages, or outlast the opposition. Fail, and there’s no telling when you’ll get your next shot. This is the world that Counter-Strike presented to PC players in 1999, and the paradigm shift it presented was greater than it’s deceptively simple namesake would suggest.

The reckless push forward mantra of Unreal Tournament coupled with the unrelenting speed of Quake dominated the PC FPS mind-share back then. Deathmatch with a side of CTF (capture the flag) was all anyone really played. With blazing fast respawns and rocket launchers featured as standard kit, there was little thought put towards conservative play tactics. The same sumo clash of combatants over the ever-so inconveniently placed power weapon played out time and again; while frag counts came in mega/ultra/monster-sized stacks. It was all easy come, easy go.

Counter-Strike didn’t follow the quick frag, wipe, repeat model. Counter-Strike wasn’t concerned with creating fantastical weaponry from the future. Counter-Strike was grounded in reality. Military counter terrorist forces seek to undermine an opposing terrorist team. Each side has their own objectives and weapon sets, and the in-game economy can swing the battle wildly at the start of each new round. What began as a fun project for a couple of college kids went on to become one of the most influential multiplayer games ever, and after twenty years it’s still leaving the competition in the de_dust(2).

Even if you’ve never camped with an AWP, the story of Counter-Strike is a story of an open platform that invited creative modifications and community-driven development. Not only is Counter-Strike an amazing game, it’s an amazing story.

“When Half-Life was released I said, ‘okay, yeah this is a great engine. I’m going to make a mod for this.’…So, I started way before the SDK was released. Once the SDK got out, I just did the code, (and) that pretty much took about a month.”
Minh Le, Counter-Strike Co-Creator

An Open Source Floods The Net with Creativity

Legendary FPS game creators John Romero [Doom, left] and Minh Le [Counter Strike, right].
It’s been said that all great things in PC gaming come from Quake. Valve Corporation’s seminal release, Half-Life, was crafted using a modified version of the Quake engine they called Source. Upon the game’s release in 1998 it instantly resonated with PC game fans going as far to elevate the game to “instant classic” status. Valve would only endear themselves further with the hardcore PC crowd when they released a software development kit for Source the next year.

Among those that sought to take advantage of that SDK were Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, couple of university students deeply embedded in the Quake modding community. The duo may have been separated by the Canada-US border, but had found the right time to collaborate on an original project after working as part of the Action Quake 2 mod team. Le had a fascination with military special forces and sought to incorporate actual firearms in lieu of Half-Life’s alien tech. This project was to be a multiplayer affair the military team needed an opposition, and rather than pit country against country a generic “terrorist” team was used. The game mode in it’s simplest terms had the special forces team seeking to counter the objectives being carried out by the terrorists, and thus Counter-Strike was born.

In the early days of Counter-Strike, Le and Cliffe had to do a fair bit of begging for beta testers. However, after being featured as part of the Half-Life Mod Expo ’99 thousands of players across the Internet’s message boards took notice. Feedback came fast for the mod which turned into a number of beta releases, and along with that influx came hundreds of community made maps. The issue became disseminating updates as download mirrors could only serve so many requests. Counter-Strike was usurping games like Unreal Tournament at competitive PC gaming events across the world, but too many were being left out of the fun because after all 56k is only a theoretical speed on dial-up.

“When Counter-Strike first became a Valve property, one of the immediate tasks was to figure out what was going on with updates…That was really the genesis of the idea for Steam, (it) was to figure out how can we automatically update all these folks.”
Doug Lombardi, VP of Marketing Valve Software

The Counter-Strike Culture Goes Corporate

Counter-Strike reached an official 1.0 release in November 2000. That milestone also codified that the game was no longer a mod, but a full release in it’s own right. The rag-tag Counter-Strike team of amateurs was now working under the professional banner of Valve Software, and Sierra Studios, the publisher of Half-Life, would soon fill retail shelves with the game now known as “Half-Life: Counter-Strike”. That name would not stick as Counter-Strike would continue to iterate until reaching it’s ultimate version 1.6 on PC. At that point Counter-Strike as a brand began to expand beyond it’s initial creator’s hands.

Counter-Strike: Condition Zero (better known as the one that fans don’t like to talk about) represented a break from the standard objective based multiplayer of the original. It was primarily a single player experience, though a multiplayer suite was eventually included. The game was considered to be a “tortured project” being passed between three separate game studios during its development. Counter-Strike: Condition Zero would eventually limp to release in 2004, but fans and critics agreed the game was decidedly behind the times. The original iteration of the Source engine had taken Counter-Strike as far as it could go.

