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Interview with Minh Le

In this article, John McLean-Foreman interviews Minh Le, creator of Counter-Strike. In the interview, Le discusses some of the lessons he learned during the production of Counter-Strike. Le also shares his views on multiplayer games in general, his reaction to Counter-Strike's two GDC Awards and his future at Valve.

Tell me a little about your background: how did you get started in the game industry?

About five years ago I was in first year university and Quake came out. I think the SDK was released around that time, and I picked it up. At the time I was really into games; I've been into games since I was a kid, so it was natural that I picked up the SDK and started to play around with it. It took me about a year to make my first mod for Quake, which was a really cheesy mod called Navy Seals—it was a single player mod. It was nothing special. It was great because that was when I got really interested in making games and I knew that I wanted to do this for a living. Actually, at the time I didn't think that I could make a living doing that because it just seemed like a hobby. I really planned on just becoming a programmer, and just working for some big company, you know, living a normal life. I guess that changed.

Were you still in school when you worked on Counter-Strike?

Yeah. When I started I was in my last semester, and I was doing it in addition to school. I spent about 20 hours a week on Counter-Strike. I was taking a light course load, so it worked itself out. I actually spent more time working on Counter-Strike than school.

Why do a mod on Half-Life as opposed to any of the other games?

I think at the time there really wasn't much out there. There was Quake 2, Unreal Tournament wasn't out there at the time, Half-Life, and I think Sin was out. So, there was really only one choice for me because I'd already worked on Quake 2. I'd tapped all the good resources [from Quake]. I just got sick of it, so I just wanted to move on to a new engine, and I think Half-Life was the logical choice for me.

Counter-Strike is a team-oriented Half-Life mod.

Have you tried any of the other mods that are out there for Half-Life?

Actually, I really don't have any to time to even check them out. The amount of time I have left is sparse. I barely have time to eat, really. I see a lot of them out there that look really cool. There's quite a few out there right now.

Do you think that making mods endangers the profitability of retail games?

It's hard to say. I suppose with CS it's a bit of an exception I guess because it's become bigger than what everyone expected it to be. As far as it affecting other games, arguably it could have done something bad, but hopefully there won't be many CSs out there. But I wouldn't worry about mods taking over the whole industry—I don't think it's going to happen. I don't think that it will change the way that people make games. Professional game development companies are still going to make them the same way. If anything, they might make them more open to mods this time. That's the way to go, to keep the longevity of your game going, you really have got to make it editable. Other than that I really don't see much changing.

Were there ever any ownership problems with the project? Who has ownership of the mod?

When we did sell the rights to Valve, it was pretty clear who had the rights to CS. Up until then, we knew who was in control: it was just me and Cliffe. When we sold it to Valve, we didn't have much of a choice because I was just graduating and I really needed to turn this into something more than just a hobby, I needed to actually make a living off it. It was a good decision, I think, on my part.

How important is it to play competitor's products while you're designing a game?

I don't do that, so I can't really say. Personally, I think it's important. I mean, it helps because you get to see what's out there. You get to see the competition, you see what features they have, and how they're doing certain things. For me, I don't do that because psychologically, I don't know why, I don't like seeing the competitors. You know, it's like if you're in a race, you don't like watching the other people race, you just race. You just concentrate on what you do best, and try to make the best game you can, and don't worry about what the others are doing because sometimes it will throw you off your groove. If you see someone else doing something, you're like, "Oh my God! This is awesome! I've got to redo this. I've got to redo my game. I've got to change my game so it beats it." If you keep doing that, you're never going to get your game out. That was the whole thing with the Beta. That's why I released Beta's so often. I needed to play it a lot, and get feedback because I wasn't playing anyone else's games.

Speaking of feedback, how did you even get people to know that the mod was available?

It just grew by itself. With Beta One, there was a really small community. It just blew up after about Beta Six or Five. I think that the most important thing is if you keep releasing new versions, it keeps the interest going. People tell their friends, and that sort of thing, and it just grows and grows. If you just release one version and you expect people to like that one version, it's hard to get a community that way.

What was the most difficult part of designing Counter-Strike?

