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Minimap Rotation
by Radek Koncewicz on 06/03/12 04:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Not too long ago I praised The Witcher for a plethora of things it did really well. The sequel's not bad either, but its minimap is absolutely horrible. The main problem is that it rotates with the camera, and the lack of compass directions only exasperates the issue.

Rotating minimaps are great for following a linear path, which is why GPS devices use this design. The user hardly ever needs to worry about whether they're driving South or South-East, but they need to accurately follow the generated route. Consequently, it's a lot easier if the path is always facing the same direction as the car, i.e., if the arrow on the screen is pointing right, they need to make a right hand turn.

However, if the map doesn't rotate, then driving South with an arrow pointing right actually means making a left-hand turn. To avoid this confusion and unnecessary work with mentally rotating the map, the view of GPS devices is synched to match that of the car.

FPS titles also tend to benefit from rotating minimaps. Their levels are often small or just linear, and it's very helpful for the player to be synced with the minimap view. The reason for this is that split-second decisions often need to be made based on the immediate surroundings.

For example, if the player is following a team-mate turning right but there's an enemy hiding just around the left corner, it's beneficial to instantly know which direction to face in order to counter the ambush. Since FPS games also inherently don't possess a floating camera, it's that much more advantageous to be aware of what's lurking beyond the player's view as there's no other way to peek around the scenery.

Static minimaps, on the other hand, are much more suitable for games with large areas that need to be traversed multiple times.

In these titles, it's important to familiarize oneself with the layout of the land in order to travel through it efficiently. Goals are often described with compass directions in mind, and landmarks are used to aid in the building of a mental map for the overall area.

If the minimap constantly swings around, not only does it keep changing the direction north is pointing, but it also forces the player to digest a radically different topography each time they glance at the minimap. A static view is superior to this as it facilitates the parsing and memorization of an area's layout. This in turn allows the player plot their own paths and comfortably maneauver through the game's environments.

Of course some players are only used to one approach or the other, in which case why not simply include both options?

Radek Koncewicz is the CEO and creative lead of Incubator Games, and also runs the game design blog Significant-Bits.

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Simon Ludgate
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Very interesting article. It's one of those things you don't really think about until it's done wrong and you go ARRRGH!

I have seen the option between fixed and rotating minimaps in some games, notable MMORPGs. But then, when it does rotate, there's the challenge of whether it rotates with the camera's facing or with the character's facing.

I do agree with you that the fixed camera versus free camera is a key issue with minimaps: if the camera is fixed to the character's facing, the minimap should rotate with the character's facing too. If the camera is free to rotate around the character, the minimap should stay fixed in place.

Jacob Pederson
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Simon's nailed it. The only time it makes sense to use a non-rotating mini-map is when the perspective is fixed, such as in Diablo 3 or Titan Quest.

In Dungeon Defenders, which uses a fixed map and a rotating perspective I am always lost. Even though the maps are tiny!

EnDian Neo
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I like this article - It explains "why" static and rotating minimaps offer different advantages and how to make use of it.

Let's expand on this article a bit: What happens if you are playing a FPS set in a big open world, e.g. Borderlands. You want the benefits of a static map (easy to memorize the layout) yet given how combat can be extremely frantic you want the map to be synched to your character's orientation.

Other than having 2 sets of maps (rotating minimap on your HUD and static map in your menu somewhere) what other solutions are there?

Eric Schwarz
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Dynamic minimap? Yeah, you're over-thinking it. Rotating mini-map (useful if say, enemies are visible on it), static main map (useful for getting from A to B) is the best option.

Eric Schwarz
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My personal preference is fixed minimaps. I use maps to understand where things are in relation to one another, and rotating a minimap introduces an extra step of mental processing.

That said, every game should provide the option because player preference varies. It's such a simple thing to implement I'm really surprised more games don't offer the feature.

Bart Stewart
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I also like this article. I hadn't thought about rotating and static maps -- or relative and absolute -- as being more or less valuable in different contexts, but that's a nice observation.

As to what other forms of maps may be useful, to get there I'd suggest asking: what is a map for? Even better: what is a map?

A quick definition might be "a map is a representation of a set of information relationships." We usually think of a map as representing some physical terrain, but what makes a terrain unique (so that having a representation of it is valuable) is how its defining locations relate to each other as points.

