The WOW Factor

21st May 2011

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

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece entitled Evenness of Quality, where I argued that a mod should have an evenness of quality throughout. Even if that meant dropping a section down in quality so it wouldn’t stand out. However, just to be clear, I was not talking about the detail of an area, but something more abstract. Well, today I am almost going to contradict that and write about the WOW Factor.

For a mod to reach greatness it normally requires at least one section in the mod where the player goes “WOW”. There are a number of ways to cause that exclamation.


We have all played mods where we reach a section and look down on an area we are just about to enter and it looks spectacular. This is probably more true for Episode Two mods that others purely because EP2 looks so much prettier than earlier engines. This scene can be indoors or outdoors and doesn’t even have to be very big, it just needs to stun the viewer. I used “viewer” here rather than player, because it’s at this point that the mentality changes. For a brief moment, we should stop being players and become observers.

If a modder can make a player take his fingers off the keyboard for a moment, then I feel they have achieved that feeling. That signifies that the person is not thinking about “playing” but observing.

I remember a map from HunterVille called Industrial Distress, where the final battle takes place in a smallish warehouse. This warehouse was so detailed and the light coming from the hole in the roof, looked great. To be honest, I can’t remember how long I had to look around, but I do remember it wasn’t long enough. That section was the final battle, and although actually quite small, it still had the WOW factor.

The modder must allow us time and space to enjoy the scene and hopefully explore before being thrust back into fighting for our lives and saving the world! If I enter a section that looks like this and before I know it, Combine soldiers smash through the roof and start shooting at me, any WOW moment might have been lost – pretty views be damned, I just start shooting and killing. Sure, I can maybe clear the area and try and enjoy the scene but that initial feeling has been lost and even replaced by adrenaline. Knowing me, I’ll probably forget to go back and I’ll already be running onto the next section.

Not only should the modder allow me time to have that WOW feeling, but it can also add to the build up of the fight. Anticipation of a battle should never be underestimated – it’s a powerful weapon in a designers arsenal.


If a mod doesn’t have a visual WOW section then it can have a gameplay WOW section. For me a perfect example of this is from Eye Of The Storm. I can’t remember anything about the rest of the mod except the general feeling of loving it and the final battle. I have only played it once but can still picture that final section in my mind. Again, it was quite small area, and yes, it looked good, but wasn’t anything special, but once the fighting started, BOY! did I have fun. I had to fight against various enemies, from various directions, not for more than a few seconds did I stay in more place. When I finished that I certainly said WOW!

Of course, there are many examples of this and they often occur at the end of a mod because of our need for a “Boss” or finale. The final battle in The Citizen 2 is another example. And again, as I write, I would be hard pressed to remember details from earlier in the mod. Now, I am sure you can, but with my memory and character, plus the number of mods I have played, make remembering something from particular mod means it must have been special.

In fact, that leads me down another path, that of mods creating set sections and almost everything else is just a journey to each of those points. I’ll explore that idea in another article.

It’s not only battles that can give the WOW feeling, but also puzzles or other skilled based events (don’t worry, I am not going to forget Research and Development, that’s coming in the next section) but it’s unusual in the extreme for a puzzle to cause it. In fact, at the time of writing, I can’t think of one. Can you?

I do remember some jumping sections in Half-Life 1 mods, that when I had finished I felt relief and even a sense of achievement, but I wouldn’t really call that a WOW moment. Perhaps it’s more of a PHEW moment.

One last thing about gameplay WOW moments. Sometimes, they can be relived and in rarer cases even feel better the second time. Unlike the Visual and other type of WOW moments, which can never be felt again. AT least not to the same degree.

Can you think of any gameplay WOW moments, that were better the second time you played them?

Something Different

This last section focuses on things that aren’t directly related to either visuals or gameplay but can still induce the WOW factor. Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious and that’s the vehicle in Research and Development. I doubt there is anybody who has played the mod who didn’t say something along the lines of “HOLY SHIT”, when they first saw the poster and what they had to do. Yes, it drove like a piece shit and was pretty buggy for some, but the driving aspect wasn’t the WOW factor in this case, it was the actual concept.

