Designing Games for Exploration

Exploration is a critical component of many games, and it can take several different forms. Some games encourage players to explore their world. What might be over that next mountain? Will I find rare resources or some beautiful new scenery? Other games want players to explore their mechanics. What happens if I choose skills two and four? What will I create when combining these items? Further games may entice players to explore their narrative. What motivates these characters? Why is the world ending? The best exploration games do all these things and while it can manifest differently, exploration in video games has three critical components.

Enable Discovery

Discovery is a key piece of exploration, but it cannot occur if players start with all the information they need right at their fingertips. Subnautica and Tunic are two games that masterfully execute this principle. When the games start, you know almost nothing. They teach you the simplest mechanics and then set you off into the world. As you play, you slowly discover more about the world and your character. You gain advanced techniques you never knew were possible and over time conquer the challenges the game throws at you. Almost every step of the way you are learning something, and your progress is tied to the discovery of critical new information. Exploration of the world and its mechanics is not only encouraged but required to succeed.

It is important to note this does not mean withholding all information. Games should give players an idea that something is possible. Secrets found through guess and check are not rewarding a player for exploration, but rather encouraging them to mindlessly run face first into every wall in the game. If a player has discovered a new crafting recipe, record that for them. If they talked with someone in town who gave them new details on a quest, update the journal to include that information. Making players memorize things has nothing to do with inspiring exploration.

Punish Failure

Exploration should be thrilling. If going new places or trying new things doesn’t cost anything, the sense of adventure will be significantly reduced. Let’s compare hardcore versus regular play in Diablo 3. In hardcore mode, when your character dies, they are permanently gone. There is no resurrecting. This means going into dungeons and increasing the difficulty level is a genuinely scary prospect. As a player, you are far more engaged knowing that any moment could be this character’s last. In regular mode, when you die, you lose a small amount of gear durability which costs a small amount of money to repair. The punishment is negligible and the game plays more like a casual arcade game.

The punishments for failure, however, need to be carefully balanced. If the penalty for failing exploration is too severe, players will simply avoid it. They will go look at a guide or in the worst case avoid that content entirely. If we go back to Diablo 3, you can see very few players play hardcore characters versus normal seasonal characters. Maybe that punishment is too severe for most players? What if instead, players lose experience or items when they die? The Dark Souls games and most roguelites are built on this principle of meaningfully punishing players for failure. Those setbacks make success that much sweeter. A victory earned with little effort is quickly forgotten. Find the right balance for your game and your audience.

Reward Curiosity

Rewarding players for exploration is critical. Nothing kills the motivation to explore faster than discovering absolutely nothing. Can you imagine a game where every cave behind a waterfall was simply empty? Players will very quickly stop looking. These rewards can take all kinds of shapes, though. The player might find gold and items, or maybe they are rewarded with additional lore and character backstory. It is important, however, that the rewards are worthwhile and unique. If searching caves only gets you more basic monsters to fight, why go through the extra effort?

It is also essential that exploration does not always yield results. If every side tunnel is guaranteed to contain a reward, the player is not exploring, they are simply moving to the next treasure. Trying new builds in a game like Path of Exile would shed all weight if every build could work as well as every other build. Digging for diamonds in Minecraft would quickly lose its thrill if they were easy to find. The key to triggering that nice dopamine effect is a well distributed reward system.

Exploration Increases Engagement

While exploration in games can take many different forms, it always has one common impact on the player. Exploration executed well will always increase players’ engagement with that game. They must use their brain and pay attention. No longer are they simply performing the listed steps or mindlessly moving from one destination to the next. Highly engaged players are far more likely to enter that magical state of flow where time will pass by without their notice. A game that has exploration thoroughly ingrained in its design can be the difference between a good game and an unforgettable experience.

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