The Wonder Of Game World Maps

Children naturally ask questions about the world as they are growing up, why is the sky blue, what is the moon made of, how big is the ocean. Learning something new, something novel, feels good to us. It’s what propels the baby to push a ball, the explorer to sail the ocean, the astronaut to go to Mars.

Games are fun because they tap into this sense of wonder. Creating an interesting game world creates new questions to ask and new mysteries to understand.

And a big part of this mystery is the game world map, the overview of the world you’re playing in.

I played many games as a kid where you could navigate in one kind of game world map, but then you would play the core game in another screen. The maps I’m talking about aren’t seamless “open worlds” like Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto. While those have their place, my favorite game world maps are a layer of abstraction, a village icon represents a larger level of a village, etc.

Because of this abstraction, imagination runs wild. A tiny little tile is all it takes to send your mind spinning: “What’s THAT? Is it some kind of weird labyrinth? A magic forest? What is it and how do I get there..?” It made it feel like the game was bigger than it actually was.

A level select was one of the most requested features in the original Sky Garden prototype, so it was a given that something will be included in the commercial release. But I wanted to go beyond the boring grid of 1-1, 1-2, 1-3 levels. Instead I wanted to capture some of the magic that accompanied my favorite game maps in other games.

Super Mario Bros 3

An oldie but goodie, one of my favorite world maps is from Super Mario Bros. 3.

As you navigated through the Mushroom Kingdom you would constantly see things that you wanted to access, but you didn’t know how. How would you get past this rock? How do I get over to that island? Where does that pipe come out? The map generated lots of compelling curiosity gaps.

And for satisfying this curiosity, there were a myriad of solutions. There were roadblocks that would be your way and you had to defeat an enemy (which was done inside a level) to pass through (which was outside of the level). You could get a cloud to skip over levels, or go in nonlinear directions to explore item houses and other areas of the map with treasure. You could go in pipes and find yourself in a totally new area. You could even sail around on the ocean in a hacky world-map canoe (which blew my mind as a kid!)

All of this wouldn’t have been possible if the game was just side scrolling levels. Nor would it have been possible if the world map was just navigation. Rather, the SMB3 team put time and care into making exploring the map fun in its own right. This is why to this day I still refer back to it for inspiration.

Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger was another era-defining game with an awesome symbolic world map. You would walk around with your little party in this large world, and your character size would be much smaller (which felt fun).

Same as Super Mario Bros. 3, there were areas of wonder that you couldn’t access. What’s over the Zenan Bridge, and how do I get there? What’s across the ocean? Getting to a new area was always exciting. Additionally since you had to physically walk to an area to enter it, you found yourself poking your nose in all these rocks and trees just to see if there was a hidden location.

The element of time changing also provided a huge sense of wonder. When you went to a different time, then it fired off all of these ideas in your mind of where you needed to go check. “Hmm, now that I’m in this era, I wonder what’s over where Lucca’s house used to be?” There was plenty to do, plenty to explore.

Even finding nothing would be interesting, because it told a story. “Wow, this area used to be a city, but now it’s NOTHING! What happened…?” This is a great example of a game world map that evoked wonder through tiny symbols.


Kingdom rush is a popular Flash and mobile game that also has a fun world map. It’s styled as an old scroll, so you can almost start to imagine yourself as a medieval king plotting an army attack with his advisers.

The gorgeous artwork also lets you look ahead and get excited about where you’re going. When will we get to reach Hammerhold? What lies in store for us by the crystal sea? Will we be able to play with that dock?

Finally, the map is full of delightful animations. Seagulls fly overhead, soft puffs of smoke pop out of cottages, and if you wait for it, then you’ll see a ship sail out to sea only to be wrapped in giant tentacles and pulled underwater. I laughed pretty hard the first time I saw that. It all gives a feeling that the world is alive and moving.

One missed opportunity (in my opinion) on the Kingdom Rush maps is extra elements that aren’t tappable. There are some things that look very interesting, but have no level for you to dive into. This can be a bit disappointing. But overall it’s a fantastic game world map.

Retry Level Map

Retry is a more recent mobile game by Rovio and Level 11 that attempts a throwback to level maps of yore. They had an old school 8-bit style world map, complete with branching paths and fun icons for levels. If you get stuck on one level, then you can just go around it, which already makes it much, much better than a lot of the linear styled mobile games out there today.

Another fun thing the Retry team did was create different styles of levels. They have “normal levels” but also “challenge levels” and “boss stages”, all of which have their own icons on the map. The first time you see these it’s a real treat – you want to know what’s inside.

Retry was a huge influence on me. It was during playing this game that I decided that I really wanted sky garden to have a game world map.

So what makes a good level map?

Based on these influences, these are the elements that I hope to include in the game world map for Sky Garden:

It creates a sense of wonder. A good game world map naturally causes the player to ask questions: “What’s that over there?” “How do I get there?” “What does that do?” The journey to answer those questions becomes fun.
It allows for extra surprises. Beyond just organizing the levels, a good level map allows for wonder. Maybe there are extra levels, bonus stages, places to collect interesting items
It allows for interaction between the levels and the level map. Doing something on the micro level and having it unlock something on the macro level
It has a slightly different art style than the main game. Agung (our artist) and I didn’t want the world map to be the same bird’s eye perspective as the main gameplay
It allows for easy non-linear navigation. Instead of trudging through a game, you are exploring at your own pace and (generally) your own direction.
We’ve had a lot of fun developing our game world map so far, hopefully we can live up to the giants who came before us!

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