Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: What Makes Exploration Fun?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 5, 2014

SkyrimSS8I’m trying to come up with some kind of “unified field theory” about exploration in games (particularly, but not exclusively, for RPGs). Some games are really good at it – from the early days of Elite and Frontier, to the sandbox play of the Grand Theft Auto series, to Bethesda’s exploration-centric role-playing games.

particularly as it can be applied to randomized worlds. My basic premise is this:

1. Diablo had little exploration component. Or at least, what it had was so boring as to not be worth calling it that.

2. Minecraft does.

If you accept that, you can start looking at the differences between the worlds, which are both dynamically generated. What makes one far more interesting to “explore” than others? What makes other games, without dynamically generated terrain, interesting to explore?

I just think of some of my more fond moments exploring in other games.

Some thoughts:

1. Interactivity. If the world is largely “look but don’t touch,” I lose interest in a hurry. There needs to be more to exploration than just finding a path. Naturally, in Minecraft, almost everything can be interacted with – you gather it up, move it, reshape it, make stuff out of it. This is a reason I really didn’t warm up to Dear Esther like I thought I would. It felt more like looking at somebody else’s photographs. (That, and… there wasn’t much deviation allowed from the path. See point 4.)

2. Novelty / Discovery. Being able to discover stuff you’ve never quite seen before. This is tough in dynamic worlds, because eventually you’ve enough permutations that it fails to thrill. But finding new objects, or new configurations of old objects that could be interesting to interact with,  keep things exciting. But this is a key bit – it’s all about discovery. It can’t be just more of the same, with doors on different wall.

Frontier_elite2_screenshotThis is a point where dynamic content either really needs to be supplemented with handcrafted awesomeness for special occasions, or (as in the case of Minecraft) the world generator really needs to be up to the task of creating some really nifty combinations of elements to make something cool.

One of my favorite moments of exploration in a game was flying up the Grand Canyon in Falcon 3.0 and discovering a giant water faucet was the source of the river.

3. Reward or Purpose. There should be some benefit to exploration, even if it’s largely self-directed. In Minecraft, it’s fairly intrinsic. The world is your reward – you are master of all you survey, and it’s all ripe for your exploitation – or simply exploration. In Diablo-likes, unexplored territory is more likely to contain something of value, or a key object / enemy that you are seeking. Is that too fine of a point? Maybe.

Many people think exploration should be it’s own reward – a fully intrinsic benefit to the player. For me, it’s like the motivation of a character in a story. It may not be key, or all that important, but without a strong motivation the whole thing falls flat. I’m a little bit goal-directed as a player most times, so I want to know that at least sometimes I’ll be able to tell myself that I’ve benefited from time spent off the rails. Note that knowledge can be power – the purpose or reward doesn’t have to be an actual in-game “item” or experience point bump or anything like that, but simply an improved understanding of the game or the world, or discovery (there’s that word again!) of secrets.

4. Optionality. Is that even a word? In a nutshell – if you are forced to travel along this path in order to succeed in the game, it’s not exploration. It’s simply plowing through the world. The fun for me lies with knowing I’m going off the beaten path and exploring places that not every player will see.

minecraftfall5. Safety. I don’t mean in-game safety – it’s always more fun if there’s the possibility of danger lurking behind every corner. I mean meta-game safety – that as a player, you don’t have to worry about “breaking the game” if you wander off and start doing your own thing. This isn’t a problem in most modern games, but especially with indies, it’s still something to occasionally be worried about. This is one reason I’m not a big proponent of eliminating manual saves from a game – they allow the player a safety net and some freedom to go nuts and explore.

As a final note, exploration doesn’t necessarily have to be of physical space and terrain. It could be any kind of experimentation. It could be about testing any kind of limits in the game rules or the game world. It could be about discovering what kind of amusing responses to weird commands might be built into an adventure game. It could be about trying to find the fastest possible path from point A to point B in a speed run. In my view, whenever a game encourages a player to ask a question that starts with the words, “What happens if I…?”, then the game is doing it right.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

  • Jacob said,

    I think you may have missed a potential point, though you hint at it in option 4. Originality.

    “The fun for me lies with knowing I’m going off the beaten path and exploring places that not every player will see.”

