I’ve been playing Skyrim lately. The maps are pretty but they don’t have all the functionality I’d like to see.

Map design is not only about what’s included but what is omitted. In Google Maps, the satellite view shows the physical features like trees and rocks; the map view shows the abstractions like forests and borders. Skyrim’s cloth map is like Google Maps “map view” and the in-game map is like “satellite view”. The cloth map is hand-drawn; the in-game map is computer generated. I think a satellite view is almost never the right thing for a game map.

TL;DR — the Skyrim map should include the things my character would put on a map, either by automatically marking things, or by allowing me to annotate them myself. The map should include what’s important for gameplay: forests, not trees; roads, not clouds.

If you’re playing Skyrim and want a better map, get the Quality World Map mod to add roads to the in-game map.

If you’re designing a game map, here are some things to think about, and my thoughts on Skyrim’s maps.

Comparison of Skyrim and Google/Bing maps

When designing a game map, make a list of the questions the player might ask about locations. Here are some things that I’d like to know when playing Skyrim and many other games:

History

Future

Paths

News

Multiplayer

Specific to Skyrim

Skyrim map design

Skyrim comes with two maps: a “cloth” map showing key features, and a dynamic in-game map showing key features and quests. What do I like most about Skyrim’s maps?

What do I like least about Skyrim’s maps?

I’ve found several third party Skyrim maps:

Of these, Prima’s strategy guide maps seem the nicest. However, none of them can match the potential of what an in-game map could do, adapting as the game progresses to show what the player needs to know. Look at Kingdoms of Amalur’s maps to see what a game like Skyrim could have provided.

Designing your game’s maps

A map is a tool for finding information about locations. When designing a map, make a list of the kinds of location-related information the player will want.

Design the map around answering the player’s questions about locations; omit details that distract from those answers. Clean, good looking, and useful maps make games more enjoyable.