Counter-Strike’s weapon skins are as numerous since they are glamorous. The very best in tactical fashion, they’re bright, they’re weird, they’re occasionally very expensive. Some of us don’t care for them, but many more do. They’ve been an exceptional success, so much so the rarest knives sell for more compared to Steam wallet’s cap of $500, and betting and trading sites are springing up throughout the web.

I’m gonna be straight with you now; I enjoy the weapon skins. I wish I didn’t – I’ve spent more money than I’d like on stupid digital keys for stupid digital boxes. Some people know the CSGO economy and play it well. They generate income 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 simply want a really pink, very ‘80s-disco’style Karambit Fade so I will look cool. Or rather, so I would ever guess I look cool.

Counter-Strike’s cosmetic economy is a fascinating thing. Yesterday, I opened a case and it dropped a knife. My first thought was that I possibly could trade it down with my old knife and get an improvement. I’m always wanting to have something better, something rarer.

Some time back I saw an excellent talk by Bronwen Grimes, a specialized artist at Valve. Inside it, she discusses how the small CSGO team implemented them economy with weapon skins csgo skin trade. She spoke in depth about how precisely players value items and what Valve learned through the process. The first half is mostly a specialized dissection of how they made the skins but the 2nd half is about player value and the way the economy’s shaped itself. It even details what they considered for customisation before weapon skins.

For instance, the team looked over player model customisation, entirely new weapons and cosmetic mesh changes for existing weapons (so, being able to reshape the gun barrel, or the grip or the butt, etc.). They ruled out each of these. In Dota 2, you are able to always see your hero, so having a customisable character model is practical – you get to appreciate it. But for Counter-Strike, only other players get to see your character and the team discovered that lots of changes to the models caused confusion. There were visibility problems and team-identification problems. The more skins were made, the more severe the issue would get. Entirely new weapons would cause major balance issues and push veteran CS players far from the format which they loved. And although the 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 often like exactly the same items, the ones that are flashy and colourful, and thus we drive the costs of these cosmetics up. But that’s not what Valve initially predicted.

In the beginning, Grimes’team done recreating hydrographic camouflages because they’re easier than you think to accomplish as a beginner skin, and they imagined the CSGO community would value realistic-looking weapons a lot 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.