Gooseman is embarrassed.
In 1999, Minh "Gooseman" Le co-created the seminal modern combat shooter Counter-Strike as a free downloadable mod for Half-Life. A year later, both Counter-Strike and Le were acquired by Half-Life developer Valve, where Counter-Strike was repackaged and sold by the truckload, and Le was put to work creating the follow-up, Counter-Strike 2.
That was then.
This is now: More than a decade has passed and to the outside observer, both Counter-Strike 2 and Le have been frozen in time. In theory, Valve officially ceased production on the game following Le's departure from the studio in 2002. In reality, it's production had never really begun.
After a short and damaging stint at Valve, Le decided to strike out on his own, taking his ideas for the Counter-Strike sequel and eventually rolling them into his new game: Tactical Intervention. It is a free-to-play, multiplayer shooter, and is scheduled for release later this year.
The closed beta begins this month.
It has been in development for close to a decade.
"My god, it's embarrassing how long it's been in development," Le told Polygon. "But it's almost there."
IT'S A GAME, MAN
Tactical Intervention will not be the sequel to Counter-Strike that many fans may be expecting. And with more than 25 million units sold (not counting the versions distributed freely, legally or otherwise) Counter-Strike is a game with many, many fans. Whether or not that surprise will morph into disappointment is a question that consumes a great many of Gooseman's thoughts.
"When I developed Counter-Strike, it was just a game," Le told Vox Games. "I didn't know that it was going to be great. It was just an idea that I had and I thought 'OK, these are the game features that I want to test out, and maybe they'll work and maybe they won't.'"
Turns out they did work ... on a massive scale.
"IT DOESN'T SOUND GOOD FOR MARKETING, BUT I DON'T LIKE WORKING TO A STANDARD."
Not only did CS go on to become one of the most-played online shooters of its time, but it rapidly became a staple of the growing competitive gaming scene. Its action - gritty, immediate and lethal -inspired much of what passes for innovation in today's shooters such as limited, but high-powered weaponry, and the rapid-pace of online matches.
Now the indie game Tactical Intervention will be competing against the triple-A games it inspired.
"I know people are going to benchmark us to Modern Warfare," Le said, "but you know there's not much I can say or do to prevent that from happening. I'm just hopeful that people can see the game for what it is ... and try to take a chance on the game."
Le said it would be unrealistic to believe that with his small, Korea-based team, he would be able to develop a game that plays like Counter-Strike or that could compete with the production value of triple-A shooters. He said, instead, his goal is to take the fundamentals of Counter-Strike and improve on them.
"I wanted to expand on Counter-Strike, the things I learned inCounter-Strike, the problems that I saw in Counter-Strikegameplay," Le said. "I wanted to focus more on basically offering gamers a gameplay that's different than [Battlefield andModern Warfare] and that's enjoyable."
Unlike his triple-A competitors, Le is focusing on the ground war, leaving the players' boots squarely on terra firma. There will be vehicles, although no aircraft. There will be civilians that can be used as human shields or thrown at enemies to knock them off balance. And there will be actual shields that will absorb damage, as well as other bells and whistles.
"It's much more of a close-quarters [game]. The action takes place in a much smaller environment," Le said. "I tried to implement a lot of features that you find in real life that really add to the gameplay, like the dogs, the vehicles. We have rappelling. We have charges where you can blow open doors.
"It's a much more interactive environment, there's so much you can do. We have a lot of little features that I find will alter the course of gameplay and it's just a matter of tweaking them so that they aren't super annoying or super out of balance. I'm really excited to see what players will come up with."
Le is also doing a lot of looking back at parts of Counter-Strike that players didn't enjoy, and seeing how he might be able to improve the experience. His first challenge: Make the VIP scenario fun.
"When I designed the VIP scenario I kind of gave up on it because a lot of people communicated that they weren't enjoying [it] and they wanted to play more of the bombing scenario," he said. "So I tried to analyze what was wrong with the VIP scenario ... when you play TI and you see the videos of TI, you'll see the changes that I tweaked ... and I think [it's] much more engaging now."
Yet in spite of Le's interest in giving players what they want, he knows that at some level he's not going to be able to do that. Because no matter how many cool features he's able to pack into Tactical Intervention, how many Counter-Strikemodes he's able to tweak and how much fun it is to play, it will not be Counter-Strike 2. And Le doesn't want it to be.
