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Don’t make the player look at the map

Super Space Galaxy has entered a new phase of development where I’m building the game’s first Quests. I started by arranging ‘Little Guys‘ around the city-planets who could tell you about what lay ahead, hoping that it would help me plan the Quests. To make sure the Little Guys worked properly, I had to extensively test the system that applies ‘Facts’ for them to say, and that included marking their position on the map for myself so I could see how they were distributed.

Seeing the map covered in the little red dots gave me another idea. I’d also been working on accounting for the Resources on planets, measuring how many you’ve collected out of the possible total. It’s possible some of the game’s missions will revolve around collecting a certain amount of resources from a planet. I got the game to mark any Resources on the planet in red so I could investigate how they were distributed too.

Getting this to function took a little work. Each Resource on the map leaves a red dot, but it’s possible for more than one Resource to occupy the space of one of these dots. The maps in Super Space Galaxy are written using a system of ‘MapSquares’ of 7×6 tiles because the graphics from Tyrian don’t use square tiles. This meant that for every Resource you picked up, the system has to search every tile in its MapSquare to ensure there aren’t any other Resources in the same area. Only if it finds no other Resource-nodes does it remove the red dot.

The system was successful and I wondered if I might leave it available for the players. It was certainly useful to see Resources marked on the map and it meant you could come back to them later on more easily. As I gathered up the red dots, though, it gradually dawned on me that I’d changed the feel of the resource-collecting completely. Instead of watching your ship fly smoothly around the planet, you’d now spend most of your time looking at the small 60×60 pixels of the map, pausing occasionally to look at the ‘real’ terrain so you could pick up a Resource. This was unacceptable.

In my time as a gamer, I’ve noticed a few cases like this. There were moments I remember in Final Fantasy X where I navigated by the map rather than looking at the game’s graphics. Metal Gear Solid 2 was particularly guilty of this, with the layout of the level, enemies and their cones of vision all shown to you on your radar rather than in the game’s world.

In Batman: Arkham Asylum, one of the main flaws in an otherwise great game was very similar. At the press of a button, you could enter a ‘Detective Vision’ mode that let you see through walls and gave you useful information. With no limit to its use, it was actually too useful. Chances were you’d choose to keep it on all the time and see people as walking skeletons for most of the game.

All this got me thinking about how the same information can be presented to you in different-looking ways. The map and the game-world both showed their own versions of the same thing, but one was a lot more fun to look at than the other. What does the information ‘really look like’? Perhaps it’s impossible to tell. Indeed, this seems to be the wrong question. The information we’re looking for is essentially invisible and what we get to see is its visible manifestations rather than the thing itself.

We never really encounter the world; all we experience is our own nervous system.

Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, The Bhagavad Gita

Even though I now have the programming to do it, I won’t show Resources directly on the map. This makes the map slightly less useful, but deliberately. I think this small decision will have a particularly massive impact, saving players from looking at the map all the time, or feeling annoyed that they have to resist the impulse to look. This is one of those cases where giving the player more tools would actually make the game less fun.

Thanks for reading,

Kenneth Dunlop


Published by Kenneth Dunlop

Earth's Mightiest Game Designer. Making Super Space Galaxy. Previously made Super Space Slayer 2.

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