Le, known in the mod community as 'Gooseman,' is still surprised by its popularity.
"I started back in 1999, and back then it was just this mod," Le tells me. "It really, really shocks me. Part of the reason I think it has evolved, even to this day and maintained its strength is because of community involvement."
Le hasn't kept track of updates to Counter-Strike – or its subsequent sequels – since his final days at Valve, as he's now busy working on a new project inspired by lessons he learned and goals he wanted to accomplish with the original mod: a new, free-to-play shooter dubbed Tactical Intervention. Counter-Strike, though made popular by its classic bomb mode and no-respawn deathmatch style, was meant to be remembered for other modes that fans never quite gravitated toward, like VIP and Hostage missions. With enhancements to make those modes better than he was able to achieve in Counter-Strike, Tactical Intervention is closer to being unleashed. "Going to a company like Valve, there's certain standards you – or the project – has to meet. That aspect was something that I never really became too accustomed to." Le worries about decisions that are made in haste, reacting to negative feedback immediately rather than letting new ideas and features simmer with players.
"I tried my best to actually meet the standards [at Valve], but when I wasn't working at Valve we were doing beta versions of [Counter-Strike] and the only person setting the standard was myself," Le says. Not having to worry about stability and every possible computer configuration meant that Counter-Strike's development could focus on refining its core gameplay and making it fun.
Le felt the focus was on the wrong part of development, with the team immediately reacting to negative feedback rather than allowing even unpopular changes and ideas to soak into the community over time. "There's this fear of innovating, and trying something different," Le says, speaking to the general attitude of major companies. "I'm never really motivated if I have this kind of restriction where everyone is saying, 'Everyone is doing this, we need to maintain the status quo.' To me that's really just ... I'd rather not make a game if the status quo is copying what everyone else is doing."
Le's small team couldn't chase both release-date stability and a finely tuned core design at the same time. So his focus was on ensuring the core was right, and worrying about making sure the game ran on a myriad of computer configurations took a backseat.
Valve acquired the rights to Counter-Strike in 2000.
After it became a sellable product, the development of Counter-Strike was forced to change. "I did kind of get that feeling where after it became an official product and it became more professional, it became a bit harder to innovate with newer features. We were kind of pandering to the community a bit too much, in my opinion. We reacted a bit too much to people's negative feedback, which in my experience when I was developing the betas, I had so much negative feedback.
"I was actually kind of surprised it became so popular because, I was constantly reading the forums and people were bitching and that kind of thing. It's hard to get a feel for 'Is this game doing well?' because look at all these whiners," Le jokes.
In retrospect, Le says it's the negative feedback that proved his mod team was onto something. "When people complain about your game it means they really care about it. If people don't like your game, they'll just leave," but when people stay to tell you why something is harming the experience it's because they want it to get better, he adds.
Le's time at Valve was difficult, he says. While he makes it clear he enjoyed his time there and left on good terms, it was his own personal issues with the change of atmosphere that made things difficult. His insecurity was heightened in the face of working for such a behemoth.
"When I was at Valve, I was very young. I was self-conscious about my leadership abilities. Everyone at Valve, they're like geniuses. They're really good at what they do." In the sense of crafting a plan and convincing his peers at Valve to create a new product or refine a popular one, Le says he simply did not "have the confidence to lead a team."
"A lot of that was maybe psychological. In my own head. Maybe if I went to [Gabe Newell] and said, 'Here's a plan for [Counter-Strike] and this is what I want it to look like,' maybe they would have bought it." Young and uncomfortable with his situation, Le exited the company. Since then, he's struggled to maintain financial security as he works to complete his next project. As of 2011, Counter-Strike has gone on to sell over 25 million units.
Seven years later, after his stint with Valve, Le says he's matured. Battling through his initial insecurity, he's worked to design and execute Tactical Intervention, a game he and a skeleton development crew of five have been plugging away at since he left the company – on good terms, he clarifies – in 2006.
The baseline of Tactical Intervention's design is based on Counter-Strike. It's a first-person shooter, it has terrorists and counter-terrorists, there's a bomb mode; all things Le helped create in Counter-Strike. But with Tactical Intervention, Le looks to add the content he always envisioned would be in Counter-Strike, but didn't have the confidence to pitch.
Tactical Intervention has a number of mission modes with more complex scenarios. Hostage and VIP modes are a focus, too, something Le wanted Counter-Strike to be known for but the community never embraced due to design issues. Counter-terrorists in Tactical Intervention can select where they spawn in the world, making it easier to create dedicated groups of players to attack terrorists and rescue captives from all sides. On certain maps, both squads have the ability to bring attack dogs into the fray that can be given instruction to patrol zones and strike the opposing side for vicious kills. Vehicles are also present in Tactical Intervention, with counter-terrorists tasked with driving a VIP and his valuable briefcase to a safe point for extraction, while terrorists give chase in vehicles in an attempt to kill the VIP, steal the case, and airlift it away on an A.I.-controlled helicopter.
"That's been hands-down the most popular mission," Le tells me.
Having played it, I can see why.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Tactical Intervention and Counter-Strike is the business model attached to each product. CS is a retail game whereas TI is a free-to-play experience, focusing on microtransactions for weapons, armor, and other additions. In the current build, players can use earned experience to effectively rent items in the game for a limited time. Spending real money doesn't purchase free-use of an item, but gives it to players for a set amount of time.
"We don't want people to grind too much. We don't want people spending twenty-hours a week, that's a part-time job. Myself, I want it to balance it so people don't have to spend an obscene amount of time to enjoy the majority of the game," Le tells me, but he clarifies that the business decisions surrounding Tactical Intervention aren't up to him, they are decisions made by free-to-play-focused publisher OGPlanet.
Le is uncomfortable discussing the business structure, starting and stopping sentences when he attempts to describe the experience of making a game built on a free-to-play model. If it were up to him, Tactical Intervention would see a different release method, he tells me; however, the market has become to saturated with first-person shooters that there's no guarantee a full retail release would be successful. In that sense, he's grateful to his publisher for giving his new game – which has been in development for a half dozen years – the opportunity to find an audience.
Tactical Intervention's model remains, however. Those business decisions are "out of my hands," he tells me.
The basics of Tactical Intervention will be familiar to fans of modern first-person shooters. Innovation in the genre, Le says, can come from different ways to approach player movement – like the ability to perform tactical rolls in first-person in TI – or in interesting new modes, like the VIP escort mission. Le has other ideas too, many of which he's keeping close to the chest. The plan for content in TI is to develop new maps and release them on a regular basis, for free, to all players. Microtransactions come from enhancing a player's gear.
The structure and pricing for Tactical Intervention's microtransactions are still in the process of being tweaked. The focus now, after years of refining the core experience through numerous internal and beta releases, is to stabilize the network code.
Beginning on Monday, March 4, a new beta test – with updated graphics – will launch. For the first week of the latest closed beta, Joystiq will be the exclusive destination for access. Tomorrow, Joystiq will launch a dedicated page for the test, distributing a limited run of 6,000 codes. The exclusive beta for Joystiq readers ends on Friday, March 8.
Tactical Intervention will enter an open beta on March 14, and will run until March 28.
[Update: Our beta giveaway has begun, limited codes are available so jump in to claim yours!]