And this leads us onto the In many ways, the problem with R&D was that it was too good and many things that happened within the mod would have been WOW factors in other mods. The Combine Chopper battle is one example.

The controllable Manhack in Human Error is another good example. The first time you get to fly that thing is great and the possibilities really come alive. It’s such a simple idea but it’s execution was just right. I have to admit I am disappointed that other modders didn’t take up the idea and build maps just for that gameplay mechanic. I honestly, thought that we would see a sub-genre appear of Manhack maps. Oh well.

The last example I will give is a debatable one. The reason I say that is because I know a few players just said Meh when commenting on it but I feel it is worthy of mentioning. It’s the canister ride in Mission Improbable, where you get shot across the river canyon. It’s true that you don’t actual participate in it and you are nothing more than a passenger, but just like Mr. Whirly in R&D, it’s the concept that counts.

It worked well on a number of levels. Firstly, it allowed the designer to quickly move you from one place to another, limiting you view and choices. Secondly, it was unique and lastly, the build up to the event was very well done. You fought you way into a barn and were then “rewarded” with the flight.


Is the WOW factor essential for a mod to be considered great? Probably not. Some mods exude quality throughout the mod but I would argue in those cases that there are mini-WOW factors all through the mod and they unconsciously build-up into a bigger one, that is hard to define.

In business, something called the USP is often discussed. It stands for Unique Selling Point. And it is something that separates one business or product from its competitors. Each company or product should be able to clearly define their USP, if they can’t then perhaps (and it is only a “perhaps”) they don’t really know what they are trying to sell or create.

Some USPs are a little more vague. If I think about Apple, sure their products are unique in some aspects, but what they sell is “style”. Their products don’t really do anything that different from PCs.

What has this got to do with modding? Well, as a designer I would be asking myself what my mod has that’s different from other mods. Making your mod stand out from the crowd is pretty hard because of the way the whole modding scene works. You are using textures and models seen a hundred times in other mods. One solution is to introduce new models and assets, and that’s great if you use them well. Another way is to go even further and aim for a total conversion. That’s a lot of work.

For me, the best way is to use all those things that Valve gave us in clever and interesting ways. If you can’t create flyable manhacks or Mr. Whirlys then you better create one moment in your mod that amazes, astounds, surprises or shocks me otherwise your mod is doomed to fade to the far reaches of mediocrity!

Got other examples?

This article was never written to list all the WOW moments in Source mods, but it would be great if readers listed their favourite moments and why they liked them so much.


  1. One of the recent WOW moments for me was in Nightmare House 2. Actually almost everything about the mod made me WOW, but especially shadow people and final fight were my favorites.

    1. I thought the manikins were fantastic, definitely a WOW moment for me.

  2. Ixon

    I haven’t played Human Error,but the remote manhack mechanic was supposed to be in original Half-Life 2, in level called Manhack Arcade.But the idea it was eventually dropped,because valve thought it wasn’t fun.

  3. Although this isn’t technically a Source mod, I found a hell of a lot of these in Half-Life 2 itself – but nowhere near as many (or indeed as intensely) as in the episodes. That’s why I’ve played it through so many times. However, I never really get this with SP mods.

    Really, the only places I didn’t get the chills of a really good moment, where I knew this was gonna” be good, were the streets of City 17 after Nova Prospekt. Everything else pretty much comprises my favourite moments in my entire gaming history.

  4. Derbler

    One of my all-time favorite Half-Life maps was called Twisted Hazard Course. It was a satirical version of the HL1 hazard course, and the whole thing was really sadistic and hilarious. The “WOW” factor was probably the voice acting (imitative of Gina Cross” voice), but in truth, I was blown away by each scene in the map.

    And there is also Redemption, my favorite HL1 mod. The WOW factor in that was pretty much the entire fairground part of the game, what with the Eastern European accent in the humorous voice acting, as well as the beautifully crafted rides throughout the park.

