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.
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:
Where have I been? Whether the overall map is known (games like Skyrim) or unknown (games like Civilization), I’d like to know which places I’ve been to. In Skyrim, points of interest (towns, caves, forts, etc.) are marked on the map when I visit them — this is good. However, there are some points of interest that aren’t marked -- I’ve found shrines, camps, and treasure chests that didn’t get placed on the map automatically. None of the roads are marked when I travel on them. Other than roads, I’m fairly happy with Skyrim’s system here.
What areas have I missed? Knowing where I’ve been sometimes tells me where I haven’t been. In Civilization, the unexplored areas are dark so it’s easy to tell what needs to be explored. In Skyrim, the unexplored areas look like explored areas. Points of interest I know about but haven’t visited have dark icons. Some points of interest I have visited and fully explored are marked “cleared”, but others are not. Skyrim is okay but not great at telling me about unexplored areas.
What have I done? Games unfold over time, and I want to have a record of the events. Some games provide a graph of resources/metrics over time. Some games provide a log or journal listing the things I’ve done. Some games provide a notebook recording the types of creatures or items I’ve encountered. I want to see these kinds of things on a map, as a historical record of my adventures. In Skyrim, I want to where I’ve defeated dragons, where I’ve fast traveled, and where I’ve died. In Civilization, I want to see a time lapse showing how all the civilizations have conquered territory and fought each other.
Where can I find resources? As I explore the world of Skyrim, I encounter animals and plants that I may need to harvest in the future. I want to see these on a map. Where are all the places I’ve seen bears? Where are all the places I’ve seen snowberries? In a game like Civilization, the map shows the resources as they’re encountered, so that if you need them in the future, you know where to go. I’d like to see something similar in Skyrim.
Where can I get some product/service? Wandering the world, I meet many people and shops, and take note of what they sell. I’d like the map to show me these things. The next time I need to buy potions, I should be able to look at the map to find all potion sellers.
What do I want to return to? I often find neat places that I don’t want to fully explore right now. I want to be able to mark places on the map that I want to come back to, optionally with a note. Many of Skyrim’s locations are good about marking themselves “cleared” when I’ve killed everything, but there are many times I just want to go back to some place for other reasons, like picking up treasure, harvesting plants, or seeing a scenic vista at a different time of day.
Where have I been told to go? It seems standard in games for the quest log to point people in the right direction. World of Warcraft marks shaded areas on the map; Skyrim points to exact locations. Having exact locations can spoil some of the exploration but it’s been very useful when I’m stuck, thinking I’ve been everywhere, and then seeing on the map that I had been in the right room but just happened to miss the container I was supposed to open. I think Skyrim’s system is pretty good here. The only thing I’d want in addition is a way to color- or shape-code the quests by type (Thieves Guild, Companions, Main Quest, etc.).
What are the main areas? The Skyrim “cloth” map shows me the nine regions of the game with dashed borders. Morrowind has a player-created influence map showing which organizations hold influence over various areas. Rise of Nations has a zone of control border that moves as each player gains influence and conquers territory. Areas aren’t only political; in some games it’s useful to show biomes like forests and swamps.
What locations have I been told about? Skyrim’s characters and books can also tell me about locations in the world, and these are automatically placed on the map as unexplored points of interest. This is a nice feature. Treasure maps are hand drawn vague locations, and are not automatically placed on the map; they’re also done well.
How do I get to a specific place? In Skyrim, on the main map, I want to see the main roads (shown on the cloth map), as well as roads I’ve discovered (not shown). I’d also like to see the carriage routes (not shown). Inside dungeons, I’d like to see the rooms and hallways I’ve been to, and the indoor maps work reasonably well for this. See the player-created Morrowind road map and Morrowind fast travel map for examples of abstract maps that are focused on how to get places.
How long would it take me to get somewhere? For planning, I’d like estimates of how long it will take to get somewhere along a road. In Skyrim though these estimates wouldn’t matter because I’m so easily distracted by butterflies.
What dangers are along various paths? As I explore, I run into various dangers like bears or elves or barbarians. A game map should annotate itself with the things I’ve seen, so that the next time I’m deciding how to get somewhere, I can take the dangers into account.
Where are events occurring? In some games events occur in places I’m not, and I may want to participate in those events. The game map should show me any events my character would reasonably know about.