There was really no difficult part, just time-consuming parts that I would rather not do again. For instance, doing the models was super time-consuming, tedious work. Actually, if there was a difficult part, it would have to be the initial Beta One coding because it was my first time working with the Half-Life code. Usually, your first time, you just make a lot of mistakes. We had a lot of bugs. We had a lot of crashing bugs and stuff like that, so it was frustrating trying to find out why it was crashing. That was definitely the most difficult part.

How long did it take you to do the whole programming process?

For Beta One, it was about a month and a half, I think. It wasn't too long for the coding part. The most time-consuming part was definitely the models: I spent about six or seven months on that.

How long was it before CS was really playable?

When I first got the SDK, I think I got Beta One out in about two months. But before the SDK for Half-Life came out, I was already working on the models. If you remember correctly, the SDK came out about six months after Half-Life was released. When Half-Life was released I said, "Okay, yeah. This is a great engine. I'm going to make a mod for this." That's when I started making the models. So, I started way before the SDK was released. Once the SDK got out, I just did the code - that pretty much took about a month.

Counter-Strike provides the player with an experience that a trained counter-terrorist unit or terrorist unit experiences.

How much of this project did you do by yourself?

I didn't do any of the maps - that was strictly done by professionals. I've never actually done a map in my life. I got help with the sounds - some sound effects I got from other people. The models and the coding I did myself.

How did you find the people to do your maps for you?

Cliffe, my partner, was really the guy that did all that. He recruited these mappers. Actually, at the time, I think we had a playable version of Beta One, so he just showed it to them. He's the guy that attracted all the mappers to Counter-Strike. For our initial Beta One, we didn't really have many, we just had maybe three maps, or four. (laughs) They were pretty basic.

Did you do interviews with these mappers before bringing them in to the project?

No, not at all. We just asked people to make maps for us, and if it was playable, if it wasn't complete crap, we would accept it. At the time, we had some pretty low standards.

How do you protect yourself? Let's say a map designer comes up to you and says, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have your damn game. I want some of that cash too."

We haven't really prepared for that I guess, but if it does happen, I think we'll decide what to do then. It's not something we think about. But no one's done that, so I think that's a good sign.

Because nobody is getting paid when you're making a mod, how do you deal with the different levels of commitment to the project?

That's pretty much why I try to do as much as I can with the mod. I do as much as I can so I can have a playable game. I mean without the maps, of course there's nothing to play on. That's the part where we just rely on the public. They haven't let us down. There are people out there that really like the game, and they're just going to make the maps. We don't really tell mappers, "Okay, we need this map done by X amount of time." They know that there's a deadline for every Beta. We just say, "We're going to be accepting maps up until then. We're just going to look over them up to that point." They just try to get the maps in on time and that's pretty much it.

I haven't really had to tell people, "Yeah, you've got to get this done in X amount of time." And stuff like that. I really don't like doing that kind of thing. I don't like relying on other people to do something in a certain amount of time because it sounds kind of bossy. I just try to do as much as I can.

Now that you're working with Valve, and you're not allowed to do everything anymore, how do you find the "I try to do most of it myself" mentality works?

Actually, Valve has been really great with me. They haven't really changed the way I work. I pretty much do the same things that I did two years ago: I do the modeling and the coding. They haven't said anything about it. I think they're really fine with it. It's great.


What are your feelings on people who cheat, player kill, and team kill?

Well, they're annoying. There's really no other way to describe them. But it's really hard to stop them totally, guaranteed. It is impossible to say, "Oh there's not going to be any more cheats." It's just too hard to do that with Windows. The way Windows works, if there is a process running then hackers can see that process and munch with it. It's just so hard to come up with a foolproof method. I don't really think that anyone has come with a game that is 100% cheat proof. I mean, if I game is popular, it's going to attract a lot of people, and out of those people there's going to be a few idiots that just want to screw it up. It's something that you've got to deal with, something that you've got to live with. It's difficult though, trying to find a fix for it.

If there isn't a fix for it, is there a behavior that the other players can adopt to cope with these guys?

It varies with the cheat. Some cheats are really obvious to spot. But some of them cause a lot of paranoia. Sometimes I play and I think, "God! This guy's not that good is he?" It really ruins the whole atmosphere and play of the game.

Some of the cheats—like the wall cheat—were pretty obvious: if you can tell that someone was behind a wall, that was really obvious. If you see that kind of thing, you can try to vote them off. But I don't know, other than that, it's really kind of hard to tell.

