For many FPS players Dust - or the later Dust 2 - are the quintessential Counter-Strike maps, hosts to millions of kills and bomb plants in their history, and featured in nearly every major Counter-Strike tournament held each year. But these maps actually owe their existence to Team Fortress 2 - a game that was released a full eight years after Dust became a staple of the Counter-Strike map rotation.
Summer 1999. Half-Life was only months old yet picking up more ‘Game of the Year’ awards than there were game magazines. I - a 16 year-old on the more fun side of a summer’s worth of school exams - was ecstatic with news that Valve Software were working on a sequel to the most popular team multiplayer game of the day - Team Fortress. Like any good teenager, I’d spent more hours sat staring into a screen playing that game than I had with my head stuck in schoolwork, much to the chagrin of my parents.
But whilst I had been ambushing my future educational prospects, behind closed doors Valve had been hammering away at updating and upgrading Team Fortress for a new generation of hardware. News of Team Fortress 2 was rare and sporadic, but occasionally a tidbit there or a screenshot here would nervously peer out to an excited but nervous audience of TF fans. What were Valve planning?
One day, a handful of screenshots started their steady journey around the gaming websites of the late nineties. Of those, two screenshots leapt out at me:
The seed had been sown.
Meanwhile, a free Half-Life modification known as ‘Counter-Strike’ had been gathering momentum. In the autumn of 1999 Minh Le and Jess Cliffe released its second beta, and it had become my new addiction. With the mod came an urban texture pack (‘cstrike.wad’) with which I made a map set in a retirement home - ‘cs_tire’ - and it was deemed good enough to be included in the third beta. Jess asked me if I’d be interested in making a map for the fourth beta, and was keen to hook me up with a texture artist to help me with it.
Jess introduced me to artist Chris Ashton, who had originally created the urban texture set I was familiar with. All I wanted was something like these:
Chris quickly got back to me with lookalikes. While not exact replicas of the ones from TF2, I became completely infatuated with them. I loaded up Wally (a utility for managing textures) and quickly bundled them all together into a file called “cs_dest.wad” ready for use. “Dest” was shorthand for “Destiny”.
I could finally “play” Team Fortress 2, but… it felt like I was snatching a duckling from under its mothers beak. I thought, surely Valve wouldn’t mind one me making one small map for one small mod for their one and only published game? A map that maybe only a couple of hundred people would ever play?
Copy and Paste
Starting the map was easy - it was a lift directly from the TF2 screenshots Valve had unveiled a few months before. The map boasted road flanked by buildings, leading up to an archway and a wall dividing it in two. Each building and wall decorated with ornate trims along the top or bottom. It was these features that would define the architectural style of Dust.
It wasn’t identical to the map featured in those coveted TF2 screenshots, but it was close enough, and importantly, it was a start.
The arched doorways became a hallmark in the Dust theme - A Dust map is simply not Dust without at least two or three dividing the map into distinct areas. Creating the first one was at the time a great test of my technical mapping ability, but I soon calculated how to create them in the easiest and neatest way. My design eschewed the ‘curved triangle’ shape of the TF2 screenshots for a simpler ‘square with rounded top’ shape, partly because it was simpler, but primarily to ease player passage through them. I extruded the arches from their adjoining wall - straight from the screenshots.
I had decided against copying the screenshots verbatim for fear of reprisals, and set upon filling in the gaps. I’d already created a raised platform, and had decided that this would be the area that the Counter-Terrorist team would spawn in at the start of the match. This necessitated defensive measures - so I made some windows.
Not only did they look hideous, but the windows didn’t give the views I wanted, nor did they fit with the intended gameplay. I didn’t want to encourage the CTs to hold back. I removed them.
Under the Influence
Side-by-side, the TF2 ‘influence’ is plain to see:
In some respects, the TF2 screenshot looks nicer to me - smoother and softer than the harsh edges of the Dust buildings. I was far more familiar with standard geometric shapes, 90 degree corners and 45 degree angles, which is why Dust looks far boxier in comparison.
