Subjective or Objective?

10th April 2008

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


I was thinking about how we judge and quantify maps and mods when Mel beat me to the punch with his forum post and I have been thinking about it a little more. One of the reasons I believe the new tag system is much better than any rating system is because it removes subjectivity and attempts to replace it with objectivity. If fact it does more than that because it replaces judgements with better defined descriptions.


I know that I am in the minority regarding Minvera: Metastasis. Most players think this is the best Half-Life 2 mod released, and the Hall of Fame page seems to bear this out. The problem is that whilst I accept it is a masterpiece, beautifully made, as good as any Valve-released level it did not excite me in the same way some other mods have.

I remember talking with somebody about a book. She said it was beautifully written but boring. At the time I believed it was a contradiction. I thought “If it is beautifully written then it can’t be boring.” A few years later I bought the book and found she was right. It was beautifully written and it was boring and I stopped reading after I finished chapter 3. Strangely the movie was also beautiful but quite boring too!

Now, I am not saying that Minerva was boring because it wasn’t but from a purely gameplay perspective I have found many other mods more to my liking.

Clearly I want something else from my gaming experience. My view is neither more nor less valid than another’s. The point is that by trying to rank and rate mods we are creating a general consensus, which is very useful and valid most of the time but we shouldn’t take it too seriously. There are perhaps better ways to find what we want.

Time For Objectivity?

As a society we are obsessed with the Fastest, Longest, Highest etc. These superlatives are generally easy to define but other adjectives are less so. Sure, it’s great fun to discuss whether Ali or Tyson would win (I think Tyson at his best would have won) but as a webmaster I want something better to help people find what they are looking for and this is exactly why the TAGS are so useful.

Tags describe a map or mod by its content. A list of locations, vehicles, enemies or weapons is a simple fact. Their simple inclusion doesn’t mean a player will be guaranteed to enjoy a mod but at least he knows what he is getting.

Other TAGS can be less fact based but hopefully better than a simple score out of 5. The key is to ensure that the definition of the TAGS is very clear and also there are enough TAGS for 95% of mods.

That’s why I am looking for trusted TAGGERS. Accepting TAGS from readers is very useful and helpful but you only need to visit a site that has an open tags system to realize that what people tag something with may make no sense to others.

Ultimately I would like to limit what TAGS a reader can add to a map or mod with some sort of dropdown list. I can then have a system for readers to suggest TAGS.

What About Preconceptions?

Last year I played a couple of mods that were both Unfinished. One was included as part of a larger project but easily overlooked, the other was released with little publicity. Both of them turned out to be my favourite mods of the year, and I should mentioned they were relatively short, less than 30 minutes each.

I duly posted them on my site along with a brief review and my recommendation, which obviously was Play It Now!. A few other readers played a rated them in a similar fashion.

However, after the first 20 or so comments I noticed the recommendations becoming lower. Now there’s no scientific basis for me assuming what I did and it could have been luck but I truly believe that as other readers started seeing so many Play It Now! images their expectations of the mod increased to a point where such a short and intense mod could match those expectations. They then started to receive lower recommendations.

So, should I try to hide the comments or at least the images until a player has played a map or mod. Of course not, that’s not my role but it does raise the question of how important is a player’s preconception of a mod and how they rate it afterwards. Sounds like an interesting experiment to me.

Judge It For What It Is

Another thing I have noticed is that certain mods get specific scores simply because of what they are. Three examples are Arenas, Short and Unfinished mods. Arenas are generally rated higher than normal because the players who enjoy these types of mods have a certain mentality and I believe that they often rate them higher than normal because they do one thing but do it very well. Often in these cases it’s a love it or hate it mod.

Next are the Unfinished mods. These mods are given lower scores purely because it’s unfinished. Now I understand why it is frustrating to play something with perhaps bugs or no ending but if you know this before you play surely your score must reflect that? That’s like giving a mod called Underground Tunnels a low score because there were no beach levels in it.

The last type of mod is the short mod. If I have to be honest I prefer mods that I can play in one or two sittings. Nothing more than 3 or 4 hours for me. I don’t know why but I get bored. Whilst each level is different perhaps I subconsciously know they have often been built by the same person that I feel it gets too repetitive and recognizable. Maybe it’s the same with music. I rarely listen to the same artist for more than one CD at a time. I need a change. Does anybody else have the same feelings?

I know of some reviews who regularly give lower scores to mods purely because they don’t have new textures, models or sounds in them. Minerva, to my knowledge, has no new content. Should that be marked lower because of it. Hell No! In fact you could make a case that it should be rated higher because the author used what was available incredibly well.

Rating mods with low scores just because they are short seems unfair. If we take it the other way should we rate very long mods high simply because they are long? Of course not.


I never read a review of any map or mod, in fact of any book or film. I prefer to play, read or view with NO preconceptions about the content. Obviously I nearly always know the size of the thing because when you download and install something it’s impossible not to notice. The same for a book and film.

