Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Impression of Mapping Software

Over here a lively discussion ensued over mapping software.

This is not an in-depth review but my general impression of software for RPG Mapping.

My opinion is that the market goes like this Professional Graphic design software (Adobe, Corel, etc), Campaign Cartographer, Dundjinni, Fractal Mapping, and the rest.

I use CorelDRAW while keeping current with Profantasy's Campaign Cartographer (I buy a add-on every six months or so, and the annual), I keep an eye on Inkscape, and seriously tried using Dundjinni, and Fractal Mapper.

CorelDRAW is my first choice TODAY, because of sheer interia. It was the first good windows based Vector drawing package (we are talking circa 1993 here) My fingers just know how to use it automatically. Plus I have over 20 years worth of symbols and templates that I created.

When Campaign Cartographer came out I gave it a serious shot. I have nearly the entire Wilderlands mapped out in a CC file. Something that not really possible with CorelDRAW. I don't continue to use CC because it is particularly difficult for me but because it not CorelDRAW (which true of all the alternatives I tried).

Now if YOU try to use Campaign Cartographer I will put a $1 up that 2/3 of you will go WTF! CC's user interface is definitely not windows standards. This is because it originated as a CAD program. Worse it originated as a DOS CAD Program. It was built on top of a program called FastCAD.

Back in the day's of DOS, graphics were limited. The UI adopted by nearly all CAD software was a BIG innovation. For one thing it worked well where the only input device was a keyboard and graphics capability was limited. However the CAD way of handling a GUI was not the way adopted by the Mac, Windows and later Linux. (CAD: command then select object, Windows/Mac/etc select object then command)

So hence nearly everybody enountering Campaign Cartographer or any CAD (FastCAD, AutoCAD, etc) for the first time is going to go WTF!

So why doesn't CC change? Well when software has a legacy, it is very very hard to change without a lot of severe consquence. I know because my day job involves developing metal cutting software that has existed since 1985. Lucky for me we made the right bet on how GUIs is going to turn out. So switching to Windows was not as painful as it could have been.

But Campaign Cartographer was not so lucky. But it did have was a customer base from it's initial DOS version. This was a good thing and a bad thing. Good because you have people that will buy your expensive to develop windows version. Bad because if you want them to buy you going to have to be compatible both in file format and UI with your DOS version.

Compounding all this is the fact that RPG Mapping is a limited market compared to the rest of the CAD market. So you have to make sure that the money and time spent is going to payoff.

Then comes long Fractal Mapper. Fractal Mapper is a Windows Program through and through. In addition it has the ability to draw complex land features easily because it uses the math of fractals introduce detail into what you draw.

Then comes the kick in the pants introduced by Dundjinni. What Dundjinni does very well is allow people to use individual bitmaps that are professionally drawn to make incredible looking maps. They had to develop several things other than a fancy stamp tool to make this happen (transparency, shadowing, etc). The results are stunning and allow ordinary people to make incredible looking maps. And on top of it, like Fractal Mapper, it used standard Windows conventions in it's UI.

The only limitation is that you are limited to the palette of bitmaps that you have bought. Also they have a very annoying license if you want to use the software for professional use.

Campaign Cartographer had some serious challenges to overcome. When you are a company that is staddled with the legacy of your older versions, the trick to overcome the competition is to do things that nobody else can. Another trick is to use your legacy to give depth to what your software can do.

Those two areas are the strength of Campaign Cartographer. CC and it's addons give more tools to use than any other RPG Mapping software. Just as important many of those tools are not found in other software. Finally while it still wrapped up in the CAD UI, it has adopted many of the features of Fractal Mapper and Dundjinni. The challenge of Dundjinni was the main reason for the release of Campaign Cartographer 3.

CC3 continues the race with Dundjinni by allowing a variety of lenses and filters to applied selectively to your map. So you can draw a simple curve for your coastline and easily apply a soft blur or a shadow effect to give the illusion of depth. More sophsicated effects allow you to create shaded relief maps perhaps one of the hardiest techniques to do right in cartography.

I admit I am a Campaign Cartographer fan. However I feel that the past couple of years has been a golden age for RPG Mapping Programs with a wealth of options. If you pick any of the leading three you are going to be making great maps.

If you are going to making professional maps You are better off learning to use a professional graphic software. That because if you use the DEFAULT tools of any of the three your map will have a distinctive look that publishers will recognize. In general the publishers don't like to have a map that looks like it was made with CC, Fractal Mapper, or Dundjinni. If you can spend the time developing your own symbols and graphics then you will be able to use any of the three on a professional level.

A final note is that AutoRealm is probably the best of the rest. Unfortunally it's development is stalled due to the author being in the middle of rewriting the base of the software. Which is a cautionary note to those of you involved in software development.

Campaign Cartographer
Fractal Mapping

Free professional style graphic programs


Badelaire said...

I've used CC for years, but at the end of the day, if I'm not using it to whip up a relatively small-scale map (perhaps a village and 20-30 miles in each direction), then it's just too cumbersome. And because I use it sporadically, I have to re-learn about half of everything each time I sit down to use it.

In the end, I hate to say it, but paper (graph, hex, or plain) and pencil/pen are sometimes the best way to go.

Bonemaster said...

Honestly, I didn't expect that post to be that lively. The post was just my lament that I'm not much of an artist and I am more of CAD person.

@Badelaire - For most people I do think you are correct. Paper is the best way to go. I'm interested in see what people do for Paizo's open call for Maps.

Eli Elder said...

I haven't really looked at CC but as as an architect with experience with AutoCad and Microstation the CAD interface can vary quite a bit. I think a CAD based program would be very useful for dungeon maps since you can control the drawing tools so much easier. Of course I normally use pen and paper myself.

Frank said...

I became a Corel Draw fan after trying various cheap draw programs and being very frustrated. Then I had an opportunity to buy Corel Draw for the upgrade price, then later was able to buy full versions for the upgrade price due to a business partner deal with my employer.

The first time I drew a spline curve in Corel Draw, I knew why it is worth buying real software instead of toys for this kind of job...

I did also buy Campaign Cartographer and then upgraded to CC2. I also bought Dundjinni.

In the end though, I almost never make maps on the computer. Ultimately, if you just want a quick map for your gaming group, it's not worth the time. No matter how you do it, drawing a professional looking map will take hours and hours.

I've made far more use of Corel Draw for posters and such...


Dwayanu said...

I'm a pencil guy, but I notice there are input devices meant to work similarly (e.g., when signing for a UPS delivery). Might using something like that make some things easier?

Dundjinni looks as if it would be very handy for very specific projects.

I haven't looked recently, but my impression was that this sort of program tends to be written only for Windows. My computer these days is a Mac.