That was the easy part done - after all, Valve had already created this part for me and all I’d had to do was copy it. But what I had wasn’t much - it was barely enough for a one-on-one deathmatch, let alone two teams of eight players each, or more. Worse, there were no more screenshots for me to copy. I had to make the rest of the map off my own back.
With the design of the first area nailed, producing the rest of the map was merely a case of extrapolating those existing elements into an entire map. Of course, things are never quite that easy, and this middle section of the map proved rather difficult.
I created a T-junction out of the CT spawn I’d stolen from TF2, but now I was struggling to work out what to do with it. My past mapping experience was mostly creating tight interiors, not vast exteriors, and I was feeling very lost. I shoe-horned a bend in the road leading to a downward slope, and at the end of it - an underground cavern.
It wasn’t right. While the CT spawn area was light and airy, this giant room was gloomy, boxy and felt dead compared to the sunny exteriors I had so far. I swiftly deleted it. Dust had to be an outdoor map.
I was still stuck. It’s at times like these where working without an initial design can prove extremely difficult. You look at what you’ve got, and struggle to see where to take it, knowing that each step in one direction is a step away from a solution in another direction - and you don’t know which way is going to turn out better. It can be tough knowing what to do next, and sometimes you question whether you should scrap everything and start again. I’d made all my previous maps one room at a time, making it up as I go along with precious little pre-planning, and they had gone reasonably well. I had to hope I could do the same again.
Mercifully, that’s exactly what happened, and with a few hours work the Terrorist side of the map came to form relatively quickly. It’s this side that I’m happier with, a product perhaps of being comfortable with the map’s visual style by that point. The shallow decline into the underpass is perhaps one of my favourite aspects, both aesthetically and as a player who spent many hours armed with a Steyr Scout at the crest. The small crate-blocked alley in that area would have led round to the CT ‘sniper nest’, but the path seemed so long, linear, and downright dull that I just dropped it, using crates as a blockade.
The pivotal feature of Dust is the central hallway, as it tied everything together that I had made up to this point. Unfortunately, it’s also a moment of which I can recollect very little, bar my efforts ensuring players couldn’t see all the way through it from one end to the other. Every crate placed in that intersection was placed very specifically to cut off lines-of-sight and improve performance, but turned out to be of far greater gameplay importance. It was in this corridor that each team would typically meet, and so it needed to be fair, and balanced, with a slight defensive bias. The ’T’ shape (or ‘H’ shape, depending on your point of view) is simple, but seemed to do the trick.
Timing the map was an important element of getting this balance right. The aim was to ensure both teams caught first sight of each other in this corridor. Knowing that most players will start running the second the match begins, I practised doing the same, timing how long it took to go from each team’s spawn area to the central corridor. By making sure each team had exactly the same distance to run I could dictate exactly where their fight would begin.
Despite the layout being complete, I’d paid very little attention to where the bomb locations should be. Bomb Spot A seemed like an obvious choice - it was essentially it’s own courtyard area which would assume no purpose otherwise. However, it was Bomb Spot B that proved more difficult.
My initial thought was to place it in the hallway, but quickly back-peddled. At this point I hadn’t yet played the new ‘bomb defusal’ gametype (and neither had anyone else) so placing bomb spots was down to common sense and using logic as best one could - placing the bomb spot in the hallway would negate Bomb Spot A’s importance and it simply wasn’t built for that purpose.
My second plan was to put the bomb in the underpass. This suited better - it was equidistant between the two spawns, and I thought offered a reasonable amount of cover. So it went there.
Bomb location decided, I zipped up the map and fired it towards Cliffe for the first round of playtesting. His immediate feedback was the final part of the puzzle - he suggested I move the bomb spot from below the underpass and place it directly in the CT spawn.
