There are two equally important parts to mapping: the “art” that gives visual appeal and the “science” that makes the map work. As a result, it’s difficult to give a specific list of things to do or avoid. What’s a good rule of thumb for one game can be completely wrong for another. So, how does one get better at mapping?
My advice: Start thinking!
The first step to mapping happens during the early concept development. When you’re planning your characters, plot and world, you are setting the stage for your maps. The themes and ideas you want to cover will be expressed through these maps, and it’s only fair to give mapping the same level of planning and thinking you give to everything else.
Here are some tips and things to consider before you start mapping:
Understanding Positive and Negative Space
Positive and negative space are art terms for how objects fit into a picture (in this case, a map). Positive space is the space that’s occupied by an object. Negative space is the empty space. It is the interaction of these two spaces that gives your map visual appeal.
Our eyes will always first spot the difference. If you have a map that’s mostly made from negative space (i.e. low detail), the player’s eye will immediately go to any object. Likewise, if you have a map that’s mostly filled with positive space (i.e. high detail), the player’s eye will go to the empty area.
The most useful practical application of positive and negative space is to guide the player. If there’s something you really want the player to investigate, surround it by negative space. It will stand out much better. On the other hand, surrounding your road with trees or other high details will make it easier to notice and follow.
Landmarks are crucial, especially in games with larger maps or a focus on exploration. Each of your maps should have one unique identifying detail – something that the player will see and immediately recognize as belonging to that map alone.
A landmark can be an object, color combination or a special function/theme. How can you tell if your landmark works? Try using it as an identifier. If you tell the player “The key is in the blue room”, will they know where to go?
Colors have psychological properties that can help you convey your theme. For example, a town that’s faded, drab and gray will look much poorer than the same town that’s brightly colored.
Understanding the psychological properties of color can also help you in your wold development. Different cultures have different values and you can reflect this through color. For example, your country could value war and using the red for their flag and emblem would reflect their aggression. Or one country is restrained (uses pastel colors) while another is passionate (uses bold colors).
You are not making art with your maps, you are making a game. Although this seems common sense, it’s something quite a few developers struggle with. The first thing most players will look at is visual appeal (screenshots), so it’s understandable that the developer will work on making beautiful maps. Those same maps will probably make the player download the game.
But beauty doesn’t keep the player playing. Over time, the player will become desensitized to the details in your map and they will focus on how the map functions. If your map doesn’t feel like it has a purpose, or if the map is difficult to cross, the player will grow annoyed.
Always map with function in mind. Does the player have room to move and where can he/she move to? What does the player get to interact with? How does the player get from A to B? What else is moving on this screen?
It’s much easier to embellish a functional map to make it look gorgeous than it is to take a gorgeous map and try to make it functional. So, think function before aesthetics.
With every map, you have the opportunity to engage the player. You can immerse them into your game’s world and give them an opportunity to both learn and have fun. Even maps that are not directly related to the plot via cut-scenes or dialogue can be used to enrich the player’s experience.
A great example is those NPC quest-givers’ homes. Their function is usually to have a designated place where you can pick up and return the quest(s). As a result, they don’t have to be particularly interesting or mind-blowing. The player will likely zoom through the map and never return. However, it also presents you with the opportunity to add depth and character. You can use that map to make the NPC memorable. The colorblind man who painted his house lime green and hot pink will be memorable, and so will the old lady who collects shoes or the scatterbrained professor who keeps leaving his teacups on any available flat surface.
Before you map, think about what role the map will play and how it ties to the world in general. What should the player learn from this map? How will this map engage the player and make them enjoy being in it?
And there we have it, folks! Some food for thought and some things to reflect on before jumping into your next map.