Poll Question 122 – Do you need to understand the HL universe to make great mods?

3rd May 2009

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

Before we get into specifics, let’s be clear about something. There will always be people who can just step into something and do it well. Mappers, can pick up an editor after only a cursory play at a game and make something interesting. This poll is about most mapper, the general community, not those exceptional people who are good at almost everything.

Now, the reason for this poll is primarily becasue of some Guildhall students who make maps but don’t seem to even know much about the game. Specifically I have seen Alyx spelt as “Alex” at least twice and maybe more. I am the first to admit that I am a terrible speller and this website contains, amny, mnay examples (Yes, they were on purpose!). But I believe that the mistake I have just mentioned is not due to some quick oversight but something deeper.

The students don’t really seem to grasp the finer details about the game itself, it seems more as a means to an end than anything else. Obviously there are exceptions but it certainly seems that way.

I purposely choose the use “seems” a lot in the preceeding the sentence becasue I certainly could be wrong but I don’t believe so.

I would love to know whether the guys and gals that are working on Episode 3 really love the game. Of course working on something is completely different from just playing it.

Back to the mappers, though.

If you don’t really love/understand/know the HL story and background is it possible to make great mods? Does being an expert on the details of the game and its story make your mods better?

Clearly you could put a few buildings together and locate a bunch of enemies around the place and have a cool level, but what if you want to make a proper mod?

What do you think?

The Poll


  1. It makes no difference. Understanding HL universe only helps, but gameplay, story and map design are more important. I don’t think calling combine police and rebels civilian doesn’t change the effect. You know, only proper HL universe games are HL2, Ep1 and Ep2. Others are just wannabes. So I don’t care if they make it right or not as long as they make it fun for me.

    1. But how can you create a good story if you don’t know much about HL? Calling Metrocops Combine Police isn’t a crime but doesn’t it show you that the person isn’t really interested in the game?

  2. Kasperg

    A difficult question to answer. To some people, like Phillip, part of the greatness of the mod will indeed be how it blends in with the rest of the Half-life universe and expands it. Others, as civanT explains, will just care about the gameplay and design working.
    How good a map and mod seems to you subjectively depends on what you wish from the mod and what you get from it. As I’ve said a few times before, if you expect to explore a Combine base and fight everyone and everything inside it, without much of a reference in terms of allies, you’ll find “Minerva: Metastasis” to be nearly flawless. If you want a different kind of storytelling or you prefer more variation or logic in the actual scenarios you’re in, it might not be your cup of team, regardless of its quality.
    Knowing the HL universe will of course help the mappers make a better mod set in the HL universe. But a great mod? Some total conversions look great, so the HL story isn’t really needed there. Even Rebellion, which uses HL2 assets but has a totally different story and characters, is quite enjoyable in its own.
    As for the rest of HL2 maps which seem to take place in the HL2 universe (or it just isn’t explained), I agree that knowledge about the main story is needed. Mods make use of the HL2 cast of characters in ridiculous situations (I actually mean the characters, not just the models) certainly don’t appeal to me. The ones that claim you’re Gordon Freeman in some quest which just doesn’t fit in the HL2 timeline are also a bit forced, although (like Rock 24 I think) they can be enjoyable.
    I’m really not the most indicated person to talk about this since most of those Guildhall maps and similar experiments seem like a waste of time for me as a player. I still respect the authors because I know how much work can go into it.

  3. Jasper

    I voted yes because it does. Maps and mods made by those not understanding HL, HL2, EP1 & EP2 make for bad and, often, irritating gameplay.
    The polish and gameplay of those that do understand shows eg CTA, Offshore, SM and even Pyramid.
    (Pyramid was unjustly slated by many [,em>Rest of comment removed because it was a little inflammatory – Phillip]).

  4. Kasperg

    Jasper, some of the mods you mention (with my respects to the authors of course) are not exactly the best examples of either examplary polish or standard HL2 gameplay situations. It’s not something open to opinion because we can compare them to the retail games easily and spot a lot of differences, not just in quality (not that we expect Valve quality from people who do this for fun) but in pace, combat density, how logical the enviroments are, and a long etc.
    Off the top of my head, “Riot Act”, “Eye of The Storm”, “Minerva” or even shorter maps like “Proyect 25” are probably what Phillip is talking about (just a guess).
    Again, I’m not trying to put down those other mods which have their share of good and even excellent situations and scenarios, but It’s pretty obvious that these poll questions and debates prove how different the concept of great mods changes from one player to another, making a possible agreement and conclusion seem unlikely 🙁

  5. I’m using Silent Hill universe in my HL2 mod. So I don’t necessarily need to know anything about HL universe. On the other hand making a mod for HL universe (not necessarily needs to be on HL2, I can make a mod about HL universe using Crysis very easily) of course requires some basic knowledge about universe. Considering PlanetPhillip is all about HL universe mods and maps, I say all mod makers in this site should have a basic knowledge about it to make a good mod, even though I don’t care if it’s on HL universe or not. Same way, my mod won’t be any good if I don’t know anything about Silent Hill Universe.