    Some of what exploration gives you is an experience differentiator–the knowledge that what you are seeing is (at least potentially) original to you. This not only can make you feel special, but can also give you an opportunity to discuss the game with others and share stories of your experiences. This tale-swapping builds community and reinforces your enjoyment outside of the game and hence your feelings about it.

  • Andrew Wooldridge said,

    One of my favorite examples of an exploration game that was not necessarily intended to be was Shadow of the Colossus. It has such a great atmosphere of ancient ruins and secret places. http://www.avclub.com/article/read-this-emshadow-of-the-colossusem-many-hidden-t-97385

  • CdrJameson said,

    Should have intriguing things to draw you forward?

    Minecraft suggests interesting things around the next corner. Fallout 3 / Skyrim / GTA let you glimpse distant landmarks.

  • Rubes said,

    Nice topic, Jay. This is something that I’ve thought about and written about in the past, although from a slightly different angle.

    My take on exploration in games is similar to a combination of your #2 and #3 — that is, part novelty, part reward. I’ve always felt that if game designers are going to create large environments for their games, there should be a purpose to it if they want players to explore it. Players should get some kind of reward for exploration, however large or small the reward is — otherwise, there is little benefit to the large environment other than to fill space, and in those cases the world just seems like an empty shell.

    Sometimes, those rewards are key to the game, but a lot of times, those rewards are more along the lines of minor benefits (eg, a small treasure) or easter eggs (eg, the faucet). Either way, we as players derive some sense of satisfaction from that, even if the reward is just a metaphor for the designers saying, “Good work.”

    But what I think it comes down to is that exploration is an interplay between the player and the designer. We explore worlds to determine if there are any hidden things to find, and to find them. It’s us testing the designers to see how much they put into the game for us to find, and the designers testing us to see if we can find them. Like you said, sometimes this relates to the completion of the game, while other times it’s the player testing the limits of the game.

    I wrote a blog entry about something like this a while ago — good grief, over 5 years ago now — called “Playing the Protagonist Part, Partly”, which is about “the tricky relationship between the player and protagonist, and the expectations (and allowances) game authors often place on their players.” For obvious reasons, it’s more about the text adventure game genre, but the concept of players “pushing the limits” of the game world apply here as well. It’s just that, in text games, the process of exploration is slightly different.

    If interested, that post is at http://orangeriverstudio.com/monksbrew/2008/08/playing-protagonist-part-partly/

    I’d be interested to hear how you think that relates to this discussion here.

  • JW said,

    I’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about “social exploration” you should check out my game.


  • McTeddy said,

    For me, good exploration is about two things… “Something to do/see” and the “Motivation to look”.

    Minecraft is good because you always want new resources which can be found in each of the different biomes and Fallout/GTA work because they usually have unique things that are worth seeing.
    Diablo fails because most area’s look the same and when you have a “Sword of Epic Smiting + 14” you don’t need the crap that will drop there. The exploration feels empty at this point.

    As for the motivation to look. I will rarely step off of the road and search nearby. Roads/Plains/Forests are boring. But those landmarks Jameson mentioned…
    When I see a massive statue in the distance I WANT to look at it. I don’t wander aimlessly but I’m on a journey to that statue. I’m making progress with every step I take.
    Even if I arrive and the only reward is seeing the statue up close… it feels good.

  • Andrew said,

    I like that final note. One thing that has stuck with me for a while is the memory of seeing a ten-minute Morrowind victory on Youtube.

    Yes. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. From generating a new character to winning the entire game in 10 minutes.

    Actually DOING the feat isn’t that hard once you know how. But the level of familiarity with the game it must have taken to figure out how to develop this path to victory was mind-boggling and awe-inspiring.

  • McFunkypants said,

    The term everyone’s looking for with regard to “that castle in the distance” – something that sticks out from afar that draws you to venture forth. A mountain, village, tower, glow, etc. is a “weenie”. (Term taken from Disneyland Park Architects)

    The more weenies I encounter, the longer I’ll adventure before I get bored.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    We’d borrowed that term from Disney when I was working at SingleTrac, too. Although I’ve generally considered it more of a tool to pull you along the primary path, not to encourage you to wander around and explore, though. I suppose there’s nothing preventing that, though, so long as it doesn’t confuse the player.

