1. Built environment
March 24, 2016

What does map design tell us about video games?

By Phil Hartup

Creating and implementing a map in a videogame is a balancing act. On the one hand, a designer could tell you everything pertinent to your adventures in the game world; on the other hand, the whole point of that world is to challenge you.

As such videogame map design can feel like an exercise in passive aggression – the developers giving you enough of a nudge in the right direction to walk straight into their traps.

How a game presents its map says a lot about the game itself and a lot about what it expects from the player. Here are three examples.

Dungeon Master

The classic dungeon crawling adventure game was first released in 1987, and though its controls and looks are a little clunky and weird by modern standards, its style of presentation still sees some use (for example, with the Legend of Grimrock games).

The Dungeon Master approach to maps is defined by two very important elements. The first of these is that the game does not give you a map. The second is that you absolutely need a map.

“Well, this should be easy to navigate.” Click to expand.

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You need a map because the game takes place over a series of maze-like levels, each consisting of very repetitive stone walls with very few indicators of place or direction to help out. You are operating on the clock too; food and water supplies are finite, so you can’t just stumble around like a drunken LARPer. The solution is of course that you have to make your own map.

Dungeon Master meets the player halfway on this. The game works on a grid: a single step forward by the player is a precise unit of movement that lends itself well to amateur cartography. Growing up I was fairly sure that games like this were the reason shops sold squared paper.

Some Dungeon Master maps can be seen here. Forcing players to make their own maps has become much rarer in recent years: game environments tend to have many more landmarks and features now, so that it is easier to recognise where you’ve been and where you are going without needing a map. Equally, more naturalistic approaches to character design mean that you won’t find many games where your character moves with that conveniently measurable hop.

Day Z

Day Z is a zombie survival game built out of a military simulator called Arma 2, and for the most part using the same area. This area is of a fictional country called Chernarus, but is actually very closely modelled on a real place – the rural region around the town of Povrly in the Czech Republic. The game turns the River Elba into a coastline – its southern edge has been swallowed by sea – but the northern bank is very similar.

The game takes a simple approach to mapping this area, but one which makes things surprisingly complicated for the player. If, as you are running around the region, you happen to find a map then, well, you’ve got a map. No friendly little arrow that constantly indicates where you are, no markers for points of interest – just an old fashioned map that you have to work out for yourself.

Day Z’s approach to mapping is frustratingly realistic. Click to expand.

This brings with it both challenges and opportunities for the player. At first, of course, you have to figure out just where you are on the map, and this can be a challenge in and of itself. Following a road or train track to a town in order to find a signpost is a fine idea in theory – but in practice it can put you in danger from the undead or other players.

But in terms of opportunities for the player, the key is that the game doesn’t present you with clearly designated places of interest – and so, there is a sense that everywhere is of interest. This can be bewildering at first, but it’s liberating, too: you have to judge for yourself where you want to go, for what reason, and how you plan to get there.

Tom Clancy’s The Division

The map in Tom Clancy’s The Division manages to be a fairly typical Ubisoft game map, in that it very neatly lays out your objectives by region, and tells you with perfect precision how to reach them; but at the same time, it attempts to simulate the sort of capabilities that ought, in theory, to be available to an ultra-high tech super soldier.

This is the evolution of the game map from being something that challenges the player, to being something designed to look after you. The map in Tom Clancy’s The Division makes no attempt to keep the player on their toes, but is very much on your side: you tell it where you want to go and, barring the odd group of enemies on the road, it’ll get you there fine.

Straight to the killzone. Click to expand.

Map design of this type suggests a design philosophy that is aware of the importance of a sense of adventure in a large open world environment – but one that’s keen not to waste your time if you’re just there to shoot people. This might sound joyless, but when a game is designed to be played long after the shock and awe of the visuals has faded, such concessions to the pursuit of perfunctory violence are appreciated. 


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