Published: December 29, 2000
He may not have been on any magazine's list of Game Gods this year, but Minh Le is the most influential designer you know nothing about.
"Gooseman," as he's known online, is the original and almost sole creative force behind the most-played online shooter game ever: Half-Life: Counter-Strike. A well-known mod maker even before that game came out, he is now something of a legend. His creation is so popular that the slightest alterations he has made have brough cries of joy and howls of anger alike. In the realm of online twitch play, Le is a colossus. The fact that he's also a reticent semi-recluse from British Columbia seems, somehow, almost beside the point.
Even by today's standards, Half-Life: Counter-Strike is a phenomenon. Odds are, if you're playing a first-person shooter online right now, it's CS. Current estimates have the number of online CS players as at least one-and-a-half times as many as all the other big four online shooter games (Quake 3: Arena, Unreal Tournament, Team Fortress, and Starseige: Tribes), combined.
What remains unique about CS is that it became this phenomenon long before it started making its creator any money. Released by Le as a downloadable free modification to the classic shooter Half-Life in June of 1999, the game grew its fan base successfully through successively released beta versions. Only after the game was ubiquitous did Le and Half-Life creators Valve Software release a retail version this November. (The free version is still available online.)
CS is only the most successful example so far of the game "mod," a new creative gamework created with the tacit co-operation (and in some cases, active assistance) of game developers. Compared to some of their counterparts, companies like Id and Valve are the equivalents of the open-source movement in the gaming industry, creating products that can be repurposed by eager fans as game design kits. Valve had already tapped into the mod market with the inclusion of the Team Fortress mod to Id's Quake 2 (designed by two Australian amateurs) in some editions of Half-Life, which shares the same game engine. As Le's own mod took off, he found himself increasingly able to draw on the resources of Valve, as well. Shrewdly, by offering Le and his growing fanbase its best wishes, the company has continued to enjoy strong sales of the original Half-Life as well, now over two years past its initial release.
Perhaps predictably, CS has also become a major forum for the burgeoning world of professional game play, and a central feature of many events on the 2000 pro gaming tour, including this month's Babbage's Cyberathlete Professional League championship in Dallas, which offered a $5,000 first prize for the winning four-person team. Proving how international CS has become, it was Sweden's Eyeballers, a Quake/Counter-Strike clan that took the purse; the European teams' dominance "came as a cold, wet, bitch-slap" even to the top-rated American players, according to one commentator. The league is planning an even larger tournament for April.
It's this team-play aspect with every game featuring a group of "Terrorists" taking on a group of "Counter-Terrorists," that makes CS an ideal venue for the online wars between the shooter clans. But what has made CS the biggest online shooter of 2000 was something else: the remarkable balance the designer achieved between realistic and fun play.
There's a sense in which high-speed twitch games, like Quake 3, are approaching chess in their stylized depiction of the act they're supposedly originally about: shooting and killing. Ever watch a good Quake player run a map with all the detail settings turned off? In the interests of faster speed, and better reaction, the walls are bare, the explosions simple polygonal effects, the power-ups simple 2-D indicators. You can recover from being hit by rockets, and player death is merely a return to a starting point. The whole experience seems to evoke a different plane of reality altogether.
Not so, Le's creation. Death comes quickly in CS: body armour helps but little. And when you do die, you're lost to your team until the scenario ends. The weapons are accurately modelled after real life counterparts, and the arenas and back stories seem ripped from today's headlines, with elite terrorists facing even more elite special forces groups in desert towns or jumbo jets.
But while it succeeds in making things more real, CS also avoids the other end of the spectrum. The ultra-realistic Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear has even more dedication to "true-life" detail, and even more frequent deaths due to bullet impact, but its player numbers are dwarfed by the amateur mod's. Both games have their adherents, of course. But while it's hard to define, there's no doubt CS succeeded in bringing a realistic feel to the online shooter genre, while at the same time retaining those undefinable aspects that makes these modern versions of "cowboys and Indians" both deeply fun, and easy to become engaged in.
That, says Le, was all he really wanted in the first place.
In real life, Minh "Gooseman" Le is a resident of British Columbia, Canada. The youngest of four brothers, he's lived in the Vancouver area since he was 4. Vancouver, a Seattle-sized city, is Canada's major West Coast seaport, but the Greater Vancouver area extends into the foothills of the Coastal Range mountains that ring it to the east. One of the cities on the outskirts is Surrey, which Le has called home for about nine years.
Even as a young adolescent, says Le, "most of my interests revolved around computers." Apart from wall-climbing (he and his brothers would scale the walls of his public school on weekends), he had few interests that didn't involve a keyboard. Nor did school ever particularly interest him. "I really don't think my school life has affected what I've become. I think I was more influenced by my desire for computer games."
