Behind the Curtain: Mapmaker as Entertainer

by Charles Watkins


In this series, I am exploring ways for mapmakers to enhance Heroes players’ enjoyment by using some psychological factors in map design. Previously, we looked at DISCOVERY and saw the need to establish consistency in order to further the sense of expectation and surprise. We looked at SUCCESS and found a need to strike a balance between too easy and too hard, while affording opportunities for players to develop interesting characters and towns. This time, I’ll go into the visual dimension of map design and look at ways to delight the eye as well as the mind.

Part 3: Aesthetics

When we looked at employing the surprise factor from the point of view of what players discover as they explore the map. Surprises can also be graphical. Some of the more artistic maps are built around stunning revelations. Sometimes these use the Window of the Magi (Wizard Huts in Heroes3) to unveil hidden delights. Sometimes the player just needs to follow a path or go around a corner to see new wonders awaiting exploration. In my map “Grandmaster” there is a reveal where the player gets a glimpse of the demon lord Uxnator emerging from the dimensional void. Uxnator’s face is rendered using terrain shading and adventure objects and after the player gets the reveal, Uxnator stares out at them from the world map for the rest of the game.

In ‘Grandmaster’ players try to keep the Demon Lord Uxnator
from entering their home dimension.
When they reach the Wizard Hut in the heroes guild,
they can see his visage emerging from the void.

Qrystal Dragon’s recent map, “Disenchanted Forest,” includes a very nice reveal, which takes place at the beginning … so you can continue reading this without spoiling the map. As the title suggests, most of the upper level is covered in forest, which provides the backdrop for a pictorial of a large shade tree that spans the map from top to bottom--on the lower level, the tree appears again. Next to each starting town are a pair of Windows of the Magi that illuminate the trees with the foliage artfully displayed using the radial illumination of the Eyes. The effect continues as computer players capture towns positioned on the branches, making it appear that the trees have grown fruit. Eventually players will reach the areas occupied by the trees and this is where the main villains of the piece are to be found. Because of the illumination, players are able to observe their future opponents as they gain strength.

In ‘Disenchanted Forest,’ Windows of the Magi put foliage
on the trees that are the centerpiece of the map.

Strategically placed reveals can be used to advance a storyline or to point players in the right direction. Illuminated objectives stand out on the world map and remind players where they need to go. Since some players ignore or forget about text messages, using the map itself to highlight key locations can be the most effective way of communicating.

Using illumination this way requires the mapmaker to be able to envision where the light will fall and what the player will be able to see from different vantage points. This requires a geometric sense, combined with a fair amount of trial-and-error. The closer that adventure objects are clustered, the more difficult it can be. Depending on the circumstance, the mapmaker may want to reveal an object as a teaser or keep it hidden until the player comes across it from the right direction. But the mapmaker should be aware of what players will be able to see—and this may be one of the hardest parts of mapmaking since the Campaign Editor provides no support. One of my top wish-list items is the ability to display areas of illumination from objects like Lighthouses and Eyes of the Magi, and to be able to see what falls in the scouting radii of heroes on the map.

Eye candy

Visual surprises—or reveals, as some call them—are on the artistic side of mapmaking. Also there is the art of trimming. Terrain types and landscape objects can combine in wonderful ways, so sometimes the surprise can come from the beauty or cleverness of the rendering. I’m no artist, so maybe I should leave it at that.

All I can say is that gratuitous graphics can become a distraction—flowers in the snow may make for a visual treat, but I get distracted wondering how they managed to grow there. If the mapmaker takes the time to rationalize such anomalies, then all the better. But any element of the map that draws players away from the game, or makes it more difficult to immerse themselves in the mapmaker’s world, should be seriously reconsidered. Just because we operate in a fantasy setting, does not mean anything goes. They may be exotically different from our mundane habitat—that’s one reason players like to go there—but they must be internally consistent or else the magic can be replaced with confusion,

Art of mapmaking

Of you’ve made it with me this far,you’ve read my thoughts and opinions about building entertainment value into Heroes maps. We’ve been through discovery, success, and visuals as sources of enjoyment for players. Mapmakers who use these principles become entertainers moreso than performing as programmers, storytellers, or layout artists. Which brings us to this final topic: the art of mapmaking and how artistry can enhance the players’ experience.

Is there any sense in which Heroes mapmaking can be regarded to be an artform? Pop art, certainly, like juggling, but can mapmaking cross the line into higher realms like comic books (excuse me, graphic novels) seem to have done?


Storytelling is certainly an art, perhaps the oldest of all. So what difference does it matter whether the story is told by Balinese shadowpuppets or lyric opera? As a medium for storytelling, Heroes mapmaking possesses several attributes that, though not unique in themselves, do come together to create a distinctive experience for those who partake of it. Mapmakers not only create settings and characters, they create environments where players interact with the game more intensely than in traditional media. What may be missing is the intimacy of the interaction like, for instance, readers of biographical literature might experience.

