Game World Exploration

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The goal or phase of learning the layout of a game world, or locating specific parts or objects within it.

Players may not have complete knowledge of game worlds as they begin playing games. This may be due to the worlds being larger than can be viewed at once or that some areas of them are kept secret until players have moved their game elements into the proximity of these areas. Games created in this fashion give players the goal of uncovering unknown areas through Game World Exploration.

Note: This pattern is rather wide in scope, ranging both from specific goals in games to a substantial phase of gameplay during game instances.


Games with large game worlds, e.g. the Assassin's Creed, Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto, and Just Cause series, require players to explore them in order to finish them. Master of Orion, Minecraft, Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, and Civilization series have exploration as a major gameplay element as players start game instances knowing very little about the game worlds. To ensure that exploration is needed in new game instances, the games can generate new game worlds for each instance.

Using the pattern

A prerequisite for needing to engage in Game World Exploration is that something needs to be found (or surveyed) in a Game World, Maps, or Levels. Examples of things that need to be found include Check Points, Pick-Ups, Props, Resource Locations, Secret Areas, Secret Resources, and any type of Strategic Locations not already located. Giving players reasons to do Game World Navigation can indirectly cause Game World Exploration since players may discover unexpected things while doing the navigation. Two basic requirements for making exploration non-trivial is that players cannot have complete overviews of the entire Game Worlds - often done through using Avatars as players' Focus Loci - and that Movement is non-deterministic, i.e. players have to make decisions where to explore. Reconfigurable Game Worlds can be used to support Replayability in regards to the explorations (Drakborgen is an example of this) while Procedurally Generated Game Worlds can be used to create large Game Worlds to explore (e.g. the Elite series and the Just Cause series). For Persistent Game Worlds, Evolving Rule Sets or Expansions may instead be necessary to maintain a possibility or need of exploration over time. The use of Levels in games can guarantee a form of Game World Exploration in that unvisited Levels by definition are unexplored areas.

Besides these two requirements of Game World Exploration, the pattern can be modulated in many ways. Enemies, Obstacles, Props, Red Herrings, and Traps can make it more difficult while Traces and Clues can make it easier; Diegetically Outstanding Features can do both and also be points of references helping with Game World Navigation (as can Landmarks). It may only be possible for those that have the appropriate Privileged Movement, Technologies, or Units and access to this can be controlled through when New Abilities are provided.

In many cases exploration consist of intended or emergent Supporting Goals, e.g. finding a series of Check Points, locating Traces or Clues that one as a player have been told about, or defeating Enemies met. Games using Detective Structures often use Game World Exploration as Supporting Goals to drive the gameplay progression forward. Besides being a cause for Game World Exploration to begin with, Fog of War that reappears in unsupervised areas can make it necessary to engage in exploration of areas already visited. Mini-maps can help Game World Exploration by creating representations of areas as they are visited (but this may also sabotage the activity if they reveal features before players themselves notice them); Maps can do the same but typically have diegetic information about placed not yet visited. Tile-Laying can make exploration into more tangible experiences as players can create the Game Worlds as they explore them. Grind Achievements can be used to encourage players to engage in already possible exploration.

The pattern can be seen as a special case of combining the goals of Traverse and Gain Information, and - like the latter of these - requires either Imperfect Information or Uncertainty of Information. Game World Exploration differs from Reconnaissance in that the places, areas, and area boundaries are not known and the player has to get more information about them when there is Fog of War. Requiring Physical Navigation is a way to modify Game World Exploration by making players move around in a physical environment rather than in a virtual or abstract one.

Game World Exploration is often an initial phase in many games, e.g. the Civilization series, which then gradually moves over to other phases. In X4 games[1] such as Master of Orion this is the first in the series of (Game World) Exploration, Expansion, Exploitation, and Extermination. As such, it is often incompatible with Quick Games. As a contrast, Game World Exploration can also take place between game instances in Legacy Games.

Diegetic Aspects

Dealing with the exploration of Game Worlds, the pattern Game World Exploration is a Diegetic Pattern even if it focuses more on how players perceive the diegesis than how it is constructed.


Game World Exploration is in essence the aim of finding game elements or charting Game Worlds. While this is typically done through Movement, the actual traversal done while doing this is not so important as the exploratory action this provides (see Linderoth 2010[2] for a discussion on performatory and exploratory actions in games). The activity requires Game World Navigation and Memorizing of the layout unless some Game State Overviews, e.g. Mini-maps, shows the already-explored areas. The use of Mini-maps can through this modulate Game World Exploration but when they show the layout of parts of Game Worlds that have not yet been visited it instead works against the purpose of having exploration goals.

As Game World Exploration relies upon the environment being unknown to players, the presence of goals related to this ensure that players have Limited Foresight and may experience Surprises. The possibility of Surprises and the feeling of discovering new places - including the Illusionary Rewards of finding aesthetically pleasing Diegetically Outstanding Features - can give players Spatial Engrossment while undertaking Game World Exploration. One special case relate to this is Easter Eggs - although these need to exist independently of goals of exploring Game Worlds, providing goals of Game World Exploration can be said to instantiate them since players would otherwise be very unlikely to ever encounter them.

The Uncertainty of Information or Limited Foresight required of Game World Exploration can be linked to the development of players' skills at playing a game. By coupling the search for Strategic Locations with their introduction into gameplay, a game can provide Smooth Learning Curves to novice players.

Game World Exploration has a dual relation to Quests. While some Quests can require players to engage in exploration, others that have known locations that should be visited can instead discourage players from engaging in exploration since this is unnecessary from an local efficiency perspective.

As Game World Exploration is often in focus during the first phases of games, it in many cases qualifies to define the Startgame of these games.


Can Instantiate

Easter Eggs, Game World Navigation, Limited Foresight, Memorizing, Spatial Engrossment, Startgame, Surprises, Quests

with Strategic Locations

Smooth Learning Curves

Can Modulate

Game Worlds

Can Be Instantiated By

Avatars, Detective Structures, Fog of War, Game World Navigation, Game Worlds, Check Points, Grind Achievements, Imperfect Information, Legacy Games, Levels, Maps, Movement, Pick-Ups, Procedurally Generated Game Worlds, Props, Reconfigurable Game Worlds, Resource Locations, Secret Areas, Secret Resources, Strategic Locations, Tile-Laying, Uncertainty of Information

Gain Information together with Traverse

Persistent Game Worlds together with Evolving Rule Sets or Expansions

Can Be Modulated By

Clues, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Enemies, Fog of War, Game State Overviews, Landmarks, Maps, Mini-maps, New Abilities, Obstacles, Physical Navigation, Privileged Movement, Props, Red Herrings, Supporting Goals, Technologies, Traces, Traps, Units

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Mini-maps, Quests, Quick Games


An updated version of the pattern Exploration that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[3].


  1. Wikipedia entry for 4X games
  2. Linderoth, J. (2010). Why gamers donʼt learn more - An ecological approach to games as learning environment, in Nordic DiGRA 2010.
  3. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.