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Cldrn: Will Global Offensive make CS go?

By Duncan 'Thorin' Shields
Aug 13, 2011 05:32

ImageFollowing the announcement of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the discussion surrounding it 'The Cauldron' takes a look at whether this game warrants anticipation and can unite the CS scenes.

"The Cauldron" is a column in which I address topical concerns, express opinions not represented elsewhere and/or hold court on matters which have been bubbling away inside of me.

Thanks to what was initially a leak, or unofficial release, of information and eventually an official announcement by Valve the CS world is, for however briefly, abuzz with discussion over the prospect of a sequel to Counter-Strike. Topics which have arisen include whether the game itself can be a replacement for CS 1.6, whether such a game could unite 1.6 and Source players under one umbrella and Valve's ability to deliver a valid competitive game. Personally this announcement inspires no confidence in me for a brighter Counter-Strike future, delivers to me no convincing reason to feel hope for such a game and reminds me only too painfully of numerous other such failed moments in esports history when great things were promised and never delivered.

Let's break down each of the key factors and consider why they the sum of them all does leave Counter-Strike's future looking bright if Global Offensive is to become the medium through which that future is manifest. I will also use quotes from visionary esports writer, and personal influence, FI Onslaught which, althought authored between 2000 and 2001, and typically about Quake, fit only too aptly in this scenario and show a level of understanding and prescience to that man's insights into competitive games which bears considering.

Valve didn't make Counter-Strike, they ruined Counter-Strike

ImageTo the most casual, or newest, of esports followers the main reason to be excited about the release and implications of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is that it's a sequel to Counter-Strike, or replacement for, created by the people who made Counter-Strike right? Actually the person almost entirely responsible for the creation of Counter-Strike is not at all involved with Global Offensive. Counter-Strike was the brain child and passion project of CA Gooseman, coming out of his previous project, Action Quake 2, and spilling over into the Half-Life engine thanks to Valve releasing their Software Development Kit. He continued to work on Counter-Strike throughout the betas and changed things as the game progressed.

Once Counter-Strike's meteoric rise was under way the game had gained enough public attention and a large player based, especially for a mod, that Valve stepped in and took over. One key component of their SDK was that ultimately Valve Software owned whatever was created using it. Gooseman happily stepped aside, moving on to other projects, and Valve released Counter-Strike as a retail game, available to be bought and played without needing Half-Life installed anymore. The Valve era of Counter-Strike can be thought of being from version 1.0 onwards, let's call it retail when referencing it later, while the Gooseman era can be through of as being from beta 1 to the final beta, which we can simply call the betas.
Amongst players who experienced the game competitively during the betas many would argue over which beta was the best competitive vehicle for Counter-Strike, according to personal preferences and idiosyncracies, but few would not agree that the best competitive Counter-Strike version was one of the betas. From the retail era, when Valve stepped in, onwards the game became more and more watered down and limited in terms of skill curve, skill ceiling and competitive variety.

I could write an entire column about all of the things Valve changed over the years, and maybe one day I will, but for now it is enough to point in the direction that during the betas the game changed but most of the changes had merits to them which justified them, to varying degrees. Meanwhile the retail era saw changes which were largely negative in their effects on the competitive game.

There were a small handful of positive changes, such as simple hitbox/netcode fixes, making the round timer stop when the bomb was planted, improving the money system, improvement of smoke grenades and adding the galil and famas, but ultimately these improvements can't be weighed favourably against the removal of the ability to quick-walk, the more limited spray control of the rifles, the removal of quick-switch on the AWP, the addition of slowdown to consecutive jumps, the changes to inferno, the ability to fire pistols with more accuracy in the air and more. A few positive additions here and there were not a worthwhile price to pay for all of those negatives which limited how great the competitive game could be. Counter-Strike is still a good game, perhaps the best team shooter based in realism ever created, but even Counter-Strike is not the game it once was. That is entirely down to Valve Software and the decisions they have repeatedly taken to appease the most casual of public server players but with almost no attention or respect paid to the competitive scene.

Valve didn't create or nurture Counter-Strike, they beat and abused it until it was a shell of its former self but with enough brilliance, courtesy of its original creator and the beta process, that its charisma was so magnetic it was survived over a decade and through numerous sequels and attempts to kill it. Not since the first Quake has there have been a game which has naturally created its own competitive scene by virtue of what a phenomenon the game itself was for naturally attracting a player base.

