The Problem With Mini-Maps
Mini-maps are the bane of my existence.
Okay, it’s not that deep, but more often than not they do hinder my enjoyment of a game.
The vast majority of them contain so much useful information ranging from the locations and positioning of enemies to points of interest worth exploring to the best path to take in order to reach any given destination.
It is such a valuable tool that it becomes hard to not overly rely on it.
Almost everything the player needs to know is contained within it, and personally, when playing games that have them I constantly catch myself staring at the corner of the screen while traveling from one place to the next, focused on following a line instead of meaningfully engaging with the world I’m playing in.
I try my best to only look at it when I need to, but I struggle to stick to that.
The sheer amount of intel it contains is too tempting to ignore, and in a similar way as to how I check my phone far too often to be sure I haven’t missed a text or an email or a funny post on twitter, I can’t help but glance over at the mini-map to see if I’m on the right track.
They synthesize loads of information into an easy to digest circle or square that is designed to support players as much as possible so they don’t get frustrated by getting lost or missing something important or being spotted by an enemy they didn’t realize could see them.
Mini-maps make things more convenient, and whether or not this is a good or a bad thing really depends on the goals of the games they’re in.
Like, take RTSs and MOBAs.
The mini-maps in most of these types of titles show the movements of the player’s units and allies as well as those of the enemy when they’re close by.
As action can be happening all over the map, the mini-map allows players to quickly gauge what is going on in order to decide how or if they should intervene.
Also, when they need a closer look at what’s happening, mini-maps make it easy to click over to different spots instead of having to manually scroll over to them.
Players need to use them in order to be effective, but focusing on them too much puts them at a disadvantage as it will distract from the other responsibilities they have like building out their base, upgrading units or of course attacking the enemy.
Due to the competitive nature of these types of games, efficient usage of the mini-map can be the difference between winning and losing.
It is a vital mechanic that helps players engage more with the core gameplay loop.
When it comes to most other games that have mini-maps though, the need for efficiency is not all that important.
The quality of an open-world title isn’t determined by how quickly a player can get through it.
In fact, most would say that a good open-world game is one you can get lost in.
Where you go off to do something that catches your interest and realize that hours have passed without you noticing.
Mini-maps don’t support this, and in fact often get in the way of it.
I understand why games, especially rather big ones, give players as many tools as possible so they don’t get confused in one way or another, but they can take away the player’s ability to figure things out themselves.
When exploration is just following a series of lines from one place to the next, it doesn’t feel like exploring.
The majority of them are almost too helpful for their own good, as they trivialize navigation and exploration by providing information that is more detailed and reliable than what the player can ascertain from just looking around in the game itself.
Really, it disincentivizes organic discovery.
Instead of assisting players in engaging with the core gameplay loop, it essentially does the work for them.
I do understand why this is appealing to people; some folks just want to be in the action and not spend much time finding it.
Navigation is not a game mechanic they are interested in.
Also, there are many people who struggle with making their way through digital spaces, so having a strong guide makes it possible for them to play titles that they wouldn’t be up for otherwise.
It broadens the potential audience, which is the good thing.
However, it does come at the cost of undermining exploration a bit.
Now the counter to all of my complaints is if you hate mini-maps so much, why don’t you just turn them off as that’s an option in most titles? The problem with that, of course, is most games aren’t designed in a way where it is viable to do so.
The information on them is not just there to assist the player with where to go; it is also there to help developers communicate where they want them to go.
It’s a design choice that offers a simple solution to a complicated problem.
Getting directions from an NPC that’s based around notable landmarks or names of towns or streets is incredibly cool, but it also is a lot of work to do.
Like, take the Witcher 3.
There are hundreds of quests in the game, most of which have multiple locations the player must go to.
Having an NPC give detailed instructions of how to get to the next quest marker for every single one would have taken a tremendous amount of effort.
When considering everything that goes into developing a game, the idea of CD Projekt Red creating unique directions to each waypoint feels wildly unrealistic as there not only are a ton of them, but also not every marker is by something notable, making it near impossible to write anything of substance.
There are also quests that have players going across large chunks of the map, which would call for long and complicated instructions that most likely would be hard to follow.
In fairness to The Witcher 3 there are a handful of quests where players are given a landmark based route to follow, but they are few and far.
The more common approach is just giving a single direction like something being to the west.
The problem is without the mini-map it is near impossible to know which way west even is, and while there are some customization options, there is no way to just have the cardinal directions on screen.
Frankly though, getting from place to place isn’t even the biggest way the devs use the mini-map to convey important information.
It is far more impactful in the way it affects smaller scale stuff.
There are many quests in The Witcher 3 where Geralt has to do something at a very specific spot, and while some of these can be discovered with the Witcher sense or noticing details in the environment, many of them require going to a spot that can only be found by using the map.
