The Future of Mapping Challenges

6th July 2015

With the last two mapping challenges producing few entries than we hoped for, I think it’s a good time to question the mapping challenges.

I have been running these for over 5 years now and there have been ups and downs throughout that time.

What I would like to do with this post is question almost every aspect of them and see if anything interesting comes up.

What is sacrosanct?

Well, the only thing sacrosanct is that fact that it must be single player and playable. The primary reason for the challenges is to help generate new and exclusive content for the site, so that would seem fixed.

Games and Engines

All but one of the challenges have been for EP2, the other was Half-Life. I’m open to more Half-Life challenges and even Black Mesa.

Do you think I should try some standard HL2?

Time Frames and Deadlines

This has been discussed a lot and the problem comes down to motivation. Keeping mappers interested for longer than a few weeks is a problem. Couple that with the fact that people get over-ambitious means longer deadlines don’t always result in more or better entries.

One possible solution would be to require progressive deadlines for longer time frames. For example, After 3 weeks a mapper must send the basic layout. Another 3 weeks and it must be textured and lit, the final 3 weeks would be for polishing.

Other options include simpler, shorter challenges, perhaps with prefabricated layouts. However, that sort of thing was popular in the past and the time might have passed for that.


Mappers have told me that they don’t enter based on the prizes, they enter because the theme is interesting and they have time. I’m sure that’s true but I am also sure that if I had a prize fund of $1000 that would also help. But I don’t, so I will continue to offer the Steam games as prizes unless you have some other suggestions.

I have looked at buying Half-Life related items from and other “craft” websites and it’s still a possibility.


I have tried promoting the competitions around various other websites, but in general I get entries from visitors of RTSL. If you feel I am missing opportunities but not promoting them properly, please let me know ways I can improve.


I certainly need to encourage mappers to post regular WIP images and “diaries”. This can easily be done in the challenge announcement page but mappers seem reluctant.

Crazy Ideas

I have always tried to push the boundaries of the challenges and have even suggested a kinda of “Ryder Cup” challenge where mappers from the USA compete against Europe but that didn’t get much interest.

Recently, I suggested a “chain gang” competition: People would sign up for a ten-day mapping slot. Each mapper will take the work of another and continue it. They can do anything they want except change any of the previous work. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to interest the few people I discussed it with.


Well, this seems to be the crux of the topic. No matter which theme I select or suggest, people always complain it’s too open or restrictive. Location and Enemy based themes have been suggested as being the best ones but we are running very low on those.

I have tried to run a duplicate theme and that didn’t turn out too well.

What other options do we have?

The Difference Between Mappers and Players

It’s interesting the difference between mappers and players when it comes to suggesting themes. What players want (coastline, vehicles etc) and generally not what mappers want to build. Getting a theme that is good for both is a real challenge.

To Sum Up

I want to run another challenge soon, but want to make sure it’s worth doing, so please let me know your thoughts on the topic and let’s hope we can create a new generation of mapping challenge while we wait for Half-Life 3. Which, by the way, will definitely breath new life into the challenges.


  1. First off, I would like to say.. that I love this site, the content you produce and maintain Phillip and also the community itself in here. Awesome, thumbs up and big thanks!

    To make for more entries, I suggest having competitions that are not tied to a theme or a “must”. The designer just need to create an experience within the time frame of the competition. The map is scored and reviewed as any other level on this site – how well it plays and looks.

    Prize is a motivation, but not for me. The real motivation for me is to produce something and the reward is what this community is so brilliant at – playing, reviewing and discussing the entries.

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      Do you really think such an open challenge would work more than once? I fear it would be hard to judge too, especially if the entries are very different. I could certainly try it though.

      1. To address a few points.

        Using Black Mesa standalone would be a good idea, seeing as it’s a relatively new release it may have a bigger following. Half Life 2 is a possibility but mostly it’s just Episode 2 minus some features. That said I think something like Horrorville may have been better suited to HL2.

