When I was a kid, I loved poring over maps in our family’s atlas when we went on road trips. Getting a kind of bird’s eye view of the world and figuring out my location in it was always satisfying.
This hasn’t changed as I transitioned into virtual road trips through vast fantasy and sci-fi worlds. I am quite enraptured with MMO maps — and critical of them as well. Not all MMORPG map systems are the same, and in today’s list, I’m going to rank maps from the 10 MMOs I’ve played the most from the worst to the best. I’ll be considering aesthetics, clarity, navigational aids, and practicality into my final estimations.
Worst: Final Fantasy XIV
Yeah, let’s throw down with a possible controversial pick right out of the gate! Out of many, many things that FFXIV does great, the map is not one of them. The individual zone maps are barebones and kind of ugly, to be honest. They also highlight just how hemmed in you are on these areas. Where’s the personality to these?
But where the real frustration lies is seeing how the whole world fits together. Square Enix obviously was too much in love with creating admittedly gorgeous overworld map art that it didn’t give any room to clearly showing how its plethora of segmented zones fit together. Trying to get a big picture of continents or the world always frustrated me while playing this game, and considering FFXIV’s strengths, I think that’s a pity.
Dungeons and Dragons Online
Dungeons and Dragons Online’s unique brand of hub-and-spoke questing creates a kind of odd, disjointed world that isn’t helped by an odd, disjointed map system. Hub maps simultaneously show too much detail and too confusing information. And good luck trying to get a clear picture of how all of these world zones fit together as the larger game map is too vague. The dungeon maps are usually fine (but are occasionally tripped up by vertical spaces), as long as you eschew the minimap for a resized regular map that offers more info.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
As I indicated in my introduction, there’s a balance that has to be struck to make for a truly good map. SWTOR may be very clear with its zone layouts, but the decision to adhere to this blue-on-blue schematic design makes for an eyesore that also makes every place you visit look the same — on the map, at least. There’s no room for area “personality” when all you’re doing is looking at these blueprints for the least amount of time needed to get where you need to go. It’s an eyesore, and I don’t care for it.
City of Heroes
There’s nothing greatly wrong with City of Heroes’ maps, but they’re not exactly beautiful to behold, either. To be honest, they kind of look like those road play mats that we used to have in kindergarten. You know the ones? But it’s all very functional and clearly shows you where certain level/danger ranges are in a zone.
My biggest complaint is with how all of these disconnected zones piece together, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the subway system. Honestly, why couldn’t the one subway line access every area in this town?
Lord of the Rings Online
I’ll toss LOTRO into the middle section of this list for the sheer fact that this MMO has about three different styles of zone maps. The original (above) had a quirky from-the-books design but was the least helpful. Then there were the often confusing screenshots taken from 500 feet up into the sky that was used for a while. But nowadays, the game goes with a much better compromise between looks and use. I also dock a few mental points for the sometimes hard-to-see-and-not-as-clear quest marker blobs. Overall, it’s not going to win any art awards, but it’s a decent balance.
I guess the idea here was to go with a woodcut design that might be found in some sort of ancient tome. WAR’s maps did the job with showing quest locations, topography, and a general layout, but these weren’t the most lovely to behold. Probably working against it is the feeling that a lot of the maps were trying to be a close copy of World of Warcraft’s older design, just with less of that colorful personality.
Elder Scrolls Online
I’m a simple guy. I need things pointed out to me simply and boldly, and this is why I’ve taken a shine to Elder Scrolls Online’s map system. It looks fine — not great but not horrible — but what I consider to be the shining jewel is its easy-to-comprehend-at-a-grasp iconography. If you come near enough to a particular landmark, it appears on your map from then on (encouraging exploration). At one glance, I know what kind of landmark this is, if I’ve done it, or if it’s still something I need to handle. It’s why I love “mapping” in this game so much.
The Secret World
In a game that’s full of immersive details, is it any surprise that Secret World’s maps should lend even more to the worldbuilding? I adore these maps for their fun details and the fact that each major region has a different map style. Solomon Island’s maps look like a tourist brochure with an artist’s eye for folksy charm, while Transylvania’s looks like a woodcut and Tokyo has delightful artistic touches around its borders.
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft’s stylized design isn’t merely confined to the landscape itself but the eye-in-the-sky overlook of each zone. These maps consistently hit every major goal of such a feature: an attractive design, concise information, high fantasy personality, nice colors, and a fog of war that encourages players to find every major area. I’ve seen people take this map style and repurpose it for real-world maps because they love it so much. I can identify.
Best: Guild Wars 2
But if there’s an MMO that’s got a map system heads and shoulders above the rest, it’s Guild Wars 2. I don’t even have to pause to consider this – it’s that good.
Everything about this map works so well. It looks great, for starters, with a combination of landscape features, descriptive labels, and icons. It’s highly useful for the many events that this MMO hosts on a regular basis. But the absolute best part is that you can easily zoom in and out — in fact, all the way out to see the whole world and how each and every zone connects. After using this map, I feel strongly that every MMO should allow you to use your scroll wheel to zip between map layers like this.