What about having the servers track their WON numbers?

Oh yeah. If you find a cheater, I think Half-Life has a way of banning people. But I've never used it. I'm not really familiar with it. I think that you can just ban someone based on his WON ID. There are methods of doing that, but whether or not there is a global method, like giving the ID to the WON servers—I'm not sure if that's the place—so that this guy can't connect to any servers. But then again, it's controversial to do something like that. People would get so mad. If someone got banned from the game completely, if they couldn't connect to any servers, it would really bring up a lot of controversy. I'm not sure how we would tackle something like that.

See, I think that would be great. Ban them for a month.

Ban them forever. I really don't have any tolerance for cheaters, but there are people out there that are so sympathetic to people in general. They're like, "Oh, I bought the game. I should be able to play the game any way I feel like it."

Do you still play Counter-Strike?

Yeah, on and off, but lately I've just been so busy that I haven't had time for games in general. I've been working really hard.

What kind of games do you play when you do have time?

Lately I've been really interested in Age of Empires 2: the Conquerors. I've been so addicted to this game it's nuts. That's crazy - it's really that good.

Counter-Strike is team-based: one team plays the role of the terrorist, the other team the counter-terrorist. Each side has access to different guns and equipment, as well as different abilities.

So you like real time strategies, you like first person shooters - do you like every genre?

Not so much. I'm not too big a fan of real time strategies, actually; it's just Age of Empires that's got me addicted. I think in general I strictly stick with first person shooters. I'm not an RPG guy. I used to be but they require too much time, and when you're busy, you just don't have time for RPGs. I used to play them a lot when I had a lot of free time.

What is the biggest difference between designing a first person versus designing a different genre?

I think the biggest difference is between designing a single player game and a multiplayer game. I did both. When I was doing the single player game, it was catering to a whole different audience. In multiplayer gaming, the people are so much more vocal—they want certain things done a certain way, and if it's not that way, they'll tell you for sure.

To answer your question about designing different genres, it's hard to say. I don't really know what goes on in designing an RTS or and RPG. It could be the same, but I'm pretty sure it's a bit different.

Do you have any desire to design different genres?

No. At the moment I do not. I'm strictly first person shooters. For me, I find when I play a first person shooter versus any other game, I feel the most immersed into the environment. When I play an RPG, I don't feel like I'm part of the game, it just feels like I'm controlling people. When I play Counter-Strike, I feel like I'm actually playing with other people. It's a different sensation, and I think it's better that way.

What common mistake do you see in the first person shooters out there? Some are obviously a lot more fun than others.

It's all a matter of preference I think. It's hard to say, "This game is more fun than that one." I'll give you an example. If you're familiar with the game Trespasser, I think it got really bad reviews, everyone hated it, but when I played it, I loved it. I thought it was one of the best games I've played. So, it's really hard to say why this game is better than that game because people like so many different things. I don't know what it was about trespasser that I liked so much, but people hated it. So it's really hard to pick one thing that's so fun.

For me, when I play Counter-Strike, I feel like I'm part of a team, playing with other people. It's like a sport: you're fighting for the same goal, you're with teammates, and there's the whole camaraderie part of it. I don't know, it just drives me to play it more. That's the biggest thing for me, the whole teamplay aspect.

When you were designing Counter-Strike, were you trying to improve on something that was already out there - Rainbow Six for example?

Not so much. I was really just a fan of the whole theme. I'm a really big fan of guns and the whole military theme, right? So, when I stumbled upon the terrorism theme, I thought that this would be really, really good to put in a game. I think at the time there was Rainbow Six and, what else was there? Spec Ops I guess. I did play them, and they were enjoyable, but I thought they needed something more - for me at least. For example, I wanted to see my gun. I just wanted to give it a more immersive feeling, and a bit faster paced as well. I thought the pace of Rainbow Six was bit a bit too painful for me. I just wanted to speed it up a bit.

I heard that you actually got to shoot some of the guns from CS for real.

Yeah, that was real cool. I went down with the Barking Dog guys—it was a great day. We went to the range, and we just shot some handguns and a shotgun. We weren't allowed to shoot any automatics so that was a bummer, but we did see them in action. A ton of guns: P90s, MP5s, M16s, AK-47s. They were just incredibly loud. They were just so loud that you can't really capture that kind of sound on the computer. You'd blow your speakers, really.