        Deadlines are a controversial issue with the mapping competitions but I think if the motivation is there and mappers with good time management skills are joining the competition then it usually turns out well, CitySteetsVille and RaisingtheBarVille kind of went this way, the mappers with good time management skills did well and others… not so much (myself included)

        I think progressive deadlines can work but you need to be careful how you space stuff out, using the above example: personally I find visuals to be one of the least satisfying things to work on and if I’m working on it for 3 weeks chances are I’ll probably lose momentum for the project and it will end up incomplete.

        That said I won’t personally be entering competitions until I have completed my current project.

      2. Yes there needs to be a theme. Definitely. It act as a motivation, to take on the challenge and also it’s something that kickstarts your thought process. The solution could be to sometimes have easier themes.

        Very specific requirement or a strong theme can be a blocker for me. If I can’t come up with a good idea, I just won’t enter the competition. Mainly because my lack of time. But I do like themes, it gives the competition a topic of discussion.. and something for us all to investigate and explore. For me.. it’s just as interesting.. or even more so, to see what discussions, comments, podcasts, interviews, let’s plays that are generated from the competition.

        Time is VERY important. If it’s too short I will not enter. I am busy in my everyday life and some weekends I am out of the country. So if there are 2 weekends in a competitions’ lifetime, then there is still hope for me.. even if 1 weekend would be of no work. With themes, there needs to be room for experimenting.

        For me personally, I would love to enter all of the competitions. I always look through the initial post, give it some thought.. even if I don’t enter. I really like these challenges, no matter if I participate or not. It’s very inspiring to create something for them, but also… to see what comes out of them.

        The outcome of these challenges is always a step forward. They add more levels to the Half-Life universe, and in many cases very creative levels. It’s super cool to read reviews, comments.. and watch Let’s Play’s of them too. So I am all positive about your competitions Phillip. Keep it up!

  2. Half Life 2 has been around for a long time. This site includes thousands of good ideas, but sooner or later, we will get bored of the game. I, myself, still enjoy playing maps and mods, but the time will come when I won’t anymore. I think if Valve announced Half Life 3, it would spring life in all of us and the motivation would spike through the roof. By the time a trailer arrives, I imagine a HalfLife3TrailerVille would be in place, for mappers to map what they saw in the trailer.


    The only competitions I entered was the 6×10 a while back, and I feel bad for that, I wish I could muster the motivation to enter more competitions. I was exited to see what theme was the next. 10 days was the sweetspot for me, long enough to make something, but short enough to keep me interested.

    One Idea would be what Valve used to do with Team Fortress 2. One mapper made a layout in Dev textures, and the competition was about filling it with enemies, items, events and texture and light it. You don’t create the whole map yourself but I feel that is where people struggle, to make a interesting layout. Don’t know if that would work out in Half Life 2, but its just a suggestion.

    1. I like the DEV texture idea. It might be hard to do in a linear setting, but than again, valve does like to collapse hallways…

  3. You know what would be a neat promotion idea? A trailer. Beats me how that would work, but hey. Something like “10 days” “1 Site” “It’s Hammer Time.” Might even get some people who normally wouldn’t read through a bunch of words interested. Maybe have Daz and other Famous Mappers/Youtubers to post it too.

    1. The trailer is a great idea, although I’m not very good at making them. I won’t do it for the next challenge, but I’ll try to make one for the one after that.

  4. First off, welcome back Phillip. It’s only fitting that you do a HospitalVille competition now that you’re back.

    I think you’re focusing too much on a couple low-turnout competitions and questioning the entire project, rather than on what made those two less successful. I think there are some obvious reasons why CombineBaseVille, RaiseTheBarVille and SniperVille 2 fell short of expectations while stuff like CityStreetsVille was way more appealing.

    Combine architecture is an acquired taste. I’m no good at it. I felt the line about “Just because you have Combine textures doesn’t make it a Combine base” was a turn-off. Not that it’s wrong, but that you seemed to want giant, vertical Citadel spaces compared to the spaces in Water Hazard.

