The next Counter-Strike, the one coming out early next year called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, won't be called Counter-Strike 2, because that game would be "something different", two of Valve's top people on the new game recently told Kotaku.
"A lot of Counter-Strike GO is taking Counter-Strike: Source and Counter-Strike 1.6 and melding it into a product that every side likes and also expanding the base by putting it out on the consoles," Valve's Chet Faliszek said, referring to the two most popular incarnations of the game. "Whereas Counter-Strike 2, at least internally, we think about as something different."
During a recent interview at Valve headquarters in Bellevue, Faliszek and CS: GO project lead Igo Madal let me play Counter-Strike: GO (for an hour) and then helped me narrow in on what the new game is and isn't.
It's clear that the new game, which will be released as a downloadable title for PC, Mac, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 early next year, isn't a full-fledged sequel.
"Counter-Strike: GO has this kind of objective of homing in," Madal said. "We're taking that competitive experience that's very hard to organise in Counter-Strike: Source... We've taken that and let everyone experience the fun of a five on five where everyone is equally matched. The product doesn't span all of Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike is zombie mods and all these different things. This is more narrow."
The new GO will feature several classic maps, new weapons and tweaks that range from modified maps to a new casual mode that removes the in-game money restrictions on which weapons and items players can buy. It also will be supported by Valve's in-house match-making, an option that allows Valve to promise a controlled, predictable multiplayer experience for all gamers.
GO is being developed in concert with Hidden Path Entertainment, which is located just a couple of blocks from Valve HQ. That team was initially been assigned to work on a straight Xbox Live Arcade port of 2004's Counter-Strike: Source.
"We wanted to see what that would look like," Madal said. It looked good.
"We realised there was something more there that we could do, something that the community would be interested in," Faliszek said.
"And we got excited," Madal added.
Valve had expected the 2004 Source version of the game to replace the previous year's 1.6 iteration, itself a successor to a game that had been evolving since the late 90's. But many of 1.6's most ardent fans, including those who played it competitively, as a sport, resisted the Source version. Source "didn't so what we thought it would do, but we weren't disappointed about what it did," Madal said. "We thought Counter-Strike: Source would replaced Counter-Strike 1.6 but instead it generated a community just as large as the 1.6 community on its own."
Faliszek called it "an amoeba-like split".
GO is supposed to bring those crowds together and rope in console players who have only had an original Xbox version to choose from. Valve also assumes it has lost some computer Counter-Strike gamers who have moved away from PC gaming and wants to find them on the consoles those gamers may have moved to (fittingly, the PS3 version of the game will even include mouse and keyboard support; and all players on PS3/PC/Mac will be match-made against each other.)
The Valve guys describe two of the goals for GO as lowering the skill floor — making it easier for newbies to have fun with game, hence the casual mode — and raising the skill ceiling — making meaningful, subtle changes to maps and mechanics that only pro-level players will notice and appreciate.
Valve is not trying to necessarily turn GO into an e-Sport. "That requirement doesn't exist," Madal said. "If it happens, that's nice." They do want to make sure those highest-level players can enjoy GO, though, so Valve is launching a PC beta for the game in October and having what Madal calls an ongoing "dialogue" with hardcore CS players to fix the things that everyone agrees is an issue." For example: "The way the smoke grenades used to work in Counter-Strike: Source. We changed the rate at which it blooms and dissipates and everyone preferred it." And another example, also from Madal: "The maps Dust and Aztec aren't played competitively at all because they were so imbalanced in Source. We feel very bullish on changing them, so we did. Dust 2 is a wonderfully balanced map that we didn't need to change. We just gave it a visual upgrade."
And then there are the Halo and Call of Duty gamers out there,the FPS hordes who may wonder why a new Counter-Strike is at all relevant to them. What's the appeal of CS:GO for that crowd who already have plenty of first-person shooting to do in their favourite series. CS may have sold 25 million copies already (according to Faliszek), but Valve might still have trouble pulling those folks from their beloved franchises. What's a CS have to offer those people?
Madal describes the essence and value of CS in one word: skill. "I think where Counter-Strike differentiates itself is what impact skill has on your success."
It's the way skill factors into a CS match that makes it feel different from other shooters, Faliszek added. "It's clean. You died because you made the wrong choice. You're actually seeing it in beginning players." He explained that beginner CS players tend to use lots of grenades, but that veterans don't since it is "super-easy" to kill a player who is holding one. "There's not a lot of spam in there," he said. "There are a lot of clean kills. Most kills are gun kills. And it's about, 'Oh I didn't check that corner before I entered this room. I made the bad choice of trying to defuse the bomb before clearing the area. We rushed around this corner and we got ambushed.' It's always about making those kinds of decisions and not about,'Oh man, why did I die? What the hell? That's bullshit kind of thing."
"A small difference in skill between two players, the impact of that on the game will be accentuated," Madal said.
"My experience in other games is that's not the case."
That's what Counter-Strike is: a game of skill. And this is what CS:GO is: an effort to put anyone who has or should play Counter-Strike into the same game. That's a big enough goal but not a grand enough one to merit the name Counter-Strike 2.
As we discussed possible names for this new Conter-Strike, I had to ask if they'd considered one other name, one that would be an inside joke for fans of Valve's Half-Life series whose third episodic sequel has been missing in action for years. Did anyone suggest, during those brainstorm sessions, Counter-Strike: Episode Three?
"No," was Faliszek's quick reply. Then a quick inhale of breath. This new GO may not be a full-fledged Counter-Strike sequel, but it's no joke.