Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why Maps in Games Suck (Especially Minimaps)

Hey, another update here, I'm not going to go into talking about my game yet (which may or may not be the main focus of this blog) as it's not quite ready yet, but I do have something else to talk about: minimaps.

So, this might sound absolutely completely random, and to be fair it is, but it's something I was thinking about recently. You see, I was playing Rage the other day (yeah, I know it came out a while ago, but I found it for 15$ at Walmart) and I noticed something irritating about how you navigate around the world. The game has 3 fundamental level types if you want to call them that (and I do), open-world wasteland, cities and linear gameplay segments (either racing or shooting). The navigation issue I noticed was with the first two levels types.

You see, the gameplay in the wasteland pretty much exclusively consists of commute, that is, going from the city or linear area to another linear area. The issue is this, the wasteland is huge and, while very pretty, everything looks the same. This makes it very hard to situate yourself in the world and makes it impossible for the average gamer to have any idea where the Wasted Garage or an other particular area they are being told to visit actually is in relation to where they are. This problem isn't specific to Rage, having plagued open-world games since their very beginnings, and neither is it's way of addressing it : the minimap.

The minimap in Rage is immensely useful as it has this little dotted line GPS-style thing that tells you where to go. Many games have this. It sucks. This type of system means that you are playing with your eyes on the minimap, following the little dot that is you make his way along the dotted line until you either meet enemies, or get where you wanted to go. Again, this sucks. Nobody wants to play GPS the Interactive Experience, it's just no fun. Not to mention it represents a colossal waste of manpower making the world you travel around so pretty. I've beaten Rage, but for the life of me, I can only vaguely remember what the wasteland looked like. I can, however, make you a detailed drawing of the minimap if you wanted me too. Now, Rage didn't take the worst possible solution, there are significantly worse ways of doing this, Burnout Paradise for example worked exactly the same way, except there was no minimap, only a full scale map in the pause screen. It was tons of fun to just idly drive around, but the race from point A to point B segments might as well have been called pause screen segments, as you had to check the map on said screen at almost every intersection.

Follow the dotted brick road

Now, what is the obvious solution? No minimap, that way people will have to learn the way of the land and end up feeling like they know where they are. Problem is, as Rage's map-less city sections proves, unless your world is expertly designed to be easy to navigate (and typically this means it needs to be relatively small), you just get lost all time and end up endlessly  running in circles.

These navigation issues might sound like a minor inconveniences (ok maybe not that last one), but they seriously hurt the experience in just about any game plagued by these issues. You always either feel completely, hopelessly lost, or mindless, blindly following the minimap-road to success.

Now, some games do this type of thing much better, though none of them do it perfectly. The open world Bethesda games have an awesome compass system that points you in the direction of things, allowing you to wander with a vague idea of where you are going (you can pull up the map if you are really lost though). This type of system promotes exploration and slight path deviation and, more importantly, actually looking at the screen. The problem with this system is that it works best in very open environments with very few things that can block you from making a straight line to to your destination, but not so well in other environments. This is very evident in Skyrim, with it's huge mountain ranges. I can not count the amount of times I trekked for a very long time towards the little indicator on my compass only to realize I had made a wrong turn 20 minutes away that now had me slowly circling the foot of a mountain to get to my objective which was exactly on the other side.

This thing is seriously awesome

Other games take a different approach, Red Faction: Guerrilla had a really cool system where the aforementioned GPS minimap trail would show up holographically over the roads as soon as you sat in a car. This is awesome, because your get to actually have fun looking at the world and driving the car rather than staring at a minimap. Unfortunately, even though the GPS adjusts when you go off course, the system still seriously hurts exploration, as you know the fastest and most correct way to get where you are going and have little reason to deviate from it. I never played the third or first one, but I know Fable 2 had this kind of system as well.

I couldn't find a picture of the Red Faction Guerrilla GPS trail, but here is the one in Fable 2

So what is the ideal solution? I don't know. Maybe it's creating smaller tighter worlds with more memorable landmarks which allow the player to know where they are at all time simply by recognizing the locale. That's cool, but lets face it, Skyrim was awesome because it was a whole country, Skyrim: Whiterun Edition, wouldn't of been that great.

Well, who knows what the answer is, but at the very least it's something interesting to think about, a game design puzzle, I know I'll be thinking about it. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hello World

Welcome to the inaugural post of my game dev blog, here I'll talk about what I've done so far in game development and what I plan to do in the future. My name is Paul Suddaby and I'm a Computer Science major entering second year. I'm spending the summer making an as of yet unnamed game and this blog is where I'll talk about that game and my creation process, mostly for myself, but for those reading, you can enjoy it too.

But first I'm just going to show you guys the projects I've previously done (at least the ones that aren't on my dead hard drive).

So, first off, I took part in the 21st Ludum Dare (my first and only Ludum Dare so far) and made a game called Followed, which you can find the competition entry page for here and I blogged about it on my Ludum Dare page. I was pretty happy with the results, as I got 8th in fun and tied for 15th overall. Here's a screenshot.

Next I did my part in a team during the 2011 Great Canadian Appathon where we made a cute little fishing game that next us a beautiful 1000$ in prize money for winning Best Application Concept and placed us in the top 10 in canada. I have a screenshot for you (P.S, it's also a part of the blog background), but the rest of this project got destroyed along with my old laptop (which a friend of mine jumped on). Also, it's on Windows Phone 7, and statistically speaking, it's safe to assume you don't have one.

Last but not least, there's my Global Game Jam entry for this year, also with a team, that ended up becoming Solstice (again, it's a competition page). We tied for first place in the competition, so I was definitely happy. One of the artists, Wilson Yeung and I turned it into this. It's a flash game, but it was never fully prepared for publishing as it doesn't have an ending so the files are still scattered. All you need to do is open the zip file you'll download and then drag the swf into any browser. 

There are also some XNA projects I worked pretty hard on, including my Metroidvania engine with a player levelling system and the element-shifting-phase-walking puzzle game that I personally really liked, but those are unfortunately lost in the abyss of my destroyed hard drive.

So, that's pretty much me, keep on reading in the coming weeks to hear about my next badass project. I promise the posts won't be this long. This blog is sort of centred around being a forum for design discussion, as that's where my true passion lies. If you have any comments on this or any future posts, do not hesitate to reply below or send me an e-mail at Blogs are only as good as the readers, so guys and girls, it's on you.