Cliffe: "Follow my lead. GO! GO! GO!"

ImageBut wait, some might say, isn't US Jess Cliffe involved with this? Jess Cliffe was involved with Counter-Strike and is credited as a co-creator, indeed he has been the voice of Counter-Strike for much of its life in a number of ways, both as the recognisable voice of the radio commands and as the spokesperson, while the more reserved Gooseman remained somewhat out of the public eye. Make no mistake though: Jess Cliffe is Counter-Strike's uncle or step-father, the father of Counter-Strike is Gooseman and Gooseman alone.

Consider a movie which has been written and directed by one person and another is credited as being involved in co-plotting it. The importance and influence of each should be apparent, and it's also worth noting that Cliffe's involvement may well be even less significant, as far as design and dyanmics go, than that example.

Meet Source, the true son of Valve

Counter-Strike:Source is Counter-Strike created by Valve Software. That game is Valve's idea of what Counter-Strike should be and their offering for a game which could replace Counter-Strike. Now personally I don't like Counter-Strike: Source at all, but that's not a problem for me since I apply my lack of interest in it by ignoring it as a competitive game. If others enjoy it then let them have at it and enjoy playing a game they appreciate. The problem arises if people try to force Counter-Strike:Source to be a replacement for CS 1.6, as the CPL, CGS and Valve have collectively tried a number of times now.
For the CS 1.6 afficionado Source is a great example of competitive Counter-Strike should not be, from the way the guns handle down to the radical effect on side biases of maps and more. While most of us can probably not pinpoint exactly what makes 1.6 a good game with surgical precision we can point to Source and say that is an example of what we don't want Counter-Strike to be like. It's also no coincidence that despite the competitive 1.6 community being only a niche market within the total player base of the game that Source was not the same kind of phenomenon upon its release and was unable to attract the same amount of players and interest.

This is not about whether you like Source and if you're wrong or right, it's about the fact Source is the game you have to look to when considering if Valve is capable of creating a replacement or sequel to 1.6. Based on that game and their changes to 1.6 you'd have to come to the conclusion that Valve are not capable of replicating or improving upon Counter-Strike 1.6. 1.6 is not the son of Valve Software, CS:Source is.

As far as even the concept of creating a replacement for 1.6 goes one would do well to consider this insight from FI Onslaught:

"To implant the same weapons and basicly the same physics which have been played to death for several years, is not meaningful. Then you could as well play the original game, which does the same thing, but better."

Valve haven't consulted any 1.6 experts

You wouldn't ask a gay man to be the key consultant on the design for a replacement for the vagina and then automatically assume the result would be something appealling to a straight man. Yet Valve Software have put effort and expense into flying over top European Counter-Strike: Source players to give their input to Valve on Global Offensive. For the 1.6 player this might seem confusing but if you consider my previous point, about which CS offspring is legitimately Valve's, then the picture painted makes sense. Just as with the sexual orientation associated with my analogy it's not that there's anything wrong with Source objectively or as a competitive game, if some people are attracted to that kind of game then that's fine. The problem lies in the idea that you can bring in people who like Source, a very different game to 1.6, and have them give you input to create a game which will then be a worthwhile sequel to or replacement for 1.6. Global Offensive's approach doesn't make any sense unless you consider the game to be a sequel to or replacement for Counter-Strike: Source. If that's the case then fine, good for Source players, but it means there is no reason for 1.6 players to be excited or anticipate anything of value to come out of the development and release of this new game.
But wait, some may say, Valve has also consulted US Craig "Torbull" Levine and UK Joe Miller. What relevance does that have to designing a good sequel to or replacement for Counter-Strike 1.6? Torbull's fame comes primarily from being a Counter-Strike manager for US Team3D from 2002-2006. His time as a competitive player was very brief and not at all marked by any kind of significant aptitude for the game. Not a legitimate competitive player, not a programmer, not a map maker, not someone occupying any position which suggests he would be an expert about gameplay design and dynamics for a game like Counter-Strike 1.6.