    RaiseTheBarVille was pitched in a confusing way and the three entries didn’t really clarify it, except for Blast Pit. It would have been better to say that it’s a comp where you remix a chosen part of the game. There needed to be more examples, especially HL2-oriented examples, since most of the ones provided were based on Black Mesa.

    SniperVille was probably the worst choice for revisiting. The original wasn’t that great. Snipers are pretty tedious, frustrating enemies. That’s why they are used so sparingly in HL2 itself.

    Concerning other games, I wouldn’t be adverse to HL1, but I feel there is enough resistance to Black Mesa (and, honestly, lack of support for and from mappers too) to dismiss it at this time.

    1. Just to add on a couple points to what Salamancer says below:

      – I personally think three weekends should be the maximum. If you don’t participate in a comp, let me tell you, the wait for another one is long when it’s any more than three weekends. You have to add in another week before the mod release, and another week from the next comp’s announcement, and an indeterminate length of time in between. I actually think the 10-14 day comps are nicer because they force mappers to knuckle down and stick to the essentials. Anything more than that, and you start to get sprawly, unfocused work. It depends on the theme, though. Some themes are naturally more difficult than others to implement.

      There’s a weird exponential nature to the way some people map. It seems like once you cross the two weekends boundary, stuff gets big. Sometimes you even get two maps. It’s just a random observation.

      – I think this comment format is ill-suited for keeping dev diaries. You really need a forum to do this kind of interaction successfully, and since you don’t want one, I think you’re kind of stuck with what you’ve got.

      1. Salamancer

        So long as the themes are fairly easy implement (ie. a coastal scene takes *forever* to build up right to look good), then I’d agree 10-14 days is pretty awesome as a time period. I’m leaning more towards the month long deadlines, but anything more (such as the 6-8 week ones) is simply too long.

        1. I don’t think coastal scenes are that hard, they’re pretty barren anyway. Now forest scenes, they’re difficult.

      2. Maybe if there was some sorta portal or something always at the top of the page. (below the banner), like one that randomly showed screenshots of how people were going. Could be anything from layouts on paper too hammer screenshots. Kinda like what some people will do on twitter. Or maybe just some sorta twitter plugin that shows anything #’ed with the theme’s name.

  5. Salamancer

    It’s a tough topic for sure.

    – Time Frames. Whenever I’ve entered a competition it’s been when it’s a holiday for me. With my personal projects, uni work, spending time with friends etc., I simply don’t have the 3 hours/day it takes to work on a map.
    Cutting out uni work means I do now have that time.
    I don’t know how many of us are students, or work jobs that allow for holidays, but certainly the challenges that ran in holidays had a lot more entries as far as I could make out. And the few that ran during exam season (aka the last 2 months) have had very low turnout (again, as far as I saw.
    Why 3 hours a day though? Surely I could spend 20 minutes a day and hand in a very bare but passable map?
    This might also come into why I prefer month long deadlines as well. I’ve made so many maps that I’m just not proud of, some of which are released, most are not. If I’m not able to dedicate the amount of time needed to submit something polished (in which I hope the response to is “WOW!”), then I simply won’t enter. If I’ve spent 3 weeks making something people disregard because it’s short, looks bad, plays bad etc., then that’s 3 weeks wasted. Oftentimes the entry might be any one of those 3 things (Cognition still hurts), but the motivation of submitting something to be proud of is what will get me through that long work period.