That could have been the end of the series if it were not for Counter-Strike: Source being released the very same year. This game was merely a remake of Counter-Strike and a few of its most popular maps to Valve Software’s newly minted Source 2.0 engine, but the title would ultimately serve a higher purpose for the company. It was thrown in as a bundled item for purchasers of Half-Life 2, though secretly Counter-Strike: Source seeded the digital game libraries of PC gamers through Steam. The title’s ubiquity amongst Steam users meant that matches can be found even today, and the endless engagements between the terrorists and counter-terrorist teams still sees thousands of concurrent players daily.

Counter-Strike may have been a product of the last century, but its objective-based multiplayer format has stood the test of time. And it makes a great case study for open development: if Valve hadn’t made the Half-Life SDK available to coders everywhere, one of the most groundbreaking games of the last 20 years wouldn’t have been written.

Bonus Fact: Turtle Rock Studios, developers of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, would go onto use their experience with creating Counter-Strike bots to serve as the AI for the zombies of Left 4 Dead.

62 thoughts on “Counter-Strike At 20: Two Hackers Upend The Gaming Industry

    1. I gave me a vehicle to stay connected with my two sons as they grew up. Acrost divorced households. It drove the collaborative effort of building a new PC once a year and passing the freed up components to the other two PCs (computer hardware, wiring, custom cases, metal work, paint work…). It taught programming, logic, physics and critical thinking during many hours of creating in Garry’s Mod. It taught huge advantage teamwork can bring, self sacrifice for a greater goal.

      I am sure I have missed a few…

    2. for starters, rapid keyboard/mouse interaction…
      Also gaming is pretty much the only reason you can buy what would have been a top 50 supercomputer 10 years ago with a measly average monthly salary and use in your own home.
      No warehouses, no 100s of kW to single MW power connections, just a box you can pick up.

      1. The main reason I type without looking at my keyboard is csgo, and I type fast
        I’ve memorised flash he smoke molly decoy Zeus ak m4 deaf p250 chats etc for all the letters on the keyboard, I use numbers for text bings or other binds like offline practice

    3. A lot of games encourage players to work as a team and develop strategies, can be done even with complete strangers and no live voice comms. But obviously better if you actually talk to the other team players in the game.

    4. Complaining about video games become such a huge thing.

      Gaming has always been a huge thing. Long before computers where invented.

      “chess” is a game.
      “football” is a game.
      “roulette” is a game
      “poker” is a game.
      “hide’n’seek” is a game.
      “mahjong” is a game.
      “domino” is a game.
      “settlers of catan” is a game.
      oh, and did you ever heard of the “olympic GAMES” ?
      this list goes on forever…

      do this games teach anything ? (the common answer to this is YES)

      Gaming is a natural behavior for humans. its nothing new. This is how we learn.

      1. “Gaming is a natural behavior for humans. its nothing new. This is how we learn.”

        Indeed. And not just humans. Almost all young mammals exhibit similar, and in some cases, almost identical behaviour.

        But none of that matters to self-righteous wankers such as the infamous [Jack Thompson].

          1. Not all types of play are games. Not all learning is a game. Words have meaning. I consider games to be a competitive activity. And as such games usually have formal rules to determine the outcome among participants.
            These days we treat games as a leisure activity, something we can either play or observe primarily for entertainment. We’re still seeking competitive ends even if we’re playing for “fun”. Long ago, and in different cultures, games carried more weight in determining a person’s status. And in some circumstances could determine the outcome of very serious disputes between individuals or groups.

      2. Of that list – interesting to note how many of those involve killing more and more realistic other human beings? – That’s my beef with where gaming has went. Doom/Quake/Heretic and whatnot, you’re hunting monsters/creatures, not other people. Quit trying to make war ‘fun’, it is not, and never should be.

      3. – Of that list – how many involve killing more and more realistic other human beings? – That’s my beef with where gaming has went. Most of the old FPS’s were shooting up monsters/creatures. Quit trying to make war ‘fun’. It is not, and never will be.

        1. It’s not the purpose. War games are popular since ever but their main goal is not to make war fun:
          – fencing is not making stabbing people fun.
          – martial arts are not making real life hand to hand combat fun.
          – paintball/asg/dynamic shooting is not making shooting people to death fun.

