Minh Le knows his guns. Nicknamed “Gooseman,” Le helped create a mod for Half-Life 2 back in 1999. It became Counter-Strike, one of the most popular online multiplayer games of all time. Today, Valve’s latest version, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, has become a huge esports title.
And after a long road as a game developer, Le is back in the shooter business. He is creative director for Pearl Abyss, the maker of Black Desert Online and owner of Eve Online maker CCP. He’s not working on those games, but he is helping with Pearl Abyss on an unannounced shooter game. His job: Help the developers get the guns right.
This is a specialty that matters because the first-person shooter game business is a multibillion-dollar market. And games that don’t get the guns right will flounder in competition with titles like Battlefield V or Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
Pearl Abyss isn’t saying what kind of game Le is working on, but you can probably make a good guess.
Back in the good old days, Le and Jess Cliffe released the mod (using the Half-Life game engine) publicly around 2000. Valve, the creator of Half-Life, was impressed with it and contacted him. They hired Le to continue working on the game to make it more polished.
It was rough around the edges, had some bugs, and needed more work. He stayed at Valve for five years, until the end of 2006. Valve was very busy making Team Fortress 2, and it had no interest in taking Counter-Strike in a new direction at the time.
Le left and started working on a new game called Tactical Intervention, which had new features, such as dogs and vehicles. That also used the Source engine from Valve. He worked on it for a number of years. It finally released on the PC and Mac in the fall of 2013. That game didn’t turn out well. He also worked on a multiplayer version of an indie game called Rust.
As for his nickname Gooseman, it came from a character in the old animated TV show Galaxy Rangers.
GamesBeat: I think I last saw you in Barcelona a few years ago at Game Lab. It was a certain anniversary of Counter-Strike.
Minh Le: Yeah, the 15th, I think. Now, it’s almost 20. It’s weird. Every five years, we get to celebrate this thing. I feel so out of it that I don’t really feel part of it. I left Valve in 2006. I haven’t really touched Counter-Strike ever since. It’s weird seeing that legacy continue on.
GamesBeat: I’m curious what you think about the modern multiplayer age. There’s battle royale. There’s Google coming in with Stadia and promising that we can do Doom Eternal at 60 frames per second.
Le: I feel like that’s more focused on the single-player experience, though. I’m very skeptical about how that will play out for multiplayer. First of all, you have to deal with the latency to Stadia, and Stadia has to connect to the game server. It adds a natural layer of latency that I don’t think is good for multiplayer gaming. I feel like that kind of experience is more focused on single-player.
GamesBeat: They had some answers for it. The controller has a link that goes….
Le: A time machine [laughs]?
GamesBeat: I don’t know exactly how, but the link will go directly to Google’s network. Once it’s in Google’s network, it never has to leave that network. The games are going to be hosted inside there. What I believe is going to happen over time is 5G. That would be the way Google gets into your home, through the controller, connected to a 5G router.
Le: Well, that’s interesting. If they can reduce latency further with 5G, then I do see some promise in that. But I’m always skeptical about how low — also, just from a developer standpoint, when a developer publishes a game, we pay for the servers and whatnot. There’s an up-front cost for that. Is Google just going to give us free servers? I don’t know. The business model still leaves a lot up in the air for me as a developer to get too excited about it. There are still a lot of things they need to hash out.
GamesBeat: I met with Genvid as well. They started with the idea, from Shinra eight years ago — they’re pitching Google on participating in this. You can design a game for that and have a kind of massively shared experience, different from any kind of multiplayer game.
Le: Like a fight in a gladiator stadium. The Twitch viewers are the stadium audience. That would be cool. I can see experiences growing out of that.
GamesBeat: Do you have an imagination for the future of multiplayer?
Le: I still think that there’s some room to grow in terms of the FPS genre. I do feel like FPS has reached a level of maturity as far as game mechanics, the actual shooting bits. That’s reached a point where there’s not a lot we can expand upon. It’s matured in that aspect. But I do feel that a lot of the game logics of FPS — for example, the battle royale genre is a new innovation. In the future, we may see other styles of FPS that are born in a similar way.
When I look at battle royale, I see it as a combination of deathmatch and an open-world survival game. They took the idea of an open-world survival game and mixed it with deathmatch. It’s cool how they came up with that. It’s really innovative. In the future, we’ll see more of these sorts of genre mixes. Prior to battle royale, the FPS genre was stuck in about 10 years of the same team-based thing — Call of Duty, Battlefield. There hadn’t been a new genre coming about. Battle royale was able to come out and really dominate.
I still think there’s going to be an audience for the traditional IP like Battlefield and Call of Duty. They’ll still have their player bases. I just think that there’s going to be more of a granular — a splitting into all the different types of FPS games. You’ll have Battlefield and Call of Duty and CS: GO, but then, we’ll see a lot more granularity. As a player, you can choose. Maybe you like this particular type of shooter. It’s going to be interesting.