  5. Hec

    Well I have my own policies for that WOW, factor, here you are discussing and that for me at least can be reduced to one simply word, and that word is “innovation” being innovative in a mod is so important for me to achieve that wow factor, for example I love new weapons, and if those new weapons fit so good in a mod then it has that wow vote for me, I love mods as Strider mountain, or CSS Hardwire, because they were innovative, they gave me great battles with quality in the game play experience, that I was amazed and grateful by that, also I love visuals, but those than I can almost feel that I’m into the map I’m playing, like Call In, mod or those incredible heights on Strider mountain or in some maps in rooftop ville, also I can say I love the story factor to be an important wow decisive, for example I loved 1187 Mod because that one in particular touch the first few seconds of the 7Hr War, part of HL story that I love, and I would love to see more and more mods, set into that specific HL time, I like total conversion because some of them are different and include many innovative parts, I loved get a life mod or the survival horror ones, like NH2 and in HL1 Mistake and AoM Dc were just dignifies to be called CLASSICS, Heart of evil comes to my mind when I try to think out of the HL pure concept, HoE was a great game, almost so good that that one could have become a indie franchise or something like that, but HL1 and Source engines fit it so good on it, there were many great things like the puzzles there to deserve be called wow moments.

    Also Human Error is a great example to put my thoughts about innovation the pilot able manhack part was great to know what I’m referring to, also I love that part when you drive and use the machine gun and rockets of that fabulous APC was a delight to drive that APC, and I certainly will want to use that APC in future mods, about the Xen enemies don’t even mention them, those were so cool was great to be able to fight against that Xen soldier again, and those Controllers were just fantastic, I love people whose is creative on their mods and just know how to fit those new innovative concepts into them, that’s a really important part of my WOW moments policies.

  6. zonbie

    from an easthetic standpoint, I would like to point out Minerva: Metastasis. The constant downward movement was astounding to me, from the long ominous elevator rides to the giant ever-present beam of energy flowing in the center of all the maps. The biggest WOW factor for me was when [spoiler]I had to fight my way all the way back up through the totally ruined facility, and just waking up in the bottom of that doomed place was a striking visual.[/spoiler]

    1. Hec

      Agree Minerva was great, full of WOW pure moments, I hope that Adam Foster give us a 2nd part some day when he has the time for do that now that’s he muust be very busy in Valve hope he’s giving some touch to Ep 3…

  7. Tomti

    One way to make a mod memorable is by following the “Peak-end rule”, make sure that the mod has at least one WOW moment, and make the ending great as well.

  8. SPY

    thanks Hec, for naming our Strider Mountain as one of the mods that did gave you the WOW factor moment!!

    as mapper, and I think I can speak for most if not all mapper/modders, we always try to create maps or mapparts that will simply blow the player away by what he sees or experiences. But this is quit hard to do because you never know how a player will play the mappart, and what will attracked his atention.

    For the most parts of my mods I knew up front what would be liked most by the players, although from time to time you get as mapper a mail from someone who says he liked something particular best when you never thought up front that that would be liked so much.

    personally I don’t have any mod in mind right now that did gave me a real WOW moment, but I have to add that I don’t play that much mods anymore, and those that I did play in the past don’t come back to me now as a WOW mod.

    although I do have this with quit a lot of games, I could name quit a lot of them that gave me such a moment (sof2, Prey, Mohaa, Cod1+2, Far Cry, Crysis, etc.)


  9. Anon_254656

    Great article 🙂

    I strive to wow players in my work AND give it that USP you were talking about. Its a total conversion, which I determined was necessary given the huge number of HL2 Mods already in existance, not to mention the new ones that pop up almost daily.

    Adding little things to the Mod can work wonders; as in my Dynamic NPC relationships. True, it was inspired by The Thing, but its not something you see a lot in Mods or Commercial titles for that matter. Its a simple system that I wont elaborate on just yet as I have not seen it done before in Source and I wouldnt want another HL2 Mod to ‘steal my thunder’. Simple and effective. This is one of the all important USP that you speak of.

    As for the WOW factor, I am trying to go for an art and design style that doesnt scream “HL2′. Part of that wow factor is having people say “wow, this is a HL2 Mod’. Aside from that basic mentality, I want several areas at the end of each chapter to amaze the player with the environment AND the innovative battles. I am working on a unique combinatin of puzzles combat all rolled into one for each end-level boss, which is no easy task! But in the end, it should provide a unique experience that contributes to the overall wow factor.

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