    – Prizes. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve always felt prizes have a slight effect on entries, but it’s not what gets me through a competition. I’ll make the decision to enter based off time frames mostly, but also prizes. It doesn’t have to be expensive. The £5 steam game is enough for me (and the recent prizes of Unq’s Raising The Bar donation tempted me so much, but alas it was finals season at uni).
    But honestly, once I’ve started, the motivation for me isn’t to win the prize, it’s again to submit something that people like. Even if I don’t always nail it, people saying “Hey Salamancer, this entry was really fun, thanks dude” is going to mean more to me than anything else. I’m unsure if others take as much from comments as I do, but that’s my main motivational force.
    The only other comment I’d have would be, was there was a recent competition that offered prizes on Origin which turned me off entirely. Everyone has Steam because of The Orange Box, but I didn’t want to start a project for a prize, for a platform I didn’t use at all.
    I think prizes help when it’s the correct type of prize, but the money put into it doesn’t mean overly much to me once I’ve started.

    – Games other than EP2. There’s little reason to use anything other than EP2 for HL2 related games, in my opinion. EP2 gives nearly all the things HL2 and EP1 does, but with….more. The graphics are better, new NPCs and gameplay mechanics, you’d just be taking away toolkits for mappers to use.
    I can’t say anything for HL1 and Black Mesa given I don’t own them.

    – Themes. Themes are really, really hard. Location’s becoming harder and harder, as all the locations have been done in the past or are really awkward to do in the aging Source1 engine (coastline springs to mind).
    It’s extremely important to make sure that the theme doesn’t require expert knowledge to implement. Voiceville, Striderville, everything that requires high-level knowledge of how to make the HL2 engine do what you want are always going to receive less entries.
    I don’t know how to use gunships that well. Sure I can put them in the air, make them avoid buildings, get them to follow the player on a linear track and shoot them, but I don’t understand a lot of node and hint based AI for aerial units. If you did a gunshipville entry, I’d likely not enter.
    Sure I’d mock up a test map and spend 3 days trying to quickly learn it, but if it’s still not working perfectly after 3 days I’ll give up. I don’t want to submit anything but my best, and if I’ve spent a quarter of my time limit making something that doesn’t even work yet, it’s not worth spending my other 9 days on it.
    Entries which force the players into a vague and easy-implement mechanic are in my opinion the most popular. Combinationville springs to mind as a good theme, even though I thought the theme was limited by having the crowbar count towards the 2 weapon limit (stopping me from using AR2 balls and Gravity Gun for instance). It was a unique central mechanic that every mapper knows how to implement, and was extremely flexible in what the mapper could do.

    Perhaps signups for competitions could work well with the announcement of a new theme + deadline? Just to see how many people are interested, and allows us mappers to have a look at how many other people are having a crack at it. Certainly when I was working on RooftopVille, it was really motivating to go onto the (now gone) PlanetPhillip realtime chat board and talk to people working on their submission at the same time.
    It would also give a red flag if interest is low for a theme.

    This was more or less a blurting out of my thoughts.

    1. Interesting point about more advanced editor knowledge. What if a theoretical gunshipville challenge came out with a tutorial? One that was really comprehensive and posted right there in the post? Coveringeverything from ChooseNearestPathPoint to npc_heli_avoid_spheres. Do you think that would have you enter?

      1. I think a tutorial for the theme is an absolutely BRILLIANT idea. I’m going to pursue that.

        1. Zekiran

          What about a tutorial THEME? That is to say, “address x issue in a clear manner” – this wouldn’t really be something I’d call a competition of course, but more a way to have several different mod makers approach an issue in different ways. Rather than a canon-theme, a meta-theme.

          Also it’d be interesting to view and play from a *non modder* perspective. I love playing these maps and I’ve attempted to do my own – twice – and… yeah, that isn’t where I shine. At all. But to know that for every different issue out there (timing, AI, visual construction, etc) there are half a dozen modders able to approach it in their own unique manner.

          Maybe this would be something you’d want to talk with individual modders about, to see whether they’d be willing to put effort into something that wasn’t competitive, but rather cooperative.

          1. That’s a good idea. I’ll ponder how best to run it.

  6. – Longer time frames produce more over-ambitious maps yes. But i think for many people who dont have a lot of time (like me) its a good thing because they can start later (maybe producing not the longest or best maps, but hey). I would have loved to make more maps for competitions but i either didnt have time or in the case of horror ville i tried but couldnt come up with anything.

