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.


  1. I agree that the best way to go about it would be (if the world was fairly large) to use landmarks, maybe a dozen or so across an Elder Scrolls sized world. This would work best in my mind because it allows you to orient yourself *as* the character, rather than having to refer to menus *as* the player. It becomes more immersive that way.

    Of course, one might think it a bit lame that you have a dozen enormous towers in your world with which you infer your location as that in itself might kill immersion, but if you mixed it up and kept the world looking realistic by using mountains, ruins, etc., then you could make something interesting for sure.

    Anyways, nice article. You're right that it's a very interesting game design puzzle!

  2. You can guide the player in many different ways but if we're talking about only visual clues in the play area then I think there are 3 main techniques: landmarks, terrain variation, and visual guides.

    The purpose of landmarks is obvious. It gives the player a large, unique, memorable object by which to orient herself in the world. It should be visible from a large distance and it should be asymmetrical enough so that the player does not confuse one side of it for another.

    Terrain variation is also invaluable and is used by many games today. In the open world realm we have World of Warcraft and it's various zones. Each zone is visually distinct and neighboring zones usually have a clear visual border so that a player knows that they are progressing through a zone rather than wandering in a homogeneous play space. Even games with smaller, more enclosed spaces use this. The Halo serious is a great example. Multiplayer maps are normally designed with two "sides" for opposing teams. Each side is usually given a color or terrain/structural theme by which players can identify their location. One side is red, the other is blue. One side has lush grass and plants while the other is arid and dry. One side has a window that looks at a planet while the other looks at the sun.

    And finally, there are, for lack of a better term, "visual guides." These are the smaller details that are local to the player that they can use as visual clues to tell them they're going the right direction. It could be a light, a flag, or maybe a visually interesting piece of scenery. Halo, again, does this well, as does Gears of War. Play Gears of War 2 and look at how the developers used light to subtly guide the player in the correct direction.

    To me, this is one of the pillars of great game design: communicating the game state and the player's goals in immersive and non-intrusive ways.

    1. I absolutely agree, the best kind of help/guidance/advice a game designer can give the player is advice the player doesn't know he's getting. It's one of those things that really separates good games from great ones, tell the player exactly what he should doing and where he should be going, but let him think he figured it out for himself (obviously this doesn't apply to all types of games).