"The idea of making people explore India through video games excites me" - Akshit Saklani on his and Ryan's latest CS:GO map, Dharma

Akshit Saklani, one of the map creators of CS:GO's Dharma map (Image via Sportskeeda)
Akshit Saklani, one of the map creators of CS:GO's Dharma map (Image via Sportskeeda)

One of the best aspects of multiplayer first-person shooter games is their numerous maps. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) is no exception. From Mirage to Overpass, the shooter has many maps that players can enjoy.

CS:GO stands out in the crowd of other multiplayer shooter titles as it allows its community to create maps that others can enjoy. This opportunity has allowed many map builders to showcase their talent by creating unique and out-of-the-box arenas.

Two such map enthusiasts, Akshit Saklani and Ryan Hehl, recently unveiled their latest work, Dharma, which has been inspired by the Indian city of Varanasi. In conversation with Sportskeeda Esports’s Debolina Banerjee, Akshit and Ryan give an insight into the process behind the creation of Dharma, their journey in the world of map creation, their upcoming projects, and more.

Akshit and Ryan on CS:GO maps and more

Q. CS:GO is known for its real-world inspired maps. Tell us more about the world of map-making and how you both started your journey.

Ryan: I started around 2007-2008 with random Team Deathmatch maps for Counter-Strike 1.6, and slowly worked my way through other games like Quake 1 and Team Fortress Classic. It took a while to move up to Source due to a weak computer at the time, but working with the older titles for so long really helped me appreciate how little it really takes to make any level fun. Bringing that into newer games like Counter-Strike Source, Team Fortress 2, CS:GO, and a few others definitely helped with laying the groundwork before doing all the pretty details.

Starting with Quake and GoldSource games is definitely what got me into making custom textures and assets for my levels. Back then, you did whatever you wanted, threw it in a WAD file, and it was ready to go.

Once I got into CS:GO mapping, I realized how much help I needed to optimize a map (especially with low frame rates being such a thing back then). I think that was around when Akshit and I started collaborating!

Akshit: If you consider game modding, I started around when I was 13. I had a very low-end PC that would run Vice City like a slideshow! So, I would play in a cyber café, and when at home, I would make textures for it, like retexturing the bus to look like a DTC bus that we have here in Delhi. That is how I learned the basics of Photoshop without an internet connection.

Later on, when I was done with my schooling in 2011 and was preparing for my Medical and Engineering entrance, I started playing Counter-Strike 1.6, and I saw all these maps on the servers. I wondered if someone was making them, so maybe I should try too. The first few attempts were atrocious. But gradually, I got better. But my real journey began when I completed my first decent-looking map, and I realized that it didn’t run smooth enough. I googled how I could fix it, and that was when I came across this one post on Gamebanana by timmycakes, “I Am Willing to Help with Optimization.” I made an account there and contacted Timmy. Things gradually snowballed after that!

Q. Valve has always given the opportunity to its gaming community to create maps, skins, etc., for the game. Do you feel more multiplayer shooters should follow Valve's lead to give players the chance to unlock their creativity?

Ryan: I wholeheartedly support CS:GO developers for letting their playerbase create and share their custom content! Doom and Quake are my favorite examples to use since they came out in the mid-'90s and are still alive with such immense communities full of creators. TF2 is another great example of giving community members the opportunity to officially add their content to the game. I have always seen games strive when both the developers and the community have an artistic relationship with the game.

Akshit: Of course! One of the big reasons Counter-Strike 1.6 survived so long was because of all the custom content that was made by the community. Although, I feel that the impact of the community-made content on CS:GO is not as huge as it was on CS 1.6. That is mainly because of two reasons:

i) The hyper-competitive nature of CS:GO discourages players from trying out new maps. They want to play the maps that they can win on.

ii) Commercialization of the skins. It is rewarding for artists, but CS:GO players are no longer able to download any skin files available on the internet and install them in their game locally. This means that a person can no longer casually make a skin and enjoy it with their friends unless it is good enough for Valve and they decide to add it.

However, this should not stop anyone from trying to get into game modding. You get better with time and chances of monetizing this art are now more than ever.

Q. You both recently created a CS:GO map based on a popular Indian city, Varanasi. How was the experience of replicating one of the holiest cities in India? How long did it take you both to complete the map?

Akshit: It was tough. We started in July 2019 when Mapcore announced the "Exotic Places Mapping Contest". But since Ryan and I both have jobs, we could only work on our off days and we missed the contest deadline.

2 scrapped layouts of Dharma (Image via Akshit)
2 scrapped layouts of Dharma (Image via Akshit)

Also, I wanted the layout of the CS:GO map to be a bit different than the usual layouts. As you can see, in Dharma, both the sites play very differently. To achieve that, I scrapped 2 grey-box layouts, one of which was perfectly playable and just lacked the art pass. So, finalizing the layout itself took us a very long time. The layout that we have right now is the 3rd one that we built from scratch. After a lot of creative blocks, getting burned out, and self-doubting, we were finally able to release this beta version, and it makes us quite happy.

