What does map design tell us about video games?

A screenshot from "Tom Clancy's The Division". Image: Ubisoft.

Creating and implementing a map in a videogame is a balancing act. On the one hand, a designer could tell you everything pertinent to your adventures in the game world; on the other hand, the whole point of that world is to challenge you.

As such videogame map design can feel like an exercise in passive aggression – the developers giving you enough of a nudge in the right direction to walk straight into their traps.

How a game presents its map says a lot about the game itself and a lot about what it expects from the player. Here are three examples.

Dungeon Master

The classic dungeon crawling adventure game was first released in 1987, and though its controls and looks are a little clunky and weird by modern standards, its style of presentation still sees some use (for example, with the Legend of Grimrock games).

The Dungeon Master approach to maps is defined by two very important elements. The first of these is that the game does not give you a map. The second is that you absolutely need a map.

"Well, this should be easy to navigate." Click to expand.

You need a map because the game takes place over a series of maze-like levels, each consisting of very repetitive stone walls with very few indicators of place or direction to help out. You are operating on the clock too; food and water supplies are finite, so you can’t just stumble around like a drunken LARPer. The solution is of course that you have to make your own map.

Dungeon Master meets the player halfway on this. The game works on a grid: a single step forward by the player is a precise unit of movement that lends itself well to amateur cartography. Growing up I was fairly sure that games like this were the reason shops sold squared paper.

Some Dungeon Master maps can be seen here. Forcing players to make their own maps has become much rarer in recent years: game environments tend to have many more landmarks and features now, so that it is easier to recognise where you’ve been and where you are going without needing a map. Equally, more naturalistic approaches to character design mean that you won’t find many games where your character moves with that conveniently measurable hop.

Day Z

Day Z is a zombie survival game built out of a military simulator called Arma 2, and for the most part using the same area. This area is of a fictional country called Chernarus, but is actually very closely modelled on a real place – the rural region around the town of Povrly in the Czech Republic. The game turns the River Elba into a coastline – its southern edge has been swallowed by sea – but the northern bank is very similar.

The game takes a simple approach to mapping this area, but one which makes things surprisingly complicated for the player. If, as you are running around the region, you happen to find a map then, well, you’ve got a map. No friendly little arrow that constantly indicates where you are, no markers for points of interest – just an old fashioned map that you have to work out for yourself.

Day Z's approach to mapping is frustratingly realistic. Click to expand.

This brings with it both challenges and opportunities for the player. At first, of course, you have to figure out just where you are on the map, and this can be a challenge in and of itself. Following a road or train track to a town in order to find a signpost is a fine idea in theory – but in practice it can put you in danger from the undead or other players.

But in terms of opportunities for the player, the key is that the game doesn’t present you with clearly designated places of interest – and so, there is a sense that everywhere is of interest. This can be bewildering at first, but it’s liberating, too: you have to judge for yourself where you want to go, for what reason, and how you plan to get there.

Tom Clancy’s The Division

The map in Tom Clancy’s The Division manages to be a fairly typical Ubisoft game map, in that it very neatly lays out your objectives by region, and tells you with perfect precision how to reach them; but at the same time, it attempts to simulate the sort of capabilities that ought, in theory, to be available to an ultra-high tech super soldier.

This is the evolution of the game map from being something that challenges the player, to being something designed to look after you. The map in Tom Clancy’s The Division makes no attempt to keep the player on their toes, but is very much on your side: you tell it where you want to go and, barring the odd group of enemies on the road, it’ll get you there fine.

Straight to the killzone. Click to expand.

Map design of this type suggests a design philosophy that is aware of the importance of a sense of adventure in a large open world environment – but one that’s keen not to waste your time if you’re just there to shoot people. This might sound joyless, but when a game is designed to be played long after the shock and awe of the visuals has faded, such concessions to the pursuit of perfunctory violence are appreciated. 



How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.