    – im not sure about themes thoe. I think enemy bnased ones are maybe the best bet since its a good challenge to make a map based around a specific enemy.

    – i personally am not interested in prizes. even if there was a 1000$ prizepool i wouldnt care because i wouldnt win either way.

    – i always wanted to post WIP screenshot somewhere but i didnt want to clutter the anouncment post.

    – i dont think i like the idea of progressive deadlines. im just not organized enough to first make a basic layout. that sayd it might keep people interested. but it might be a problem for some

    so far i think you did a decent job. for example i only made an entry for autoville because you changed it from competition to challenge and i dont feel like im nearly good enough for any competition.

  7. Good to have you back Phillip,,
    I look forward to each of your Mapping Challenges, you have been responsible for some real Valve quality maps and if these were easy to come by we wouldnt be having this discussion!

  8. I didn’t read all posts here but one possible reason why you receive lesser entries is that fact that many mappers left the half-life community and moved on.. I know few former hl mappers which do mapping for the UT3&4 engine nowadays…

    Anyway I think you might get a higher success rate if you host general contents for all engines.. You could then judge them in the category 1st price goldsource engine – source engine – source1.5 engine (black mesa).

    Even though the entries are lesser in numbers each new map or mod is a benefit to the community itself and therefore these contents are fantastic as they keep the community supplied with new stuff..

    So stay on it.. 🙂

    1. Mentally, most mappers have moved on. We’ve all grown sick of dealing with Valve refusing to fix what they broke. But mappers do come back every now and then if a comp sounds interesting.

      1. I think this is true. I enjoy maps and mods wich include custom NPC scenes and voicework but the faceposer program is a huge bother to use and one scene can take an hour to complete. I would love to make a mod that includes a companion that has hundreds of dialogue lines but as I said, faceposer is so broken it would take more time than necessary.

        If Valve would just take the SDK, fix it a bit and spice it up, people would start coming back. Come on, give us something while we wait for a possible Half Life 3.

        1. Not a hundred…but…I’m working on something…

        2. I think Odessa ended up with around 80 lines of dialog. Of course, part of that is because you have to feed Faceposer dialog in small chunks for lip sync, otherwise it will croak and crash.

          As much as I love how much life choreographed scenes can breathe into a map, I never want to do a project like Odessa again. Faceposer is a painful program.

  9. Thanks to everybody who has replied. It seems that in general the standard way of running the challenges is okay, but making sure modders can post work easier would also help.

    I will run a new challenge this month but try to keep the theme fairly open.

    I will look into the idea of a trailer, tutorial and new forum/WIP section.


  10. serendipity

    Its interesting listening to feedback from map makers I wonder what Gabe Newell meant by “different emotional palette” a move away from ironically runs shoots think gameplay going for a less arbitrary set of responses from the gamer how is this achieved?

    I don’t know i think gameplay engine although new tech makes good simulations of reality /graphics it emphasises the lack of development in the core gameplay.

    An immersive ambiguous environment is better than a heavily choreographed storyline for me, a game is not a movie, it is an abstract imagination. A metaphor for the quirkiness and craziness in life, there is no mission, no reason, no point needed if it is fun to play, ironically the early 2D games afforded a more cerebral style thanks to the “intelligence” of 2D a bigger area can be seen and puzzles are easier to conceive more subversive with 3D the capacity is reduced as players processing is restricted to what is directly in front of them much more instinctive/primeval set of responses kick in but can be a good thing if done with detailed environments /exaggerated environment love the HL2 universe and episode 2 is a masterpiece of design and slickness is the dystopian cityscape/ future too narrow a lens for new experiences I don’t know this is a great website keep the imagineering please ! thanks thanks to all creators of maps

  11. Enro

    nice idea, I also have a few new topics:
    Gunshipville, Helicopterville, Antlionville

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