For instance, the Witcher Contract: Mysterious Tracks takes players to a cave on a hill where Geralt deduces that the monster he is looking for is a Chort and in order to kill it, it needs to be lured back to the cave.
Players are then given the instruction to pour bait around the hill, but for it to work, it can’t just be poured anywhere—there are 4 relatively small spots it needs to go, and there is no way to know where those spots are by just looking around.
So for players not using the mini-map, they need to refer to the main one, and while I’m sure someone with a better memory and sense of space would only need to open it once to memorize all the points they need to go, I found myself checking it multiple times for each location as finding the exact spot proved difficult.
Playing without the mini-map is not the intended experience and it leads to a handful of consequences, the most notable of which is how it forces players to rely way more on their primary map.
This is obviously to be expected to a degree as players have to figure out where places are somehow and combing every inch of the world in order to find what they’re looking for would be tedious and terrible, but the amount of times most players will need to check their map is bit ridiculous.
Whenever they get a quest or are closing in on a destination or have to interact with something in the environment in a particular way or are looking for a merchant as despite there are many people with the name merchant only a few them are actually able to be traded with and there is no way to tell one from the other aside from running up to them and mashing the talk button, players will feel compelled to open the map.
When playing a game where I’ve turned off the mini-map, I am fine with having to check the main map more frequently, but there is a point where it becomes a nuisance, and for me atleast, The Witcher 3 definitely crosses that line.
One of the reasons I like to turn off the mini-map in games is so I can feel more immersed in the world around me, but having to interrupt gameplay every few moments detracts from that sense of immersion.
Pulling up the map pauses all momentum and even though it just takes a second or so to load, that time eventually adds up.
With the Witcher 3, this is compounded by the layout of the world itself.
Namely, pretty much everywhere in Velen looks the same and although there are notable structures that can help the player orient themselves, it is easy to get off track.
To give a sense of scale, the region that contains Novigrad and Velen is roughly the same size as the entirety of Breath of the Wild, and where Breath of the Wild has a lot of varied environments throughout its map, the vast majority of Velen looks like swampy woods and farms.
The sameyness of the environment makes it hard to actually become familiar with anywhere within it.
Skellige is a bit better with this as players will typically be by the coast which can act as a sort of guide, but it still runs into the same issue of most places looking similar.
That’s not to say that there aren’t incredible locations spread across both areas—there are many, but much of the stuff between all blends together.
On top of that, as the signposts are just a way to contextualize fast travel and not there to point players in the right direction, without using the map it is almost impossible to know where any path will lead.
It doesn’t matter how many times I ride from Crow’s Perch to Crookback Bog; I will always make at least 3 wrong turns.
With that said more often than not, it is possible to point Geralt in the direction of a waypoint and ride in a straight line to it regardless of whether or not there is a path, but this doesn’t help the player learn how to navigate the world, it just allows them to cut through it.
While it is possible to play The Witcher 3 without the mini-map, doing so can be pretty frustrating unless you’re using mods that help with certain aspects of navigation.
It just isn’t designed to be played that way.
Its general structure creates many gaps that make it a difficult world to navigate, and the mini-map fills most of those gaps in.
Using mini-maps partially as a way to cover these sorts of holes in design is common throughout the industry because, frankly adding a mini-map is a much easier solution than including the elements that would make playing without it a better experience like detailed directions to each objective, clear signposting on every path, even more notable landmarks around the world, and tighter quest design.
When considering that the vast majority of folks out there have grown so accustomed to using mini-maps that it is unlikely they’ll turn them off, including those aspects is not a high priority to most developers as it would add a considerable amount of work to accommodate a small portion of players.
Of course, it is possible to structure a game with a massive scope in a way that doesn’t create the kinds of gaps that get in the way of navigation, the most notable recent examples being Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring.
Both titles offer some form of a navigational tool, but neither are needed in order to effectively traverse their respective maps, and this is achieved through how both their worlds and gameplay loops are structured.
Like, both maps revolve around a central landmark: in Elden Ring it’s the Erdtree and in Breath of the Wild it’s Hyrule Castle.
The two are visible from great distances, and especially early on, they act as a way for the player to orient themselves.
They’re markers that can be quickly referred back to, so even if the player feels lost, they at least can figure out where they are in relation to the respective landmarks.
The Erdtree can be seen from most places in the world, but Hyrule Castle is far smaller and therefore less everpresent so as players venture further out, they eventually will lose sight of it.
However, Breath of the Wild gets around this through the use of the divine beasts.
Not only can they be seen from a distance as well, but also after each of each is freed, they climb to a high vantage point and shoot a beam of light towards Hyrule Castle, extending the range of how far the player can be from the castle while still being able to see where it is.