The problem was I’d been treating this brand-new gametype as if it was one I knew already - Capture the Flag - except in this CTF mode the flag (the bomb) started at the Terrorist spawn. But defusal wasn’t Capture the Flag. In fact, it was so utterly different that hardly a comparison could be drawn. Placing the bomb in the CT spawn hadn’t even crossed my mind. I made the change, and sent it back for playtests.
Playtesting is an important stage of any map’s development cycle. Without it, there’s little way of knowing exactly how a map will play when faced with real people; real players who haven’t the intricate knowledge of the map that you have. It’s playtests that inform you of flaws that need fixing before release - if the map is even fit to be released at all.
I didn’t get to play in the playtests (by virtue of being in a different timezone) but I heard that they went well enough to be included in BETA 4. To have one map (‘cs_tire’) already in the official map rotation was great, but to have two? The pressure was mounting. What if it didn’t live up to people’s expectations? Would people even take to this new and (at that time) unique game type?
A few days later, on the 5th November of 1999 - a Friday - I got my answer. BETA 4 was released as I slept. Saturday morning arrived, and I - skipping breakfast - rushed to download the new beta, just like everyone else had done hours before. There were already hundreds of servers and on them thousands of people were already planting and defusing bombs on the map I’d designed, and I’d not even got to play it myself yet.
Needless to say, CS occupied most of my weekend.
While CS was still in its beta stages, I changed Dust with almost every new release. Often these changes were somewhat experimental, more often they were aesthetic, and sometimes they changed the game play entirely.
Dust first appeared in BETA 4 as one in a trio of ‘defusion’-style maps introduced in that release. Comparing it to CS 1.6’s - the last release - shows the differences that have been made in its lifetime. In CS 1.6 for example, Dust has many more crates and much more cover than it did originally - many of these were added to provide either team with more cover and defensive/offensive strategies. Aesthetically, CS 1.6’s Dust is far cleaner and warmer, having benefited from a custom skybox and tweaked sunlight.
The BETA 5 version of Dust wasn’t that much different to the original, with mostly aesthetic changes. One of the most biggest changes was the crack in the wall of the CT sniper nest overlooking the underpass. I had made this change with the intention of helping the Terrorists by exposing CT snipers. However, the increased view area actually helped the CTs by offering a wider angle of view. Miraculously, the wall was fixed again in BETA 6.
The underpass gained some cover. Players on the Terrorist team in BETA 4 had a terrible time trying to get through under the threat of CT snipers. The additional crates were designed to let players get close enough to throw a grenade. Later revisions of the map added even more crates to provide cover.
The exact placement of player spawns was crucial to ensuring that Dust was balanced, a lesson I learnt after moving the CT spawns forward in BETA 6.1. I had concluded that the map was biased towards the Terrorists, and thought giving the CTs a head start of about 2 seconds to help balance it out.
Once 6.1 was released, the effects of the change became quite apparent. It was now easier for the CTs to hold down the hallway, and harder for the Terrorists to rush the bomb site, as intended. However, the balance was now too far in the CTs favour. I received many complaints about this at the time, as well as one or two compliments. Ultimately, it was obvious that the spawn positions from the previous Dust were fairer, and so in 6.5 the CT spawns were reverted back to their original positions.
In April 2000, Valve bought Counter-Strike. With it, they secured the rights to include Dust in a boxed retail version of the game. It was hard to believe this small map I’d made in my spare time less than a year before would be appearing on store shelves, on 1st November 2000, days before Dust turned one-year-old, that’s where it was. I was 17 and had just become a ‘published’ level designer.
Dust didn’t see any further changes after 1.0. It was as good as I could make it without the risk of alienating players who were fans of the map. However, that’s not to say I didn’t have a few ideas that nearly made it in.
The major change that I almost made at CS 1.1 time would have changed the dynamics of the entire map destroyed many proven strategies. A new route directly from the underpass to the very centre of the hallway, I thought, would help Terrorists form a firmer front-line, and encourage a more defensive strategy.