  • Brandon said,

    I think everyone has their own personal reasons for enjoying exploration, but it’s a sort of inherent thing in humans I think. The belief that there is more out there than we have seen draws us forward, and when we leave the places we are comfortable it is exciting. We all crave brand new experiences, and the promise of new things draws us to seek them out.

  • CdrJameson said,

    You could use ‘folly’ instead of ‘weenie’, if you’re thinking more Capability Brown than Walt Disney.

  • Local Minimum said,

    I want to mention a crushial artifact here: The Map.

    At least for non-generative games, the lure of known blank spots on the map where there might be dragons has a very strong appeal. In part the psychological motor here could be as McFunkypants says, a castle in the distance. But the strive for completeness in itself is not to disregard.

    One type of games not mentioned so far are MMOs. They tend to have huge worlds and experiencing their hugeness and filling in the blank spots is a primary drive for many. They now also tend to reward this behaviour (e.g. WoW, GW2). That is, when having explored becomes a challenge, it becomes a motivator. I still remember, now closing in on 10 years ago when I sat out for Ironforge in WoW after having taken the ferry over to that continent. Way before I had the level, I had decided this was what I should do. I think it was my best WoW experience, even if I had to stay on roads and mostly walk for a very long time (lots of deaths made the road very long).

    In RPGs, exploration also takes away part of the dullness experienced when leveling the second, third or tenth character. While zones or areas will still build on the same type of XP-hunting mechanics, having the option of doing it in a new setting blinds us to the quite tedious task we expose ourselves to. So we use exporation as a tool, concious or not, to allow us to enjoy a game longer.

  • Anon said,

    WoW is already 10 years old? Oh my, how time flies…

  • Gary said,

    I believe the thoughts you are having follow this particular line of thinking quite well.. Loved your post!!


  • Modran said,

    @Local Minimum: Concerning the map… There are 2 ways maps are used and they completely change how I see exploration.
    A map that is blank at the start and reveals itself gradually is very powerful indeed. I particularly liked Etrian Odyssey for that because I was writing that map.
    And then there are games where you already have the entire map of the zone you’re in. It then becomes just a “to-do list” of places to ransack. There’s no sense of discovery as the map is already drawn (the only example I have in mind is when you find the minimap in Evoland, but there are many games like this)

  • Zegis said,

    I think sometimes it also depends on game. I never grew bored of exploring every ich of map in Might and Magic series – I loved Heroes (which I played first) and discovering Enrotch, or Erathia was rewarding on it’s own (: without quests, rewards, purpose (most of time), or interactivity.

    On the other side discovering in Morrowind was very disappointing. True, it has many breathtaking landscapes, but I remember that guy who fell from the sky near a village (5/10 mins of walking down the road?), he was dead. I go back to village and I couldn’t ask anyone who was he! Or what he was doing?

    Even a dialogue like:
    – I saw dead man, he was tall (and so on)
    – Never heard of it. He wasn’t our neighbour
    Would be ok!

    It feelt like I just encountered unfinished side quest, that someone failed to remove in final relase… after that I never go back to Morrowind nor Elder Scrolls.

    Yeah – first fallout also has some random encounters like that, but I have impression that it have other meaning. Many encounters in fallout were meaningless without some meta-knowledge from our times (like that UFO).
    I feel like I should treat it like a eye blink from authors. And hell – in fallout only selected few travelled between human settlements or go outside there (it was a wasteland!) so I couldn’t ask anyone anyway.

    So I’d say that game setting is also very important thing for exploration.

    I love World of Warcraft / Witcher approach: we start with blank map that fills up as you travel. In Witcher it was improved with auto-updated encyclopaedia of places, culture and curiosities.
    Eq. You entered swamp – you have few new sentences in encyclopaedia about that swamp area. You found swamp village – few new with hero’s thoughts about villagers and it’s religon.

    I also like the idea of Guild Wars 2 with vista points, with short cutscene view of landscape from point.

  • Local Minimum said,

    I just remembered one of the strongest map/exploration-memories:

    Eye of the Beholder – series

    It had no map, so I sat with pen and paper and explored each tile of the game to draw that maps I needed. Looked at each wall and made small figures. I think I’ve never explored any game like I did the games in that series. I wonder if anyone would accept having to make their own maps (and not use internet to cheat because there was no internet) like that today.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The CRPG Addict actually does that (usually). But he’s definitely an exception, as he tries to play the games from the perspective of a gamer from that era.