    All in all, using a precreated universe of a game for a short mod is very effective way of establishing a solid story without too much effort needed. In Phillip’s case it is HL universe knowledge, but in my case it doesn’t matter.

  6. Kyouryuu

    I would say “yes,” with the caveat that you’re trying to make a great mod that exists in the Half-Life universe rather than an entirely new creation (a total conversion, as it were).

    Names are the tip of the iceberg. Back when PS17 was in testing, a tester once commented that I was clearly speaking in the “invisible language” that was clear to aficionados of the game. In other words, there are certain conventions throughout Half-Life that a person who hasn’t played the game would miss. The Lambda symbol around ammo caches. Having parts of a mission critical vent peak out from behind cabinets. The distinct lighting schemes for each enemy class. The relationships between the enemy classes, not to mention which enemy type is best suited to the given situation, and so on. We, as players, see these things and instantly understand what they are because we can interpret the invisible language. When we find someone who is speaking the same language as we are, we find it rewarding and intuitive.

    The point is, unless you’ve played the game and understand the conventions, you’re not going to be able to use them. That’s why it’s important for any would-be modder to have played through the core game first.

    1. That’s really wel put Kyouyuu. Just like your reviews, you have a great way with words.

  7. Jasper

    Arguement rages! It just goes to show there are different camps. Kaspberg is in a different camp to me – he’s alllowed; it is not a crime!. I think he looks for modding perfection, I look for a good gaming experience and CTA, Offshore, SM and even Pyramid gave great joy.
    I also enjoyed “Riot Act”, “Eye of The Storm”, “Minerva” but less so.
    Kyouryuu says it all beautifully and succintly.

  8. Kasperg

    I don’t look for perfection or think that good looks alone make up for bad gameplay. I’d still prefer a less detailed, less good looking version of the mods I mentioned over a perfected version of the ones you did.
    There’s a difference in how they treat the Half-life universe, how they approach the story-telling side of it, that is closer to the HL games and it’s what makes them different to other more direct first person shooters. While I can’t imagine “Eye of The Storm” made for a different game (there are too many HL2 elements present), I could picture a lot of other mods for which a change of weapons and the looks of enemies wouldn’t really affect the core experience. That’s where I personally see the difference.

  9. First of all, I’m a little drunk; so excuse anything in this post.

    I voted “Yes, in general the best maps are made by people who understand the HL” because of how the poll question was asked. Generally the most intelligent people are those who understand stories such as the Half-Life story, and generally intelligent people make better maps. It’s true.

    Theoretically, you don’t need to understand the Half-Life Story to make a great mod. Total conversions make that completely useless. But still, many mods are related to the Half-Life Story in one way or another, and if they have a story, you need to fully understand as much of the Half-Life Story as possible, to expand it. I have been studying it’s story for years now, and have my own theories and truths. By separating my mod’s story from the real Half-Life story ten years before my mod takes place; I have made a lot of room for my own fiction. But my fiction is still based loosely on my imagination and the Half-Life Story, where every element I introduce have to add to the Half-Life immersion, and still making sense. I have a very clear image of what’s going on in my mod and every detail is there for a reason.

    Practically, a lot of mods have very bad or badly told stories. Usually these mods are bad as well, while it’s not always the case. I love when a good mod tells an excellent story, I am not doing to mention the M-Word, but you know what I mean. Personally, I believe that every mod that takes place in the Half-Life universe needs a well-thought story (actually every story should be well-thought). If you are going to use Gordon Freeman, make a real reason to use him, or use someone else. Do a little effort. But it depends on the type of the mod, if it’s a gameplay test, it doesn’t matter. But if it is a real mod with a story, I’d like reasoning, please!

    Kyouryuu makes some interesting points, mentioning the invisible story. I have not added Voice Acting to my mod mod yet, though the story is almost fully developed. Knowing every aspect and event in my mod, and reasons for these events and their role in a larger image, I have become a better mod. I have added many small but important details to my mod that tells a small part of the story. Let it be posters, gameplay elements, enemies, visuals, sound effects, decals, or whatever, they still tell a very small part of the story. The same thing goes for e.g. Half-Life 2. Because I haven’t added Voice Acting to my mod yet, no one really knows the story, but the people who have played the mod have understood a larger part of its story, just by playing it. They understand what’s going on, but not why.

