I love maps. I've loved them since I was a little kid. I loved the maps that you got at the entrance to Disney World. I loved colorful maps of far-away countries. I loved the maps of Narnia and Middle Earth and Wonderland and Neverland and other fantastic places in the front covers of books. And I loved the big fold-out maps that came with video games - Zelda, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Ultima (cloth maps!) - showing elaborately detailed and exciting locations, all neatly organized in geographic space for my personal convenience.
I still enjoy maps - so much that the world map is a central theme of my OUYA game. I really had no choice in the matter.
And now I've started to think that maps may be very important to games in general, even (possibly) to people who aren't as strangely map-obsessed as I am. A map means something. Yeah, sure, it's a handy reference tool for a game. Yeah, sure, it means that the game creator is significantly invested enough in the world to flesh it out and treat it with respect. Yeah, sure, it can be a fun collector's item to stick in the Deluxe Edition box to sell to suckers like me. But a map in a video game means something much cooler than any of that, and to show you why, let me give you one of the most effective "maps that aren't maps" from classic games...
This isn't a "map" per se, but it accomplishes the same thing to me - that thing that made game maps (and theme park maps!) so awesome to me as a kid:
Maps let you know that more awesome is on the way!
Each empty space in that inventory box is a signal that there's something fantastic and fun you've yet to discover - something that's going to give you a new ability when you press that B button! A new tool maybe, a new weapon. A location on a map is something to explore or discover, a spot in an inventory is something to collect or something to give you new power. Either way, it's something that makes you want to keep playing!
It's actually a pretty simple principle. I can't tell you how many times* I've taken a chance on a new video game - AAA or indie - and after playing for five minutes, or an hour, or even several hours, I get the decided impression I've seen all the game has to offer. At that moment, I start to believe that I can pretty much extrapolate from what I've already played through to the end, and whether I've enjoyed it so far or not doesn't matter - the mere fact that I feel like I can predict the rest of the game means I instantly lose interest.
One of my friends told me she has a tendency to play through Zeldas right up to the last dungeon, at which point, her motivation dies. Why shouldn't it? Mine does too! There's no more surprises at this point. No more worlds to explore or new awesome abilities to acquire or characters to meet. Probably no more new songs to listen to. Just more fights and puzzles, and probably more annoyingly difficult ones. More challenge, but less payoff. The anticipation of future awesome is gone the minute you realize it's time to set foot into Ganon's Castle.
Now the sad thing is that this principle applies even when my intuition is WRONG. Maybe there really are awesome surprises on the way - new places to explore and new content to discover. The thing is, I've been burned so many times with games since I was kid, I feel like it's the game developer's responsibility to LET ME KNOW THAT MORE STUFF IS COMING!
What's a good way to do that, you ask?
How about... a map?
How about an empty inventory screen? How about an exciting, swirling front page demo showing glimpses of all the excitement to come? How about creating a story with actual suspense (very hard to do, by the way)? Even Super Mario Bros, which had no map at all, managed to maintain interest by introducing new content almost instantly. Sure, World 1-1 is a typical flat green landscape, but World 1-2 is a strange underground destructible environment, World 1-3 is a platform challenge in the treetops, and World 1-4 is a castle full of fiery traps. You don't have to beat 4 (or more) levels of green flatness before the game rewards you with new content. It slaps you in the face with new content right off the bat so you expect that even more new content is nigh. And you know what? It delivers. There are water levels, flying-fish bridges, mushroom forests, Lakitu, and more wackiness still to come! The level of variety and interest created in a simple, 8-bit platformer is astonishing to me. (Miyamoto was a friggin' genius)
No literal map needed, but this is all you need sometimes:
I can kind of guess why maps (literal and not) are becoming depressingly less common. New content is expensive. It's time consuming. When making The Adventures of Chris, the most difficult and time-consuming parts were composing the music and drawing the art assets. Every level that was a "new concept" meant more testing and more risk, and I tried to get a new play concept in almost every level. I definitely could feel the temptation to repeat myself, hoping that new arrangements of existing material and increasing challenge levels will be enough to sustain interest. For some people, it might very well be. As for me, I start to feel like every game becomes reducible to Tetris - the same thing over and over, harder and faster. And yeah, Tetris can be fun. But games can be so much more for me.
They can have maps.