User Interface – the first-most frontier of interactions between humans and machines.
UI is the elements of any application that form the graphical layout for using and understanding how to operate that application.
The point of a good user interface is to make using software easy, efficient, and enjoyable.
In this article, I’ll be looking at minimaps – possibly one of the greatest inventions in UI.
And why they probably shouldn’t be used in games.
My inspiration for this article
In my previous article, I already mentioned Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of the Smash Bros. series, starting his own YouTube channel.
I’ve had beef with minimaps and certain other UI elements for a while now, so it’s nice to hear what an industry professional thinks about the subject. Let’s see what Sakurai has to say…
Sakurai mentions that minimaps are a problem, because it takes you from looking at the game itself and the world around you.
But he also mentions that the more traditional way of pressing a button to open up the whole world map to check where you are is also troublesome. It’s distracting when you need to stop to open and close the world map.
As for working solutions? Sakurai mentions the Mystery Dungeon series, which shows a translucent map on top of the play screen. A similar mechanic that is used in Diablo I and II, except in Mystery Dungeon, the map is permanently slightly visible on the screen.
Another solution he mentions is visual guidance elements, such as arrows, on the game world itself:
And finally (if all else fails), to overlay information on the screen:
The idea of “giving visual guidance” is the principle that you should build on. However, I believe that both examples Sakurai gives here fail at solving the problem properly: you may not be looking at the minimap anymore, but you’re still looking at arbitrary UI signs instead of the world.
A better way to solve this problem would be, for example:
- make locations in the world unique (memorable)
- make points of interest highly visible (easy to notice)
There are some problems with both of these: they require a lot of work, require you to think outside the box when implementing them and may require making things in your world a bit “unrealistic” (who keeps dropping orange paint everywhere?!).
It’s understandable that a developer who is pressed on time is quick to resort to methods that solve this problem with less effort (minimaps, icons and arrows).
An example of a game that solves the problem properly: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Unvisited shrines and towers glow bright orange. There’s many unique landmarks. Sometimes you see smoke rising somewhere.
Sure, you can still look at the map, or the minimap, but you can actually just look at the world around you for navigation. The gameplay is also designed around going “Ooh, what’s that over there? Let’s go there!” all the time.
Either way, that’s a bit beside the subject. Let’s get back to talking about minimaps.
Minimaps are great
I think my first real experience with minimaps was in World of Warcraft. And to be honest, I didn’t think they were bad.
In fact, I thought they were great!
Minimaps are a great invention! You wander the world and you notice a little dot appear on the minimap. That means there’s something relevant nearby, such as a herb or ore deposit, or specific type of monster you’re trying to track. Now you can focus your attention to finding it!
Or let’s say you’re in a new town. Using the minimap you can see that there’s a bunch of shopkeepers nearby. Some of them may be inside buildings, so now it’s easier to know which buildings you should bother walking into!
Minimaps are so great that I wished they could be implemented in real life.
Oh, if only… wait?
Minimaps are exceptionally good at what they’re meant to do: to show you a bird’s eye view of your surroundings, directions on where you should go, and if there are relevant spots nearby. You couldn’t ask for a better UI improvement to cars.
And despite all this positivity, I’ve come to despise them in video games.
Purpose of User Interface
What did I say was the purpose of UI?
The point of a good user interface is to make using software easy, efficient, and enjoyable.Gheralf, a couple of minutes ago
If the UI is good, then you’ll get your tasks done without a hitch.
But there’s a fundamental difference between “good UI on some device you need for work” and “good UI in a video game“.
When you’re operating a vehicle, you want to drive from one place to another without problems.
If you’re using Microsoft Word, you want to change your text and its layout without searching through a complicated UI and pondering how you can manage that.
When you’re microwaving your food, you don’t want to accidentally over or underheat your food, or forget it in the microwave for hours after you’ve heated it.
In other words, when you’re working you want everything to go as smoothly as possible.
But with video games, two things are fundamentally different:
- You’re playing to enjoy yourself, not just to “get a bunch of tasks done because that pays the bills.”
- Gameplay is supposed to be challenging – to a certain degree.
In other words, in games you’re expected to struggle!
How are minimaps used in games?
The problem with minimaps?
To solve that, let’s ask ourselves a few questions: Why is there a minimap on the screen in the first place? How is minimap utilized in this particular game?
Let’s look at World of Warcraft again.