What has changed? Skyrim’s map has so many icons that I find it hard to keep track of which ones I’ve seen before. It should show me what’s been changed on the map since I last looked.
What did I miss? In a persistent world (typically multiplayer) events may have changed the world. Even if the map itself doesn’t change, the map should show me places that have changed in some way, so that I can visit them and explore again.
Where are other players? How do I reach them, work with them, or attack them? Games may have a fog of war in which I can’t see everything, but it’d be reasonable to expect that if my teammates or friendly NPCs saw something or are under attack, and there’s a way for that information to reach my character, I should be able to see it too.
Where are other players going? I’d like to be able to mark the places on the map that I plan to go, so that my teammates can see this and plan accordingly. I’d like to see their plans on the map as well. Yes, we could communicate by typing sentences to each other, but a map seems like the ideal way to communicate information about locations.
What have they discovered that I need to visit? Sometimes a teammate will discover a goal or interesting location that they want me to visit. The map would be a good place for people to communicate goals. I’ve played some games that show a momentary “ping” but there’s a lot more I’d like to be able to communicate through the map. Even in single player games, someone who finds a great place for a screenshot in Skyrim should be able to share that with other players, using a map.
Specific to Skyrim
- Where’s my horse?⁉‽‼⁇⁈?! Every time I get off my horse it should mark the map with my horse’s location I’ve lost four horses so far! (My horse doesn’t return when I fast travel.)
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?
- They show the big areas: the regions, mountain ranges, seas, and neighboring provinces.
- They show points of interest: the nine major cities, the smaller towns, and lakes.
- They show travel routes: major roads and rivers.
- The in-game map shows additional points of interest as I discover them.
- The in-game map shows quest locations.
- On the cloth map, features are labeled nicely, with different typography for different types of features.
- The zoomed-in area map and the zoomed-out main map use different styles instead of trying to use a single style that’s suboptimal for both zoom levels.
What do I like least about Skyrim’s maps?
- The in-game map shows me clouds and trees when I really want to see roads and forests.
- There are lots of roads that aren’t shown on the in-game map, even after I’ve traveled on them.
- There’s no way for me to put my own notes on the map. I can only place a single map marker.
- There are some X’s on the cloth map but I can’t figure out what they are.
I’ve found several third party Skyrim maps:
- GameBanshee’s map is a recolored but greatly expanded version of Bethesda’s cloth map, with lots of extra locations, as revealed by the in-game map. They made the roads fainter and the borders between provinces bolder; this seems backwards to me. They also added a grid, which is useful for communicating with other players.
- There’s a cool mod (only requiring changes to the ini files) that allows you to pan, zoom, and rotate the 3d map, somewhat like Google Earth.
- The official strategy guide comes with detailed somewhat abstract maps. The samples I’ve seen look nicely rendered, but they’re still too focused on the objects on the map instead of the features, especially when zoomed out. (They also sell an interactive version.)
- The official iOS app has maps from the strategy guide. A few are free; many are additional for a fee.
- The Dragon Shout iOS app follows the same style as the cloth map, but allowing player annotations.
- A Quality World Map adds roads to the in-game map.
- The UESP Wiki has a map of Blackreach. Parts of it appear to be scanned in from the strategy guide.
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.
Maps show people where to go. Include information the player’s character would reasonably know or has discovered and would have written down on a map (like what Starwolf is doing manually for Skyrim). Update the information as the player explores new areas and finishes known areas.
Maps show people where they’ve been. Record the player’s travels, the major events they’ve experienced, and notes that they would’ve taken. You won’t be able to guess everything; allow the player to draw on and add notes to the map.
Maps show important abstractions, not what’s physically there. Show the forest, not each of the trees. Show names and borders. If procedurally generating maps, generate the useful abstractions too. It’s easier to start with the abstractions and then fill in details than to start with details and guess the abstractions.
Maps show what’s going on. Show major events that the player would reasonably know about. In a multiplayer setting, show the player’s teammates, as well as information the teammates would’ve discovered and communicated to the player.
Maps show how to get there. Include roads, ferries, and other things that make it easier to travel. Include mountains, rivers, dangers, and other things that make it harder to travel.
Maps are also used outside the game. Screenshots, stories, YouTube videos, blog posts, and other out-of-game communication between players can often be enhanced with maps.
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.