Along with that both games have tons of distinct regions with notable landmarks of their own that players can use to center themselves on a smaller scale.
Also, a lot of the time the landmarks in these areas are where players need to go in order to advance the main quest, so as they will most likely be drawn to explore and examine these spots, they’ll naturally progress without even really thinking about.
Additionally, by giving the regions such varied environments, it allows each chunk of the map to stand out more, making it easy for players to tell where they are and clearly travel from one area to the next.
It also helps keep things fresh, and in some ways make the worlds feel bigger than they are as players are more likely to remember the amount of areas than the size of any specific one.
Furthermore, the primary things players can interact with are obvious.
Shrines and Shekiah Towers shine bright orange and are made of a material that feels alien compared to the lush plains and forests of Hyrule and the various caves, tunnels, and catacombs of Elden Ring all use some sort of light source to stand out against whatever rockface they are a part of.
On the gameplay side of things, both titles prioritize discovery above all else.
Whether it be coming across shrines, koroks and dragons or caverns, churches and also dragons, the two center their gameplay loops around uncovering new places in order to get more powerful.
Exploring is at the heart of each game and they’d be extremely difficult to beat without doing a fair bit of it.
Coming across interesting things is what players will do the most of, which is different from how most open-world games work.
Looking back at The Witcher 3, even though there are many little secrets to discover across the map, most of the player’s time will be spent doing quests, all of which ask Geralt to go to some fixed spot.
When players are doing a quest, getting lost on their way can be annoying as they just want to get to their destination.
However, in Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring, wandering aimlessly is sort of the point.
It is hard to feel lost when you aren’t heading towards anything specific.
Whatever the player comes across, as long as it benefits them in some way, often turns into what they were searching for.
While there are quests, very few present any sort of urgency and typically follow the design philosophy of the rest of their respective games, with quest givers typically just telling players things to look out for instead of giving them a waypoint.
Where The Witcher 3 is about going to places, Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring are about finding places.
Players don’t need to be on the right path because at least from a moment to moment perspective, there is rarely a right path to be on.
There are destinations players are guided to through the use of waypoints and map markers, but they aren’t used to the same extent as other open-world games.
They signify starting points, and where to go from there is almost always on the player.
The design of main quest for both games also differ from their contemporaries as they don’t have players jumping back and forth across the world.
In fact, there is a pretty natural exploration progression for each game.
In Breath of the Wild, players will first be led to Kakariko Village and then eventually move around the map from Zora’s Domain to Death Mountain to Rito Village to Gerudo Desert and in Elden Ring most will go from Stormveil to Raya Lucaria to Leyndell and then to The Mountaintops of Giants.
Most people probably will jump around the map at one point or another in order to explore new places, but the main path of progression is easy to follow, and doesn’t force players to go out of their way to advance.
This lets them work through each area naturally, discovering things in the regions they’re in without having to regularly go halfway across the map to talk to someone who will tell them they need to go back to the otherside of the map to finish the quest.
All of these things combined help players navigate the worlds of each game without the need of a mini-map or compass, and while they almost certainly still will have to check the main map every so often for a bit of direction, it won’t be all that common of an occurrence as both the structure of the world and gameplay are designed in a way where pulling it up isn’t all that necessary.
Now, not every game can, should or will be designed like Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring.
Developers all have their own vision for what kinda game they want to make and the approach these two titles take don’t work well with certain ideas, primarily ones that center around in depth quests and stories.
So for titles that won’t take structural cues from the likes of Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring and also won’t add detailed elements like directions and signposting, what can be done to make not playing with a mini-map a less tedious experience for those who choose to do so? The easiest and most obvious answer is to give a toggle option that lets players turn it on and off at will without having to go into the menus.
Like with Red Dead Redemption 2.
While it does do a better job of providing in-game direction to players primarily through the use of signposts, it still suffers from a handful of the same issues as The Witcher 3.
Players frequently have to travel between far off mission markers without having a reliable way to find them unless they check the map often, there are many missions that require engaging with a specific spot that isn’t made obvious, and there are so many paths that can be taken that it is easy to get lost by going down the wrong one.
However, when playing RDR2 without the mini-map, I found myself far less annoyed than I did with The Witcher 3 because instead of it being something that had either be on or off, it gives the option to toggle it.
Once turned off, hitting down on the d-pad will bring the mini-map back up for a bit, so players can quickly orient themselves before it goes away again.
This is a somewhat small and simple feature, but it saved me a ton of time and frustration as whenever I felt unsure about if I was on the right track or not, I didn’t have to interrupt what I was doing to figure it out.
This solution isn’t perfect, but it’s a decent middle ground that allows players who don’t want to feel tethered to the mini-map to have it off for most the game without wasting a stupid amount of time.
