Some games are about exploration. In these games, the pleasure of discovering and understanding is the central form of play. The mechanics of the game all encourage and reward exploratory play.
Other games are about something else, such as excitement or accumulating stuff, and just happen to have some exploration in them. Most games fall into this category.
I bring this up because I'm reading more comments these days calling some game that doesn't emphasize exploration an "exploration game." It's not. Just having some exploration content in it does not make it an exploration game.
SOMETIMES TERMINOLOGY MATTERS
It's good that some developers are willing to wedge a little exploration content into their games. I appreciate it when someone offers content that respects the Rational/Explorer/Simulationist playstyle.
It's also understandable (if a bit sad) that, for the gamers who are starved for exploration-specific content, a game with even a little exploration in it can be considered an "exploration game."
But it isn't, not really. To say that a thing is a member of some distinctive group when it functionally is not is to destroy the meaning of the words used to name that group. That makes it harder to communicate usefully.
In the case of a game, the descriptive term "exploration game" loses its value for both marketing and critical discussion when it's applied to games that aren't actually about exploration play. It's misleading to gamers.
More importantly from the design perspective of this blog, to say that a game is an exploration game just because it can sort of be played that way occasionally confuses the set of possibilities that new game designers can even form in their heads of what an "exploration game" contains. If you grow up thinking that a game about exciting non-stop action and loot collecting counts as an exploration game just because there's some optional terrain to view or variation in loot drops, what are the odds that you will really understand what Explorer gamers actually want?
INTERRUPTIONS INHIBIT EXPLORATION
In particular, I've come to think that action-focused games that have as a primary play mechanic some kind of ticking clock or other (often mobile) threat that disrupts planned play behaviors are almost certainly not exploration games, and shouldn't be called that.
In short: mechanics that interrupt exploration actively oppose exploration play.
If you're a game designer, it doesn't matter how many goodies you hide, or how big the world is, or if you provide the occasional alternate track off the Direct Path To Fastest Victory. If your game persistently interrupts the perception and thinking process of the player with some kind of threat, then it's not an exploration game. That game is explicitly telling players that exploration is not your highest priority for them.
Interrupt threats are great for action games. Unexpected survival challenges generate excitement and the immediate requirement to do things. Doom 3, for example, was all about interrupt threats. Something similar is true of Minecraft in Survival mode -- getting jumped by a giant spider in the dark tends to distract one from sightseeing.
That's why I play Minecraft in Peaceful mode. Even without the ability to save at will, Peaceful mode at least allows exploration of the generated gameworld without having to worry constantly about being interrupted by a mobile survival threat.
On the other hand, Peaceful mode is not an option in Doom 3. Doom 3 was all about interrupt threats. Doom 3 was not an exploration game.
THE GAME DESIGN FUNCTION OF INTERRUPTS
Is the primary design intention of your game is to deliver an action-filled play experience? If so, then by all means, implement some speed-related interruption threats such as a limited amount of time in which to observe and plan, or enemies that come looking for you to attack you after a certain time, or ever-decreasing amounts of time in which to plan your next move.
Those are great for ramping up tension. You might even choose to deliberately prevent players from quicksaving all of their game state, or give them only one save slot. (Both of which are precisely what the PC version of Far Cry 3 does.)
All these are valid design choices for making a high-intensity action game...
...and every one of them directly opposes exploratory play. Survival interruptions significantly increase the difficulty of obtaining knowledge of the gameworld. Restrictions on saving game state significantly increase the risk of losing some of that knowledge. Interruptive mechanics and save restrictions penalize exploration. They send the unmistakable message that exploring the gameworld is not what you're supposed to be doing. Anyone who tries to get that kind of enjoyment out of such a game is clearly not playing it the right way.
It's only when exploration is designed to matter most that the description "exploration game" is appropriate.
Survival interruptions and save restrictions very clearly tell the player that the point of a game is not exploration, that things to discover are only there to add some "content" or to provide a brief contrast to the action moments. If exploration actually mattered as primary gameplay, then the designer wouldn't emphasize gameplay elements that constantly interfere with perception and pattern recognition or that make it difficult to accumulate and organize knowledge.
ACTION AND EXPLORATION? YES!
An obvious question at this point is whether a game that has lots of combat can ever be considered a true exploration game. My feeling is that combat, by its nature, tends to be interruptive, and so almost always works against exploration. But it's entirely possible to have an exploration game with some combat in it.
System Shock 2 is a good example of this. Unlike many games with combat, the combat system of System Shock 2 was systemically deep enough to be something interesting to explore in its own right. And it's telling that one of the few complaints about SS2 was the "respawning enemies." As in Doom 3, this worked against being able to concentrate on perceiving and understanding the patterns of the gameworld. When those interruptions didn't occur, System Shock 2 was extremely rewarding to explore, not in spite of having a strong combat element but partly because its combat element was a richly designed system.
A true exploration game asks the player to observe, and think, and understand. Not in an "oh god, oh god, we're all gonna die if you don't get it right instantly!" kind of way, but in a contemplative, creative, and strategic way. Success in a true exploration game, and the rewards for that success, go not to the player with the most well-developed fast-twitch muscles, nor to the most tactically adaptable player, nor even to the player who can bring out the best in other people. Success in a good exploration game -- most likely designed by someone who understands and values the joy of discovering interesting things -- goes to the player who sees the patterns in complex systems, and who can conceive long-range plans for applying available forces to those patterns to create new, more desirable configurations.
Players just don't get to do that when you're putting them in life-termination scenarios every few seconds. Games that are about interruptive excitement are not about exploration.
THE TRUE PLEASURE OF EXPLORATION GAMES
Games that are about exploration have mechanics and content that promote the different but equally valid kind of satisfaction that comes from realizing the governing pattern in a complex system, or from devising a new system that is both functional and elegant.
Not everybody likes that kind of gameplay. Great! There's plenty of room for different kinds of games that offer different kinds of fun. And there are plenty of games available that emphasize action and token-collection.
But being designed to offer a primary gameplay experience of something other than adrenaline-pumping excitement does not make a game flawed or bad. Not delivering eyeball kicks every ten seconds does not make a game buggy or broken.
That's a game that could, if its mechanics emphasize the pleasure of discovery and understanding, be a game that deserves to be called an "exploration game."