Mappers: Never underestimate how stupid players can be

10th July 2011

Single Player First Person Shooter Maps and Mods for Half-Life 1, 2 and Episodes 1, 2 and 3

As part of the 100 Summer Days of Nostalgia event I added a mod called Prisoner of Event and in my review I complained about not having been given a crowbar.

It seems I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like not being given one, but behold, we were in fact complaining unfairly because there was a crowbar laying around at the beginning of the mod.

Now, this is the second time this week that I missed the obvious. In a Portal 2 map, which I will be posting in a few days (it’s not new, so there’s no rush), I got to the end, or so I thought and then got stuck. I played another twenty minutes looking for a solution and then I gave up, opened a browser and searched for a video walkthrough.

When I found the solution I literally slapped myself on the head for being so stupid. The actual solution was so basic and elementary that I was quite embarrassed. But then I thought to myself that Portals are not simple things and overlooking some solutions is not a case of me being stupid because they are so far outside of our real lives that using them takes a leap of faith.

I can’t help but make the connection between what happened to me and Randolph Turpin, from the Dad Plays Portal videos. I can easily imagine somebody sitting behind me watching me play this last section of the Portal 2 map and pulling their hair out wondering why I just don’t shoot a portal “there”.

Neither of us is stupid but like all humans we seem to do stupid things.

Which brings us back to the Half-Life mod I was talking about. As bolx rightly wondered ” What I


  1. It goes both ways: never underestimate how stupid a mapper can be. As a mapper I know that sometimes a mapper may implement some neat trick that only he (and other mappers) knows is possible.

    Also, as a player I tend to over-rationalize. While trying to solve a puzzle I skip certain potential solutions as “that wouldn’t make any sense” and yet that’s exactly what the mapper may have implemented.

    1. It goes both ways: never underestimate how stupid a mapper can be.

      True, but since I currently only view things from the player side, I thought I better stick with that viewpoint.

  2. ItEndsWithTens

    I’m not sure I’m entirely one way or the other on this issue; while truly skilled players would wipe the floor with me in competition, I’ve been playing games (and first person shooters in particular) long enough that I don’t appreciate hand-holding. Being led around by the nose, treated like a child, isn’t something I’m after, and a game that doesn’t give me an opportunity to showcase, if only to myself, what little skill I’ve developed after so many years leaves me feeling insulted and hollow. “Back to the Future” is tremendously accessible, and I love it as much as anyone else, but sometimes I want convoluted spaghetti storytelling like “Primer”.

    What pushes me over to your point of view, however, is that we’re talking about the Half-Life franchise. I’d say that more specifically the key is consistency with the game you’re expanding. Training is big with Valve, as you point out (I think they do it as well as it can be done before it starts to feel patronizing), and if you’re making a mod or map to be run off of that base, I definitely prefer as a player that you stick to the established conventions, unless overtly trying to do something unique. Half-Quake, for example, is a series explicitly aiming for a very un-Half-Life vibe, but the team made no secret of that.

    For vanilla Half-Life, the “Where’s the damn crowbar?” issue has always been one of my pet peeves, as has “Where’s the HEV suit?”, “Why am I forced to open crates with a pistol?”, and “Some doors open on touch, some open on use.” The sentiment extends to things like cutscenes in a map designed for a game series that fights decidedly against contrivances that remove control from the player, but that’s infinitely less obnoxious than the more basic nitpicks.

  3. This is indeed a large part of why testing is so vital: somewhere along the line the mapper is going to have to make a pile of assumptions about what the player’s going to be doing and looking at, and only a real-world test will confirm or falsify that guesswork.

    I think it’s preferable to err on the side of having people lost and fixing upward than making things far too easy and trying to gradually reverse a “dumbing down”, for reasons of being able to strike a balance easier in the former situation. I find it more intuitive to create something as barebones as possible, and add parts as the situation needs (and testing will surely make this known). Successful testing means hammering out the rough edges and conveying needed information to the highest possible percentage of players as you can, while still preserving the atmosphere and avoiding giving away the entire thing from second one.

    When it comes down to it, there is no hard and fast philosophical principle (that I know of) that you can apply from second one to avoid the lion’s share of difficulties. The playerbase is diverse, with wildly different skill levels and points of finesse. Iterative playtesting is time consuming, but it’s really the best and only option for our problems. And that more than anything else is the reason for Valve games being so darn rugged and accessible. It isn’t that they have something like “make the crowbar stupidly easy to find” on a big list of rules, it’s that their playtests tell them when they’ve gone too far and gone far enough in aspects.

    One can certainly overshoot the target if one puts Principle before Playtest.

  4. Without intending to insult anyone, there is an old saying:

    “Nothing is foolproof to the expert fool”

    The saying itself is testament to the need for Beta testing, but many mods are made by people on their own and some of the older ones for Half Life were made by people whose peers looked upon them as geeks. At the time some of the older mods were made (the turn of the new millennium) broadband and wide usage of the Internet we have today was still expensive so unless the modders personally knew others who played the game, Beta testing would have been unlikely.

    OK, back to the question, I’ve played mods where it was impossible to go on, simply because what was obvious to the creator was not obvious to me, now if you think about it, if others have the same problem the player just gives up (or cheats). That scenario is the fault of the mapper not (the stupid) player which leads to low ratings.

    Where players sometimes get it wrong is trying to second guess the mapper, Prisoner of Event is a prime example. How many people climbed the tower in the canyon because pressing the door button was too obvious? As for the crowbar, we all want to get to the next part of the game so we overlook things, an example is Lab Ex (I’ve not posted on it yet), two crates on a dumpster (dumpster’s usually are immovable) and the answer is behind the dumpster!