Torbull has accomplished great things within the esports industry and the field of Counter-Strike as one can see by looking to the successes of Team3D and ESEA, but this has no bearing on his opinion as an expert. Let each man prove himself by his opinions and words alone when it comes to being an expert, simply having a famous reputation is not enough. I'm not adverse to the idea Torbull could have some positive input on the game but bearing in mind I, and I would assume most readers, have never heard any kind of expert analysis, especially pertaining to gameplay design and dynamics, from Torbull I have no reason to assume he has given such.

ImageHow about Joe Miller then? Surely someone paid to talk about high level competitive Counter-Strike should qualify as an expert? Not necessarily when you consider the context of that job. Joe Miller is a play-by-play commentator for Counter-Strike, and in that role he excells. That is to say that his job involves telling the viewer what is happening, as simultaneously witnessed by their own eyes, and modifying the volume and tone of his voice along with his emotional state to fit the action unfolding on screen. When I say he tells the viewer what is happening, and does a good job of doing so, I mean that in its most overt sense.

Joe Miller essentially describes verbally the images he is seeing so that viewers can mentally anchor specific actions which are taking place in the visualised model they are creating in their mind of the action. He then adds an emotional layer to give people cues for when they should be excited, anticipatory of action about to happen, sad at a failed move, elated with a moment of brilliance and so on. Again, where does the expert understanding of gameplay design and dynamics automatically arise from that we should assume he is an expert in those areas?

Joe Miller is also not someone who is intimiately experienced in the entire history of competitive Counter-Strike and the development of the game. His original background is, to my knowledge, in Battlefield 1942 and he later moved into games such as Painkiller and Quake 4 before arriving as a permanent commentary fixture in Counter-Strike 1.6. He is not an expert on how Counter-Strike developed during the betas and through into the retail versions. He is not an expert on the subtle and overt changes which took place in competitive play from 1999 through the first half the 2000s. Hell, even within the field of Counter-Strike commentary the natural candidates would not be the play-by-play commentators. The man who sits next to the play-by-play commentator is known as the colour commentary and he is employed to analyse the action, give insight into the strategical aspects and offer comment on the merit of specific plays. Think of some of the best names who have undertaken this role in the past and you'll immediately have constructed a shortlist of people who would have been better candidates to be considered Counter-Strike experts: SE vesslan, NO XeqtR, FI lurppis and SE threat.

It should also be pointed out that even those players should not necessarily be considered experts in the context of what Valve is flying players out for: to give input on the competitive play of Global Offensive so that valve can shape their gameplay design and dynamics accordingly. Nevertheless it should be clear that at least inviting those players, who have both shown to be apt colour commentators and top tier players, would at least be a start. If the goal is truly to create a game which can be a worthy sequel to and replacement for 1.6 then surely the greatest players of all time would be on your shortlist of people to fly out? That means SE Potti, PL neo, SE f0rest, NO elemeNt, DK whiMp, SE HeatoN, SE MedioN, SE vesslan, NO XeqtR and so on. Instead Valve have consulted people who play CS:Source, someone whose aptitude is for talking to sponsors and someone who talks about what you can see with varying degrees of voice modulation. Are these the best suited experts to produce such a game? In my opinion that's not the case. I should once more point out that I'm not even saying those people can't, or don't, have valid input to make Global Offensive a better game. What I'm saying is that we have no reason to automatically assume they do, and neither does Valve Software.

Creating a worthy sequel or replacement to CS 1.6 might not even be possible

One key factor that Counter-Strike shares with Quake, the other game which shares its equally astonishing position as a natural phenomenon as far as player base and organically arising competitive scene are concerned during their peaks, is that a lot of what makes the game brilliant was not actively directed to those ends. Neither Quake not Counter-Strike were developed as competitive multiplayer games. Quake was developed as a singleplayer game which happened to have multiplayer capabilities.

The weapon imbalance which made multiplayer so fun came from design meant to affect the progression of the singleplayer experience, as the player acquired more and more powerful weapons. A number of other key features were also not intended in the way they were used competitively from rocketjumping to bunnyhopping. 1v1 duels and 4v4 TDM games were not even considered as avenues for how the multiplayer side of things would be developed. The multiplayer game was designed for free-for-all deathmatches.