          1. – At least in my view, all of those are ‘in fun’ to an extent, and for sport. Fencing, you don’t actually stab someone or slice their throat. Martial arts is not to the death, etc. None of these sports we actually kill or generally speaking even seriously injure someone; it keeps the line of ‘in fun’ / ‘for sport’. Gaming, not a big deal to shoot someone in the head, see the hole, watch them bleed out, or brains splattered, etc, or worse situations. Seems ridiculous to desensitize people to that level of violence, or even do it for ‘fun’.

          2. For thousands of years children were sent to the butcher shop and watched a man carve up flesh in real life, it didn’t “desensitize” them to the horrors of killing.

            Study after study has tried to find connections between virtual and real life violence, many proved negative correlations, that is that people who engage in virtual violence are LESS likely to engage in real world violence.

            But hey, you believe whatever you want to believe, never mind the facts.

    5. My life was changed by Doom and a tech support call. We had a computer but I really only used it as a word processor for school work and outside of that I had no interest in computers. Was Summer and was kinda bored, spotted a shareware disk of Doom at Wal-Mart for $5. Installed it but it wouldn’t run, they had a 1-800 # for support at the time so I gave em a call. The gal that answered had me try a few things, but none of it worked. Eventually it ended with, “Meh, whatever. It was only $5, I don’t care if it doesn’t work.”

      Went outside to skateboard in the street , my Mom comes out a few minutes later yelling that I have a phone call. It was Id’s tech support calling me back. This time it was a different person, but he suggested I boot with the Shift key down. Which bipassed all the autoexec.bat trash to free up enough base memory. Game loaded and was stunned about how amazing it was.

      But beyond that… I was impressed by their tech support people going that extra mile. Calling me back, making every effort that I got my $5 worth. I was also sparked by the magic of that lil’ trick of booting with the Shift key.

      Rest of that Summer I played a lot of Doom. But also got excited and interested in how to really use my computer, level editing, .wad files, modding, replacing sprites and sounds.

      That led to doing the same for Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, etc and built a career with the skills I developed because of playing games.

      Everything can teach you skills, it’s up to you to seek out how.

          1. I actually started my career in tech support. If you do it right, it’s a great place to learn and can be a stepping stone to a variety of careers. The chief thing is to learn all the time, every day, anything and everything you can that is interesting. It pays off when opportunity knocks and you have the skills to answer.

    6. It was gaming that served as a gateway for me to learn many skills. Early on learned to build/repair computers as well as how to gauge what a given piece of hardware is capable of. Learned household wiring to make the wiring of our home more robust to handle multiple computers, they just weren’t as power efficient back then. Learned home networking to be able to host LAN parties. Once I had a home network it sparked a curiosity to learn what you can do with a network of computers, before I knew it had a computer lab running my own servers for a variety of things (email, ftp, http, etc). Once I began to run wiring, had to learn about common building structure. It all culminated in being able to build out a house from starting with a shell and frame and ending with a safe, livable space. Now learning to install security systems (cameras, motions sensors, alarms, etc) and finding the bulk of it I have already learned in order to make my gaming experience more enjoyable.

      Sure there are a lot of people out there that gaming is nothing more than a toy, people that never draw any real inspiration or motivation from it. But it is an easily accessible gateway in a large amount of skills for people that otherwise would have no reason to learn those skills.

  1. If only more game companies would learn from Valve and see how making mod tools and SDKs available is a good thing for the company as well as for the community.
    Some companies (Bethesda or Epic for example) see how good it can be (the mod tools for Fallout 4 are some of the best I have seen for any game) but others *cough*EA*cough* are at best neutral towards modding or in some cases openly hostile towards it (going after modders, making their games hard to mod, stuff like that)

    1. Why?
      I can still remember absurd pictures of people carrying whole desktop computer systems including the ancient CRT monitors to LAN parties. So for mobile use use a system designed for mobility – a Laptop.

      1. Heat equals power.. Just like an internal combustion engine, the more power, the more heat.
        I’m sure if a laptop could arrive with water cooling, and 8 inch fans, them MAYBE, it would be a gaming machine. Until then, “gaming laptop” is and will remain an oxymoron.

      2. lol pictures. I and about 10 other people carried their precious 19″ ex-business crt screens and full towers to various people homes complete with multi-port hubs and rolls of cat5 for lan parties lasting up to 72 hours. Sure beat the coax days and debugging loose crimps or dodgy terminators.

        And gods did we celebrate the ‘click-click’ of the first 3dfx cards and the joyous rapture of well lit ‘high end’ graphics it brought.

        Most of us created careers on this..

