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Over the Bridge and Through the Woods: Epilogue on Maps

June 11th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Feature:Map

As I said on the podcast devoted to this topic, my series on maps has generally been interested in a very few themes. How do maps express exploration and how do they represent the world they purport to show. On the first theme we have the very evocative Seven Cities of Gold and the more historically accurate Europa Universalis. Representation is in all of them, but the wargames Sid Meier’s Gettysburg and Combat Mission stand out for how they capture the look and feel of geographic and topographic features on the battlefield.

And, as I said on the podcast, I have one great regret in this series – I didn’t pay any tribute to the developer designed maps you find in many very good RTSes – Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, Command & Conquer. This is partly because it’s ironically harder to find a map philosophy when a dozen maps are all specifically designed for a micro-purpose than it is when those maps simply follow general rules according to a script. And it’s partly because I haven’t played every map in those games enough times to get a sense for what they are trying to do besides make sure each side has equal access to resources and choke points and hiding places.

A couple of games almost made the cut. Supreme Commander‘s campaign missions start you on a big chunk of a map with one objective and then, once you complete that, the map expands to give you another one. And another one. It takes hours. But it does really interesting things to your sense of distance and force dispositions. Alpha Centauri has a living map in the sense that the map can be an enemy, and the more efficiently you exploit the map to your advantage, the more hostile it becomes. The map design transition between Medieval: Total War and Rome: Total War is a fascinating revolution, but I did Rome in the last feature series.

The take away on map design:

1. Good maps are not synonymous with boards. The analogy between a game map and a game board is natural but misleading. On a game board, pieces move across the cardboard usually to stake a claim or mark a location. So much more interactivity is possible in the electronic space and a big part of that is finding a way for the map to respond to player action. Discover the map. Break the map. Transform the map. (Rise of Nations maps do not change their shape in response to human action, but the navigable space does because the cultural borders can expand and contract.) There are exceptions – a good Dominions map, for example, presents a new world through exaggerated terrain representation and the like. But for the most part, a game map should reflect, in some way, what a player is doing to the virtual world.

2. Exploration should be about both promise and risk. Too many games, I think, see exploration a little naively. You push back the darkness and find new lands and new resources. This makes the game more about effectively steering your little explorer guy around. Now, risk should not be understood simply as imminent death. But there should always be a chance that something will go wrong – even if it’s simply wasted time. One of the problems with many strategy games – even great ones – is that you can press an auto-explore button and let the computer do the mapping for you. If exploration is to matter, there should be a trade off for taking the easy route.

3. Information on the map should be immediately clear. We can’t forget what maps are for – they are visual representations of data – locations, resources, routes, points of interest. Though it’s difficult to get every bit of information you need on one screen (Europa Universalis has a half dozen map modes) the data the player needs on screen should never be more than a single click away, with no more than a couple of more to take advantage of that information. Though a lot of old time gamers still complain about 3D (for God’s sake, get over it) if the height of an object matters than I should be able to tell relative height at an instant. Different grades of black and brown and gray do nothing for me here, and marking marsh hexes with a slightly off-green color is not always helpful.

4. Let your map be a character. This is related to the first point, but is a little more philosophical. An interesting map is one that has a personality, one that speaks to the player through more than simply moving across it. A good game map resists. It entices. It follows predictable rules but can surprise.

So that’s it. No really profound insights.

A sidenote: In the post-recording chat after Episode 14, Tom Chick asked if I had pitched this series to anybody who would pay me for it. Given how slowly the thing got finished, it’s a good thing I didn’t. Not sure who would have paid for it anyway.

But I enjoyed writing it and will probably move on to a more normal posting schedule in the next few months. I have lots of other series ideas, but they can wait till fall.


10 Comments so far ↓

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  • Thomas Kiley

    Really enjoyed the series. Personally, exploration is my favourite part of Civ 4. Even though I am not good enough to really push my secery to my advantage, I enjoy working on extensive plans of how I will use mountains, natural docks and choke points.

    Personally, I take issue with a punishment for using auto explore, as I don’t think player should ever be forced to micromanage. I think not autoing it comes with an inherent reward anyway; you get the information as soon as it comes in and you won’t forget the lay of the land so soon.

    One of the things in the game I am working on is satellites and I would be interested in your take on this. Basically, as you choose to invest more money in to your satellites, they increase in either frequency or detail (or both, if you invest enough)

    Anyway, as the detail increases, you can see in more detail what you are facing. At the lowest, you will just see units, at the highest, you can tell type, health, direction of movement etc.

    With frequency, you naturally get the information more quickly allowing you to react appropriately without having to second guess your opponent.

    What I was wondering was, a) do you think this is a big enough risk/reward as you mentioned in (2). Also, b) would this be exploration, given you can find new resources, but the geography of the map is already revealed and it is entirely automatic.

  • Morkilus

    Next stop: Coffee table book! Especially if it has some of the Lutes Dominions maps.

  • DuncanF

    Very interesting series Troy.

    Maps – and even more so the process of mapping – in games, is something which I’ve been exploring for my degree dissertation (due next year) for a few months now and your series has been a great inspiration in doing so. I think I might even attempt something similar myself during the summer break if I can find the time.

    I look forward to seeing what subject you decide to explore next.

  • Primemover

    Fabulous series Troy! It inspired me to buy some of the older games in the “map” series that I missed their original time around!

  • MrWynd

    I just came upon this site from some Gamers with Jobs guys and I enjoyed the articles about maps.

    I had to point out though that on all of these articles it doesn’t list the author. People who have been here for a while may know who it is, but I’m still not sure. From the podcast I’ve figured it out, but the articles themselves should promote your name!

  • Troy

    Only one author here. Troy Goodfellow. But I edited the php to make it clearer. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Zeros

    Definitely an insightful series. Whether one agrees with you or not, there’s a lot of interesting points being exhibited on the different games and game design, which is always great to read.

    So feel free to do more of these series or analyses, because there is public that appreciates them.

    It got me interested in a few games, specially Imperialism 2, which I have been enjoying quite a bit. Thanks for that!

  • clever id

    Just thought I’d chime in and let you know I really enjoyed the series. I heard about in on the podcast and have been frequenting the site ever since.

    I started looking at maps in games in a whole new (and more enjoyable) way because of this series! Thanks.