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
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.