He knew almost from the start that his love for games would draw him to the industry. "I never really thought I would become a game developer. I just thought I would become a programmer and work in some big company making databases."
All that changed, however, with the 1996 release of Id Software's Quake. In line with its policy of encouraging mod makers, Id also released the game's software development kit (SDK) giving diehard gamers a chance to make their own levels and other mods. For Le, it was an epiphany of sorts, he says now.
"I think the biggest point in my career life came about when the Quake SDK was released. The moment I started making even a small modification to Quake, making a couple of new guns, I was instantly hooked. The feeling of being able to play something that you've created is such an awesome feeling and it's kept me going ever since."
After high school, Le enrolled in Simon Fraser University. Named after a famous Canadian explorer, SFU is known for its striking architecture, it's half-decent college teams, and it's award-winning pipe band, among other things: some consider it the most American-like of Canada's all-public university system. But for Le the real attraction was its proximity to home, only a 30 minute bus ride away. From then until now, the 23 year-old has yet to move out from his parents' place.
Majoring in computer science, Le kept his school life and his growing hobby of mod-making separate (he graduated this year). While he values the academic experience, it didn't really divert him from his new obsession. "I had a handful of memorable teachers but none of them really had an influence on my decision to make mods. No one really knew about CS while I was at SFU."
Instead, he preferred working in relative obscurity. Even after the last year, as the accolades poured in from "Gooseman" legions of online fans, the real-life British Columbian game designer remains all but unheralded by the press, and unknown by his neighbours. Frankly, he admits, he's something of a recluse that way.
"I really like to keep a low profile and I shy away from media events. I do get the odd email from a fellow Surrey person asking me if I'd like to grab a coffee or something but it's just not my thing. I honestly could do without all the attention since I never really used it to any benefit, aside from the attention it got me from Valve."
His family know what he's up to, of course, But they're supportive; fortunately, Le, says, "My family doesn't have to put up with much. I'm pretty independent of them. I just take whatever food and shelter I need and go on about my business.
"I just have a regular job just like everyone else as far as they're concerned."
As for the rest, he admits to wondering sometimes if he wouldn't be just as happy if no one played CS at all. Having a fan base isn't all it's cracked up to be, he admits.
"One of the great things about starting CS was that no one really expected anything from you and you never had any responsibility to anyone. But the way things are now, it's like I'm responsible for the welfare of an entire gaming population."
Fame holds no interest for him, he says. "I don't even want to be well known inside the community. I love the role of underdog: you have absolutely zero expectations and zero responsibilities. You could churn out a crap ass game and no one would give a damn."
The 23 year-old also has an artist's disdain for doing anything popular or crowd-pleasing. In conversations with fans, he says, "I always try to stress to the people that want something changed or are unhappy with feature X, that it is a free world and they can choose to play whatever they feel like playing. I wish they would let me exercise my freedom to make whatever I feel like making."
Starting with his first well-known mod, "Navy SEALS" for Quake, Le's creations have been nothing if not idiosyncratic. For the longest time, all the weapons in "SEALS" (and later CS) were left-handed, because Le himself was. After Quake 2 was released, he worked for a time with the team behind its popular "Action" mod before he left, citing creative differences: in interviews at the time, the young university student conceded he probably worked best alone.
Now on his own, he began looking around for a new project. In keeping with his fixation on making Quake style shooters realistic, he hit upon the idea for Counter-Strike. "After I left ["Action" Quake] to work on a mod of my own I spent a good month or so doing research on what would make a great game. The more I learned about terrorism and the forces that fight terrorism, the more I enthralled I became and it just sort of grew from there."
By January of 1999, he was already toiling away, working on character and weapon models for Counter-Strike, even though the Half-Life SDK he needed wouldn't be released until April. He had chosen this version of the Quake 2 engine as the palette for his next mod, instead of the SiN or Unreal engines, largely because it had a number features he needed, and was programmed in C++, which he knew well. With his established track record, he would soon have the buzz working in his favour: the first CS sites were up by March. A few furious months for the young designer followed, culminating in the release of CS "beta 1.0" in June.
Successive versions followed, each more stable, and with more features than the last. Some features were added, then taken away. Driveable vehicles would make an appearance, and a host of new weapons. By "beta 5", the popularity was such that Le could enlist the support of Valve, through the vehicle of Barking Dog Studios to share some of the programming and development burden.
"I was hired by Barking Dog to work on another project. At the time, Valve and Barking Dog had already known each other so Valve approached Barking Dog and myself with an offer to develop CS BETA 5. Barking Dog did a great job of polishing up some of the rough edges of CS and fixing a smackload of bugs."