The Minimap in World of Warcraft
In WoW, the minimap’s first purpose is to reveal important NPCs nearby (quest givers and targets). Secondly, you can track things that are relevant to your class or profession: herbs, ore deposits, fishing spots, or even specific type of creatures. Thirdly, it shows you the layout of nearby area.
So, are these necessary features?
Quest givers already have big shiny exclamation marks on their heads. So why would you need the minimap to also show them?
Well, some quest givers are kind of “hidden” in buildings, often on higher or lower floors. The minimap saves you some guesswork on whether you should scour every building in a city or not.
The massive downside is that having this knowledge discourages exploration (because you know not to go into places where the minimap doesn’t show anything). And considering how much work there has been put to WoW’s massive and beautiful world (including interiors of buildings in cities), that’s a real shame.
Tracking as a game mechanic is honestly an interesting concept. And I must admit, I’ve seen tracking implemented in worse ways than “you can see dots on the minimap.” (Examples: Breath of the Wild has an annoying beeping system. The Good Life puts too many limits with what you’re tracking, where you can detect it and how you activate it.)
Still, I think not being able to see those spots on the minimap would also teach players to try and scour areas that they normally would just run through. And also to pay more attention to details in the world.
Layout of nearby area
I think that seeing the nearby area in a minimap hardly works. There are a lot of places in WoW that have multiple floors and layers, so looking at a small 2D map is often more confusing than looking at the world itself.
It does work if you’re in a place where the layout of the map is much simpler (ie. a bunch of corridors). However, in that case, the minimap can break the illusion of the world: it reveals that there’s no “world” beyond those corridors.
To top it off, the world map in World of Warcraft opens extremely quickly if you want to look at it. (I remember spamming the map key (M) while running around in battlegrounds to keep track of where my teammates were while making sure I wasn’t running into enemies myself.)
In conclusion: WoW doesn’t need a minimap
I played World of Warcraft for nearly ten years and never really questioned the necessity of the minimap (until much later).
Today, I don’t think the game should have one. And should I go back to play the game, I might even download a mod to hide it altogether.
Why minimaps suck
While you may think “Well, it’s not like having a minimap in a game makes it any worse“. That’s sadly a slippery slope.
Minimaps. Indicators. Quest markers. They all try to take away the struggle of “where is this place/NPC/item that I’m looking for?”
They’re UI indicators that are designed to fix the problem of “I don’t know where to go” as efficiently as possible.
However, slapping those into your game is like slapping a “Reveal solution” button at the start of every puzzle. Why would you even play a game where you can just auto-complete every puzzle? That defeats the whole purpose!
They are quick bandaid to a problem that should be fixed in another way!
What are the things that the players search from the minimap? You should make those things more visible in the world itself. Reward the player for paying attention to detail.
Are those things hard to find because your world is too large? Make the world more condensed. Teach and reward the player for looking into nooks and crannies. Encourage exploration and don’t make it too time-consuming!
And… the one game type where minimaps actually work
It should go without saying that people who read this blog are pretty intelligent (the few interactions I’ve had with our readers attests to this).
And so, I’m sure some of you have already realized that there are certain games where the minimap is quite essential:
Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games.
Age of Empires II, Stronghold, Warcraft 3… these are the games where even I still agree that the minimap is an essential aid.
But we also need to note that it works a bit differently from the minimaps that you see in adventure games:
The RTS minimap doesn’t show you the view near you, it shows you the entire world map.
In Real-Time Strategy games, the game’s focus is less on adventuring and more on maintaining your troops/kingdom as efficiently as possible.
The minimap fits that quite perfectly: it allows you to see hotspots (receive reports of attacks etc.) and also to quickly move the camera from one location to another.
The Minimap Legacy
Finally, I must admit one last thing.
I’m quite sure that minimaps (along with quest lists, task markers etc.) are just part of a bigger picture that have made video games more accessible to larger audiences.
(Note that when we IT people talk about accessibility, we usually mean features that make things easier for people with disabilities. However, true accessibility goes beyond that and affects everyone. The gap between “regular gamers” and “non-gamers” is vast. Streamlining or making your game easier is often the biggest step in accessibility.)
Without those features, the gaming industry probably wouldn’t be the giant it is today.
But it has come with a cost.
Games have become shopping lists. Developers get away with making worse design decisions.
The sense being on a grand adventure – is greatly diminished.
So what do you think? Is there any game where you’ve been glad that there’s a minimap? Did I miss any obvious games? Leave a comment down below!