Likewise Counter-Strike 1.6 was developed a game for public server free-for-all play. Even the negative changes which occured from Valve in the retail era, and to a lesser degree from Gooseman in the beta era, were made to please the casual public server player. They were not made with 5on5 competitive play in mind. Hence why shortsighted decisions made back in 2002 still throw a slightly underwhelming shadow across the highest levels of competitive Counter-Strike play even in 2011.
When f0rest pulls off some impeccable dodging and movement to kill two players but dies to a third because he has to jump through the air and is caught during the slowdown after his jump that is a direct result of a decision made in 2002 to forcibly stop people abusing bunnyhop scripts in public servers. So the minor annoyance of a casual player on a 32 player dust2 server in 2001 still forces limitations on the play of the greatest competitive players ever a decade later.

This is the kind of design which has been consciously implemented into Counter-Strike, and has not been a positive thing. Most of the best features of the game came about organically due to being designed for a different purpose but proving to be effective in competitive play.

As FI Onslaught points out:

"What can be said about gameplay then, if anything? Well, there are two very simple concepts to this. Realism and unrealism. The first one of the two is destined to slow the game and benefit the coward, while the other one is unlimited and undefined, thus a perfect platform for creating great gameplay!

Final verdict: Choose the later of the two concepts, make it technicaly solid and beutiful, and then leave the exploitation of gameplay to the gamers!"

Referencing his earlier comment about the pointlessness of implementing identical features into a new game when one could simply play the original, which does them the same if not better, this would also be a good place to point out that the world now is a different place than when Counter-Strike came out, both in terms of the kind of games people want to play and the gaming culture. There is nothing to say that if Counter-Strike were released to day it would even have the same degree of success it has back in 1999.

The casual player now typically enjoys dota clones, Modern Warefare type games, StarCraft 2 or World of WarCraft. These all cater to the casual experience much more adeptly than Counter-Strike, or Quake, possibly can. Since nearly all competitive players begin as casual players these are the games which find success competitively now, whatever you may feel about their potential for expressing skill. So even if somehow a perfect replication of 1.6 in a new graphical engine were possible there is nothing to say it would even be any kind of improvement in terms of player base, sponsor interest and as a general esports title. As long as esports continues to drive hard towards becoming a mainstream sport it will continue to embrace games with more casual appeal and spurn games with a very defined hardcore competitive bent.

Addressing the importance of happenstance in the development of great competitive games FI Onslaught explains:

"The game makers upon whom we have relied for so long have nothing more to offer us. The recipe for great gameplay is way beyond their reach. The few good things they have made for us in the past have been forged by chance and that will not happen again. After all, we are much harder to satisfy now than back in the days. Now we are hardcore."

and continues in more depth in this quote:

"To tell you the truth, the only things they do know is programing and aesthetics, and they know them enormously well. Their products are always state of the art when it comes to beauty and technical issues! This however, does not help them in the slightest when it comes to creating great gameplay. These guys do not know shit about what great gameplay is, and neither do anyone of us, no matter how many hours we have spent in front of their games!

Great gameplay is an abstraction and there is no way that it could be constructed in a fully conscious process. The whole idea is absurd, just listen to it; This is exactly what fun is, now let's have it! Where is the excitement in this, where is the adventure? All that is, was and will be, is a fully visible road, with no twists and surprises!"

If anything a sequel to Counter-Strike should probably seek to improve upon Counter-Strike and go in bold and innovative directions which can bring out a new kind of competitive game. Why would we expect that could be possible from people who didn't even create the original Counter-Strike and in fact had a hand in bringing down some of its transcendant feel?

Global Offensive won't unite the scenes, no game ever has

Part of the buzz of people discussing Global Offensive is the idea that if it somehow were a perfect game it could unite the 1.6 and Source communities into one, much larger, overall community. This is a pipedream just as the notion of a perfect game is a pipedream. No game in history has ever united all of the scenes in that genre back into one game. When Quake 3 came out lots of Quakeworld and Quake 2 players were excitedly anticipating it and yet it did not unite all of those scenes, even with all of the money pumped into it during the early days. Some enjoyed it and played it, some preferred Quakeworld and stuck with that, some preferred Quake 2 and stuck with that and some played Quake 3 for the money and then bailed once that money, largely, dried up.

