Raph Koster has some useful tips on laying out maps; some of these are probably not too different from urban design planning best practices in the real world. I’m repeating them here (aggregating and paraphrasing some of his points)
1. Always make sure users can tell which way to go.
Starting a newbie at a dead end and giving them only one way to go is a classic way to deal with early confusion. Large landmarks that can be seen from a distance can serve a similar purpose.
2. Don’t use invisible barriers. (Form should give an indication of function)
3. Mazes suck.
4. Make zones that have a sense of place
– Create characteristic qualities to a linked zone so that it is easy to recognize that these areas are related to each other
– Enclose these zones
– Create “gates” between places that visually convey a transition from one place to another
…moving from one pocket to another should feel dramatic: a tight passage revealing a wide vista, coming over the crest of a mountain and revealing a valley, discovering a door behind a waterfall, a big bold gate with guards. You want to signal that the user is entering a space with its own framework and rules. There are a lot of visual cues that are used, but most of them carry some sense of “gate” to them, even if it is as simple as a path that winds between two hills: a passage between two tall things.
– Build in modules. Connections to neighboring zones should be few and obvious.
– Have a defining activity.
ure, every city has to have the same amenities, and every zone must have monsters. But get creative. This wilderness zone has the pool you can swim in that is perfect for picnics. This other one has the great layout for ranged combat. This inn has the trivia game; that one has the chess board. Users will self-select into the spaces which feel culturally comfortable to them.
5. Watch where people want to walk, and put roads (and important places) along the well worn paths.
6. Social spaces point inwards. Keep the center empty to avoid a “ring” instead of a “plaza”
7. Adventure spaces point outwards.
In general, if you are exploring you want a horizon (or more than one) to head towards. Where social spaces create a sense of security, adventure spaces should create a sense of uncertainty and the unknown to prompt users to keep going.It isn’t about endless vistas; it’s about interest.
8. All this is fractal. Apply the same rules at each level of map layout.
As always, read the whole thing.