Interview with Dave Johnston, creator of Counter-Strike’s de_dust – the most played map in the history of gaming

Counter-Strike map maker: '...the advent of DLC has I think slightly discouraged publishers from letting gamers modify their games, which is a shame'

de_dust Counter Strike

We spoke to Dave Johnson, the British creator of Counter-Strike’s de_dust map. Played by millions of gamers over the past decade, it is undoubtedly the seminal map in the game which has sold over 25 million units. The ‘modding community’ owhich Dave was a part of when he created de_dust is what led to the success and popularity of Counter-Strike – but with console gaming and more ‘locked-down’ games like Modern Warfare taking the limelight, is this kind of gaming community a thing of the past? We asked Dave what his views are on this – and the future of PC gaming altogether. Dave has written extensively on the making of de_dust and other maps which he has created – along with the stories behind them on his personal website – but we also asked him about how he got interested in map making, what he’s doing now.

When did you become interested in map making?

I think I was around 11 or 12, and saw a Wolfenstein 3D map editor on a BBS. Curious, I downloaded it and caught the bug. Being granted the tools to craft my own maps, worlds and traps quickly evolved into a bit of an addiction.

What were your intentions when you were 16 and you created de_dust?

Really I just wanted to create a map that I believed I would enjoy playing, and would edge me just a bit closer to playing a game I was very excited about at the time – Team Fortress 2 – by emulating what I’d seen in TF2 screenshots. That, and getting through school.

de_dust Counter Strike

How exactly did you get from creating a map, and to having it become an official Counter-Strike map?

Dust was created long before Valve bought CS, and was still a project created solely by enthusiasts. I had already made one CS map – ‘cs_tire’ – which Jess Cliffe and Minh Le [co-creators of Counter-Strike] had put in CS Beta 3, and they hooked me up with texture artist Chris Ashton to make a second map. Importantly, it would be one of the first three maps to use the new ‘bomb defusal’ gameplay, letting us deviate significantly from previous designs and offer up something new and fresh.

What made de_dust so popular?

Hard to say exactly, but I believe it was its simplicity and uniqueness compared to other CS maps that helped it attract a wider audience who had grown a little bored of sneaking through vents and climbing ladders under the cover of night.

de_dust Counter Strike

Where did you get the inspiration for de_dust from?

It was purely down to the early TF2 screenshots Valve released in late 1999. The look, design and layout of the CT spawn area were all lifted directly from those. The rest of the map I extrapolated and made-up as best as my imagination could to resemble something more-or-less playable.

What did you get the inspiration for de_cbble from?

Probably another TF2 screenshot! Cobble was originally meant to take place in a grand medieval castle, but after weeks working on it I scrapped it for a much more Dust-like design.

de_dust Counter Strike

What are the ingredients for a successful game map?

Every good map has to offer something that other maps don’t, be it a gimmick or a unique design, or simply doing something better than the maps before it. Of course a good map also needs to be performant, fair and balanced so that all players of the game can enjoy it equally, but a map always benefits from that little bit extra to grab the wider audience.

If you could go back and create dust again today, what would you do differently?

Even with the benefit of hindsight, nothing. That said, I agree with the changes Valve have made to it in CS:GO, which I think reflect a current expectations from modern games and modern level design.

…and what are those current expectations which people have of modern level design?

Players expect to be able to drop in and not fumble around for half an hour working out all the details. It’s for this reason that modern maps are designed to be far more approachable, and the graphical enhancements you see in modern titles aren’t just about making the game look pretty and immersive – they’re there to direct players and make the game environment more navigable, more engaging and more welcoming to players of all skill levels. It’s quite surprising how jarring old maps in old games are when you go back to play them, and how hostile they are to a modern audience of gamers.

de_dust CS:GO

Seminal Counter-Strike map de_dust has been remade in CS:GO

What do you make of CS:GO – have you been consulted in any way and are you going to receive any royalties since dust is being remade?
I’ve not been consulted at all, nor would I expect to be – I trust Valve to know exactly what they’re doing! I don’t collect royalties, which are exceedingly rare in the games industry.

Didn’t Valve offer you a job after you created de_dust?

When Valve bought CS, my main priority was getting into University, so heading to Valve was not an option.

How did you end up working at Splash Damage, and what are you working on now?

I joined Splash shortly after discovering that they were both working with id Software and based in London, and largely formed via a group of modders. That was really all it took to convince me that I’d love it there. Can’t say what we’re working on, but it’s exciting.

de_dust Counter Strike

Who are your role models in the games industry?

When I was younger I really looked up to the team id Software, notably John Carmack and John Romero. These days, I still think they’re great role models in terms of what they’ve achieved. Carmack particularly has made having a logical, sound, informed head quite cool. Notch and Gabe Newell are also shining beacon in the world of PC gaming, if only or their fresh approaches when it comes to dealing with their customers.

Do you see ‘de_dust’ as your own property?

Technically, it’s Valve’s. I frequently find it hard to believe that I made it.

What is your favourite PC game right now, and why?

Deus Ex is absolutely terrific, although I should admit I’ve been playing it on the Xbox 360. Magicka was the most recent PC-only game I had a blast playing.

What is your personal favourite game map of all time?

Q2DM1 [Quake 2 Deathmatch]  is the one map that I think inspired me to keep mapping and practise and improve. I’ve had all sorts of favourites over the years that it’s hard to pick any single one.

de_dust CS:GO

Seminal Counter-Strike map de_dust has been remade in CS:GO

What with more console games taking the limelight, do you think there is now limited scope for a game to build up a community of users who create maps for the game, and modify games in a way that gamers did with Counter-Strike?

To an extent that is true, but partly because the skill and time required to create maps for modern games is far greater than it was when I started, and ‘the advent of DLC has I think slightly discouraged publishers from letting gamers modify their games, which is a shame’.

Many of the talented people I get to work with daily wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the fact that developers like id and Valve provided the tools needed to modify and extend their games. The industry needs more of that. It benefits developers, it benefits publishers and it in the end, it brings about better games.

Some say that with recent developments in console gaming, PC gaming is ‘dead’. Do you think there is still a future for PC gaming – and LAN gaming for that matter?

As long as people have PCs on their desks, in their homes and on their laps, PC gaming is here to stay. LAN gaming arose at a time when few people had internet access or fast-enough connections for gaming, but that’s rarely an issue today. As long as people enjoy playing games competitively with their friends sat next to them, I think LAN gaming is here to stay too.

Interestingly – it has recently reported by videogames blog Kotaku that artist Aram Bartholl [creator of 'Dead Drops' - the "anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network [using] …USB flash drives are embedded into walls, buildings and curbs accessable to anybody in public spaces” plans on creating a life size replica of Counter-Strike map de_dust. Constructed from concrete, the installation called ‘Dust’ will be a “…1:1 scale replica of one of the most played computer game maps in the world. The idea is to build the 3D model of ‘de_dust’ of the first person shooter game ‘Counter Strike’ as a permanent ‘building’ from concrete, making this map accessible as a large scale public sculpture”.