GameDev Thoughts: Let’s Take A Look At Four Different Types of Exploration In Game Design

We as humans have a curious mindset, and as such, we have a general tendency to explore the environment around us. This tendency has led us to discover and invent great things which have resulted in the overall development of mankind. In a similar way, exploration in games can be an extremely rewarding experience, both for the player and the developer alike. 

A lot of games made today are completely based on the concept of exploration, with many others gaining cult status among the community due to the excellent exploration concept embedded in their engines. But generally, when we think about exploration in games, we think about it geographically, as in, geographical exploration of the game’s map area. In reality though, exploration can be varied across several categories and can even be broadly classified in terms of discovery of things in a game. This discovery of items or other things in the game leads to excitement and overall a positive interest in the game. So then, let’s discuss the various types of exploration found in games and compare.

1. Geographic

The first thing that comes to our mind when we think about exploration is a discovery in terms of area and region, or in simpler terms, exploration on the basis of geography. While this form of discovery is generally used by open-world games such as the Far Cry franchise, other games like Minecraft or even the Dark Souls franchise among many others use this same concept to further the game plot and to keep the players’ interest in the game. Geographical Discovery is an exciting form of exploration as it makes the player think about the unknown in the unexplored and new areas of the game. But it has its disadvantages too, especially in terms of cost. Implementing the logic of geographical discovery is usually a large drain on the development team, as large geographic areas need to also be filled with enemies to tackle, and challenges to overcome.

2. Mechanical

Another interesting form of exploration, mechanical discovery happens when a player discovers and understands the logic to use the game’s elements to move further along the game’s storyline. Many roguelike games use this form of exploration a lot to further their storyline and to keep the player hooked. Mechanical discovery forces the player to implement ideas and to dig deeper into the game to move forward, thereby hooking up the player to stay engaged in the game. Implementing mechanical discovery logic is not too difficult and does not involve the usage of a lot of money and time. Most games use some form of this, and with mechanical exploration, it’s all about gradually revealing more and more of the game’s mechanics as the player progresses through the game.

3. Content

This form of exploration is similar to geographic discovery, only differing in the way that instead of the generation of new geographical areas in the game to move the plot forward, new content is generated for the player to explore and use. Games such as Pokemon use this type of discovery to make the game interesting to play and explore. The core element of trading card games, content discovery is also used in scenarios where the player is given a choice and the game depends on those choices. In terms of human as well as financial cost, content discovery can be implemented at a lower budget if careful planning is done from the start. With content, a lot of assets can be repurposed. One sprite can be palette swapped and modified to transmute into many different variations.

4. Narrative

The last major type of exploration, narrative discovery makes use of storytelling to let the player move forward in the game. Players are engaged by getting to know more about the game’s characters as the game progresses. One can even develop branching logic for narrative discovery. One word of caution though, adding too much of branching logic may turn out to be negative for the game, as it may confuse players and even make them disinterested in playing the game any further if done sloppily. The cost of implementing narrative discovery depends on proper planning is done at the start of development and can be usually done at a reasonable cost. Proper narrative exploration is hard, but games such as Thomas Was Alone have used this form of exploration to great effect.

Important Takeaways: The joy of discovery in games is fueled by the human desire to explore and discover things around them. But in order to make this discovery an engaging experience, the designer must make use of every tool to ensure that the game is interesting in every way possible. You will need to ensure that as the game progresses, the player gets access to tools and implements so that his or her interest in the game is maintained. Hence, proper implementation of the mechanism of discovery can go a long way in making your game a memorable experience for your players.