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Minimaps: the Good, the Okay, and the Cyberpunk

Minimaps: the Good, the Okay, and the Cyberpunk

Minimaps. A lot of people like them and a lot of people hate them. On the one hand, having a minimap provides lots of useful information to the player, like showing if they’re moving in the right direction, useful points of interest, and the size of an area. All of this comes at a cost. A lot of people think that this cost is immersion, and to a point it is; after all, knowing not only the entire layout of an area, but all of the enemies, points of interest and the exact route to your destination is going to cost some immersion. Others think that the biggest problem with minimaps is that players spend the majority of the time looking at the minimap, rather than the actual game.

There isn’t a proper study to prove this, and the more I think about it, the more I want this to be tested. Maybe we should get a hundred people, put them in a room, make them play games with minimaps, and use an eye-tracking tool to see how much of the play session they spent looking at the minimap.

But let’s get back on track. I don’t even think the main issue with minimaps is the player spending most of the time looking at five percent of the screen. Despite my dislike for minimaps, there are a handful of minimaps in games that I don’t hate and think that they improve the user experience, rather than worsen it.

So let’s jump in and look at examples of minimaps that work well, minimaps that are just okay and then we can look at Cyberpunk 2077's minimap.

The Good: Mass Effect

mass effect

Mass Effect (BioWare)

Unlike its sequels, the original Mass Effect featured a minimap, but it’s so limited in the information that it provides that many people would prefer to call it a “radar”. There were people that really didn’t like the minimap in Mass Effect. An article by TheGamer said that the minimap in Mass Effect was so awful that it made the writer “appreciate [their] surroundings” which is a statement that I find to be a little counterintuitive.

I, for one, like Mass Effect’s minimap for that very reason; it’s unintrusive. I can just as easily forget about its existence as I can pay attention to it. It shows reliable information that could be difficult to communicate without a minimap, like how many enemies are left in an area, what things are items of interest and where you should be going for your objective. And that’s pretty much all it ever tells you. It doesn’t provide an entire blueprint of the area, it doesn’t show an exact route to where you are going and it sure as hell doesn’t have enemy cones of vision.

It tells you just enough for it to be useful, and lets the player figure out the rest by — get this — interacting with the world! Crazy, right!

You have to read signs, learn routes and listen to characters to navigate the world. You may even get lost and be forced to use the actual map; remember those? But some game worlds are just too dense and large to be so minimalist with its information. Sometimes, a fully fledged minimap is the way to go, and despite what a lot of people think, I believe that even these can be done right… at least for the most part.

The Okay: Grand Theft Auto

gta 4

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Games)

The minimaps in Rockstar Games titles have become a staple within themselves. Ever since their inception with the third game in the series, the minimaps in Grand Theft Auto have all been pretty good. Yes, they do provide a lot of information; it shows the entire layout of areas, points of interest, objective markers, lootable ammo and GPS routes. In the later games they also started to integrate the health and armour bars with the minimap. But despite all the information being provided to you, it still works; and I think this is for two main reasons.

Firstly, the UX design of the minimaps has always been great in these games. I think Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V are Rockstar’s best work when it comes to minimaps. Both are minimalist in design, tucked away in the corner of the screen and have a style which works in harmony with the now iconic HUD’s in these games.

Secondly, the world of these games are not only very large, but also very dense. There are hundreds of different streets, roads and thousands of buildings all packed into a single part of the map. Expecting the player to memorise all of these routes, especially during a first playthrough is unrealistic. Even after almost ten years since the release of Grand Theft Auto V, people still get lost inside its huge world without a minimap, so we can only imagine what the experience would be like for a first-time player.

However, there are some things about Grand Theft Auto’s minimaps which I dislike; the biggest thing being the destination routes that are given to you. This is a newer feature that was implemented first into Grand Theft Auto IV and although I understand that the minimap is trying to simulate a GPS, but in previous Grand Theft Auto’s, you were simply given a marker on the minimap and you had to make your own way there. This would not only mean that players would have to find paths to the objectives themselves, but it would also make them look at the minimap far less. Players would simply go somewhat in the direction of the objective marker, and only look when they feel like they’ve gotten close enough. This is in stark contrast to how people navigate modern Grand Theft Auto games, where players are constantly looking at the minimaps to make sure that they haven’t missed a turn.

And although it’s not a GTA game, and a little bit unrelated, I think Bully; or Canis Canem Edit, really had no reason to have a minimap at all. Bully’s map is nowhere near the level of complexity of the GTA games, and every area is visually distinct with a simple layout that players really didn’t need a minimap at all. Objectives don’t also don’t need minimap markers if you already have visual queues like Bully does with items of interest having a glint effect. It seems like the game had a minimap implemented into it, not because it was practical, but rather because the minimap has become a staple in Rockstar Games titles and had to be included, regardless of its requirement to do so.

The Cyberpunk: Cyberpunk 2077


Cyberpunk 2077 (CD PROJEKT RED)

I have the biggest love/hate relationship with Cyberpunk 2077’s interface. I love everything about visual design. Everything looks high-tech, but still edgy and a little industrial, just like the world it's set in. I love how all the elements have a little ghosting effect, how the crosshair on the tech shotgun charges with the gun, and the floating interaction icons. But I hate pretty much everything else about the interface, especially that stupid objective marker! Besides that, I hate the minimap most of all. I hate pretty much everything about it: I hate how big it is, I hate how much information it provides, especially how it shows information which I can already see thanks to all of the floating markers everywhere. I hate how poorly the route finder works, to the point where it’s almost useless.

What’s even more tragic is that back in the 2018 demo, CD PROJEKT RED presented a completely different UI; One which many people — including myself — greatly prefer over what we got in the end. And worst of all, the sleek and minimalist compass was replaced with the hulking monstrosity of a minimap that we are left with today.

I think what makes it the worst minimap I have ever seen in a videogame is for two reasons. Firstly, it tells you everything, literally everything. Enemy locations, objective locations, map layout, loot, points of interest, objective routes, enemy cones of vision, friends, it even tells you the time in case you were curious!

But what’s worse is how poorly all of it was implemented. None of the information is useful half of the time, the map layout is so faded you barely know what your boundaries are, enemies can detect you well past their cones of vision, and the objective navigator is just straight up broken. What we’re left with is a giant box in the corner of the screens with the only thing properly working being the clock, which has no purpose in a world that consistently jumps a few hours later in the day in the span of five minutes.

What's Next For Minimaps?

Minimaps have always been a controversial part of videogames under interface, probably the most controversial part. Although there are some game designers, like Todd Howard, who despise minimaps for many of the reasons talked about above, there was a time when it felt like minimaps were in every game. However, it’s also good to see many games now opting for the compass instead. Assassins Creed, God of War and Elden Ring all opted to use a compass for player navigation rather than a minimap, and this trend isn’t going away anytime soon, as I think game designers are slowly realising that a compass is more than enough as a means of navigation, and that using a minimap to provide as much information to the player as possible does not necessarily give a more immersive and more enjoyable experience.

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