"I'M AN INDIE GUY."
"I think that if I were to make Counter-Strike 2, people [would] be expecting that this has got to be the next best thing since sliced bread," Le said. "I hate that. I hate that whole standard thing. It's a game, man. We're going to play it, and tweak it with the players over the course of the cycle.
"It doesn't sound good for marketing when I say that, that I like releasing a game that's not triple-A, but I don't like working under a burden, or under a certain standard that I have to fulfill. I like to have the freeness of being able to just experiment with new stuff."
This reluctance to work to a triple-A standard may sound like sour grapes from a man who hasn't shipped a game in 10 years, and from some indie developers, that's just what it is. But hearing Gooseman say that he doesn't want to work in triple-A, you sense that he's speaking from a place of deep, hard-won wisdom: You know that Gooseman used to work in triple-A and walked away from it.
You know that Gooseman used to work at Valve.
THE VALVE YEARS
Gooseman is hard on himself.
The tortured path of Tactical Intervention began at the turn of the century, at Valve, the megalithic software company in Seattle. Le's Counter-Strike had originally been designed as a multiplayer mod on top of Valve's single player FPS Half-Life. The mod became an instant hit and was soon absorbed into the mother ship, giving Valve an instant boost in the online multiplayer shooter landscape.
Yet in spite of propelling Le's game to new heights, the move almost ended Le's career, and he says he has only himself to blame.
"It put a big burden on my shoulders," Le said. "When I was at Valve I wanted to just impress people. I just wanted to fit in. Everybody at Valve was so great. It felt like if I didn't present them with a great game design it wouldn't get accepted. There was a certain standard of quality that Valve expects and it's not something [where] they say: 'You have to do this or else we're going to fire you.' I think it's just something that I felt."
AFTER TWO YEARS, HE HAD FAILED TO COME UP WITH SO MUCH AS A DESIGN DOCUMENT
Apart from wanting to please his employers at Valve, Le says he also felt a great responsibility to please the Counter-Strike audience by giving them a game worthy of their expectations and their belief in him as the archetypical indie creator gone big time.
"I wanted to do something that would knock their socks off basically," he said. "And that scared me. I wasn't really comfortable with it, I guess, because my roots are in an indie background."
In a way, it was Le's indie roots that made working at Valve so difficult. The very innocence and inexperience prized by the company, and that led him to create one of its biggest-selling hits, made it hard for him to find a niche for himself in Valve's more structured environment.
"I like to do everything," Le said. "Modeling, animation, coding, and all these kind of things. I think that kind of made it hard for me to fit in at Valve.
"At Valve everybody has a very specific role, or at most two roles and they're really good at that. So for me it kind of felt like I was a jack of all trades but not a master of any."
Le struggled to find his place at the company. For a time he even worked as a low-level animator while Valve patiently waited for his muse to come calling with a concept forCounter-Strike 2. It never did.
"I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted [Counter-Strike 2] to be," he said. "I didn't have a clear game plan or a game design so it was very hard for me to convince anyone that this is a good idea for the new Counter-Strike. I was given a huge amount of freedom and they never really put any stress on me. There were never any deadlines for me. It was basically ... self-imposed."
The pressure to perform, self-imposed though it may have been, ultimately prevented Le from being able to take advantage of the opportunity within Valve, and stalled the company's progress with Counter-Strike 2. After two years, he had failed to come up with so much as a design document for the sequel.
"I wasn't able to do that as a designer," Le said. "I wasn't able to produce that document. So that's why we broke up. We both felt mutually that I work better in an environment where I'm not bound by certain standards.
"I'm an indie guy."
"I DIDN'T HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF WHAT I WANTED COUNTER-STRIKE 2 TO BE."
IT BECAME COMPLICATED
"When I left Valve there was the understanding that I was going to be working on a game very similar to Counter-Strike," said Le, "and at the time there was no idea forCounter-Strike 2. There were no plans."
That was then.
Now, Le is closing in on the as-yet unannounced release date for his long-awaited spiritual successor to Counter-Strike, Tactical Intervention.
Unfortunately, after 10 years, Valve is also closing in on a release date for their own spiritual successor to Counter-Strike: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Le says that the timing is unfortunate because he doesn't want to - can't, really - compete with Valve, but there isn't anything he can do.
"I have friends there," he said, "and some of them even asked me to come back and work on [CS:GO] ... I thought about it a lot, but this project is almost done so I can't really do that."
