Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mapmaking Gameplay

A fair number of kinds of gameplay have fallen out of fashion as technology and culture have advanced. One of these is the art of making maps as gameplay.

In the old days, most adventure games (especially text adventure games) would more or less require you to make a map. The act of making the map was a big part of the gameplay, and it was considered fun to map everything out. But these days nearly every game has automatic map creation. Just about the only games left where you actually make a map manually are Etrian Odysseys, and the map making there is not done very interestingly.

I was thinking to myself: can you bring this into the modern era? Can you make mapping fun again?

A big part of making maps in the old days was that it was extremely easy to get lost. These days, the threat of getting lost is basically nonexistent. Moreover, old maps were often combined with notes, where the player would jot down things that seemed like important resources or conditions. For example, you might write "weird machine" in the tile for one room, so you would later remember that there was a machine there. Or you might have a special mark for unspent torches, so you'd mark the rooms you could revisit for another torch when yours ran low. Mapmaking isn't just a matter of terrain, but also of choosing what to remember about every location. If you didn't note which rooms had torches, or that the room has a weird machine, later on you'll waste a lot of time re-exploring rooms trying to remember which ones had the stuff you needed.

That doesn't happen these days. Modern game design doesn't allow for that level of uncertainty. It'd be considered wasteful.

Another part of map-making that is often overlooked is the physicality of it. In the old days, you actually made your maps on paper, in pencil. This allowed you to write whatever the hell you wanted in whatever size you wanted. Of course, these days the game would give you an in-game mapping utility full of prefab elements. This is a lot more boring and a lot less easy to flip through, meaning that searching and scanning the maps is a lot harder. Therefore, the games usually embed searching and scanning into the game engine, simply highlighting where you go next.

To understand what I'm saying, imagine that you're looking over your maps for a game world. Now, imagine the heady exploration music for the game playing in the background, the kind of music you'd get when you're wandering the overworld. Say, FFIV's overworld music. Now, which scenario feels right: poring over a few large sheets of crinkly paper and flipping through them searching for a specific town, or using thumbsticks to pan your 3-inch screen across a digital map? Or, even worse, pulling up a list of towns and just pressing "down" until you reach the one you're looking for. Or, even even worse, just having that city automatically be flagged.

I'm not saying that mapmaking is something all games should do. I am saying that a big part of the joy in mapmaking is the fact that you use those maps. And a big part of using the maps is being able to label and highlight them with the things you think are important. If the game doesn't require you to use the map, or if your map is no different from another player's would be, the joy is sucked out of the exercise.

So, can a game use oldschool mapmaking joy?

Let's look into a little.

First, let's posit a sample game so we can get a concrete grip on the experience. This is a game where you pilot an airship as the scout for a flying city. So you're ranging far and wide, telling the city where it's safe to go, telling them where it's safe to send harvest crews, or even doing some high-risk harvesting of your own. Your airship is not a jet fighter - it's more like a clipper, with a crew and complex fire arcs.

As you explore you'll fight lots of enemies. If you fly low amidst the debris of this broken world, you're harder to detect and the debris serves as good cover. If you fly high, there's no debris to protect you, but you can see (and be seen from) much further. Combat really changes depending on whether you're flying low or high, and whether your enemies are flying low or high. Obviously, exploring while twenty meters up in the air is more effective, but also likely to get you spotted. Being low to the ground will keep you concealed and in cover, and is also where you'll need to be if you want to actually collect any resources.

This is a pretty simple game concept. The reason I'm breaking it into "low" and "high" is to give our mapmaking some texture.

The high-grain map is drawn automatically as you fly through the area. It only maps the "high" topology. It's up to you to map the low topology, if you want to, and to indicate things like tunnels, resources, nests, and other points of interest. However, that is optional.

The low-grain map is the one you're directly responsible for. This is a hex grid map, with your city occupying one of the hexes. This map doesn't automatically get filled out: it's up to you to define the hex as a specific terrain type, a specific name. Draw the connectivity of the various faces. Notes and resource markers you make on the high-grain map are automatically added to the low-grain map, but in the end the low-grain map is entirely defined by you - with the exception of denoting other flying cities.

This map is also the one you use to actually control your city and its task forces. Telling gatherers where to go, where to put outposts, where to move the whole city. As resources run dry or the earth begins to crumble or whatever, you'll steadily have to keep moving, exploring new areas with new enemies and resources.


This idea attempts to use most of the original joys of map-building while moving them digital. One of the digital difficulties is scanning maps with your eyeballs - easy on paper, especially since your notes tend to form a unique and memorable topology. Having two distinct map grains will help emulate that, and the fact that you have to draw the contents of the hexes (even in basic graph-connection lines) should result in you imprinting the same kind of unique topological memories. The high-grain map is mostly a means for making notes during the extended exploration within the tile, which then transfer up to the hex fluidly and easily, allowing you to add to the whole without constantly changing contexts.

The need to actually use your map for controlling city resources and establishing zones of control should make it compelling, rather than feeling like an exercise in annoying busywork. This is especially true because the "busywork" is kept to a minimum and scattered carefully throughout play rather than all lumped together in one nasty cluster of paperwork.

Time's passage will slowly change the world you live in, so you will sometimes receive reports from people on the city that the map is no longer accurate. Even without the need to move your city, the map continues to live and breath. Your needs and immediate objectives are all self-assigned, but they are strongly influenced - do you need to re-explore a region? Kill off a new hive? Fight a bandit incursion? Stabilize the landbridge?

The objectives are all relatively bite-sized and it should be possible to stop playing and then come back and not feel lost. Your map, even if you forgot all about it, is clean and marked up with all the things you need to know.

So... yes, I think you can make a modern game where map-building is a joy.


Ellipsis said...

I totally managed to get the image in my head of the excited player poring over maps with inspiring music in the background. It does seem hard to approach these days because there are so many solutions available to players (if there isn't an in-game map, there will be one online, or an auto-mapping mod), so it does seem like in order to capture that experience you need to make maps procedural and map-making a key piece of gameplay or else players will just try to avoid it.

Also worth noting, this is a kind of gameplay that still may be alive and well in non-digital games. In my last big D&D campaign creating our own maps and compiling notes we found was major part of play, but it's hard to imagine a digital game that can recreate all of it.

Craig Perko said...

Worth trying!