GamesBeat: I’m having fun with Apex Legends now.
Le: Yeah, so is everyone else.
GamesBeat: I’ve gotten three victories because the other guys on my team are good at it.
Le: [Laughs] That’s one of the big appeals to battle royale games. For me personally, when I play battle royale — these days I’m not the best shooter. It’s good because these types of games allow people who aren’t good at traditional shooters like CS to succeed and get a sense of satisfaction. I think that’s part of why they’ve been so successful. They really hit the nail there by finding the line between casual and hardcore.
GamesBeat: I feel like the co-op part of it feels like something different. They really are forcing three people to play together.
Le: Yeah, I totally agree. Even if you’re not a good shooter, you can help support the team.
GamesBeat: Even the best players will come and revive me because they know when it comes down to the final fight….
Le: You’re a good asset. You’re a good meat shield. Just go up there and soak up some bullets! [Laughs] Yeah, I agree. I see that attraction in having people that aren’t traditionally good at shooters, they can take part and feel like they’re helping the team. PUBG really started that trend. You see it with Overwatch as well, where you have supports and that kind of thing.
GamesBeat: You spent a lot of time on the indie side of things. Do you think that a lot of these innovations may be coming from there?
Le: Oh, definitely. Personally, I think the greatest innovations come from these independent games. They always start out as mods. In that environment, there’s no pressure. There’s no, “You’ve gotta make a hit.” They have much more freedom to experiment. If you look at all of the top games you see today — the Overwatches, the DOTAs, the CS:GOs, the PUBGs, and all these clones — they come from ideas that were born in the indies and mods.
GamesBeat: The new 3D Realms game has its roots in the good old days.
Le: Right. A lot of these great ideas come from independent guys who are willing to take risks. The triple-A guys are really good at taking an idea and polishing it up. It’ll be interesting to see how well the audience takes to that. I’ve been in the industry long enough to see this cycle come about. When I started, it was Quake and Unreal, hugely fast-paced games. That was part of the reason I made Counter-Strike. I wanted to take it down a notch, slow it down a bit, make the gameplay slower for people who preferred something tactical.
Now, people have gotten tired of that. They’re going back to the roots, how it started out. That’s part of why Apex Legends is so popular. People want that freedom of movement. Who knows? In 10 years’ time, maybe it’ll be another slow-paced game that comes about, when people are tired of running around.
GamesBeat: They have a lot of Titanfall fans who want wall-running.
Le: Right, they miss that. The freedom of movement is definitely attractive in this day and age.
GamesBeat: What are you doing with Pearl Abyss?
Le: I joined Pearl Abyss last year to work on Project K. My role there is more of a technical advisor, getting the feel of the guns right. They valued my experience when I was making Counter-Strike and all these other games, how I was able to get the feel of the guns that way.
GamesBeat: That matters a lot to me. I didn’t really like PUBG for some reason….
Le: Totally. It doesn’t feel satisfying. It feels like — when I play PUBG, and then when I play a game like Apex, or even Fortnite, they feel much more satisfying. Just much more connected. That’s kind of why I was hired. I’m hoping to bring that feel of the stuff I worked on in the past. The guns feel satisfying to hit. Respawn, too, they know what they’re doing. They made Modern Warfare, which is probably one of my favorite FPS games. They’re the top of the tops when it comes to weapon physics.
GamesBeat: What do you notice when you’re being very discerning about how that feels?
Le: It’s subtle, but I notice the way the firing mechanism and also the reloading — I’m a stickler for the way the player reloads his gun, the impact and movement and flow of it. Battlefield does a really good job of it as well. The guns in Battlefield feel fantastic. A lot of these triple-A guys are doing a good job around that.
GamesBeat: When they were talking up the last Battlefield and Call of Duty games, I remember one thing that came up was a more accurate spread of bullets into a target.
Le: Right, it was too random.
GamesBeat: The other thing was a movement that matches what you’re doing. If you’re loading your gun, your arm goes like this. It’s moving. Somebody watching you would see that movement. Or if you’re reviving somebody as a medic, you go like this.
Le: Right. The movements that you see in first-person match what the other characters see in third-person. Battlefield does a fantastic job on that. That’s the kind of thing I pay attention to when I develop games. I’m really excited to bring that level of detail to Project K.
GamesBeat: With VR, they’re making you look down and grab your gun and pull it out….
Le: Yeah, you lose that — you’re only as good as the way you yourself are moving. That’s why VR games don’t fascinate me as much.
GamesBeat: It feels weird when I’m not using a controller.
Le: Exactly. It forces you to be more tactical.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’re not tired of this yet.