    You need a solid knowledge of the story and its many details to recreate these details in you maps. I love making small stories for everything, even the placement of a crate (!), and I know many other mappers/level designers do that as well. Once a mappper provides these small details in a mod, it makes it much more enjoyable and add depth to the story, thus making the mod much better.

    In conclusion, it’s not required to know the Half-Life story to make good mods, even inside the Half-Life Universe, but you need to know the story very well and in details to add depth and immersion to a mod. That’s why I voted “Yes, in general the best maps are made by people who understand the HL”, even though it’s not completely true.

  10. SPY-maps

    personaly I don’t agree, I think you don’t need to understand the HL universe to make good maps/mods.
    i am a bit amazed to see that most people do think so, looking at the outcome of the poll.

    personaly I have made a 3 mappacks/mods with HL2 as some of you will know, and many times people said to me that they don’t follow the line of HL2 itself.
    to me is mapping/modding with a game nothing more or less as just making that what you like you to make, and if this is in contrast with the original storyline of the original game, then that’s nice. but when it isn’t, then that’s ok to.
    in fact, after so many years I rather like to play maps/mods that don’t follow HL(2), because there allready so many of them now that it gets a bit old.
    i know, many people will not agree with me at all. but this is not the first time I say this here, to me a modification is using a game, then change some stuff in it, or add some. and make your own universe.

    but, its clear to me that the HL community is a bit different from other mod communities as the Mohaa, Cod or Fear communities. it looks to me like the HL community is much more committed to there game as other communities do.
    myself, I never have even played HL (1) or all it add on’s. so, to me the HL universe is all that I know of HL2.


  11. It depends on the plot of the mod. Yup.

  12. Kasperg

    Leon has said it pretty well. Depending on the definition of “mod” you choose, it might or might not be important to know the story of the game. Reading one of Phillip’s sentences again,
    “Clearly you could put a few buildings together and locate a bunch of enemies around the place and have a cool level, but what if you want to make a proper mod?”
    it’s clear that what he meant by a proper mod was “an addon episode that fits with the rest of the retail games or even the rest of the mods that have a story”. Can mods that don’t follow this rule be great? I think they can, but we’d be talking more about total conversions than the other types. As I mentioned before, I liked Raphaël Gilot’s “Rebellion”, but seeing the usual elements of Half-life 2 in a universe that is different doesn’t really work on the long run and migh become distracting. HL1 had it easier, as both model skins and standard textures were less detailed and by consequence, less recognizable and more easily modified.

    I do have to disagree with Leon on one thing. The amount of HL2 maps/mods that have a real story meant to be part of the bigger picture vs. the amount of HL2 maps/mods that use the HL2 universe as just an excuse or “the floor in which to stand in”, is very different. There are many less mods following a story that would fit in the HL2 universe (mods in which you’re not Freeman for example) than mods which just propose a situation (not a story) in which the surroundings and enemies are HL2, but the way they’re put together really isn’t. I don’t know the exact ratio, but they are outnumbered.

  13. I think for the stories that are set in the actual HL/HL2 universe, in-depth knowledge and *understanding* are absolutely critical for making the story believable and enjoyable. Other mods, or conversions, don’t really need that depth of understanding; but as we’ve seen with some of the poorer mods, the lack of understanding really hurts the “suspension of disbelief” necessary to make this game work. Of course, mods like Minerva, CtA, Strider Mountain, and some of the other good ones, really suck you right into the story, and mesh with the main story line very well, so that they don’t distract from what makes the HalfLife franchise so great.

  14. It depends on whether or not a mod is trying to fit into the Half-Life story at all.

    Some mods are supposed to just be a bit of fun, and some are intentionally very silly, like Day Hard. Players don’t really expect such mods to fit into the HL2 story.

    But when a mod is trying to be “serious” and fit into the half-life story, it really hurts the mod if there’s some glaring error.

    I recall some Half-Life 1 mods that had space ships going to Xen or big cannons firing at Xen, with no mention of jumping between dimensions or anything. Xen isn’t just another planet, “30,000 light years away” or something, it is in another universe/dimension, and it is hard to take a mod seriously if the author makes that kind of blunder.

    Some of the most well-known Half-Life 1 mods were Azure Sheep and Point of View. As well as being very large and pretty well made, what made them interesting was the way they fitted into the Half-Life story, and included visits to areas seen in the official games. (Azure Sheep had a series of levels based on areas only briefly seen during the opening train ride. It also featured a bit where you fought alongside Gordon Freeman and Adrian Shephard!) This attention to detail and attempts to weave the mod story into the story of Half-Life and its expansions made Azure Sheep and Point of View seem like “unofficial expansions” to Half-Life. (The fact that Point of View included elements of Azure Sheep further added to this sense of continuity and consistancy.)