This same call for a game to "unite the scenes" went out with the anticipation of Doom 3, Quake 4, QuakeLive and so on. Deathmatch scenes have never been united by the release of games, they have only become more and more fragmented. The only game which united all of the players was Quake and even then that's just because firstly everyone bought Quake for the singleplayer anyway, similar to people playing CS due to already owning Half-Life, and Quake was essentially the only big multiplayer FPS title at the time, thanks in part to its advances with TCP/IP. Previous games like Doom required modem dialups and so changing to Quake was a change in the very way the game was played, not just a change of game preferrence. When Quake 2 came out the scene immediately fragmented as some players migrated, some stayed and some new players emerged got into the new game first.

ImageWhen Counter-Strike: Source came out the CPL decided to drop its 1.6 tournament for that Summer and even scheduled its event to run parallel to ESWC. The results? Even a hastily added last minute 1.6 tournament to run alongside Source at CPL saw ESWC emerge as the new 'main event' to win in CS history, with the CPL never recovering again. Did everyone switch to Source? Of course not. 1.6 continued to outshine Source's numbers for years to come. Even the CGS throwing $30,000 a year salaries at players, pumping $45,000,0000 into two seasons of its league and airing on cable TV couldn't migrate the whole 1.6 scene into Source. These things don't occur artificially, they operate on much higher and deeper level than such surface notions.

ImageIf Global Offensive comes out there will still be people who will play 1.6 and play Source, thus the scene will be fragmented a third time. Even if all of the tournament circuit switches to Global Offensive that doesn't mean all of the top players will migrate. Some may prefer 1.6 and stick with that, some may move only for the money and some may not like the game at all and will retire entirely. The legendary SE MedioN and US BigDog, at one point in time perhaps the best European and American players respectively, both retired prior to the switch to CS 1.5 and brief and somewhat half-hearted comeback attempts in the new versions never saw them fall back in love with the game and rise to the same levels again.

If such all time great talent can be lost in versions changes in the same game who is looking forwards to the potential of a PL neo or a SE f0rest or a UA markeloff or a DK trace potentially getting lost in the migration to Global Offensive? That's even assuming they could be competitive in such a game. If the game is significantly different their skillsets may no longer be suited enough to make them top players. If the game is worse, and more limited, then they new stars who replace them may not even shine the same way or share the same undeniable spark, they may simply be good players at a less sophisticated and skillful game.

I don't look forward to cynical sequels made by talentless hacks cashing in on a name

ImageLet's tie together the threads together with another movie analogy. I consider Heat to be one of finest crime movies ever created. The direction is exceptional, the storyline is impeccably crafted and the acting is some of the best ever witnessed on film. I can without hesitation cite it as one of my favourite movies of all time, which I can view over and over without tiring of it. So you may imagine if I heard there was a sequel to Heat being created I should have some natural level of excitement and anticipation right? Well by looking back at the reasons I cited for the movie being excellent you could on your own draw the conclusion, which would be correct in my case, that it would depend on the director, screenwriter and actors involved.

If Michael Mann, director and screenwriter of Heat, and all time great movie actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, stars of Heat and responsible for some of their best on-screen performances ever in that movie, are not involved then immediately I am going to have questions and find myself reserved in my anticipation. If I then find out that the people making the movie were not at all involved with the creation of the original, with the exception of someone who was an executive producer who had questionable impact on the movie, then I will no longer even think of the upcoming movie in the same terms. To me it now becomes simply another movie, with no reason for me to get excited for it based on the merits of the original.

There are some people saying Global Offensive can become a worthy sequel to Counter-Strike 1.6 or a beneficial replacement. There are some saying it can unite the 1.6 and Source scenes together. Here's my question to those people: why?

Global Offensive is not made by the true creative force behind Counter-Strike and its creators have not consulted 1.6 experts. The creator of the original Counter-Strike does not necessarily understand how to specifically create a game for top tier competitive play. Counter-Strike is no longer as significiantly relevant to esports as it was upon its release. No game has ever united the FPS scenes. And finally the people who are making Global Offensive have a history of messing up the things competitive players liked about Counter-Strike.

Will Global Offensive make CS go? There's no valid reason at all to assume so right now.



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