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Game Development la Mod

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 24, 2003 6:09 pm    Post subject: Game Development la Mod Reply with quote

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Game Development la Mod
Hacker Minh Le's Counter-Strike is the stuff of media execs' dreams -- an over-the-transom blockbuster.
By Geoff Keighley, October 2002 Issue

Like a lot of college seniors, Minh Le had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. In June 2000, on the verge of graduating with a computer science degree from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, the 23-year-old Le really would admit to only one career goal: He didn't want to work in a cubicle. If pushed about his ambitions, though, he might shyly point to a computer game he had built in the basement of his parents' suburban home and given away over the Internet.

Today, Le's homespun project, called Counter-Strike, is the most popular multiplayer action game in the world. Bigger than Quake. Bigger than Unreal. The numbers are staggering: Over 1.7 million players spend more than 2.4 billion minutes a month in the game. (The top-rated TV show Friends generates 2.9 billion viewer minutes a month.) In addition to its free Internet distribution, Counter-Strike has sold 1.3 million shrink-wrapped copies at retail; in 2003 a version for Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox will hit the stores.

Rail-thin and self-effacing, Le seems largely uninterested in the impact he could have on the gaming industry. At the very least, game hackers activate a form of free viral marketing that can keep a game selling well beyond its expected shelf life. But when the hacker is as talented as Le, the result can be independent versions of games that actually challenge the work of industry titans like Electronic Arts (ERTS) and Activision (ATVI). "The success of a game like Counter-Strike is leveling the field in game development," says Jason Della Rocca, an official of the International Game Developers Assn.

The process starts with an existing game. Le chose the extremely popular Half-Life -- a game he liked to play himself -- about a scientist who must shoot his way out of a government lab invaded by mutants. Downloading the basic programming code from the manufacturer's website, he proceeded to fiddle with its inner workings.

Thousands of gamers with hacking skills and too much time on their hands have done similar things with other popular titles, like Quake and Doom. The results are called modifications, or mods. Usually these underground developers make small changes, such as building new game levels or dropping in new characters. You can download fan-made files that make Gene Simmons of Kiss appear as a Jedi knight in a Star Wars game or let you play Doom as Homer Simpson, complete with an Uzi to blaze away at bloodsucking succubi.

Le, however, didn't just create new characters; he evolved Half-Life into an entirely new game. In mod lingo, it's called total conversion, or TC. While the original featured a fairly conventional run-and-gun experience known as a death match, Le's Counter-Strike has a new theme -- counterterrorists vs. terrorists -- and introduces cooperative team play and a virtual economy in which players earn money to buy better weapons. Le did all the art and most of the sound design himself, and with some programming help from a loose network of unpaid hacker friends, he completed a beta version in six months.

Elsewhere in the entertainment industry, this is the point at which lawyers would come knocking on Le's door. But gamers tend to have a less rigid notion of intellectual property. Not only does Valve, the Kirkland, Wash., software company that makes Half-Life, give away the game's basic programming code for free, but it also releases the software tools needed to hack it.

In fact, according to Gabe Newell, the 39-year-old Microsoft millionaire who is Valve's managing director, Le's interest in Half-Life has been the best thing that could have happened to the game. You see, to play Counter-Strike, you still need to buy Half-Life. "We've actually sold more of the overall Half-Life family of products each year since we shipped back in 1998, which is very unusual in a market typified by three-month shelf lives," Newell says. Counter-Strike developed such a large following of its own that Valve bought the rights to the game. Neither side would disclose the sum, but it is safe to assume that it cost Valve considerably less than the $5 million or more it can take to develop a best-selling PC game. Retail revenues for Le's mod have come to nearly $40 million.

So far, Counter-Strike's runaway commercial success is unique in the mod world, but game companies are now on the lookout for other professional-quality TCs. For example, Valve recently acquired Day of Defeat, a World War II-themed add-on to Half-Life that Newell believes could have some of Counter-Strike's success. Infogrames used a mod of Unreal as the basis for its Tactical Ops. And giant Electronic Arts is encouraging gamers to modify its classic The Sims. So far, more than 30,000 different Sims mods are available, from a Britney Spears character to '50s furniture for your virtual living room. EA even hosted a weeklong "mod university" in Las Vegas to kick-start hacking of its action game Command & Conquer: Renegade.

As for Le, he has been working hard on a Counter-Strike sequel in the basement of his parents' home. But his main goal has been accomplished. In the two and half years since he left college, he hasn't set foot in a cubicle.
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