    But, Point of View had a problem – the “diary” of the Vortigaunt had comments where he was confused as to how the G-Man could walk around on Xen without breathing apparatus. (All the other human enemies on Xen wore hazard suits or space suits of some kind.) The flaw in this idea is that the official Half-Life games suggest Xen’s atmosphere is breathable. Many people think Gordon Freeman doesn’t wear a helmet on his HEV suit, and Barney was able to travel to Xen in Blue Shift without wearing any kind of face protection. And in Opposing Force, Adrian Shephard merely has a normal gas mask, which would be totally inadequate for breathing in alien atmosphere. Plus, the Xen aliens seem to be able to breathe fine on Earth!

    This blunder shattered my suspension of disbelief, I could not longer think of it as an expansion like Opposing Force or Blue Shift, instead it was now “just another mod”, though admittedly a very good one. Azure Sheep had a similar problem late in the game – a lab where G-Man is supervising experiments to combine Xen aliens and humans. Firstly, that kind of unethical thing seems more like Resident Evil’s Umbrella Corporation than Black Mesa, and secondly, it was absurd that such experiments would be taking place in the facility while the disaster is still ongoing. (Surely G-Man would do his secret experiments in some top-secret lab somewhere else, not in Black Mesa using Black Mesa scientists while the facility is being invaded by aliens and pumelled by the military’s artillery!) It was like “er… what? This is so silly.” And the reason it felt so silly was that up until that point everything had fitted into Half-Life and had felt like it was expanding the Half-Life story.

    Sweet Half-Life was a weird case – it was a very silly mod that included 1950s B-movie aliens in flying saucers, an anime girl running around the place, and locations and scenes that made reference to movies like Brazil, 2001: A Space Odyssee, Independence Day, The Matrix… and yet bizarrely it also did an OK job fitting into the Half-Life story! It was full of crazy new things, but nothing that actually contradicted the half-life story. The 1950s B-movie aliens were studying the Xen aliens, and they were also planning on taking advantage of the Xen invasion for their own ends. The mod was one of the only mods to feature other scientists in HEV suits, armed with serious weapons (tau cannons, RPG launchers, .357 magnums etc). Sweet Half-Life was imaginative, and sometimes a bit silly (intentionally), but it took care to not actually get any details of the Half-Life story wrong.

    Put simply… no-one will care about the details of the half-life story in a fun mini-mod that takes half an hour to complete. But in a massive mod like Azure Sheep, Sweet Half-Life, The Citizen, Minerva, etc etc, it really helps if the mod author understands the Half-Life story.

  15. Mel

    I honest don’t think it matters either way, whether it’s good or bad I don’t think a deep insight and understanding of all things HL is a requisite for a good HL game. I am not a mapper so I can only express views from a player’s point of view. There are quite a few very good mods which have no bearing what so ever on the traditional HL format, equally I also enjoy mods that follow the original plot and format, surely variety is the spice of life and HL gaming.

    I now don’t expect most mappers to share the same gaming experience, also I don’t expect they are tailor mapping mods for the likes of me any way, why should they. Developers should work as much as possible via their own original thoughts and where possible draw from the own experience of life and gaming.

  16. 23-down

    most mods and maps are settled in the hl universe so I say yes it’s neccessary to understand the storyline of the half-life games.

  17. Joure

    Well, to me personally since I’m working on a mod within the half life universe and ofcourse being a fan of the game I perfer to try and learn what is canon and mix that within the realm of what is kind of canon. We don’t have precise dates when certain things happen outside the games and expansions/episodes.

    I would say that it it’s all on what kind of mod the creator(s) want to produce. If you’re within the half life story then most will probably use the knowledge within the timeframe they are working.
    Other projects just want to do something with the half life assets and dont mind not taking canon into consideration. Which I don’t mind but it’ll never be something I would play. Personally I’m more fond of mods that atleast try to stay as canon as they can, but yeah mistakes are easily made and I’m sure the mod I’m working on isn’t 100% acurate although I try to stay as canon wherever I can.

    And then there are mod’s that are completely outside the half universe and they can do whatever they wish, it’s their own world now.

  18. Hoyy

    I guess not it applies to all games also. I dont think that mods should be based only in hl. Right now Im picking up many diff mods for ep2, op. force, hl2 and hl1, and they’re not related to hl universe always. Its a good thing to not restrict content imo.

  19. you only need to understand the Half Life universe if you are making a mod that is intended to fit into the half life universe.

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