Those map points might be physical (topography), semi-physical (road network), semi-abstract (jump paths between stars as in EVE Online), or even fully abstract (tech trees in 4X strategy games). But in all cases a useful map shows you a set of relationships between pieces of information, and does so in a way that allows you to successfully navigate through those information points.

Armed with that more general notion of what a map is, it's possible to imagine other forms than just absolute and relative versions of maps of physical terrain. Maybe what would really be useful for a particular context is not a fully-rendered map of a physical space, but a more abstract node map of important locations. For example, rather than showing deck blueprints of a starship, perhaps a particular game would do better to have a map that shows only key points of interest (lifts, computer access nodes, etc.) and an animated "how to get there" line between any two selected points.

Another possibility is to render information in "sheets" and let the player select particular overlays. When I'm trying to locate a group of fox hunters to get pictures, for example, I use a satellite map that shows areas of trees that riders will usually go around. But to drive to that location from my home, I'll probably use just a semi-abstract road network map to minimize information clutter. When I'm on-site in my car looking for the riders, I find a hybrid view that shows both terrain and roads most useful.

Having that flexibility to choose how to represent information helps me navigate in the real world. Similarly, I appreciate games that let me choose which types of information I want to display. Those developers have made the effort to help me explore that information effectively.

Radek Koncewicz
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I like layers for maps that can be turned on and off, but these usually only toggle markers rather than change the visual of the map itself. It's an interesting concept to explore, but that added complexity should be weighed against its usefulness and whether a particular game would benefit from it.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Looking at an unrotated fullscreen map may be best for getting an overall impression of the area, but for minimap I find "rotating" to be the right choice if there is one. I have extensive real-world training in navigation, and when navigating with a map, I manually rotate it while walking. This establishes a clear 1:1 relationship between what I see and what I see on the map, which enables me to have a coherent idea of my own location and make intelligent low-level choices (which way along the river do I need to go to hit the bridge?).

Michael Rooney
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I wish this went into more depth tbh. It reads very much like, "Use a rotating mini-map for this, and use a static one for this," without a lot of exploration into why.

The following two sentences pretty much cover the whole of the article so long as you understand what a map is and that it can rotate.

"FPS titles also tend to benefit from rotating minimaps... The reason for this is that split-second decisions often need to be made based on the immediate surroundings."

"If the minimap constantly swings around, not only does it keep changing the direction north is pointing, but it also forces the player to digest a radically different topography each time they glance at the minimap."

Why no good specific examples with explanations of why they are good/bad instead of just saying, "The witcher's minimap sucks." I learn nothing about the nature of a minimap just knowing that a game has a bad one.

That said, I think the scale of the map makes a bigger impact and you don't even mention it. The further a map is zoomed out the less it needs to be rotated; it is more about navigating via topography and global landmarks versus trying to orient yourself in your immediate surroundings. That's true regardless of the linearity of the area you are playing in.

Radek Koncewicz
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I didn't mention scale as I was focusing on the differences between the rotating vs. static models. Regardless of scale, if a map rotates, then the whole topography shifts constantly and makes it difficult to memorize/interpret the overall layout.

As for the Witcher 2, once again the post wasn't strictly about that particular game, but I also thought the issues with its design were evident. Its minimap rotates and lacks a compass, yet the game has the player repeatedly traversing the same locations. Building a mental map of these areas is made difficult since the minimap presents a different layout every time it's viewed. NPCs make references to "North" and "South" as well, but it's practically impossible to tell what those directions are on the minimap. It's also a real-time game, but it doesn't require the same split-second reflexes as FPS titles, and the floating camera helps alleviate issues that stem from a lack of awareness.

In short, the game suffers from all the con's of a rotating minimap, but its pro's aren't as well suited to the gameplay as those of a static model.

Kenneth Blaney
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A good thing to consider in addition to the type of gameplay is the player's ability to move. In the instance of the GPS, the "player" is a car which has the ability to drive forward modified by various states (turning, uphill/downhill) easily, drive backwards with difficulty and no ability to slide sideways. As a result, the world to a car acts like a rotating minimap and a rotating minimap is the best choice.

Although it is worth noting that many GPS also have a button that will zoom out and show true north for larger course corrections. This is because at a larger level, the car's inability to slide is negated by the comparatively small turning radius and thus a freer ability to move.

Rob Lockhart
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Just now playing through "Far Cry 2" which has both types. Fixed when you're on foot -- rotating when you're driving a vehicle. Works pretty well, although translating between the two can get difficult.