Counter-Strike’s weapon skins are as numerous as they are glamorous. The most effective in tactical fashion, they’re bright, they’re weird, they’re occasionally very expensive. Many of us don’t look after them, but a lot more do. They’ve been an exceptional success, so much so your rarest knives sell for more compared to the Steam wallet’s cap of $500, and betting and trading sites are springing up all around the web.
I’m gonna be straight with you now; I enjoy the weapon skins. I wish I didn’t – I’ve spent more cash than I’d like on stupid digital keys for stupid digital boxes. Some people know the CSGO economy and play it well. They earn money on rare knives, withhold crates until they’re discontinued and spike in price… they know what they’re doing, basically. Me? I’m not one of those people. I recently want a very pink, very ‘80s-disco’style Karambit Fade so I can look cool. Or rather, so I can see right now I look cool.
Counter-Strike’s cosmetic economy is an interesting thing. A week ago, I opened an incident and it dropped a knife. My first thought was that I really could trade it up with my old knife and get an improvement. I’m always wanting to get something better, something rarer.
A while back I saw an excellent talk by Bronwen Grimes, a specialized artist at Valve. Inside it, she discusses how the small CSGO team implemented that economy with csgo skin trading weapon skins. She spoke in depth about how precisely players value items and what Valve learned throughout the process. The first half is mostly a specialized dissection of how they made the skins but the next half is about player value and how a economy’s shaped itself. It even details what they considered for customisation before weapon skins.
For example, the team looked at player model customisation, entirely new weapons and cosmetic mesh changes for existing weapons (so, to be able to reshape the gun barrel, or the grip or the butt, etc.). They ruled out each of these. In Dota 2, you can always see your hero, so having a customisable character model makes sense – you get to appreciate it. But also for Counter-Strike, only other players get to view your character and the team discovered that a lot of changes to the models caused confusion. There have been visibility problems and team-identification problems. The more skins were made, the more severe the situation would get. Entirely new weapons would cause major balance issues and push veteran CS players from the format they loved. And although team got quite far with the weapon mesh changes, they realised that the silhouettes became confusing and hard to identify. Weapon skins, however, seemed promising.
We know now which weapon skins sell for astronomical prices and which don’t. We tend to like exactly the same items, those who are flashy and colourful, and thus we drive the costs of the cosmetics up. But that’s not what Valve initially predicted.
Initially, Grimes’team labored on recreating hydrographic camouflages because they’re fairly easy to do as a beginner skin, and they imagined the CSGO community would value realistic-looking weapons more than, well, tacky-looking ones. I don’t use the word ‘tacky’to be mean – I’m the proud owner of a Blood in the Water scout, so y’know. Tacky, in this context, works. And that’s what Valve realised.