A series of draft maps used to build the final world map for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. (Images: Ubisoft Québec)
“From there, we drew paper maps of each region, with a rough notion of key landscape, cities, forts, sanctuaries and wildlife,” explains Hall. “This data was then worked on to create basic terrain layouts, which formed the very foundations of our world.”
The paper maps are then shared with the rest of the game’s developers, including writers so they can develop storylines based on them. The overall map then goes through a variety of drafts as it adapts to the competing needs of the design team before it’s finalized.
“We work very hard to try to make an authentic world, but it is a video game,” says Hall. “We have to make choices: technical, artistic and level-design choices. It’s not historical recreation. It’s an imagination of that.”
“Maps made for video games are not the same as maps in real life. But you will probably use the same skills reading them,” says Simon Dor, 33, a professor of video game studies at the Montreal campus of l’Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
Dor, who wrote his PhD thesis on the history of strategies in real-time strategy video games and his master’s thesis on StarCraft, a military sci-fi franchise that debuted in 1998, says that video games are overlooked for the map-reading skills they impart.
“You have to know how to read a map in order to better understand a space. Some video games rely a lot on maps, and you have to be able to read them to play. That can be applied to real life.”
While players intuitively learn some cartographic basics from video games, Dor notes that the cartographic knowledge transfer from games to real-life technological applications is even greater. He points to drone manufacturers who are hiring user interface designers from the gaming world to build UI systems for drones. These are critical for understanding where the drone is and what it is seeing on a control screen. And real-world location games also reinforce real-world geography. “If you play a game that represents Europe throughout history, for example,” says Dor, “you will know most of the countries because of your experience in the game.”
Lynn Moorman, a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, concurs. She explored how people were interpreting geographical concepts from real-world digital maps in her PhD thesis and found that people “used the same navigation strategies exploring Google Earth as they do in video games.”
Moorman identified four specific areas of overlap between Google Earth and video games, including understanding content at different scales when the scale keeps moving, spatial orientation, top-down versus oblique perspectives and “dimensional transformation,” where a user reimagines a two-dimensional environment on a screen as a three-dimensional space.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), in March 2018, Google made its Maps interface available to game developers who want to use its real-world geo-graphy, geometry and 100 million 3D building and landmark footprints. Now game studios can import Google Maps data directly into a Google-based gaming software and tweak or add elements as desired.
The move followed the runaway success of the augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go. The app, which spawned a craze of gamers of all ages roaming their local communities in packs in search of virtual Pokémon, or “pocket monsters,” after its release in July 2016, was the first game built on such technology. It combined Google Maps and virtual reality and has since been downloaded 800 million times. Now The Walking Dead: Our World (zombie chasing), Ghostbusters World (ghost stalking) and Jurassic World Alive (dino hunting) have joined Go as some of the most noteworthy augmented reality mobile games using the same system.
It’s even more evidence of the convergence of real-world cartography in video games.