Bad game design choices: The Minimap

This is a new kind of series of blog posts and it is about bad game design choices that are used very commonly and hardly anyone pointing them out. I don't want to go nitpicking about minor design flaws, but about things that have the potential to ruin a whole game, yes not just parts of the game, but absolutely everything. Don't be fooled about small elements that most people think do not matter much, because they are so small or are features that casual gamers do not use or at least do not consciously use and the first bad design choice I want to talk about is the minimap in video games.

Every gamer probably knows it, many games have a minimap or a radar somewhere in the corner of the map or a larger version that can be switched to through a hotkey or a menu. Many people would now say that hose are there because they are helpful and yes they are helpful and that is exactly the problem, they are not only helpful, but so far superior that a good gamer knows how to use the minimap almost exclusively to navigate, leaving the whole rest of the game unused.

Imagine all the work and resources that go into creating better and better 3D realistic game worlds, that get more complex and offer more immersion over time and also imagine all the work and resources that go into creating better and better hardware to run it all and finally imagine all the work and efford people go to, to earn money, to buy the games and the hardware to run the always improving visual quality games. Done with imagining it all? Well and now imagine how a small tiny design choice added to that all, can undo all the work or at least around 90% of it, well that is the minimap in video games.

So why is the minimap such a big problem? Well very simple, because most players will look at the minimap to navigate most of the time playing the game, ignoring the rest. Looking at a extremely simplified 2D representation of an extremely complex and visually challenging 3D world is just so much easier. Lets say the minimap just covers 5% of the screen, but players look at it 90% of the time, then what is the rest 95% of the screen good for? Sure you cannot fully play the game in the 2D minimap most of the time, since in the last moment you still have to look into the real 3D game world to align for the height or z-axis or to look at details or to interact. Imagine someone would to bad design choices like that in real life, for example lets say the average person spends 5% of their time in the bathroom, but they make it 90% of the size of the whole apartment and invest 90% of the money into it and only 10% for the rest of the apartment. This is so ridiculous that basically everyone would notice the stupidity in that, but somehow nobody seems to notice this in video games.

Sure I may have exaggerated a bit here and there, it really depends on the game how bad it really is, but I have not gotten in to the worst part yet and that is: Multiplayer games.

In single player games a minimap could be justified as a little extra to help you navigate and you can chose not to use it, or not to use it that much, however the game changes in multiplayer games that are in most cases very competitive. In competitive games you absolutely need to use the most efficient tactics to be able to compete and one of those, if not the major one is to use the minimap, radar or the bigger map. So why is the minimap so superior to the real game world? Very simple, the average field of view in games is around 90 degrees, but on the map you got 360 degrees view from above, so you can see everything at the same time, which is already a huge advantage, but it gets even better, some games even give you wallhack, where it not only allows you to see 360 degrees, but also through walls. Yes some games do not give you wallhack, but "only" let you "see" the enemies on the map that you hypothetically "could" see in the 3D game world as well, by checking if they are "visible", but this still is an advantage, because you do not need to use your real eyes, but can look until the computer tells you which enemy is visible and where. The only reason to still look at the real 3D game world is to align your shots and when the enemy is dead, go back to look at the minimap only, yes and occasionally you have to look to not run against obstacles that are not visible on the minimap.

The minimap robs you about large parts of tactics in games, if not the most basic mechanic of games in general and that is the hide and seek element. Think about it, most of the time you spend seeking the enemy or seeking the objective of the game, but with your minimap superhuman ability you will have 360 degree x-ray vision so that you do not have to bother about the hide and seek part much. If you had such a feature in real life and you would play hide and seek, the whole game would not make much sense anymore, since you do not really have to use effort anymore to seek the others, because you could just run around and wait for a red dot appearing on your minimap to tell you where the other one is, well obviously ridiculous and ruining the game, but that's normal in many video games and nobody cares.

Sure some games need a map or have a map, because it is part of the game, for example strategy games where you always look from above, but that is not what I'm talking about, since in those games, you are basically playing on the map and there is no big difference between the 3D game world and the "map" its basically the same. For most people it would probably be too hardcore, if there was no map at all in the game, but if a map has to be added, make it so, that you cannot use it all the time and make it static where it does not show you everything automatically.

A game developer needs to be very careful with any kind of map integration, not just the minimap, since a "pro" gamer knows about the advantage about using the map instead of the real game world he will obviously try to abuse it as much as possible. I remember a case where I was watching a random streamer playing a realistic military simulation shooter which of course did not have a minimap, since it was meant to be immersive, but it had a regular map and of course what happened was, that the guy was constantly looking at it. It was so bad that I could not even finish watching the video, because he was constantly looking at the map and I could not see much from the game, but the worst part was, that he was constantly switching from map view to normal view and back on average probably every 3 seconds, at least enough to make me feel a little sick watching it. Of course he had to switch since the map would cover the screen, but he would need to see both at the same time, so he switched so fast, that he could see basically both. This example shows how dangerous that feature can be, even if it is not a bad implementation like a minimap with wallhack, but it still gives you a significant advantage so that "pro" gamers will (ab-)use it as much as possible.

So if a map is really needed make it separate and without much functionality build in like telling you where everyone and everything is through blinking dots or whatever. A map should just give you a rough idea about your location and you should spend 95% of the time in the real game world and 5% looking at the map and not 95% of the time looking at the map and only 5% of the time looking at the real game world. Another option is to build in a map so that it is plausible within the game, like having a navigation system in your car that you can look at through the 3D game world, or you do not break the immersion and prevents people from abusing it too much, since the time and possibility how they can use it is limited.

As I just mentioned the navigation system I realized that t his problem is even transmitting into the real world now, since many people rely on interactive minimaps in real life as well which also reveals probably the biggest downside I have not even mentioned yet and that is the dumbing down of people, as they no longer use their brain to develop navigation skills themselves, but instead let a machine doing it for them. I noticed people getting more stupid in games as well, since when you know they rely on the minimap, there are a few ways to troll them, but not many, the main way is probably to vary your vertical location and be above or below them while they think you are in front of them, because they only look at the 2D minimap, but even this little bit of trolling is limited, because game designers of course know this and therefore do not design the levels with much vertical variation or do not have rooms overlaying each other at all, because it would be "too confusing" for players. Now the circle probably has closed since this relates again to the dumbing down of gamers which I talked about in my last blog post and I just found another major dumbing down mechanic I have not mentioned there yet, since I did not go much into details there.

So in case any real existing game developer reads this, I hope this convinces you not to build a minimap into your game.

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