      3. You put them in the car and unload them in two trips. It’s no harder than putting away the groceries.
        In the 90’s when LAN parties were becoming popular, laptops lacked network interfaces, had poor ghosty LCDs, and were about twice the price. People definitely did play Doom and Heretic on laptops at LAN parties, because I helped my friend get a laplink(parallel cable) packet driver working to do some 1-on-1 deathmatch.

        These days instead of carrying in a big CRT and tower case, I bring in a crate full of board games and case of beer.

  2. “When Half-Life was released I said, ‘okay, yeah this is a great engine. I’m going to make a mod for this.’…So, I started way before the SDK was released”

    “And it makes a great case study for open development: if Valve hadn’t made the Half-Life SDK available to coders everywhere, one of the most groundbreaking games of the last 20 years wouldn’t have been written.”

  3. Not trying to poke holes in the article but Counter-Strike was built on the Gldsrc engine (Quake derived,) not the Source engine.

    As a result Counter-Strike Source was built on the Source engine which was built using elements from the Havok engine and others.) Source being the same engine that runs Half-Life 2 as well as the bulk of Valve games.

    Practically nothing has been developed and released with Source 2 yet, it’s still in its infancy.

    1. To expand on the above, the original Halflife engine is thought to have got it’s name from the original copy that Valve received being labelled ‘goldsrc’. This probably was just a name referring to it being a copy of the source code from when the game had ‘gone gold’, ie the first master copy had been made and sent for distribution, hence ‘gold source’.

  4. IMHO, Counter Strike can be good, but at the same time, to me it’s one of the most rage inducing games, especially because you can not play it intuitively, you have to play it with memorizing how it works, which is annoying if you like playing other games or worse you enjoy range time in real life ( mind you if you want the game puts you in what is supposed to be the position of a trained professional). If you want to get a head shot you need luck and knowledge of the weapon’s spray pattern, not the ability to actually track and put a bullet on target ( save for the sniper rifles and even then you need to know where to aim in front of the person to hit them, even at short range where air time for the bullet would not matter ).

    But I really don’t want to sound like a downer though, it’s nice to see games age well. I’ve played counter-strike since it was in beta. I wish other games had the cult following it has. But I honestly miss a lot of other mods and games too and I wish some more of them where updated and brought into the modern world better than they have been. I love mods and I enjoy companies that allow their games to be customized, which sadly is slowly eroding away because of all the cloud services, DRM, and lack of tools. If you want to see mods and things like counter-strike happen you need to let the players run servers, give them tools to customize the game and make it fun.Games that do this have soo much more market longevity vs games like COD that make a new version practically every year and have the same cookie-cutter feel and play-style to them.

    And while I may not like the game, the story of how counter-strike came to be is interesting and can teach companies and players the power of the gaming community instead of taking all the control away from the players, hiding the servers on cloud services to never be customized. Seems like the PC gaming industry needs to remember it’s roots and the players that kept it popular even with the flood of consoles. Becasue in later years, PC players have been neglected a bit so that games could be released on console as well, causing companies to leave out features, like physics, to allow the lower powered console hardware to run it. PC gaming needs more exclusives and mods like there was 15+ years ago so that the platforms and games don’t become bland and lame.

    1. It’s sort of like how people meet up to play the same card games every Saturday night. The game isn’t boring and repetitive when you have the human element to make it interesting.
      CS is simply a very good game. The basic premise can be explained easily to a new player. And CS was less twitch driven than the other “deathmatch” FPSs of that era. Yet there is skill to be learned and honed in it. It’s also in a weird place because most of gaming is about new content and seeking novel experiences, but even with new releases it’s mostly the same game.

  5. Creating boot disks with customized DOS autoexec.bat and config.sys in order to get games like Hexen and Duke Nukem 3D on my old 486DX2 was what got me into the IT industry in the first place.

    Before that, all I needed to do was to drop out of Win 3.11 and into DOS to play the older games.

  6. In the early two-thousands I made a FPS game in a business week. They are insanely easy to make. Drag&Drop engines have existed since at least 2006 for tens of dollars that have all the “next gen” normal and diff mapping features and physics.

    Immersive open-world third-person game creation is where you’re really tested cause of animation and more advanced&dense A.I.. I won’t even go in to collision-damage on things like cars and level meshes… Then all the voice sync and asset modeling.. I’ve done it all with both old tools and C engines and modern zbrush and Unity.

    This is why I’ve always had massive respect for studios like Bethesda and QuanticDream and Rockstar who don’t just go for the quick-money…

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