It's actually really interesting that you modeled a whole bunch of your guns without ever seeing them in real life. How did you do that?

I tried to find as many pictures as I could get from web pages, magazines, that sort of thing. Other than that, it was sort of guessing. I didn't have a lot of the pictures for the SIG assault rifle. A lot of areas I just had to guess. The way they're animated, it was hypothetical, you know? I just said, "This makes sense… I'll just do that." It was logical, but I made some mistakes here and there. For instance, the M4 doesn't reload like that.

So you've had a lot of people say something about the errors?

Yeah, I always get a lot of the anal people that go, "Hey! What are you doing? That's not the way it works!" (laughs) It's no big deal. You just live with it.

What is it about Counter-Strike that you think has caught the public imagination?

I'm not really sure. I get this so much and I can't answer it. I don't really see it as being so different than other games. At the heart of it, you put your mouse on someone, you shoot and he's dead, right? Why people like this one so much more than others, I don't know. It could be the whole phenomenon, you know how it works, it's like, "Wow! This game is awesome! You've got to check this out!" Then they tell their friends, and they tell their neighbors, and it just gets big. I don't really have one good reason why people are playing this versus other games. They're just finicky. They change their tastes every year. You can't really rely on them. If I do make a sequel I can't really expect the same number of people to be playing it. I don't really know how the thing works - you get lucky sometimes. That's it.

Each maps has a different goal: hostage rescue, assassination, bomb defusion, etc.

 

At the GDC Awards, Counter-Strike won two awards: the Rookie Studio Award, and one of the Game Spotlight Awards.

Yeah, that was a great honor. I've heard of the GDC before, I've been involved with computer games for 10 years, and it's a great honor to be recognized by the GDC. It's a shame I couldn't go though, but I have some pretty good reasons.

Such as?

Well, I'm afraid of flying—not like Mr. T on The A-Team—but I'm pretty bad. Plus I'd be the only one there, and it just doesn't feel right being the only one there. If more people could have made it, it would have been better.

How did winning the awards make you feel? This game that came out of your head got overwhelming response at the GDC. The audience was ecstatic.

It's a weird feeling. When I first realized that CS was just huge, bigger than what I expected it to be—it felt just great. There's an initial feeling of, "Wow. I'm on top of the world." After that goes away, which takes about a day, you just realize that you're still doing this game because you love doing what you do. I'm not doing this because of the fame, I'm not doing this because I want to be the number one game on the internet, I'm doing this because at the end of the day I want to sit down, and put in my game, and say, "Yeah. This is awesome. I made this game and I like playing this game."

I don't want to make the game for other people. I mean, it sounds a bit selfish. You know, it sounds like, "Why aren't you supporting this? Why aren't you making the game for other people?" I don't know. I just want to make the game for myself. I just want to make a game that I can be proud of that I can just play and say, "This is my dream game. It has everything that I want in it, and it has nothing that I don't want in it."

Are there any changes that you would like to make to Counter-Strike now that it's been out for a while?

We're pretty much happy with the way it is right now. We're always going to support it in the way of bug fixes, new features, and trying to fix the cheats that are out. Other than that, I think everyone is pretty much happy, overall, with the way it is right now. We could add a few new features, but we're not going to be changing the gameplay dramatically.

Based on the success that Counter-Strike has had, what has been the biggest change in your life?

I think the biggest thing is my involvement with Valve. It really allowed me to turn this thing into a career, almost.

Almost?

Well, I mean for now it's a career. But you never know, they could fire me. (laughs) That sort of thing. But I'm not thinking about that. I'm just thinking for now, it's great working with them because I get to do what I love, and make a living off of it. That's pretty much it. Not many people have this opportunity. It's something I feel lucky about.

Do you think that keeps you sharp, because it might end at some point in time?

Yeah, I think it keeps me motivated. I'm not going to slack and try to ride the success of CS because I know it's just not going to last that long. You've got to keep it fresh, keep it new, you know?

What about your future? What's next for you?

Well, right now I'm working on a project with Valve. I'm not sure what I should say about it, but it's a game, it's entertaining… (laughs) I think everyone knows what it is, so I won't beat around the bush. I'll announce it sooner or later.

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