Clint Hocking, Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal, is best known for his innovative work on the Splinter Cell series. At GDC ‘07, Hocking presented a talk on the three different types of exploration in games–systems, spatial, and personal–and how developers can use exploration to create more meaningful mechanics.
Following his presentation, we caught up with him to talk about game design, his own literary influences, and why The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion stands out as a particularly noteworthy example of “self-motivated exploration.”
Gamasutra: In your talk you mentioned that even competitive gameplay involves exploration, namely the exploration of different strategies. You also talked about exploring in games like Oblivion, where players can wander across rewards. But can exploration ever be goal in itself, not just a means to an end?
Clint Hocking: In terms of systems exploration, it’s always the goal of the game. The goal is to figure out how things work so you can get to the end and win. Picking up a game controller gives you that goal automatically, the same way picking up a book gives you the goal of reading that book. But in terms of exploring more literally as a motivation, I think that's what spatial exploration is about, wanting to move around space and being motivated to go places.
Spatial exploration isn't mandatory. It's not required in any game. It's a certain play style and a certain type of player who's interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it's pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.
GS: Can you think of any bad examples?
CH: I don't know. I can only assume if your open-world game doesn't do well, you didn't support exploration as well as you should of. If you don't design systems that support the exploration, you have a giant empty game. Then it’s you walking around in space for a little while until you get bored and then you give up.
GS: You said it takes a certain type of player to be an explorer. Do you think there’s a gender issue there? It seems like an exploratory play style often gets lumped with female players.
CH: Really? It's funny, because one of the books I've read, it's just an anthology of, like, a hundred different real-life explorers. I was trying to figure out what made people want to explore, and one of the opening things in the book is the author talking about gender issues in exploration. Because in terms of famous female explorers, there are, like, four of them. Maybe it's something that has changed with interactive game technology. If there are sort of masculine vs. feminine things, I don't know. But it's ironic, because all of the famous explorers, for the most part, throughout history, are male.
There's a cultural bias there because a lot of the female work wasn't recorded or it was considered second-rate and disappeared in history. Also, because of traditional roles a man could get money from the queen to sail across the sea whereas a woman wouldn’t be able to do that. So there are definitely gender biases that created this cultural history of males being the explorers. I wonder if maybe that has changed with games and if maybe it is more of a feminine verve after all. I mean, I'm an explorer when I play games. I try to really actively explore the space and the systems of the game. Maybe I'm a girly player.