I don’t want to assume that this would be an easy feature to add to most games as I’ve never programmed one, but it feels like it would be, and I think every game with some form of navigational UI would benefit greatly from implementing something like it.
A more complicated but also more interesting approach is to make the navigational tools diegetic.
Consider Firewatch and Metro Exodus.
In both games, the map is a physical thing the player character pulls out, making it feel like a part of the gameplay instead of just a menu disconnected from the action.
The player can still walk and look around while having it out, so it doesn’t seem like as big of an interruption.
It also makes it easier to get pointed in the right direction as the feedback is immediate.
Even though the player is still pressing a button to pull up a map, implementing it in this way keeps them in the moment.
Another example of diegetic navigation can be seen with the guiding wind in Ghost of Tsushima.
As the player heads to a destination, the wind will blow in the direction they need to go, leading them without distracting them.
They can activate the wind whenever they want by swiping the touchpad, putting the power in their hands for when they feel lost.
Elden Ring has its own take on diegetic navigation in the form placing bacons on the map that then appear as pillars of light in-game.
It is something that can be seen from great distances so when players get off track, all they need to do is look up at the sky, and head towards it.
Adding in these kinds of features is more involved than just including a toggle option for the mini-map, but they do go a long way in cultivating a strong sense of immersion and saving the player’s time.
When it comes to a more typical approach to UI, I find the compass to be far more preferable than the mini-map.
It often contains a lot of the same information, but is less distracting as it is centered and designed to not stand out as much.
Also, while it shows the direction of a destination, it can’t tell players the exact path they’ll need to take, causing them to still have to figure out the best way to get where they’re going.
This allows for navigation to be a part of the gameplay while still having some guidance.
In more recent years, a lot of titles have opted to have markers show up on the screen itself to help players know where objectives are, and even though I think this is better than most mini-maps, it does lead to things feeling a bit more cluttered and seeing a floating icon to mark a destination hurts how immersive a game can feel.
When it comes to both compasses and mini-maps, I’d love to see more titles experiment with how these pieces of UI are presented to the player.
I recently watched a video by Afterthoughts about the brilliance of Breath of the Wild’s stamina meter, and in it she makes a point that the best UI operates under the principle of out of mind, out of sight—the idea being that when the player doesn’t need a piece of information, there is no reason to show it.
This is easy to apply with certain pieces of UI, but when it comes to something like a mini-map it gets a bit more complicated as there’s not always a great way to tell whether or not the player is using the mini-map, so having it vanish periodically without any sort of player input could easily lead to frustration for people it disappears on when they’re in the middle of checking it.
There are instances in a lot of games though where it could work well.
Like looking back at Elden Ring again whenever the player is in a boss fight the compass goes away because their focus should be on the fight.
This helps give each battle an epic feel as they aren’t bogged down by unnecessary UI.
As most games have sections that have nothing to do with travel, they almost certainly could benefit from this approach.
As far as what to do with the mini-map while players are traversing the world, I think it’d be interesting if games transitioned between different types of navigation systems for different actions.
So, like if the player is investigating a small area, the mini-map will be on screen to assist with finding precise locations, but once they are clearly traveling to a destination, presumably by getting on their horse or into a vehicle, it would shift to a compass, to provide guidance without being being as much in the way.
This doesn’t solve how to play without navigational UI and obviously still has players relying on it heavily, but at the very least it’d be providing information tailored to certain modes of play.
All in all, I don’t think mini-maps should cease to exist.
Not every title wants navigation to be a core part of the gameplay.
Also, they are enjoyed by a lot of folks and help make games more accessible.
The main thing I want is for there to be more options surrounding them.
In a perfect world, every game would allow players to quickly toggle them on and off, disable bits of information on them, and even choose if the navigational UI is in the form of a mini-map or a compass.
More options only serve to better personalize any gaming experience to the individual playing it.
With that said, I also would like to see more titles have the default setting be one that doesn’t feature the navigational UI as heavily.
I think a lot of people don’t critically look at the ways in which they rely on mini-maps and compasses when playing games.
It has sort of just become the norm to use them and they’ve grown comfortable in that, so why choose to not rely on it? In turn, I believe this causes some developers to think players will enjoy their games the most if mini-maps are a prominent feature.
By having the default state be one that aims to keep navigational UI out of mind as much as possible, it will challenge players to try something new and push developers to not use these tools as band-aids.
At the end of the day, I just want to be able to engage with gorgeous and expansive worlds without having to choose between either constantly pausing to get my bearings or feeling compelled to look at the corner of my screen every five seconds.
I like when games let me feel smart, but as they stand right now, mini-maps get in the way of that, but I hope they won’t forever.
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