The Counter-Strike Clockwork
How can a game invented over 20 years ago still stand at the top of the charts
Why is Counter-Strike still relevant to this day?
In today’s market, big publishers try hard to maintain a community by feeding their flagship titles with regular content updates. Valve, on the other hand, barely does it, and yet Counter-Strike is still in the top-played rankings, 20 years after its initial release.
This longevity is impressive. I keep coming back to it myself and follow the esports scene with assiduity. The Counter-Strike system, and the bomb defusal mode, in particular, continue to deliver great entertainment. In recent years, new games such as Rainbow Six: Siege or Valorant used the same foundation with much success too.
What are the rules that allow this particular FPS to remain timeless?
The Ticking Clock
At the core of Counter-Strike is an implacable clockwork mechanic that splits its story into thirty tense rounds. Every 2 minutes (at most), the terrorist team spawn with a bomb in hand and a mission: reach either of two bomb sites before the end of the timer to plant it down. Five attackers making a grouped attack against a single place? That sounds unbalanced but terrorists have a big problem, though: they don’t know where the counter-terrorists are.
In the game, all weapons are deadly (few bullets are needed for a kill), and even more so if you don’t move: the bullet dispersion favours those who stand still to shoot. In such conditions, rushing all together doesn’t sound like such a safe strategy. A CT hidden in an unsuspected corner could mow down your entire team.
However, Counter-Terrorists don’t have it easy either because they have to spread to cover the various entrances of both bomb sites. They ignore where the hit might come from, and they risk getting pinched or moved out of their position with grenades. If the bomb is planted, the roles reverse: they now need to ‘retake’ the area from terrorists to defuse the bomb (with an even shorter ticking clock).
With just this simple set of rules & clever map design, each round already has the potential to unfold in exciting ways. Since both teams lack decisive strategic information, they typically move around the map carefully to seek (or conceal) knowledge. Of course, there’s always the risk of meeting an enemy and dying, but sometimes the ‘reward’, is to discover which paths are more or less at risk. The attackers are naturally pushed to be active by the timer, but the counter-terrorists don’t stay passive either.
An Economy Of Stakes
So far, I have described what makes a single round tense. In a standard game of Counter-Strike, you need to win 16 rounds to claim victory, which could be repetitive if it wasn’t for the system that ties them to one another: the economy.
In Counter-Strike, staying alive is hard but it matters a lot. If you survive the round, you keep all your loadout. If you don’t, you have to spend money to purchase weapons, armor & grenades again: you gain a certain sum at the end of each round (a little if you lose, much more if you win it) and get bonuses for killing enemies or planting the bomb. The economic system is balanced so that you can’t purchase the best guns every time if you keep dying and restart from scratch every round.
This spicy mechanic adds a whole layer of mastery: not every round earned is ‘worth’ the same, and not every loss either. So for instance, if your mates got decimated, you might prefer to abandon and let the clock run down: you have little chance of winning the round anyway, it’s more important to carry your weapons to the next round (where you’ll have a higher chance of success).
The variety of equipment makes the flow of the game lively: the conditions aren’t the same each time, and it prevents strategy from becoming stale. The powerful sniper AWP, for instance, is a costly weapon but a worthy investment for holding long-range positions.
On the other end of the spectrum, if your bank is low, you can do an ‘eco round’, where you only use weak pistols: it seriously lowers your chances of winning, but you’ll have enough cash to get a complete equipment on the next round.
Counter-Strike is a game where the stakes of each round are high by nature, but the economy elevates them to new heights and constantly renews the balance of force. Rounds are chained, and they never get monotonous.
How To Expand It To Other Genres
What can you take away from Counter-Strike (when you don’t design a competitive multiplayer game)? Two elements are notable inspirations, in my opinion: the ‘ticking clock’ mechanic and the game loop interdependency.
Putting the player on a timer to accomplish a mission is a common trick in solo video games; however, they’re frequently useless for generating proper tension. When the player doesn’t know precisely how long the task takes, it’s difficult to gauge themselves against the clock and react appropriately. As a result, you typically figure out you did great or missed the mark at the very end.
It doesn’t help that the timer is usually set to the “average needed time”, which can vary significantly for different players. Balancing for the average is a sure way to be both frustrating for noobs and boring for the performant players who’d need the stimulating challenge the most. We encountered this exact issue when I was working on The Crew (a racing game with that!), and as you can imagine, the playtest results weren’t great.
Counter-Strike circumvents this problem by making the timer much longer than the actual time to complete the objective (it would take less 20 seconds to rush to a bomb site) but then putting dangerous obstacles to force players to take it slow. Flipped into a positive game loop, we could simply give bonus objectives outside of the main path: advanced players can try to do it all, the rest can simply stick to just the mandatory objective.
With such bonus objectives, we’re able to give players a wider range of successes/failures, just like the Counter-Strike economy. Maybe you can trigger some extraordinary outcomes when the player succeeds or fails spectacularly? Tension is at its peak when the stakes are maximum, not when you’re completing side goals for a mere gain of XP.
If you want to draw inspiration from the king, take notes on how Counter-Strike often changes the pacing of its excruciating core tension. There is no need to add tons of content updates when an irresistible conflict never ceases to engage us.
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Another amazing article. Very insightful. On a personal note, although I have played CS, I later switched to R6 because of the refreshing gameplay that was absent in CS. Since I came from the Call of Duty background, R6 felt more at home than CS, because of a multitude of reasons. I'd suggest you can do the next article on Overwatch/R6/New CODs. Kudos
Was looking for some inspiration to start my own game design/dev style newsletter and stubbled upon this gem. Awesome article, love the deep dive into the heart of CS. Excited to read more or your stuff!