Le: Yeah, it’s interesting. I really do think that there’s still more for me to explore in FPS. It’s the genre that’s always resonated with me. The stuff I do may feel a bit the same, but there are new things I can do in terms of the setting, the player experience. When I’m working at Pearl Abyss, I’m surrounded by some of the best artists I’ve worked for in my entire career. I’m excited about what we can come up with. Honestly, the previous projects I’ve worked on, as much as I enjoyed them, they were very small teams. Being able to work with a triple-A studio and a huge team behind me is something I’m excited for.
GamesBeat: Do you know if you’ll have an expanded design role over time?
Le: When I was working on Tactical Intervention, I had a really big role. Not just on the gunplay. I was helping out with level design as well. I was jumping around a lot of different roles. I’m able to bring that experience, that level of knowing what works in level design, as well as weapon handling. I can bring that into Project K and help them out with what I’ve experienced in other games.
GamesBeat: Can you do this without 300 or 500 people?
Le: [Laughs] It’s definitely different, working on a larger team. But it’s structured in such a way that we have a good handle on how to set a direction for the team. I’m pretty confident that they’ll take my advice. They really do value it, it seems, after the year I’ve worked so far. They’re always coming up and asking me, “How does this look?” I do feel like I’m getting through, even though there’s a bit of a language barrier. I feel like a part of this team, and they’ve treated me really well.
GamesBeat: It sounds like the prototyping is nonstop.
Le: We’re at a stage where we’re really early. To be honest, it’s only been a year. We’re still very early in the prototyping phase. But we’ve managed to get a lot done in terms of just the feel of the guns. The last year has been really busy for me.
GamesBeat: Have you talked much more about it, anything official about the project?
Le: No, not yet. It definitely has guns in it. [Laughs] I really wish I could tell you more, but I’m only allowed to say that it has guns. It’s a shooter. From what I’ve seen of it, I will say that it has an appeal — I feel like it will appeal to an international audience. Some people are worried that, well, if it’s being developed by a Korean company, is it just a game for Asia? But from what I’ve seen of it, from the concepts and art that I’ve seen, we’re not just focusing on Asia. And it’ll definitely be for PC. From there, we’ll see how it goes. I’m really excited because I get to see the artwork being created every day.
GamesBeat: Do you notice a difference between Asian shooters and Western shooters?
Le: When I was working in my previous stint in Korea, working on Tactical Intervention, there was a lot of emulation of Counter-Strike going on. A lot of games were inspired strongly by Counter-Strike, like Crossfire, and all these other games that never became as popular. But these days in the Korean shooter industry, there’s a lot of influence from Overwatch. And PUBG is developed by a lot of Korean guys. They’ve innovated outside of what’s existed before. It’s a much more mature market.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that Call of Duty didn’t really go over well in China, whereas CrossFire did.
Le: Call of Duty Online, the free-to-play one, right?
GamesBeat: They did that, and they’ve tried to do mobile a few times over there. Somebody pointed out that in Call of Duty, you do a lot of shooting down the iron sights, whereas in CrossFire….
Le: Yeah, you don’t have that. That might have some appeal.
GamesBeat: You can’t change how people want to play like that.
Le: That’s really interesting. They’ve gotten so used to it. I’m not really familiar with the Chinese industry, but I have seen how popular Sudden Attack or CrossFire is there. To me, it’s kind of baffling. At one point, I thought it was because everyone there had lower-end systems, so maybe that’s all they could run, but even today, it’s still a really popular game. That kind of general familiarity can be a huge thing.
GamesBeat: Looking at all the guns out there in games, are there some that don’t feel right to you for a particular reason?
Le: Battlefield and the Call of Duty guys are really good. Most of the triple-A guys have been able to hire guys with a lot of experience making these kinds of good, solid-feeling guns. It has a lot to do with experience. When I look at PUBG, as great as the game is, it’s their first time making an FPS game, I think. They don’t have that experience making their guns. It shows when you see it. It’s subtle. A lot of people don’t notice things. But after my experience, when I play PUBG, I can tell it’s their first rodeo.
GamesBeat: Do you want to see things like bullets dropping off over distance?
Le: That really depends on how big the maps are and the type of game it is. For a game like PUBG, that’s pretty important. You want to simulate over that distance for sniping. The games I’ve worked on have been much smaller, like Counter-Strike. It depends on the game. I think Fortnite has that because when you watch the stream snipers, they have to aim up a bit to do that. It’s a skill that applies to more of the bigger games, the big open areas.
GamesBeat: Building skills never came easily to me in Fortnite.
Le: Yeah, me too. I’m a traditionalist. These kids have incredible multitasking skills. As I’ve gotten older, I just don’t have the time to learn it. It’s crazy. I can’t keep up.
GamesBeat: There’s this interesting thing where you have to design for what people already like and know and are comfortable with, rather than totally changing it.
Le: Maybe that’s the reason why Fortnite appeals to a younger audience. They’re not familiar with as many things prior, so they don’t have as many prejudices or preconceived notions about how a game should play.