Monday, September 27, 2010

A Beautiful Piece of Virtual Cartography

I have always been slightly obsessed with maps and mapmaking. This is partly due to my time spent as a boy scout, but it’s also a very big part of my personal gaming history. There was an age, well before the advent of gamefaqs, when charting your course through a game meant creating your own maps. I have fond memories of graphing paper, pencils, and a penchant for tracing each of my steps through games like Zork, Rogue, and Prince of Persia. I wish with all of my heart that I hadn’t thrown my notebook full of these maps out during a cleaning fit in highschool. In the pursuit of personal archaeology, that would have been a goldmine.

Gaming cartography is far from a lost art, though. As the games have grown larger, so have the worlds the gamemakers created. Take, for example, this map of Cyrodiil (the world of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion). There are some traditions that you recognize from every map. The Compass Rose, the universally understood colors of land, road, and water. Then there’s the wealth of game information. This is a far cry from my pencil scribblings. Just looking at this map makes me want to visit Dragonclaw Rock.

I am an avid player of the sci-fi MMO Eve Online. If you have never experienced the game, it is worth downloading the trial if only to open up the galaxy map. The galaxy of New Eden contains thousands of player inhabited star systems, and the map allows you to explore these systems in a 3-D environment. The effect is stunning. However, the downside to viewing the galaxy in such a manner is that it’s not easy to convey specific information about the best way to navigate these systems.

This problem is magnified by the use of jump bridges. The star systems of New Eden are all connected by star gates. These connections have been pre-defined by the creators of the game to create superhighways, choke points, and islolated pockets of space which lend character to the galaxy. Jump bridges are player owned structures that provide instantaneous travel between star systems. They are used by player alliances to augment the stargate systems in order to provide a faster method of travel through their regions. Since these jump bridges are controlled by the players and not the game creators, mapping out their locations can be a very difficult process.

A Player Created Jump Bridge
Thus, I present to you, the Northern Coalition Jump Bridge Map (warning: very large image). The Northern Coalition is a united group of player alliances in Eve Online. They control vast tracts of space, and a method of traveling quickly through that space is vital. The result is one of the largest virtual civil engineering projects ever devised. Like a giant game of shoots and ladders, you can quickly find yourself getting lost in the multitude of connections between regions and star systems. Comprised of hundreds of different nodes, this jump bridge system services a population equal to that of a small city. Every individual jump bridge requires fueling and maintenance which is paid for through taxes, subsequently creating a virtual public works department. The logistics of maintaining the network are mind boggling.

I really want to get from TVN-FM to IMK-K1
This map, created by Rick Pjanja, does an excellent job of conveying important information about the network. Traditional stargate connections are shown as white lines, regional stargate connections are shown in purple, and individual alliance networks are color coded. Furthermore, every jump bridge connection is labeled with the planet and moon where the jump bridge is anchored. What I find to be most amazing about this map is that it has no predecessor. While the acts of mapping land, sea, and sky have been practiced for thousands of years, our culture has not had a reason to map the connections between star systems until now. Whether virtual or not, this is an entirely new field of cartography.

The Northern Coalition jump bridge network is a testament to the complexity of the sandbox CCP has created for it’s players, and this map is a testament to the dedication of the players who inhabit the game. We live in an era where the debate of whether or not games should be considered as art is currently raging, but I do not think that the validity of this piece of cartography as a work of art is in question.

1 comment:

  1. All I could think of when I read this post was this song: