More Games Are Using Compasses Instead of Minimaps

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I’ve started to notice that open-world games coming out in 2017 and 2018 are getting rid of the minimap in favor of a quest compass like the one Bethesda uses for Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. I think the compass is preferable to the minimap, but doesn’t solve a fundamental problem with pathfinding and quest design in these games.

Despite heavily patterning itself after Witcher 3, which uses a minimap, Horizon Zero Dawn makes the conscious decision to go for a compass instead. Among upcoming games I’ve noticed this change in Assassin’s Creed OriginsFar Cry 5, and the indie game Aer. There may be others but in any case, the compass looks to be gaining popularity.

I guess AAA developers started actually considering it a problem if too many players spent too much of the game looking at a map in the corner of the screen. A compass in the top center or bottom center of the screen at least keeps players’ eyes closer to what’s happening in the game. I also personally think the compass most of the time is enough to help players get their bearings in large open worlds. All-in-all it helps clamp down on the overflow of information in a lot of modern games.

A central problem I have with these games though isn’t with the minimap or compass, but rather what information is displayed on them. This Gamasutra article which I like linking, lays out the problem pretty well. A compass or minimap by itself just tells players whats in their vicinity or helps them keep their bearings. The real problem is when they’re filled with waypoints that tell players exactly where everything is without any in-context justification for that information.

When you get quests in Skyrim or The Witcher 3, the quest journals and dialogue usually don’t give you information on where you need to go, waypoints just magically “know.” I get that people like convenience, but for me it kills immersion and any sense of mystery in these worlds. I guess it’s a matter of preference. Some people consider the act of investigating and searching a game world to be part of the fun, while other just want to be pointed straight to where they want to go.

A lot of games with smaller worlds are pretty good at giving directions in a more organic way. Games like Deus ExDishonored, and the first BioShock have worlds filled with signs and other natural environmental information, as well as highly descriptive mission logs. Waypoints and minimaps are an option in these games, but aren’t necessary. The prevailing view seems to be that this kind of detail isn’t possible in bigger open worlds like an Elder Scrolls or Assassin’s Creed game. A couple of Skyrim mods can cast doubt on that assumption — you can just mod away the quest waypoints and then install a mod that adds location descriptions to almost every quest.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is so popular partly because its secrets actually feel like secrets — they’re actually hidden. The game uses a minimap and waypoints, but is perfectly playable without them because it’s filled with easily identifiable landmarks, many of its quests include detailed descriptions in its journal, and a lot of the quests are really about finding hidden locations based on clues.

The increasing prevalence of compasses indicates developers of open-world games are trying to take the focus off of giving players cold artificial information at least a little bit. I just wish they realized there are some players who appreciate pathfinding in these games.

BULLETS:

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