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How Counter Strike revolutionized PC gaming

How Counter-Strike Revolutionized Online PC Gaming

Jolene Dobbin
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It was probably inevitable that online video game playing would “go pro.” The exponential jumps in graphics power, computing speed, and the ubiquity of high-speed networking coupled with the vast pool of “athletes” to draw from with millions of players, who then become millions of potential fans, made it a very fertile ground to grow a whole new segment of the video game industry.
There are so many people interested, and so many people getting so good and elevating the simple diversion of playing a game into a kind of strategic, skill-based art form. It makes sense that some games would become so popular, and some players so skilled, that competitive sports would arise from them.
But even the inevitable needs a key tipping point. There has to be a moment at which the potential became reality. It could be argued that the game Counter-Strike was that fulcrum upon which the lever rested that pushed gaming into the modern era of organized, competitive eSports, where the best of the best compete for worldwide status and renown… and millions and millions of dollars.
Counter-Strike is one of the most popular PC game series of all time, and it revolutionized online gaming with several critical features. Here is a brief timeline of the series, gameplay, and what has made it such a renowned series to this day.

What is Counter-Strike and how did it begin?

In 1999, two hobbyist programmers, Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess Cliffe, released a mod for the popular game Half-Life. Using the game engine, they created a team vs. team based set of parameters that pitted terrorists on one side, and counter-terrorists on the other, setting up opposing mission objectives that served as victory conditions for each side. They called it Half-Life: Counter-Strike.
There’s a saying that goes, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In the early 1980s, two MIT students took it upon themselves to mod a Pac-Man arcade game and introduce new and challenging elements into it. Midway, the company behind Pac-Man, was so impressed with what they did that they hired them and the game was eventually released as Ms. Pac-Man, one of the most successful arcade games of all time.
History rhymed in 2000, as Valve, makers of Half-Life, were so impressed with the cleverness and inventive elements in Counter-Strike that they hired Le and Cliffe, and released the mod as an official product.
The balanced gameplay elements in a simple to understand, quick-to-learn set of rules that takes a long time to master and room for creative play are the ingredients for long-term success. People not only loved playing Counter-Strike, but they also loved to KEEP ON playing Counter-Strike, and getting better and better at it.
Since no two matches ever play out exactly the same way, there is always a sense of newness at the start of each match, even though all the givens are the same. You can say the same thing about tennis or football or hockey. So it follows, then, that it just makes sense to view others playing the game as an emerging sport, especially as players become reliably good.

Counter-Strike gameplay

Counter-Strike is a team-based first-person shooter (FPS) with good guys and bad guys. You’re either a bad guy terrorist, or you’re a good guy counter-terrorist, looking to stop them. Matches are mission-based, and points and perks are awarded for victory and continued play. The different mission types are:
  • Bomb defusal: The terrorist team carries a bomb and is tasked to plant it on one of a few designated targets. After placing it, they must protect it from being disarmed by the counter-terrorists. If they protect it long enough, it blows up, and evil wins; those are the victory conditions. The counter-terrorists win by running out the clock, preventing the bomb from blowing up before the time of the match is over.
  • Hostage rescue: This scenario begins with the terrorist team holding a group of hostages. The counter-terrorists victory condition is the rescue of the hostages. The terrorists win by running out the clock in this one, getting to the end of the match without the hostages being rescued.
  • Assassination: A player on the counter-terrorist team is tapped as a VIP, in need of escort to a designated target on the map to win the match. The terrorists win by killing the VIP or preventing him from getting to his victory-spot before time runs out in the match.

Counter-Strike release history

From 1999 to 2012, Counter-Strike was a consistent online hit with a dedicated player base. Many flavor-of-the-month games came and went, but Counter-Strike, with its consistent gameplay and the established strategies and play styles that emerged, kept on selling. This prompted the release of a series of sequels and ports. They were:
1. Counter-Strike
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (1999/2000)
2. Counter-Strike
Platforms: Original Xbox (2003)
3. Counter-Strike: Condition Zero
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (2004)
4. Counter-Strike: Condition Zero Deleted Scenes
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (2004)
5. Counter-Strike: Source
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (2004), Mac OS X (2010), and Linux (2013)
6. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Platforms: Microsoft Windows/Mac OS X/PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/Linux (2012)

Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Condition Zero Deleted Scenes

Gearbox Games targets hacked cheats

Condition Zero was a semi-botched attempt to release a sequel. Initially, a company called Gearbox developed the games, as essentially a graphically overhauled redux of the original’s gameplay elements with the addition of a series of new weapon types and explosives.
Since gameplay relied so heavily on playing versus opposing people on different computers, and since modding is so baked into the DNA of the game, the introduction of hacked cheats by players became a problem in online matches. They would manipulate their local copies and settings to gain an unfair advantage.