But there are many maps with some demonstrable literary quality. My good friend Tim Duncan (aka Corribus) has published several maps* with storylines that can stand on their own, no matter how they happen to be rendered. There were quite a few lighter weight pieces as early as Heroes2 and now in Heroes4 we are starting to see novel-length campaigns.

In ‘Goldheart,’ Tim Duncan tells a splendid tale of triumph and fate.
In addition to the mainline story acted out by players, he introduces the device
of the storyteller who amplifies the experience with his narrative.

Graphics are another means of artistic expression available in Heroes. I’ve already covered the use of illumination and background graphics to produce pretty reveals. But there are also Heroes artistes who paint stunning landscapes for their maps. Sadly, I lack the creative flair to create such beautiful trimmings. as these decorations are sometimes called, and I’m certainly not the one to give advice about them. But as a player I find them most enjoyable, especially when they are integrated with other elements.

A brief digression

One measure of artistic content is the capacity of the work to transform those who experience it. This often involves an exploration of the human condition that results in some discovery about oneself.

One computer game that has had a lasting impact on my life—not discounting Heroes of course—is Ultima IV by Richard Garriott. Not only is it one of the few computer games with a nonviolent ending, it introduced character class system based on the classical virtues. To become an Avatar, the player had to perform virtuous acts—such as donating blood (and hit points) to practice Sacrifice. The basic virtues of Truth, Love, and Courage combined in pairs to yield others – for instance Love+Courage=Sacrifice. Each virtue had its own town where interactions with NPCs were governed by that virtue.

Pretty cool so far, huh? We have a game where the player doesn’t just fight for good, but actually does good. However, what got me was the fate of Magincia, the town governed by Pride, which resulted from the combination of all three of Truth, Love, and Courage. Caught up in their superiority to the lesser virtues, the residents of Magincia were destroyed (I won’t tell how) and replaced by a community of shepherds who embodied the true virtue of Humility. Ever since I played Ultima IV I have become more aware of the perils of Pride and the need to strive for Humility.

It was only after going back to replay Ultima IV that I saw that the lesson of Pride vs. Humility had actually been embedded into the play of the game itself. Rather than have players “roll up” characters like many RPGs do, in the Ultima series you answer a series of questions about ethical situations in order to determine your character class. In Ultima IV, you end up with a party of 8 characters representing each of the virtues. However, the player only fully controls the starting character while the others function as NPC henchmen. Therefore, if you choose to be a Ranger, you do not get the Ranger henchman. What this means is that it is to your benefit to choose the weakest possible main character so that you will have the strongest possible henchmen. And this means answering the ethical questions guided by the virtue of Humility, so that your main character becomes a humble Shepherd.

I was touched by Ultima IV more deeply than when I stood before Leonardo’s Last Supper. ***

Limits to creativity

The range of artistic expression in Heroes is limited by the underlying motif: the campaign of conquest. There’s not much point in telling a story in Heroes unless it involves a lot of fighting. And the ending is pretty much always the same: everything in sight is under the control of the victorious hero. There are just so many ways you can justify robbery and genocide as “heroic”. And let’s face it, fighting and conquest are part and parcel of the game. I once made a map ** where fighting was optional and it was not very well received. Fighting was an option for players who didn’t solve the puzzles, but these weren’t enough for those who were looking for action. At the same time, the map’s general strangeness was enough to drive off most others—it deliberately overstressed the engine to produce some, um, interesting effects.

What I learned from this is that players bring expectations to the game about how the engine works and what strategies they can use to succeed. If the mapmaker departs too far from these expectations, players feel lost and disappointed. Clearly, there needs to be a balance between surprise and predictability.

So my final bit of advice to mapmakers of an artistic bent is to bear in mind that you will be creating within the strictures of the medium. In particular, you will have a cast of various specialized fighters, fantastic creatures, and residents of quest locations. You are working in the frontier genre of interactive media where words and graphics can bring your world alive and where you can immerse your audience in the composition in a way that is possible in no other medium.

In conclusion, we have gone down three main avenues for mapmakers who want to create pleasurable experiences for their players. The first was DISCOVERY, where we saw foreshadowing and surprise both play off of player expectations. The second was SUCCESS, where we found that players need a succession of intermediate goals leading up to a satisfying finale. And now we have looked at the AESTHETIC dimension of mapmaking and noted opportunities for both artistic and literary expression. If you have read this far, then I can only conclude that you may have taken some of this to heart and that in some small way I have encouraged mapmakers to give more thought to ways their maps can be more entertaining. I’m looking forward to the result.

Want to talk about this some more? Meet me in the Mapmaker Forum !

* “Lord of the Rings” for Heroes2. Available only in the AstralWizard archive as far as I know.

** “Metaluna” part of the “Agent of Heaven” collaboration, also somewhere in the AstralWizard archive, I think maybe.

*** So if Leonardo lived today, would he render the Last Supper as a Heroes map? Well, no—obviously Jesus would GM Resurrection, but what would Judas be? An Assassin?

Please login to view comments.