Sometime in late 1999, CS became the most popular online shooter, outpacing Team Fortress: it hasn't been knocked off that perch since. The popularity had an upside and a downside for Le. On the good side, it allowed him to close a deal with Valve (in April of this year) with the intent of developing CS into a retail release for that company, and getting him a paycheque for his efforts. On the down side, it saw a rampant increase in online cheating for what, Le admits, is an easily modifiable game. Cheat hacks allowed players to aim unerringly for an enemy's head, or see through walls. Much of Le's development time since "beta 6" has been spent hunting down and trying to eradicate the most popular cheats.
"I believe cheating is inherent in internet play," Le says now. "There are a handful of people out there that get a rise from destroying other people's play experience. You just can't get rid of it totally. We just try to address it as it comes up.
"The thing about designing games is that you're more interested in developing a fun game that normal people will enjoy. It is a huge amount of time and effort to be able to predict the cheats that will pop up. Try to imagine someone designing a device that will be used by thousands of people and you have to design it in such a way that no one will ever abuse the device in any way. When that device gets exposed to such a large audience it is almost inevitable that it will be cracked. I guess the short of it is, it's a lot easier to break a system than it is to design a completely unbreakable system."
With so many people playing there's been no shortage of criticism from the players, with a few helpful suggestions mixed in. But customer service just isn't his thing, he freely admits. "As long as they don't try to physically harm me, they're entitled to whatever they feel like spewing my way."
Even if he had enjoyed it, he doubts he could have responded to the 300 emails a day he has been receiving and still continue to develop CS over this last year. "I can only pick a handful to answer... Heck, even that becomes tediously unmanageable when you're doing it on a daily basis. Sometimes I just want to sit down and work.
"You know, I truly believe there is no one right way to make a game. A lot of the suggestions I get are pretty obvious that they [could] belong in CS. But it's my job to allocate my resources and spent time on the features that improve CS, and are a fun for me to work on."
It's not that he hasn't listened to them. At various times, fan pressure has caused him to back away from, or reverse, changes he wanted himself, such as the elimination of frag counts, or the locking of character models, in an aborted moved to try and prevent the increasingly common cheating online.
"At the end of the day, I'm the one that has to get these damn features implemented and if I find myself spending 100 hours just to add a freaking rope I'm not going to attempt to do it. Theoretically, I could pay more attention to the suggestions I get. But if I asked you if you would rather spend time doing something that you would enjoy doing and feel would improve the game, or spend time painfully doing someone else's suggestions, most people would choose the first. They want to live life left to their own devices and not according to someone else's wishes."
Until early this year, though, those fans were all he'd gained for weeks and months of hard work. It was only after the consumer base was undeniably huge that Valve software agreed to bring on Le and work with him in the development of the retail product. While Le wouldn't discuss the terms of the compensation, he would say the compensation he's been receiving "has kept me fed and sheltered the last little while."
He wasn't really interested in the finer points of the deal Valve was offering, he admits. "I didn't bother with a lawyer. I put my faith in Valve, and they've treated me well enough. Ever since I started working for them, they've showed me an incredible amount of leeway and have went out of their way to accommodate me. Not only have they been very supportive of me and given me a lot of freedom in the design of CS, I've learned a lot from working with them."
So where does Minh Le go now? Having brought his mod, against all the odds, to retail product status, Le admits he's "done with Counter-Strike."
"I think CS 1.0 [the retail version] has adequately captured what I set out to attain in terms of gameplay and graphics. It's been a long and bumpy process but I think I'm done with CS."
He has no interest in developing a matching console version, or porting it to some other new engine... if that is ever done, it'll be done by others, he says. "I was never a big fan of those 'wham, bam, thank-you-ma'am' console quickies. I prefer a much more open ended system like the PC."
But where exactly Gooseman will fit into the gaming industry remains something of an open question. It's arguable he could write his own cheque in the gaming industry today, but Le has little interest in that prospect: he just wants to get back to the mod-making.
"I definitely do not want my own company and be burdened with the responsibilities of managing other people's work. If I could continue working on games the way I've been working on them the last three years then that would be seventh heaven for me."
Once a modder, always a modder? Perhaps. Le has already identified his next likely challenge: a Counter-Strike 2 mod for Valve's still-to-be-released Team Fortress 2. His newfound connections with the company have given him the insider's track on what the eagerly anticipated online shooter is going to be like. "I do think the other new engines [Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, Lithtech] look really great and a CS-type game would be feasible on any of them, but I really like what I see in the TF2 engine. But I can't really comment on the TF2 engine.. It's really hush, hush. At any rate, he admits, his involvement "will have to wait till TF2 is released. In the meantime, I'm going to take some much needed R&R."