Counter-Strike is really a game that needs no introduction. The mod-turned-retail-turned-Steam-co-founding-game has become one of the most popular gaming franchises as well as one of largest success stories in the industry's history. Not only that, it has become a passion for gamers, with big money competitive games, plenty of content revisions and a fair share of controversy all sprinkled in since servers first went live in 1999.
The story of Counter-Strike on the Xbox, Ritual Entertainment's first of two contributions to this major franchise, starts with Steve Nix, Ritual's CEO. "I approached Valve all the way back in February of 2001 and expressed interest in working with them in the Counter-Strike universe on a new game," he reveals. "We had a lot of respect for what Valve had achieved with Half-Life and it was already clear after only a few months post-release that Counter-Strike was going to be something really special." The two parties kept talking for over a year.
The next important part of the story is the birth of Xbox Live, Microsoft's online gaming service for their first console creation. The service debuted a year before the release of the game and brought Xbox gamers truly online with a centralised hub connecting them with their friends around the world. Global leaderboards tracked the best of the best and Live Aware allowed people to get invited to online matches by their friends even when playing single player games. In terms of game development, Xbox Live opened up a whole new area for multiplayer design, which was no longer limited to just local splitscreen or system link play.
Once Xbox Live was unveiled, it became clear that the forthcoming Halo 2 would give thousands of players a chance to take their fight online and make it the leading game on the platform. However, in the first year of the service, a flagship title had not really come into the fore. With the undoubted success of Counter-Strike on the PC, Microsoft and Valve Software decided that it was the perfect game to showcase Xbox's online capabilities. All they needed now was a studio to take on the challenge of developing the console version of the hugely popular PC franchise. Steve Nix reveals how the Tribe got involved: "During the summer of 2002, we had a team becoming available. That timing really worked out as Valve was looking for a veteran developer for Condition Zero and also for a console version of Counter-Strike on the Xbox. A few meetings both in Dallas and Seattle led to a fairly quick agreement between Ritual and Valve and we were able to dive into development with a lot of momentum and enthusiasm."
So the project was born. Despite the aim to capture the success of the PC classic, which at this point was drawing huge numbers of gamers as it moved over to the Steam content delivery system, some changes had to be made to make it user friendly to the Xbox gamer. Squirrel Eiserloh, a senior programmer on the project, explains, "Most immediately obvious was the need for a complete redesign of the user interface. Counter-Strike's buying system as designed for the PC begs for numerous hotkeys, with skilled players buying multiple items in rapid succession using little more than muscle memory. We wanted to achieve the same fluency of input on the Xbox version, but without the need for an intrusive mass-binding of every button and button-like thing on the Xbox controller."
The solution was the addition of a 'pie-menu' as the player's purchase interface, a design decision that was as simple as it was brilliant. "The pie-menus were implemented in such a way as to allow novice users to highlight a menu item (pie piece) and select, whereas advanced users could merely hold down the selection button and flick/tap the analog stick in several directions in a row, resulting in multiple rapid selections. The surprising result was that some users were actually purchasing items faster on the Xbox version than on the PC, even with hotkeys."
Other adjustments to better accommodate the Xbox controller included the addition of an aiming system that would slow down the view movement when aiming at an active target, as well as a quick turn button to allow for improved control of high-speed movement actions.
The core mechanics of the game, however, remained the same. All of the classic maps from the PC version were brought over, along with seven new arenas created exclusively for the Xbox version. The PC levels had to undergo an elaborate tuning process to adjust them for the Xbox version. Every single one of the game's textures had to be re-worked to optimize them for viewing on a television screen. More detailed world models and more elaborate brush work were added to the maps where possible to increase the level of detail. The team also built new, high resolution player models to take advantage of the Xbox's processing power, which were so detailed that they ended up being used in many of the promotional materials for the Counter-Strike series. Another major new feature was the inclusion of an accurate simulation of how the human eye takes a few seconds to adjust when moving from a light into a dark area, and vice versa. "This created an interesting dynamic," say Squirrel. "When combined with a nice light bloom effect, the net result was not only nice-looking but also relevant tactically in the game."
Only a few Counter-Strike gamers on the PC were taking advantage of using headsets in the game to co-ordinate team play and add an extra strategical element to each round. The widespread use of Xbox Live Headsets on the console allowed for this aspect to come to the forefront in the Xbox version of the game, which improved the original game mechanic even further.
Like its PC counterpart, however, the game lacked a substantial single player component. Counter-Strike Xbox offered players the opportunity to have matches against bots, which, while not a fulfilling single player experience, did allow new players to get a feel for the gameplay and the maps before heading into the online arena. The VIP Escort scenario, which was at this point arguably becoming less popular and phased out in the original game, was also left out of the Xbox version. The lack of a proper single player mode did not seem to be an issue of controversy - it was always clear that the game had its main focus on catering for Xbox Live.
With much buzz, Counter-Strike Xbox hit store shelves in November 2003 and a whole new wave of people jumped onto the Counter-Strike bandwagon, with many experiencing the game for the first time. Reviews were positive and gamers were generally impressed with the smooth gameplay online, allowing it to become one of the hits in the early days of Xbox Live. This is a fact that obviously pleased Ritual, including Squirrel, "It's always exciting to point to something cool on the shelf at your local game store and have an 'I made that' moment. Especially with something like Counter-Strike which is a fundamental part of the general video-game mindshare and vernacular." High sales numbers also resulted in the game being re-released as part of the 'Xbox Classics' and later the 'Best Of' range of titles, adding to its shelf life and no doubt drawing even more gamers to the Counter-Strike franchise and Xbox Live.
Even today, the success of the game is impressive. At the time of writing, Counter-Strike Xbox still features prominently among the top five original Xbox games played online, despite numerous more recent titles taking advantage of the console's online functionality. Counter-Strike Xbox was also recently added to the Xbox 360's list of backwards-compatible titles, which means the Xbox crowd can now take the title online on Microsoft's next generation console, taking advantage of that platform's even more elaborate Live connectivity.
The game's continued popularity is a testament to both the timelessness of Counter-Strike itself, as well as the solid implementation of the Xbox version. But Counter-Strike Xbox is really only one half of Ritual's involvement in the franchise. The Tribe would also put their veteran PC FPS skills into the single player offspring Condition Zero, the story of which we will look at in the next installment of the series.