In retrospect, I think it would have just become the fastest route for Terrorists to reach the underpass, undermining and deprecating a large area of the map in the process. It would have removed one of the dynamics that made the underpass so fun.
(Note this is not the same as the staircase added to Dust in CS:GO, which connects the top of the underpass to the bottom. I believe the CS:GO solution is far better suited to Dust than my original plan was.)
At one time, Dust was the most-played FPS map in the world, in terms of both number of concurrent players, and the amount of time those players spent in the map. There were thousands of “Dust 24⁄7” servers, and the map became particularly popular amongst newbies, despite falling out of favour from clan matches. Dust became the ideal map for schooling new players, knowing they could focus on the game rather than trying to find their way around.
There is no indication of how well the map would have been taken if some of the changes mentioned in this article remained - for example, the bomb site in the underpass, the sniper house, or the stairs between the underpass and the hallway. I’m glad they never happened.
Ultimately, it’s hard for me to claim I knew what I was doing as I pieced Dust together. I attribute it’s success more to incredible luck and lack of imagination more than any skill I possess. If anything, I learnt more from Dust post-release than I knew when I was making it.
Counter-Strike: Condition Zero
In March of 2004, Valve released Condition Zero, an updated version of Counter-Strike that included a single-player mode and updated versions of all the popular maps from the main game. It’s version of Dust shared much in common with the original, being largely based on the original brushwork. The map notably featured more pronounced structural detail supported by an expanded and more colourful palette.
This version of the map was the product of Ritual, although some finishing touches were added by Valve just before release of the game. The Levelord played a hand in the renovation.
In November 2004 - mere months after the release of Condition Zero - Valve released Counter-Strike: Source, a completely refreshed and revamped version of Counter-Strike based on the Source engine.
This renovation of Dust was done at Valve by Kristen Perry and Ido Magal who were given the unenviable job of determining appropriate architectural references for Dust based upon the Condition Zero version. I think they nailed the look completely - maintaining the golden tones everyone was used to, embellishing the few details that were there and giving Dust the kind of ambience that it had always lacked. My reaction when I first saw what they had done was nothing short of complete astonishment and amazement. I was proud of what Dust had become and ever grateful to those who had helped get it there.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
The CS:S version of Dust caused my jaw to drop, but the iteration in CS:GO floored me.
This version was developed by Valve and Hidden Path Entertainment and evidently based on the proportions set by the CS:S version of the map (many CS:S assets can be seen around the map, albeit in updated forms). This version heralded the most major layout changes to the map since the CS betas, such as a bridge across CT side of the underpass, and a staircase within the underpass itself to the upper platform, refreshing Dust for competitive play.
At a glance these changes bear a resemblance to one of my “rejected ideas” above, but only in concept. The underpass’s linearity always posed a problem due to its length, and Valve clearly agreed that a third exit right underneath the platform was necessary. But unlike my solution, which would have drawn players right into the centre hallway, Valve opted to put the underpass passage on the opposite side, directing players up to the far end of the platform.
It’s clearly the better design and one I wish I had thought of when I still had the chance!
Dust has also manifested itself in real, physical forms…
And then, of course, there’s Minecraft:
This Minecraft version of Dust was made by users of the cdg.net forums, who have also been recreating other popular CS maps.
To this day I am still amazed that Dust was as successful as it has been, and I have a hard time believing that I actually created it at all. But, looking back, its success is hardly surprising given those who helped it along the way, from Minh Le and Jess Cliffe’s invitation and support, to Chris Ashton’s painterly skills, the feedback from players, through to Brian Martel, Richard Gray, Kristen Perry, Ido Magal, and a whole plethora of talented behind-the-scenes clever clogs who I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting, but deserve far more credit than I could ever give.
Also, of course, ultimately I have to thank Valve Software for the idea I stole in the first place, and without which none of this would have ever happened. I hope they didn’t mind.