I've been pondering of late the subject of game maps and how they can vary quite radically from title to title. Size, content and instancing can all have an impact on a maps accessibility and the way they are perceived. Then there is the issue of individual player tastes and preferences. Those who like to explore will happily spend time attempting to access remote nooks and crannies. Others will quickly become frustrated if there is no direct route to their goal, as with Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns. A games genre also has a significant impact upon map design. A FPS or MOBA has different requirements from it virtual environment that an MMO. I'm sure there are far more variables involved in a maps creation. However, I think most gamers seem to inherently know when the developers have got it right.
For me one such example of a map being "just so" is Skyrim. The landmass is about sixteen square miles, which is big but pales into significance when compared to Just Cause 2 which clocks in at four hundred square miles. However, the thing that Bethesda has got right with Skyrim is the balance between the size of the area, the amount of content and aesthetics. The day and night cycle, coupled with procedurally driven events makes it feel like a living environment. You can watch as villagers go about their tasks and farm animals graze for food. The fact that there's no instancing when travelling above ground until you entered a building, also provides an air of authenticity.
In the halcyon days of LOTRO, Bree-Land was prime example of a rich and varied MMO game map. Although it doesn't have the faux living dynamic of other games, it remains a large and varied landmass with plenty of content to seek out. It also makes a half decent attempt at realising the geography as written in Tolkien's source text. LOTRO still remains a game with a handsome world design but the regions that have subsequently been added of late are far more functional in their construction. Players often cannot access certain areas due to rivers and mountains and find themselves funnelled through pleasant zones on the way to the next quest hub. However more recent MMO's such as ArcheAge and Guild Wars 2 still encourage the exploration of their game worlds and have devised content around players desire to do so.
The open world cities of Mafia 3 or GTA V can also be compelling environments to immerse oneself in. Like their real-world counterparts, both New Bordeaux and Los Santos have distinct zones such as commercial and residential areas. Again random events occur to the citizens as you travel through the map. Weather systems and a customisable day and night cycle again lend credibility to the setting. Unlike fantasy games, these titles have the advantage of contemporary embellishments such as radio stations, roadside advertising and inner-city congestion; all adding to the overall ambience. You can visit bars and diners and watch “life rich pageant” unfold, or at least the developers nearest approximation of it.
However, game maps are still very much determined by the prevailing technology and although things are progressively getting better, there are still limitations. The MMO genre not only has to consider such factors as draw distances and texture loading but there is the question of the players themselves. The game engine has to accommodate both the environment and the population. Unless you have a very high-end gaming PC, then you will often notice system foibles such as "pop-in" as objects appear as you get closer to them. SWTOR and LOTRO are two older MMOs that suffer from this technical idiosyncrasy. Often developers will try to fudge this by blocking line of sight or introducing haze, fog or some other environmental workaround. Single player games have different demands upon them, allowing titles such as Crysis to have draw distance of over nine miles.
Irrespective of a maps design, its success ultimately depends upon how well it is integrated into the game. The two zones of Mordor and Nurn in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor are relatively small but diverse and well implemented. There is a wealth of topographical features that break up the landscape in a very organic way. Unlike some MMOs, this is not done is such an arbitrary and linear fashion. North Africa is well realised in Sniper Elite III, affording the player multiple routes to various targets, across varied terrain. This greatly enhances the re-playability of the game. In Sniper Elite IV, the Sicilian villages and seaports are extremely credible and authentic. The rolling fields and forests of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are expansive and atmospheric with a distinctly Eastern European feel to them. Furthermore, the landscape is populated in a credible fashion. Bandits will make use of remote and covered areas. Regions of Wilderness are appropriately empty with minimal amounts of NPCs.
Conversely the London maps in a game such as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments are far less dynamic and more functional. They are mainly there for ambience and provide little more than a conduit between each crime scene. The maps in both FPS and MOBA genres, have additional criteria to consider. The fluid nature of their game play requires a different approach to their construction. Multiple routes and chokepoints are common place in such designs. Snipers require vantage points but these need to be relatively exposed to ensure that a single location doesn’t dominate the game. The Battlefield franchise takes map design a stage further, with a mechanic that allows players to destroy the environment and thus change the dynamics of the game. This was to be an integral feature of the now defunct EverQuest Next, although I suspect would have been subject to a wealth of caveats.
As players, we also bring a human element when we interact with game maps and there are many factors that shape our perceptions. Ambient music or when or who we’re playing with, influence how we feel about specific in-game zones. As a result, we often have personal favourites. Evendim in LOTRO is an example of a map that I have fond affection for. More recently the region of Toussaint in the Blood and Wine expansion for The Witcher 3, attracted my interest. It’s a sunny and luxuriant zone and a radical change from the usual ice or desert archetypes you find in so many games. Hopefully, as game technology and the hardware it runs on evolves, we will see map design advance accordingly. I look forward to experiencing larger, more detailed open world environments populated with flora and fauna that have their own lifecycles.