Landmarks in Games

Last night I realized that I never finished Zelda: Wind Waker and I got to think of why that was. I really loved the game for a lot of reasons. But in the end I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I started to realize that the issue laid in the fact that I got frustrated with trying to figure out where things were.

You see, at a certain point you needed to navigate the ocean in your little boat looking for sunken treasure and small islands to explore. But the problem that I generally ran into was that I kept getting lost and running around in circles. Sure there was a map, but many of the squares on that map in the game were filled with nothing but water, or really tiny islands that you really couldn’t see until you got to them. I don’t think that there is another game that I’ve played that I relied so heavily on a walk through to figure out what I needed to do and so I just eventually stopped playing it.

Maps are a good guide, but only get you so far without adding clutterThe reason for this frustration was largely due to a lack of real landmarks. Sure there were some landmarks in the form of various larger islands, but like I said there were also vast amounts of area where I couldn’t really figure out where I was even with a map. Many of those small islands looked the same. This got me thinking to MMOs though. Landmarks have largely been a big deal. EQ1 was known for its landmarks that each zone contained to give each zone a little flavor and something interesting to see. In Rise of Kunark in EQ2, they wanted to bring landmarks back into the game so that players always knew where they should go next. And in a large way I think this worked, one of the first things I wanted to do when I went to the high level area was go up the big mountain which was one of the first places we needed to go past the local area. I generally think this is how landmarks in WoW work too… someplace for the player to go to.

And in reality this is what landmarks are all about. I think humans generally find their way in an environment by creating landmarks to guide them. This can occur in little things like a street name, or big things like a donut shop that has a giant donut on the roof. When giving or receiving directions to get places from other people you almost always run into the “turn left at the giant donut” type of directions. This is human nature. And sadly in many games, this is not at all what they think about.

Instead, we are given a map, and more and more these days, we are given coordinates. Let me say this as mildly as I can. If you as a game designer are creating a world in which you completely rely on coordinates and/or maps to get your player from one place to another… you have failed. You have failed significantly as a designer. These are technical solutions to lazy design. They are the easy way out of a hole you’ve dug for yourself. And worse than anything else, they completely take the player out of any sort of immersiveness out of the design that you have created. Which as a game designer, should be your #1 priority to create and maintain. If a player doesn’t feel like they are in the game, they might as well not be playing it.

Yes I will grant that when a new player comes into a game for the first time, hand-holding is OK. Those trails that lead the player to the next NPC, or NPCs with giant exclamation marks over there head are ok and even good up to a certain point. But at a certain point, the player needs the hand-holding to stop. They need to find things on their own, as they would in the real world. But this will only work if landmarks are properly placed to allow the gamer to be able to easily figure out where things are on his own.

How is this done? Well one way to do it is to first change how quests are given. You can have a town with a ton of NPCs all given out quests, but why not specialize? I think some games are starting to do this. I know EQ2 is. But it isn’t as strong as I think it could be. The point is that just because you have a town with 100 NPCs running around, doesn’t mean they all need to have quests at some point. Merchants can just be merchants, Guards can just be guards, town criers can just be criers. People will figure out who to go for what and won’t need to figure out who is who, and those things you did previously that told the player that you think they are morons like exclamation marks can be taken away at some point once  you’ve drilled it into the player how to find what they are looking for.

The second thing to do is create more landmarks that show where things are. I for one played EQ2 for 2 or 3 years and still had a hard time finding certain things in towns I spent hours in. I played the game for 10+ hours a day and still had a hard time finding things. This is the precise reason that third party mapping programs and coords become necessary to navigate in a game. Which is odd right because most of medieval Europe was illiterate but they could find an armorsmith fairly easily because they had the big forge and had a big sign in front of their store telling what they did. Buildings do in fact look different in real life, yet in games they tend to look the same. I realize this is partially an issue due to limited textures and graphics and such, but still there must be a way to make due (WoW is just as guilty as anyone btw on this issue).

What is amazing to me is how many of these games like to put the landmarks off the beaten track. In Antonica in EQ2 for instance there is a statue of a giant sword… no roads lead to it, and thus it really doesn’t make a great landmark for direction, though it should be. Again, there is a tower near the middle of the area which is up a hill in a mountain. A good location actually, but many people pass right by it without realizing it is even there. There are similar landmarks spotting the landscape of the game, even into their newer areas. And don’t get me wrong there isn’t anything wrong with having hidden wonders, but they also need to have those normal landmarks, and this is what is missing.

Showing players where to go next and giving them Disneyland-like things to see is nice, but you also need to have those everyday objects that will be used once you are already at the place.