This is it: the one feature I’ve been looking forward to implementing since I started this project over two months ago. It’s a map overlay that fills itself in as you explore the game world.
A good map is the single most important feature of an exploration game. With a good map, you might not know where you’re supposed to go, but you won’t ever be truly lost. A decent mapping system is the biggest difference between a game that is mostly loved out of nostalgia (Metroid) and one that is still discovered and enjoyed by newcomers (Super Metroid). Here’s my first pass at such a system.
Right now the map is completely blank when the game first runs, so you’re filling in empty, unexplored space with pink (explored) rooms. Soon there will be mapping stations that fill in your map with places you haven’t been yet. These unexplored but mapped rooms will be blue. A prime motivator for many players in this genre, myself included, is to fill in that map, turning the blue rooms pink.
One thing you might find strange is that the rooms on the map diagram have the same aspect ratio as the screen itself, 16:9. This is an intentional decision, and reflects my commitment to making the map correspond perfectly, 1:1, with the game world. One map space equals one screen of the game world. Period, no exceptions.
One of the things that bothered me the most about Shadow Complex, a recent entry in the exploration genre, is that despite the modern aspect ratio, the rooms were all squares on the map, and one square often did not equal one screen worth of space.
It might seem like a minor nit to pick, but a map with a constantly shifting scale can be a very frustrating experience, and there were several points in the game where the map actually hindered my exploration, when one square of the map actually corresponded to areas full screen widths apart, separated by walls. It just convinced me further that the designers of modern exploration games don’t understand what makes their games fun to play, what actually motivates players to put in the hours.
Since I’m already talking on the subject, another thing that really bothered me about Shadow Complex’s map is that there are no hidden rooms. 100% of the map is described by mapping stations that are on the main game path, so there is never a moment when you are exploring an area that isn’t mapped in advance for you. Not only are there no secrets that you have to discover without the aid of a template, you never have to figure out how to get to your next objective. It’s hand-holding, nanny-designer game design at its worst. To be clear, I loved Shadow Complex in spite of its flaws, and it’s not the only offender on these points — some of the more recent of Nintendo’s Metroid series were just as egregious.
As another example, consider Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, another recent game. There are no mapping stations in that game, so you’re always exploring uncharted territory and adding it to your map, which beautifully describes the game world.
I give a lot of credit to the designers of ITSP for taking on the exploration genre with a flying mechanic, which adds a lot of challenges to the level design. One thing that got lost in their implementation, sadly, is secret areas. That super-detailed map is pretty to look at, but it leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination: there’s no room there for secret passages, so after exploring an area just once you’re assured that only well-marked locked doors separate you from other unexplored regions. There’s never a reason to come back to an area, except when you’re forced to backtrack or you want to blow away a lock to find a new area, usually little more than a cubbyhole with a prize at the end.
Compare this to one of the most well-executed maps in the history of the genre, Super Metroid. Here’s what it looks like as you’re exploring.
Notably, Super Metroid only gives you part of the map. There are lots of unmapped secret passages, including ones you must find to reach your main objectives, and the only real guide you have to finding them is knowing where they cannot occur — you can take faith that if your map shows a room to the right of the one you’re in, there won’t be another, secret room squished in between them. Again, it seems like a small difference, but that sort of attention to detail and dedication to accuracy really sets the mediocre games in this genre apart from the great ones.
I have lots more to say about map design, but it can probably wait for another day.