    The first three outings of the HL series HL(1)/OP4 and BS were all possible to play to the end (without cheating) by most players as they were professionally designed and properly tested. But most mods, even now don’t get that level of testing. The problem is some modders see a puzzle in their mind and know the solution but don’t realise few of us can see their particular logic.

    In the words of the ancient Egyptian philosopher Pt’duh:

    “The Obvious is not always so”

    At the end of the day what the difference is between a good modder and a so-so modder (I wont say bad as I cant make mods) is testing and very importantly planning and not making the player feel stupid.

    If I were a better player I would volunteer for the BTC, but I’m not so I won’t.

    1. Gradius

      Good players break things when testing. Bad players fix them.
      A good player might be able to trick jump out of the level. A bad player won’t be able to find the crowbar, necessitating the mapper to go back and make it more obvious (such as adding a light above it so it stands out more).

      If you really are a bad player then you’re infinitely more useful for “Can players get through this?” testing.

  5. Hec

    Oh, this is a curious post, I mean, I have encountered with some similar situations mostly in portal mods, which some of them due to that I really hate because of that logic stranding strict rule!!, but there is so different and is part of many puzzles, and also of the portal enviromental gameplay, so that’s ok.

    But in Hl, sometimes is different and I could say than 50% and up of the fault is just up to the player and the rest is of a bad design or just no beta testing at all!, I mean the perfect example to show that, is the fantastic and glorious “Trap” mod that it feels like portal but soo diferent and plainfully into a HL1 logic, so is a real challenge to some loosy-average players as me, to proove that mod, and let me tell you that when u complete it you feel so grat with yourself and as a great player!, of course, because that mod, makes you realize every puzzle has a cool solution, and makes you do many stupid attempts but at the end you find the solution, and forget about the cheats, Trap doesn’t allows you to do that: no no no sir.

    i mean recently I played the mod called,and posted here on PP, “Total Evasion”, where u got caged in a celll but with a crowbar, and I spend arround 5 minutes trying to figure oyut how to escape from that cage!!!!, I mean I was so stupid, because all was reduced to a logical ecuation: Crowbar=Broke something that THEREFORE!!!, is breakable!!!!!, and in that case it was the wooden like floor that was under Mr. Freeman’s feet!!, so that’s a good example of how it was my stupid fault,and very little of the dessign, altough maybe I would recomended on that case a wider cell, in order to know how to escape, as in the Freeman’s Flight mod, where u start in a wider cell ready to escape.

    So I agree all mods would be tested propperly to avoid stupid player momments, but I also think player should be sometimes more carefull in some special areas where in order to follow and go ahead u must have some vital assets, so in those cases: look for them patiently if they are there surelly u will found them, but if not, and not only u have found even with some noclip as last option!!!, then must be a neglect of the developer, which is strange, but even in some great mods could happen, the same for the buttons and lavers, look carefully something mechanic sometimes is the obvious solution.

  6. noface

    There is lots of interesting things in source sdk developer wiki explaining map design and colour usage and visual clues on where to go.

    An example could be in the evening in a city there is an open door behind a fence and warm (orange) light is shining out. However, there can be an obstacle in the way such as a fence. This gives the player the idea that they need to get to the door but find a way over the fence; you don’t want to have the players stuck in an area aimlessly wondering around just because they didn’t see where to go next (Although a large area not knowing where to go may be good for gameplay/story such as the outside of the train station in HL2).

    Mappers, read the source sdk wiki in level design for single player, it is really helpful:
    and last but not least:

    if you’re a mapper check them out, if not then they still might be interesting to read.

  7. Killer

    This is why beta testing is so important and the more beta testers you have, with the widest range of observational skills and abilities the better. Too often I hear modders looking for the best players because they think that will be what they need. In fact, unless it’s something as specialised as Portal pro, you need the opposite: the lowest common denominator, players like me.

    Phillip, great point! It seems so obvious but mappers (modders) do it in every game with varying degrees of detriment to players.

    …Haven’t been here in a while but it’s obvious the site still rocks. Where do you find the time?

  8. Major Banter

    A good mapper will usually force the player to have a weapon, or adopt the Doom tactic.

    That’s putting a boarded-up door after the crowbar pickup to ensure the player gets it, or simply having several of the weapon in a map. Doom did this because you could restart levels, but it’s still relevant – you can find a shotgun on every level of Doom 2, and mappers often do the same.

  9. Wolfen Vic.

    Quite happy to see this as I’ve noticed many times people confuse polish with making a map harder. In the Left 4 Dead 2 Campaign Cold Stream I’ve noticed a change from the simple forest to a highly complex evacuation center and.. I find the evacuation center much more complex and harder to beat but the forest gave the players more amazing stories. Many things were removed for versus when in fact it shouldn’t of been removed but instanced.

    I’ve had a few experiments over the past 3 years trying to figure out what is obvious and what isn’t. I’m quite happy finding out my own brother misses the obvious all the time, Portal 2 took him 3 days with me helping him every time he got stuck or missed the obvious. These weren’t custom maps, these were Valve maps. But then you can turn around and I let him play Team Fortress 2 with the bots and he has had no issues with the maps or how the game is played. His inability in puzzle games helps me when making my own maps as it shows me what people will miss and makes it easier to judge what I should be doing to make them go somewhere.

    One tip I learned from Irrational Behavior, and Irrational Interviews ( podcasts made by Irrational Games) is that you should always assume the player knows nothing but you shouldn’t make it so simple the hardest of hardcore gamers will pass it by. You exemplify a mod that embraces the “assume they know nothing” but the mapper seems to have forgotten the “so simple the hardest of hardcore gamers will not pass it by.” Be it a puzzle locking the player in the room till they find the weapon or key or what ever it is, you can’t let the hardcore, who assume many things, just walk out without the item needed to continue or complete the game.

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