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First return, then explore


Reinforcement learning promises to solve complex sequential-decision problems autonomously by specifying a high-level reward function only. However, reinforcement learning algorithms struggle when, as is often the case, simple and intuitive rewards provide sparse1 and deceptive2 feedback. Avoiding these pitfalls requires a thorough exploration of the environment, but creating algorithms that can do so remains one of the central challenges of the field. Here we hypothesize that the main impediment to effective exploration originates from algorithms forgetting how to reach previously visited states (detachment) and failing to first return to a state before exploring from it (derailment). We introduce Go-Explore, a family of algorithms that addresses these two challenges directly through the simple principles of explicitly ‘remembering’ promising states and returning to such states before intentionally exploring. Go-Explore solves all previously unsolved Atari games and surpasses the state of the art on all hard-exploration games1, with orders-of-magnitude improvements on the grand challenges of Montezuma’s Revenge and Pitfall. We also demonstrate the practical potential of Go-Explore on a sparse-reward pick-and-place robotics task. Additionally, we show that adding a goal-conditioned policy can further improve Go-Explore’s exploration efficiency and enable it to handle stochasticity throughout training. The substantial performance gains from Go-Explore suggest that the simple principles of remembering states, returning to them, and exploring from them are a powerful and general approach to exploration—an insight that may prove critical to the creation of truly intelligent learning agents.

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Fig. 1: Overview of Go-Explore.
Fig. 2: Performance of robustified Go-Explore on Atari games.
Fig. 3: Human-normalized performance of the exploration phase and state-of-the-art algorithms on all Atari games.
Fig. 4: Go-Explore can solve a challenging, sparse-reward, simulated robotics task.
Fig. 5: Policy-based Go-Explore with domain knowledge outperforms state-of-the-art and average human performance in Montezuma’s Revenge and Pitfall.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study (including the raw data for all figures and tables in the manuscript, Extended Data, Supplementary Information, as well as the demonstration trajectories used in robustification) are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.

Code availability

The Go-Explore code is available at


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We thank A. Edwards, S. Kapoor, F. Petroski Such and J. Zhi for their ideas, feedback, technical support and work on aspects of Go-Explore not presented in this work. We are grateful to the Colorado Data Center and OpusStack Teams at Uber for providing our computing platform. We thank V. Kumar for creating the MuJoCo files that served as the basis for our robotics environment (

Author information




A.E. and J.H. contributed equally and are responsible for the technical work (J.H. focused primarily on policy-based Go-Explore and A.E. on most other technical contributions) as well as the initial draft of the paper. J.C. and K.O.S. led the team. All authors (A.E., J.H., J.L., K.O.S. and J.C.) significantly contributed to ideation, experimental design, analysing data, strategic decisions, developing the philosophical motivation for the algorithm and editing the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Adrien Ecoffet or Joost Huizinga or Jeff Clune.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Uber Technologies, Inc. has filed a publicly available provisional patent application 16/696,893 about some Go-Explore variants featuring a deep reinforcement learning model, with all authors (A.E., J.H., J.L, K.O.S. and J.C.) listed as inventors.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks Julian Togelius and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Neural network architectures.

a, The Atari architecture is based on the architecture provided with the backward algorithm implementation. The input consists of the RGB channels of the last four frames (rescaled to 80 by 105 pixels) concatenated, resulting in 12 input channels. The network consists of three convolutional layers (C), two fully connected layers (FC), and a layer of gated recurrent units (GRUs)68. The network has a policy head πt(st|at) and a value head Vt(st). b, For the robotics problem, the architecture consists of two separate networks, each with two fully connected layers and a GRU layer. One network specifies the policy πt(st|at) by returning a mean μt and variance σt for the actuator torques of the arm and the desired position of each of the two fingers of the gripper (gripper fingers are implemented as Mujoco position actuators61 with kp = 104 and a control range of [0, 0.05]). The other network implements the value function Vt(st). c, The architecture for policy-based Go-Explore is identical to the Atari architecture, except that the goal representation gt is concatenated with the input of the first fully connected layer. Activation functions (Act.) are: the rectified-linear unit (Relu), the exponential function (Exp) and the softmax function (Softmax). Layers can also include layer normalization (Layer norm), which transforms the output of the layer by subtracting the mean and dividing by the standard deviation of the layer.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Maximum end-of-episode score found by the exploration phase on Atari.