To me these kinds of things are spoilers. But I suppose the same could be said for TAGS.

For me it’s more important to describe something that judge it.

If I had more confidence in the use of the tagging system I would seriously consider removing the rating system. The trouble is that I am torn between wanting to do what I think is right and giving PP readers what they want.

What Exactly Am I trying To Say?

To be honest I don’t know! I just wanted to vent my thoughts about how we view mods.

Here is a question for you: Is beautiful but boring?


  1. CrowbarSka

    Some interesting points you have made. I was actually thinking about preconceptions earlier as I noticed you had written a fairly opinionated description of Farscape (which was, in my opinion, not a fair way of introducing people to the mod).

    Regarding the problem of viewing ratings before downloading a mod/map, could it be possible to hide them by default but allow a user to view them with the click of a button? Just a suggestion.

  2. I noticed you had written a fairly opinionated description of Farscape (which was, in my opinion, not a fair way of introducing people to the mod).

    You are right and I have changed it.

    could it be possible to hide them by default but allow a user to view them with the click of a button? Just a suggestion.

    Yes, it’s probably possible and it was considered, along with hiding the comments and making the reader click to view them. Luke and I decided that it wasn’t actually very easy to use and ultimately decided against it.

    I actually think that 99% of readers would want to view it before they played a mod anyway. I almost wish I could link to their SAteam account and the rating would only be visible and usable after they have played it. Of course I am joking but it would be interesting to see what would happen.

  3. It’s all very interesting how the Mod process can go, and mainly how mods can involve so much work to the point where they are boring to play.

    I’ve seen mods that have introduced new textures, models, story, and basically a total conversion of Half Life 2, to only be boring to play and no fun at all. One perfect example is this: Project Valkyrie was a fantastic mod that introduced a new setting to the DM concept under Half Life 2. However people became to bored of the DM concept even though ti was reinvented, and the mod has not been played at all hardly, and 3 months wen to waste on a great mod, but none have hardly played it. The problem lies with other mods too, custom content tends to really attract people, and most people look for innovation rather than the same idea over and over.

    Coastline was a boring mod, sure the level design was meh, it was a long mod, but it was the same scenario. Shoot combine, continue, shoot combine continue. This also is a problem with most mods. It all really is based on the people, and their insights to game making. Some people think its easy, while others can full appreciate the time and hard work it takes. There is really no formula to making a great mod. It’s either you strike gold or not. That is always how it will be in game making.

    The only thing you can do is try your best, and do things in a good way, but still theres a giant amount of luck behind it. Another thing said above was the issue with peoples names behind it. Sure, thats also another factor. If a guy like Adam foster is know for making a mod hyped up like Minerva, then sure, when people hear that name, their gonna download whatever he makes. But that doesn’t mean he can make anything of course and get fantastic downloads with it.

    Really, mods are mods, and people take them to great lenghts to either fail, or make it. One thing thats always the same is, that quality is still the best factor.

  4. Kasperg

    The way maps are reviewed has more to do with the relationship between “what we expect/want” and “what we get” and goes beyond the technical aspects of mapping.
    Objective facts about a map such as texturing, ambiance, brushwork etc can be flawless and the map can still not be interesting or successful.
    Things like a story, a certain rhythm, a purpose, unexpected or spectacular events and places etc. are needed to make a map or mod stand above the rest.
    And even with those ingredients, there’s no way every player will be satisfied, because every player is different. Speaking of the half-life series it’s obvious there’s things we all like, yet I’m 100% sure there are no two persons that like exactly the same parts of the Half-life saga or like the same games outside the FPS genre. I’d be surprised.

    While I agree that everyone is entitled to voice their opinion on a map, mod or game, I’m usually not fond of subjective reviews that are useless to both the mapper and other players, specially if they are negative. Constructive criticism is useful if it’s based on elements of the map that can easily be corrected in that particular project or in future releases. Other things like disliking a whole theme that can obviously not be changed isn’t helpful. You don’t like prison maps like Union or Riot Act? The mapper can’t do anything about that, so that type of comment is IMO useless after release.
    Mappers like positive subjective feedback, I won’t deny that, but my guess is that everyone likes to be praised for the hard work they have done for the free enjoyment of other players. I’m not sure why mappers and modders are scrutinized like real developers though, as if someone was angry that a certain quality standard wasn’t met in a product that is really not a product, since it was free. It’s probably related to how the gap between professional and amateur level designed has been reduced. After playing a game like Half-life 2, we expect the rest of maps we play to keep the same standard. That’s easier said than done.

    I kind of agree that the tag system could be useful to let players really know what they will find. Still, two mods with the same tags like “Elite combine, gunship, fast zombies, driving section” can be radically different in quality. We still need written opinions to put the experience into words.