According to Le, the mutual decision for him to depart Valve included an understanding that he would be working on another game and that that game would probably look a lot like Counter-Strike.
"Initially it was actually going to be a mod," he said. "It was going to be another mod of the new Source engine basically and it was going to be released as a free mod and then it would be built from there."
"Two years after that, it became complicated."
And that's an understatement.
"BY THE TIME I REALIZED HOW DIFFICULT IT WAS, I WAS ALREADY THERE."
Tactical Intervention Screenshots
Le says much of the long development cycle was spent with him addressing the new and myriad ways in which multiplayer shooter technology has advanced since he got his start as a mod coder. For example, in those days, every aspect of an online match-up was handled by a single, dedicated server. Now it's much more complex.
"When I developed Counter-Strike I only had to worry about the dedicated servers," Le said. "So there was only one server that I really had to develop. With this game, technically, we had to develop several satellite servers like the login server and the database server, so in essence we were kind of developing our own Steam. Our own backend that the players would log into and it would keep track of their items and all their information. It was a really big task."
Then there was the language barrier. Moving development on Tactical Intervention to Korea allowed Le to find the funding he needed to complete the game, but things that would have been minor headaches for a North American development team turned into major obstacles for Le in Korea, largely because he couldn't speak the language.
"I was kind of naive thinking I could go there and just integrate in the culture," he says. "I thought I would be with a lot of people who could speak English and I thought I could really communicate with the team there, but it's been really difficult to find, for one thing, people who can speak English properly. Because most of the English speakers in Korea are already working at the bigger companies because they get attracted so easily. If you have that skill you can work at any big company easily."
The language barrier wasn't the only issue.
"In Korea very few people know the Source engine," he said. "In fact in the world very few people use the Source engine. It's just one of those engines that's just not really well known and it's really unfortunate because it made it really difficult for us to find good developers."
In spite of the challenges, relocating to Korea was a sacrifice Le was willing to make in order to finish his game. He admits he's not much of a businessman, and didn't know how to secure the funding he needed to complete the project on his own. So when a friend introduced him to a Korean investor, and the opportunity to join an existing Korean company to transform it into a development studio, Gooseman took the plunge.
"IN KOREA VERY FEW PEOPLE KNOW THE SOURCE ENGINE."
In retrospect, he wonders if it was the right call.
"I'm not sure I would have done it again if I knew how difficult it was," he says. "But it's just one of those things that once you start, it's hard for you to just pick up and go 'OK, this is a bad idea, I have to leave.'
"By the time I realized how difficult it was, I was already there and we had already established the company and hired a few people. So it was difficult to turn back and say 'this is too hard.'"
Gooseman is hopeful.
Ten years ago, he turned his back on one of the best gigs in the business and almost ended his game development career. Now, after clawing his way back in, he knows he still has a long road ahead of him, and he's looking forward to the challenge.
"Once you release the game you have to constantly put out new content," he said. "That's something that I'm going to be responsible for so I won't have time to start a new project for another two to three years.
"That's if the game is successful. If it's not successful ... we shut it down ... I try not to think about that."
Le said that although he hasn't had time to think about what his next move may be - apart from designing more content for Tactical Intervention - he's looking forward to getting started on a new project, where he can apply the lessons he's learned and, hopefully, develop a game in less than 10 years.
He just hopes that gamers haven't forgotten about him, and are willing to give this game a chance.
"IT'S JUST A MATTER OF TWEAKING SO THAT EVERYTHING IS HELD TOGETHER IN COHESION."
"I think we've got a good amount of feedback," he said. "Our play testers seem to be reacting positively to it, so I'm pretty confident that it's going to be pretty fun. I'm excited to see how the players react and I'm looking forward to tweaking the game mechanics so it's really balanced and it's really enjoyable.
"Because we have a good set of features in place it's just a matter of tweaking them so that everything is held together in cohesion."
Gooseman is a tweaker.
Much of the lasting popularity of Counter-Strike is a testament to Le's affinity for the small adjustments that can make a big impact, the tweaks that make a game so much better than it was. As a developer, he doesn't put ideas on paper and then make them real; he builds a game and then bangs on it, tweaking it until it's just right.
After a long decade of making big moves, of risking it all with little room for small adjustments, Gooseman has finally returned to where the feels most comfortable. And if it ends up being not quite right, he'll tweak it.