a, Exploration phase without domain knowledge. b, Exploration phase with domain knowledge, compared to downscaled. Because only scores achieved at the episode end are reported, the plots for some games (for example, Solaris) begin after the start of the run, when the episode end is first reached. In a, averaging is over 50 runs for the 11 focus games and five runs for other games. In b, averaging is over 100 runs. Shaded areas show 95% bootstrap CIs of the mean with 1,000 samples. Avg. Human, average human performance; SOTA, state-of-the-art performance; M, ×106; K, ×103.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Number of cells in archive during the exploration phase on Atari.

a, Exploration phase without domain knowledge. b, Exploration phase with domain knowledge. In a, archive size can decrease when the representation is recomputed. Previous archives are converted to the new format when the representation is recomputed, possibly leading to an archive with a size larger than 50,000. In this case, one iteration of the exploration phase runs and the representation is recomputed again. In a, averaging is over 50 runs for the 11 focus games and five runs for other games. In b, averaging is over 100 runs. Shaded areas show 95% bootstrap CIs of the mean with 1,000 samples.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Progress of robustification phase on Atari.

a, Exploration phase without domain knowledge. b, Exploration phase with domain knowledge. Shown are the scores achieved by robustifying agents across training time for the exploration phase without domain-knowledge representations (a) and with representations informed by domain knowledge (b). In particular, the rolling mean is shown for performance across the past 100 episodes when starting from the virtual demonstration (which corresponds to the domain’s traditional starting state). Note that in a, averaging is over five independent runs, whereas in b, averaging is over 10 runs. Because the final performance is obtained by testing the highest-performing network checkpoint for each run over 1,000 additional episodes, rather than directly extracted from the curves above, the performance reported in Fig. 2b does not necessarily match any particular point along these curves (Methods). Shaded areas show 95% bootstrap CIs of the mean with 1,000 samples.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Progress of the exploration phase in the robotics environment.

a, Runs with successful trajectories. b, Length of the shortest successful trajectory. In a, the exploration phase quickly achieves 100% success rate for all shelves in the robotics environment. However, b shows that although success is achieved quickly it is useful to keep the exploration phase running longer to reduce the length of the successful trajectories, thus making robustification easier. Lines show the mean over 50 runs. Shaded areas show 95% bootstrap CIs of the mean with 1,000 samples.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Policy-based Go-Explore overview.

With respect to their practical implementation, the main difference between policy-based Go-Explore and Go-Explore when restoring a simulator state is that in policy-based Go-Explore there exist separate actors that each have an internal loop switching between the ‘select’, ‘go’, and ‘explore’ steps, rather than one outer loop in which the ‘select’, ‘go’, and ‘explore’ steps are executed in synchronized batches. This structure allows policy-based Go-Explore to be easily combined with popular reinforcement learning algorithms like A3C20, PPO21 or DQN15, which already divide data-gathering over many actors.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Method by which cells are found.

a, b, In both Montezuma’s Revenge (a) and Pitfall (b), sampling from the goal-conditioned policy results in the discovery of roughly four times more cells than when taking random actions. At the start of training there is effectively no difference between random actions and sampling from the policy, supporting the intuition that sampling from the policy only becomes more efficient than random actions after the policy has acquired the basic skills for moving towards the indicated goal. Lastly, the number of cells that are discovered while returning is about twice that of the cells discovered when taking random actions after returning, indicating that the frames spent while returning to a previously visited cell are not just overhead required for moving towards the frontier of yet-undiscovered states and training the policy network, but actually provide a substantial contribution towards exploration as well. Lines show the mean over 10 runs. Shaded areas show 95% bootstrap CIs of the mean with 1,000 samples.

Extended Data Table 1 Hyperparameters
Extended Data Table 2 Robotics state representation
Extended Data Table 3 Full scores on Atari

Supplementary information

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The Supplementary Information is made up of a single PDF file containing 13 Supplementary Figures, 2 Supplementary Tables, and additional sections.

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Ecoffet, A., Huizinga, J., Lehman, J. et al. First return, then explore. Nature 590, 580–586 (2021).

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