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Why is de_dust2’s level design so popular?

This analysis aims to examine and explain the main level design points that made de_dust2 so successful.This is my first article on Gamasutra and I hope to have a lot of feedback so I can get better.


Even though almost everyone knows this game, it is better to present the fundamentals of the game and of the map in a brief blurb.

Counter Strike (CS) is an online multiplayer FPS that debuted around 2000 for its first incarnation. This game stages the confrontation of two teams (terrorists and counter-terrorists) on varied maps with different objectives: mostly rescuing hostages (cs) or defusing bombs (de).

The de_dust2 map is Counter Strike’s most played map. David Johnston, also creator of de_dust1, made it.

De_dust2 is an outside open map. The place where the map takes place is not the most important aspect of creating a map. However, it remains essential because it allows the player to locate himself in space by answering the question of “Where am I?”

De_dust2 is located in an arid zone, with an environment reminiscent of desert villages and arid/sunny landscapes.

De_dust2’s layout (credit: the-k-pteam-forums)



Even though de_dust2 is an open map, its design provides the player with perfect orientation indications.

A novice player will never feel lost in this place; everything has been thought out to offer an objective while still indicating where it is. Firstly, the painted indications on the walls pointing to the bombsites as well as the locked doors marked “No exit” and also the locked doors.



The other elements that indicate the main routes to player are the paved ground textures. A player only needs following them to get to the sites or other important access points of the map. The navigation in the environment has been made clear for the player.


The player has to be capable of identifying and locating their target simply by analysing the map layout.

The low walls are also used to guide the player even though they may be interrupted to go another way.

With their navigation eased up that way, the games on de_dust2 offer an accelerated and fluid rhythm; we will see how the level design manages to slow this rhythm to create tension zones.


Rhythm and flow control

Due to its age, de_dust2 offers a blocky kind of aspect. Therefore, there is a significant number of angles on buildings’ corners. They create variations in the players’ rhythm. The players have the habit to slow down at every angle (the gameplay shifts more towards infiltration), so they can hear footsteps, main indicator of an enemy at close range.

What’s more, this angular aspect pushes players to play with grenades rebounds (also available with certain boxes).

More rhythm variation is induced by the different chokepoints that exist within de_dust2. These points are mandatory passages (also guiding the player), and force the team to go one by one through the door. The pace slows down and makes it possible to fight at close quarters. However, some players manage to play at far range with sniper rifle by shooting in the doors’ gap. Even so, depending on the arches’ doors’ opening, some players have to come up close to identify and shoot their enemies. Nonetheless, the map also has corridors facilitating long distance shots.



Another interesting aspect of de_dust2 is its very well designed flow control. Indeed, thanks to the pointers seen previously, it is quickly apparent that de_dust2 aims to allow to player to move freely without causing them any frustration. Here, the player can often jump from a low wall onto a box to drop without losing health points. If this had not been the case, a team could have easily been at a disadvantage during the rushes at the start of the game.

The player’s movements are made easier and the layout provides with some verticality, enabling the players to travel on different heights.

saut.png     saut3.png

The player takes no damage if they jump on the boxes to get to the ground

The map’s topology also plays into this verticality by creating slopes. They dig lower into the map and the level designer can then add bridges thus creating multiple pathways and shooting spots. The map’s multipath aspect is very pleasant. The different paths allow the player to navigate and create strategies corresponding to their play styles.


The places favourable to close quarter fighting and instilling doubt in the players’ minds are the darkest places of the map. These places are interesting because they offer a high contrast with the general mood and look of the rest of the map.  Sure enough, the rhythm changes due to, on the one hand, the tightness of the place (the tunnel for instance) and on the other hand, the lighting (more so in 1.6).


One can see that players take advantage of that aspect, by taking for instance, in the terrorists team, a Phoenix connexion, its outfit looking like counter-terrorists’.

In these low light situations, the players tend to take cover more, or to protect themselves by pre-emptively throwing projectiles.


This is the most important point of this map. Indeed, de_dust2 is one of CS’s most balanced maps. Even though it is asymmetrical, creator David Johnston does not give any team the upper hand. If a CT rushes to the four known clash points, they will arrive almost at the same time as a terrorist and vice versa. The players’ skills and team stats are then the most important things on this map. What’s more, the Mid zone allows the players to move rapidly between the bombsites and offers a good combat zone.

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The Mid zone offers several shooting points-several entrances

The bombsites are located closer to the CT’s spawn point. This is on purpose so that they can hold their position and plan a strategy before the terrorists arrive. Some imbalances can be found in versions after Counter Strike: Zero; for instance, in the Source version, the boxes on site A cannot completely hide a terrorist, so, they are forced to crouch unlike in CS: Z and 1.6.

The most interesting thing about de_dust2 is that it’s impossible to be camping (not enough time) .The map has been made so a player can’t focus on only one entry point, on the one hand due to the time limit of a round and on the other hand due to the map’s architecture. They have many points to keep a watch on which prevents them from stay still (an unmoving player in CS is easier to shoot). 


These key points show how this map has become CS’s most played. How the level designer managed to create and balance this map is to be noted, all the while keeping the rhythm varied. Finally, we will also remark on how de_dust2 achieves easily teaching the player (a very hard thing to do in a multiplayer map) via several essential questions: Where am I? Where must I go? How can I get there? (if you want more information about these notions,  I invite you to see the article by Pascal Luban)

A thank you to Viviane Bicaba for her help with the translation!

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