Q. Whose idea was it to choose Varanasi out of all the other cities in India? What inspired you to create Dharma based on this particular city?

Akshit: It was my idea. Since the map was intended to be for the "Exotic Places Mapping Contest", Varanasi made sense. CS:GO has just 1 famous map based in India, Gwalior by FMPONE. So, since the theme is not saturated and since I live in India, I thought it would be a good idea to go for it. Also, the idea of making people explore India through video games excites me. Not everyone can visit India and it is truly a beautiful country, so I think being able to give that experience to the CS:GO players makes me happy.

Q. Since replicating a map from a particular city is quite difficult, did any of you travel to Varanasi to capture the intricate details that are clearly visible on the map?

Akshit: No, we have never been to Varanasi. However, the architecture is quite similar to Purani Delhi, so that helped me envision how I wanted it. A lot of murals on the walls are from Udaipur that I clicked while I visited there. As for the ghats, we just used photos on Google.

Dharma's current layout (Image via Akshit)
Dharma's current layout (Image via Akshit)

While I did most of the work on the layout and the basic architecture of the buildings, major credit goes to Ryan for capturing the feel of it. He did all the custom textures, researched and focused on minute details and prop placements. In fact, none of the hand-written Hindi decals were done by me. He pro-actively asked me to give him the text that he could then write down and make those signages. I really appreciate the effort he put into researching the culture of India to make this project happen.

Ryan: Never got to travel, but I definitely collected a lot of references online! We gathered quite a few random photo references to use and also used some Street View, which definitely helped visualize settings at eye level.

Q. Out of the official maps in CS:GO, which ones are your favorites and why?

Akshit: As a player, it’s Mirage, because I can play better on it. As a mapper, I would choose Overpass because it provides a lot of room for different strategies.

Ryan: Mirage, Cache, and Nuke have always been my all-time favorites in CS:GO, even in a competitive setting. I think most players prefer a flat or level ground for the maps they enjoy, but I really love verticality and slightly unconventional features that make it more fun and memorable.

Q. One of your maps, Bikinibottom, inspired by 'Spongebob Squarepants,' gained a lot of popularity amongst the CS:GO audience. Can you tell us more about the map and the creation process behind it?

Akshit: I originally made it for CS 1.6 in 2014, because I love cartoons that aired during 90s and early 2000s. In 2016, I just tried to replicate it in CS:GO with a better layout and models. Then Ryan joined in and did his magic with the textures!

Q. Bikinibottom in CS:GO currently has over 350K subscribers and has been enjoyed by the likes of Cloud9. Have you both ever considered taking up map design as a full-time profession after the massive success of Bikinibottom?


Akshit: I got an offer from a mobile game development studio in Pune after Bikinibottom. I worked there for six months but things did not work out as me and my employer expected different things from each other. The tools and the game engine I had to work with were new to me. I guess it just took longer than expected to adapt. But now I work as a Consultant in Infogain and I am pretty happy with my career and my workplace!

Q. What’s next on the cards now that the design and official release of Dharma is coming soon? Can you give us a sneak-peak of your next project?

Sci-fi map in the works (Image via Akshit)
Sci-fi map in the works (Image via Akshit)

Akshit: I have a half-baked sci-fi-themed casual aim map for CS:GO.

There are a few maps Ryan has begun working on and I might collaborate with him on those projects. Other than that, I would invest my time into learning how to create maps on Source 2 engine.

Unfinished TF2 map (Image via Akshit)
Unfinished TF2 map (Image via Akshit)

Ryan: In my downtime, most recently I have been working on a TF2 map, and I currently have a Quake 1 single-player episode in the works! Here and there, I will just do random small one-off projects as well.

Q. What is the most daunting aspect of the map creation process? What are your tips for players who want to create a world of their own?

Akshit: The most daunting aspect is the amount of time and effort that it takes.

You need to be really patient if you want to create a good map. You need to be patient while taking criticism. You need to understand what you want to filter out from the criticism you get. More players will start suggesting changes as the map gets popular. While it is good to take that criticism and improve, you should still not forget what you want from it. Only then can you pursue it passionately. And it is ok to fail. This is where Bhagavad Geeta helped me, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor to be attached to inaction.”

Ryan: The most difficult aspect is definitely the construction and general layout of whatever it is you intend to make. It's very easy to come up with all the visual ideas, theming, and esthetics right from the get-go, but progress can fall flat very easily without a good base design first. Keeping things simple is what I like to strive for. But to balance a level being simple, it also needs to be fun!

My biggest tip is to not be over-ambitious and start with the basics. I compare it to an oil painting. Just begin with a super rough sketch and gracefully work your way up to your final vision.

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Edited by R. Elahi
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