Handoff to Ritual Entertainment

Gearbox’s version of Condition Zero used the Steam platform to innovate an effective anti-hack/anti-cheating protocol, banning cheating players for long periods of times. However, their development team missed some deadlines and the game was late in being released. This caused Valve execs to hand the project over to a different company: Ritual Entertainment.

Turtle Rock Studios takes on the mission

Ritual simply scrapped all of the online player versus player, instead delivering 20 relatively unconnected single-player missions. There was to be a perfunctory, secondary multiplayer mode, developed by a smaller studio: Turtle Rock. When initial preview copies were poorly reviewed, Valve yanked the game from Ritual and tasked Turtle Rock Studios to salvage it. They ended up reinstituting much of the initial Gearbox development, finishing it, and releasing it.
The best of the Ritual-developed single-player missions were eventually released later with the production of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero Deleted Scenes, which included them along with the Turtle Rock version.

Counter-Strike: Source

Counter-Strike: Source is actually named for the game engine on which it runs. It’s basically the same game, running with different software under the hood. Purists in the Counter-Strike online competitive community argue, however, that the minor tweaks and changes to accuracy and movement ended up creating a platform that had a lower “skill ceiling” than the original release [1].
In eSports, the idea of a “skill ceiling” is the degree to which someone may become a master and how that mastery would differentiate them from the people in lower tiers. A game like, say, chess, would have a higher “skill ceiling” than checkers, and a game like tic-tac-toe would have a very low skill ceiling. Basically, eSports enthusiasts felt that Source made it such that lower-skilled players became a little too equalized when compared to the elite players.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The final iteration of Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, was released in 2012. It proved to be the culmination of all the lessons learned from the previous releases. A key component of the Counter-Strike experience is understanding the idea of not fixing that which is not broken; all of the various versions of Counter-Strike are essentially the same game, played the same way. Where they veered from that path was where they lost player support and received harsh critical reviews, as was the case with the early release of Condition Zero.
Since its release in 2012, there has been a steady release of updates and additions in the form of new maps, weapons, skins, and various cosmetic customization options. This helps keep the game continually fresh and new, in some respect, while never changing the underlying strengths that keep the players coming back.
Global Offensive offered players a bunch of new modes. The nine modes available are Competitive, Casual, Deathmatch, Arms Race, Demolition, Wingman, Flying Scoutsman, Danger Zone, and Weapons Course.
But ultimately, the modes beyond Competitive are diversions and serve mostly as areas to practice or goof around. The meat of the game is in match play versus other teams. And along the way, in keeping up with the current state of gaming, in 2018, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive moved to the increasingly popular (and paradoxically continually profitable) “free-to-play” model, with paid microtransactions and customizations. Previous owners of the software who had bought in at full price were given special “prime” status and exclusive content to make up for the switch to “free.”

Why Counter-Strike mattered

There are other games with better graphics. But I focused on team play. That’s all I did. That turned out to be an important decision.” - Minh Le, original Counter-Strike mod co-creator.

Now, the wheel of “competitive gaming” has been invented; there’s a whole established world and concentration in this new genre, both in the development gaming community and in the player base. There is agreed-upon terminology. And there are meta-ideas and theories behind what elements must be present, and what type of skill trees and balance, along with skill ceilings and floors, make for “proper” competitive gaming titles that can become eSports.
Many of the spokes of that wheel, so to speak, were brought into the gaming world, or at least made popular, by Counter-Strike. The emphasis not only on teamwork, but also of spectating a match, post-death, and all the logistics that go into that experience; those things are now conventions. But they are conventions because people became familiar with them by way of Counter-Strike.
Online video games rely on the dynamic feedback of the communities who play them. Those communities may form organically because people end up loving a particular game. But what doesn’t pop up organically are all the technical, logistical, and implemented solutions and work-hours building the structures to respond to that feedback.

Blazing several trails

Hitting when it did, in 2000, when dedicated online gaming was a new phenomenon, with all the rules yet to be hashed out, Counter-Strike blazed a lot of trails. But more importantly, perhaps, than all that was the fact that it presented an essentially “fair” set of tools for players to use, in an emotionally compelling setting.
And it did this in matches that were long enough to feel epic, but not so long as to promote drop out mid-play. A game of Counter-Strike, depending on the mission objective being reached and the skill of the teams playing (or the imbalance of the skills between teams) can last as little as 5 minutes or as long as an hour.
Basically, any given game will only be as long as an episode of a good TV show. And who wins and who loses will be based on a very specifically crafted experience that emphasizes teamwork, punishes cheating, and grows the skills of the continuing player in a fun and satisfying way.
That Counter-Strike has continued to be relevant for close to 20 years is a testament to its solid construction, but even more to the ideas behind its construction.
In December of 2018, after moving to the free-to-play model, Counter-Strike recorded a high-water mark of 20 million players in a month [2]. Things have to start somewhere; a lot of what gamers take as established facts of gaming started with Counter-Strike. And they’re continuing, still.

About the Author

Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.
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