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?
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!
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.