Cartoon owl holding up a controller. Pixelated red background. Text: Minimaps in all the wrong places

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…

“The game screen is massive and full of beautifully rendered scenery,
yet sometimes I only look at the map in the corner – which is a real shame.”
Sakurai agrees: minimaps kinda suck.

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.

In Diablo II, the map is shown on top of everything. You can toggle it on and off very quickly, so it won’t be there to bother you all the time. (image source: YouTube)

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:

Visual Guidance

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:

  1. make locations in the world unique (memorable)
  2. 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.

“Ooh, what is that glowy thing? What’s that other glowy thing in the distance? Wait, is that a flying island in the horizon?!”

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!

I have many qualms about WoW’s default UI… but the minimap isn’t really on top of the list.

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?

Oh, wow, a gaming UI element that was actually recreated in reality!
(Too bad it doesn’t show you the deer on the road.)

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:

  1. You’re playing to enjoy yourself, not just to “get a bunch of tasks done because that pays the bills.”
  2. 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

It shows little yellow dots. Neat!

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?

Important NPCs


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

Looking at these maps hardly tells you what’s a corridor and what isn’t. The blue dots represent your party members, but they could be on an entirely different floor.

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.

Final Fantasy XIII: Look at this WIIIIIIDE and massive room you’re in! Too bad the minimap reveals you’re stuck in a corridor.
Image source: IGN

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.

Dawn of War
Civilization IV

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!

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

4 thoughts on “Minimaps Don’t Belong in Games – Game Design

  1. Similarly to what you’ve discussed before with features like teleporting, what do you think of minimaps that do something like fill in as you explore? That way the task of exploring is still left up to the player, but the minimap still exists as an aid when backtracking to already-explored areas. Or alternately, for certain types of games, the minimap is only available on NG+. Some of the problem still exists, but is mostly mitigated by having to explore everything personally the first time.

    One game I’ve played recently that actually does away with the minimap entirely, suprisingly, is Lies of P. I guess it’s understandable in that case, since the entire game is extremely linear. You never have the risk of getting lost. So basically, if you miss something or someone, it’s your own fault… and I can attest to having missed an NPC in one area which died on me because I didn’t talk to her soon enough. Consequences!

    1. “Self-filling maps”
      I have something of a love-hate relationship with maps that fill in as you explore.

      Firstly, I love having the ability to see which areas I’ve been to.

      However, if the game uses small chunks to fill the map with, then my OCD kicks in and I need to go fill in as much as humanly possible. This was especially bad with Metroid Dread and Indivisible, where I spent the last 2-5 hours of my playthrough just going around and making sure that the entire map is explored (there are many spots in both games that you can’t fly up to until very late in the game).

      The best use of this feature that I can think of at the top of my head is in Diablo II (although you can still miss spots along the wall, as seen in the D2 screenshot at the somewhat start of this article).

      Also, while I like the feature, I think it can just be a regular map feature. Not necessarily a minimap. Diablo III improved the area that gets revealed as you walk, which is nice, but alas, it also switched to using a minimap instead of the transparent hover map of D2…

      “Minimaps in NG+”
      I… don’t really see the purpose of giving the player a minimap in New Game+. Maybe there’s some situation I’m missing that you’re thinking of? I do think it would be an interesting test case (to see whether players go “Finally! I wish I had this the first time around!” or “Eh, I know this game already. Why do they think I need a minimap now?”).

      “Lies of P”
      Sounds like Lies of P has chosen correctly. Having a minimap in a linear game just eats the immersion (just ask Final Fantasy XIII).

      And about similar games: from what I’ve understood, Dark Souls games and Elden Ring don’t seem to use minimaps, while Nioh games do. I haven’t played either series yet, but considering the popularity of Dark Souls/Elden Ring, it seems that games like those can do very well without minimaps.

      1. Well, my thought with minimaps in NG+ is that at that point it would simply be an aid to navigation. The presumption at that point is that the player has completed the game all the way through, and is replaying to get a different ending, missed quests or items, mutually exclusive achievements, or simply to experience a more difficult level of combat. As such, the player already theoretically knows where everything is, the minimap just lets them navigate to specific points on the map more easily. Of course, a full inventory-accessible map serves the same purpose, as does a fill-as-you-go map that retains information from the last playthrough. And for many games, such as Lies of P, a minimap is basically useless at any point in the game.

        As for completionist instincts, I definitely can feel the same way. Dead Cells came up with the solution (for each individual randomly generated level) that once you get a certain upgrade, whenever you explore ~80-90% of the level, the rest of the map is automatically filled in with a slightly different color to indicate that you haven’t been there yet. The system still isn’t perfect, but it honestly works pretty well for the rougelike system the game is based on.

        And since you mentioned Elden Ring, they definitely are trying with map overlays instead of a minimap, but there are… problems. For example, you can follow a string of ‘checkpoints’ that leads you through areas and boss battles in an order that makes sense difficulty-wise. Each checkpoint has a little golden streamer that points in the direction of the next checkpoint. Unfortunately, those streamers are next-to useless, since it’s extremely difficult to tell what precise direction it’s pointing, especially in regards to the z-axis, and often to get to the next checkpoint you have to go in basically the opposite direction to go around a wall or chasm or something. There’s an item with the exact same effect that points in the direction of the nearest undiscovered checkpoint that’s almost worse. As for questlines… the studio basically gave up and left essentially no UI at all for guidance, and precious little dialogue even. Elden Ring has many things that it does extrordinarily well, and many things that it does extrordinarily badly. Well, I should probably stop rambling now, thanks for your thoughts.

        1. “Minimaps in NG+”
          I’m starting to see what you mean here. My initial confusing was because I was thinking that if the developer wants to help the player to find rest of the collectibles (whatever those may be), then I don’t think minimap is the best way to help with that. But as you mentioned, it might be good to accomplish things that require navigation, like speedrunning or looking for those spots you’ve missed.

          Honestly, I’m starting to think that it would be fine to put a minimap in any game from the get-go, as long as it’s 1) hidden by default, so you have to toggle it on if you want it, and 2) the game is designed with the thought in mind that you shouldn’t need the minimap to notice things. But it would be available if, despite all that, you feel like you need the extra help and comfort. Kind of like games usually start with the “Normal” difficulty setting, but there’s the “Easy” option available.

          “Self-filling maps”
          One more thing. I forgot about this before, but there’s actually a method I like more than a map that fills as you go (although I wouldn’t be surprised that developers prefer not to use this because it requires more work), and that’s the “Hero’s Path” in Breath of the Wild:

          As an outsider, it’s probably confusing to look at, but as the player, it not only gives you an idea about where you’ve been and where you haven’t, but also how many times you’ve gone back and forth some route. Also, with this system I don’t feel bad about missing a couple of spots here and there in the world.

          “Elden Ring”
          Thanks for the ramblings, 😀 I really enjoy hearing your thoughts. Those “golden streamers” sound like they have a similar problem as what I lamented with the minimaps and the little dots in World of Wawrcraft (just because you see what direction it is in, doesn’t mean you can just walk that direction to get there – in fact it may be the opposite). My guess is that they’re there to give a general sense of “go to this area next” or “there’s a thing you haven’t unlocked over there”, but if that’s the point then maybe they shouldn’t try to point at the exact location and instead tell you that there’s something left to explore “in this area”.

          Based on that, it does sound like Elden Ring is something I want to experience for myself, so I can give my own input on how the system feels and what could be improved on it. … No promises. I still haven’t managed to try out Genshin Impact either…

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