Valve is famous for refusing to neglect its customers’ wishes, but that romantic vision of putting players first creates complex challenges.
Today the most played game on Steam is Counter-Strike. No, not the wholly updated Source version; that’s third. On the top of the pile is the original Counter-Strike, a game that first launched eleven years ago.
Counter-Strike 1.6 is old and ugly and can’t be incorporated into Valve’s future vision for online gaming. But the company can’t bear the idea of cutting people from any game, even one older than Steam itself, if it’s popular.
Its successor, Counter-Strike Source, isn’t exactly a barren wasteland, but to Valve’s surprise it didn’t succeed in pulling all people away from 1.6. Faced with a dichotomised audience of very similar tastes, the Washington studio is attempting plan b. It won’t be shutting down its games, but wants to lure both audiences to a third, and hopefully final, version of Counter-Strike.
That new game, suffixed Global Offensive, is targeted at both audiences and will hopefully put an end to a seven-year division within its community. It’s hardly the walls of Gaza, but judging from the fury posted on the Steam forums, perhaps it’s just as delicate an issue.
Develop sat with Valve writer Chet Faliszek to explore the plan for luring two communities together, and discuss how the project is coming along.
What was the reason behind creating a closed beta for Counter-Strike GO?
Internally we have a problem where we make a change to a game and everyone hates a change, but it’s a change.
What you kind of have to do is push past that, and ignore that feedback for a minute and let them adapt to it and play with it for a while. Then they’ll see the reasons for the change and after that they’ll either embrace it, or not.
So what tools do you have for gauging how the community feels about a change?
A lot of the time it’s through statistics. In Left4Dead2 we have a regular poll where were ask for player’s views. But through polls we only get a perception.
Perception and reality often aren’t the same. So we’ll ask a question about perception and then be able to look at results from the beta and gauge where it falls in between.
With the beta, we can look at things like death maps right away and there we can visually see the problem areas.
Another way of getting an understanding of a game is bringing people into the studio. All through the Portal 2 process we had players in, every week. Multiple teams, coming in and playing.
It’s a really good way of testing your ideas. As a developer we may have what we think is a great idea, but then we realise people aren’t playing the game the way that we want them to. So you have to lead them to play it that way, and then you’ll find out the adjustments you have to make for that to happen.
How important is it getting that feedback from the pro Counter-Strike community for Global Offensive?
During Counter-Strike: Source I don’t think we had our eyes open as much regarding some concerns people had. Therefore with Global Offensive we want to make sure that we’re doing what they want. Or that we at least understand the implications of what they’re asking for.
So what role does Counter-Strike have to play in the world of eSports?
Well definitely Version 1.6 and Source are pretty big players, right? They’re kind of the number-one first person shooters – there are a lot of games that have come and gone but those remain really pure and competitive games.
So with Global Offensive, we’re making it to be the best version of Counter-Strike, and the one that people should be playing – but we can’t force that. We need to talk with those players and try to understand their concerns.
But we know the 1.6 players and the CSS players are looking for something new. I think they’d like something from us that can incorporate them into being one.
People like to say stuff like, “Oh the 1.6 players, they’re people that can’t afford real computers”, but that’s not it. It’s because they like that skill set and rule set, and they like that level of competition but I still think they’d happily move to something else if it could bring in new players, and they could see their community grow.
One of the ways to do that is with better graphics. 1.6 looks like shit, right? I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks it looks good anymore. It’s a sign of the times - if you want to see the community grow we’re going to have to up the graphics.
So hopefully everyone is looking in with open minds to us trying to make the game that will make everybody happy.
Both sets of pros would love to see a game that sponsors would see as the definitive version so they can have bigger tournaments.
Counter-Strike is unlike DOTA, in that it has a history of established tournaments. We don’t want to stifle that, we want to make this an organic process that will see those organisations grow even more.
Do you think CS players are ever envious at the amount of support that TF2 gets?
No. They’re different beasts. Ultimately, those games like TF2 aren’t made to be competitively played.
We’re making sure as we update it that we’re not changing what it is, so it can still be that competitive sport.
Those guys would lose their minds if they saw we’d suddenly added lots of sparkly effects. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love TF2 and I play it all the time, but it’s a different world.
In the CS: GO forum they started a thread called: “Microtransactions: What would we accept?”
It’s kind of interesting. They put in terms of what would we accept and what do we want. We want to be able to keep the uniformity but also show off who we are as individuals.
For us, we’re delighted by that. Thanks for doing some work for us, y’know?
But at the moment you’re just focused on getting the game right?
Yes, none of that stuff ever matters unless you’ve got a good game. So it’s got to be about making a good game first worry about everything else later. We haven’t even thought about pricing yet. Once you’ve got the game right, all that other stuff is easy.
Valve promoted DOTA2 with a $1 million tournament at GamesCom. Will CS: GO get a similar backing?
I think there’s a larger community that already exists there. Yesterday I had emails from ESL and CEVO [the biggest leagues in USA and Europe], so the conversations have already started with those guys. They’re really smart, and the competitive players are really smart – they think about the choices they make and you can’t force them to do anything. We want to work with them and get their feedback.
At the time of the tournament, the DOTA2 website had streaming video with commentary in five different languages, live stats and rosters. Is this something that’s going to continue in CS: GO and other Valve games?
The key is making the game so that people will want to watch those streams. Then we will incorporate what DOTA is doing. DOTA is at the forefront of spectator eSports, so we’ll definitely be look at that and getting their feedback.
Everyone at Valve works on a lot of different games, we kind of all move around, and as a company we experiment in one way and then we’ll take what we’ve learned and use it in another game.
Do you ever feel like the community owns this game and that Valve are merely the key holders?
For Counter-Strike in particular, that is true.
I think watching the transition that took place between 1.6 to CSS, there’s a certain amount of respect we have to give the community and we've learned to receive that feedback from the community.
When we read the forums of any of our games, we cant just read one post and think “well this is what it’s about”. We want to look at trends, data and other feedback.
With Left4Dead2, it was fun to compare the in-game voting with the forum voting – the two differ. You’ll see that on the forums people get really mad, but we love those guys because they’re really clear about when they think something is wrong.
It’s helpful to have a canary in the coalmine that lets you know really quickly when something is wrong with your game.
Not so long ago, Valve used to be all about the PC but recently you’ve had successes on the console. What have you learned from these games that can help you make sure CS:GO is a hit on the consoles as well as the PC?
One of the things we learned with Left4Dead in particular is that the all the players are the same community.
There are differences, like we found that PC players are more inclined to use sniper rifles whereas the 360 players would prefer chainsaws.
But overall, they have the same wants, the same experiences and the same level of play.
It isn’t as if you go pick up a 360 controller and suddenly become stupid. So I think it was really reassuring to learn that and know that our instincts on both sets of platforms can cross over. So there’s no magic sauce that you have to use on say the PS3 version to make sure it's a success.
So will there be cross-platform play across the PC and PS3?
We’re looking at it. It’s something that we’ll find out during the beta. We don't want to hamstring one platform to another. So we’ll start the beta on PC and then at the end of that we’ll give it over to the 360 players, because we just don’t have that ability to do incremental updates and things like that on the 360.
So through Steamworks on the PS3 you can offer those incremental updates?
Somewhat. There’s some big changes that still need to go through, so we’ll have to see, we’re open to that and it’d be cool idea but we’re just going to have to wait.
Is there a chance that Steamworks make it onto the Xbox?
Maybe, we’ll see. That’s something Microsoft will has to decide. There’s some things going on with Portal 2 right now, but we’ll see.