On Modern Open-World UI And World Design


The games I’ve been playing recently have mostly been open-world games or games where you have to find objectives on large maps, and in all of them that has necessitated things like mini maps and waypoints. I’ve posted at least once before about how much I hate waypoints because they can break immersion. Gamasutra however published this past April an excellent article laying out the drawbacks of waypoints and how we got here. I implore you to at least read the first few lines.

I don’t like the way open-world games these days lead you around by the nose. Like the Gamasutra piece says, waypoints and quest compasses take away exploration in favor of telling you exactly where to go, often offering no explanation as to how you know that location. I just think that feels very artificial and takes away a sense of mystery I miss in games about exploration. Some recent games have started letting players customize large parts of the heads-up display, but haven’t adjusted their core design to accommodate this.

I’ve been playing several games recently that all do this: Far Cry 4Mafia IIIDeus Ex: Mankind Divided, and looking back, The Witcher 3. In these games you can flip switches on things like the mini map, waypoints, the health bar, damage indicators, and so-on. That’s cool in principle. I prefer to orient myself using a more traditional map because it feels more like the way you’d orient yourself in the real world. Some people prefer to just have waypoint tell them where to go. The problem is these games are generally designed for the latter to the exclusion of the former.

Far Cry 4 is an unusual but all-encompassing case of what I’m talking about. In that game it’s actually fairly easy to orient yourself based on landmarks like the bell towers and smoke stacks coming from outposts. In this game I’m mostly fine using those landmarks and checking the map with waypoints and the minimap turned off, but without the compass this is a bit difficult. A nitpick I have with all these games is that if you turn off the mini map the compass goes with it. I just want to have the compass by itself. So far only Bethesda has been doing that with Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. Witcher 3 has a mod for this I think.

The beginning of the Gamasutra article makes an important comparison between the compass, mini map, radar, and the full “quest compass” waypoints. The first three simply give you information about your surroundings you can use to find your way around. Waypoints tell you where to go.

I also want to bring up a cool thing Mafia III does. When you’re driving towards a waypoint it displays turn-by-turn directions as physical objects right in front of you. That’s a nice way to direct players while keeping their eyes on the game instead of a GPS map in the corner of the screen (especially since the game takes place in 1968). The problem is that you can’t turn off the GPS or mini map in Mafia III.

Of the aforementioned games, Mankind Divided is the only one that really gets things right when it comes to navigation and guiding players. If you turn off waypoints the objective journal still offers descriptions of locations detailed enough for you to find them. You can use waypoints in the game but you don’t really need them. I wish more open-world games were like this, but I understand it’s possible the difference is partly due to how relatively small Mankind Divided is. Eidos Montreal was probably able to spend more time on the small details of that game’s environments.

What frustrates me the most is that I don’t really see any indication this is going to change. How the worlds and HUDs of these open-world games are designed doesn’t seem to have much impact on how they sell or how they’re received critically. Some people every once in a while complain about “open-world fatigue” but usually without describing the design minutia that cause it, this being one of them. Developers will keep letting you shut off HUD elements, but without making their games playable without them.


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