  5. I’ve never givin a mod/map a bad rating simply because I cant do it so it gets a 2out of 10 right off the bat.I play any single player maps/mods that come out.Those that take more time to install than play time go down on the list.I loved C to A simply because it was different.It doesnt have to involve different enemies just new landscape would suffice.I liked the citezen because it offered something different.Union offered a different play style too and that was welcomed.You cant judge a mod on reviews IMO unless they all say to buggy.And even then I’d try it just to see if I can remove the bugs because thats the way I am.

    Minerva was really good but not my kind of atmoshere/setting.

  6. Mel

    So many issues and points to consider, let me first say that I am not keen about the value of tags as Phillip, they tell me little about the mod/map, how it plays, if it has issues and I am not sure if Phillips Tag system will tell me anything I want to know about the game. Ok, it’s an indication to the content to a point, but so what, if it’s not quantified I don’t see a point or a use. We know Phillip is no great lover of reviews and maybe he sees the tag system as a possible alternative to reviews, for me there is no alternative other then forgetting and ignoring reviews, tags and ranking by just playing the mods to find out yourself.

    Someone said to me not long ago over a political discussion, I need a government and a leader to tell me what to do, democracy seems to have came a longway, or do I mean wayward. So it would seem that many gamers need reviews and most reviews are written with the gamer in mind not the mod author, if the author can extract something of use from the review all well and good, but my reviews are not aimed at him. For myself I normally skip through most reviews looking for the general thread and to be honest tend to latch more so to negatives then positive, my attitude is one of playing each and every mod and whilst a review my discourage me from playing a game I don’t need to read a review to play the game. Something’s do effect my decision not to play a mod, multiple post calling the mod rubbish, mods listed arena type, although there are a couple of good ones but in the main most are a poor excuse for mapping or the lack of. Also maps with no content in terms of story or action just sets, they maybe good design but should not be categories under the same heading as single person shooters, because they don’t shoot.

    If you think I am getting away from the point, you are right but I am only following treads that the blog has already thrown up.

    I only thing that determines a good game to the player is what he gets from playing it and that’s the subjective part, we don’t all like the same thing, we don’t all share the same experiences. There is an advert currently on US TV it starts ” Is Size Important” the answer for me which is different then the advert is; no it’s not important a good game is a good game no matter how long or short, there’s plenty of good, bad and ugly games in all lengths, some times you want a short game to end quickly and sometime you want a long game never to end and visa a versa. The best and most rewarding thing you can get from any custom built mod is FUN, so go get some.

  7. feckineejit

    Okay, well I guess it is subjective to the players expectations of enjoyment from the mod. For me I like a mod to be pretty long, because I like to get into the story (even if there is no story) and see something through. I like there to be quite a challenge – it should feel like I am up against some pretty tough odds and I have to really use cover, watch my health, use the right weapons for the enemies, etc.

    I like to see new uses for the physics engine – e.g. a mod that uses props to complete a platforming puzzle, or interesting uses for vehicles or an energy field puzzle that requires some thought. These breaks help to alleviate battle fatigue and help to make the mod seem bigger/longer than it may be otherwise.

    I like short/ unfinished/ experimental mods, sure – but only if I know they are going to be that way when I am loading them. I sometimes wish I could be a tester because I really like to muck around the levels and, “see what I can break”.

    Tags on their own are not useful, comments give tags context and explain why someone did or did not like the mod/level. Someone may hate a mod and rate it poorly, but it could be because they felt it was too hard or something. I always read ratings before I play a mod and usually play it anyway because I like to put in my two cents worth.

  8. paddyL

    “…it removes subjectivity and attempts to replace it with objectivity”

    I’m not sure this is possible. People play mods – I presume – for enjoyment and that is never an objective event, because it involves an experience. For example I prefer longer mods and I dont play the shorter ones regardless of the reviews. Simply because they do not satisfy a core experience I am looking for from a mod. Some one who likes shorter mods will seek a different experience and make a different choice. The main content will always reflect the half life world in one form or another and the type of experience people seek from revisiting it through mods will, I suspect, remain similar, reflecting the original satisfaction they got from the HL world.

    People like to know whats in a mod and what others found there, at the same time I think most people will want to play any mod that sounds like it will satisfy the experience they like to get, unless it seems too buggy. It seems to me we are all preconditioned by our individual experience of the HL world and that works to consistantly influence the expectations we hope a mod will satisfy.

    There is also the reality, I suspect, that some people can be a bit harsh when their needs are not met and the efforts, generosity and status of the mod makers are not taken into consideration.
    What Kasperg writes makes sense to me.

  9. Stranger

    Having the rating and reviews prominent helps my mods. Without them they are just rather ugly/unimpressive looking, and not very many people download them. (You can’t exactly see game play just by looking at the screenshots.) Besides, most people who come to this site probably come for maps with reviews, so they can know whether something is worth their time.

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