In fact, we experience a victory of the simulation right now and Blizzard is maybe the last big company fighting a few rearguard actions to keep the “gameplay first” motto alive.
When I started this blog I gave it the motto, “A MMORPG should be as credible and consistent as possible and as little as necessary”. I later changed this motto but still discuss the dualism of gameplay vs. simulation (world) regularly.
Compared to most MMO players I lean more towards the simulation but still emphasize the importance of gameplay whenever I can. My line of attack is usually towards making MMOs better simulations without hurting the gameplay. Within WoW, and thus within the mainstream MMOs over the last ten years, the trend has been towards putting immense weight on gameplay and ignoring the simulation. And I often felt like being on the defensive.
However, I am slowly realizing that this perception is completely wrong. In fact, we experience a victory of the simulation right now and Blizzard is maybe the last big company fighting a few rearguard actions to keep the “gameplay first” motto alive. But the most interesting thing is I am pretty certain that this is not a good thing.
I first realized this when I looked at the story-based genre of first person shooters. Like many MMO players I didn't play many single player games over the last few years and I was genuinely surprised when I played Call of Duty for the first time. The linearity aside, Call of Duty's single player mode is just a simulation. The actual gameplay is trivial and ultimately irrelevant. You can succeed in some missions without firing a single shot. I later played Crysis 2 and realized that I could sneak through almost every level if I wanted. And that would be faster than playing normally and also be a rather trivial way of 'beating' the game.
But these are linear experiences. Skyrim is not. And still Skyrim is a good game exclusively due to the simulation background. The actual abstract gameplay is .. irrelevant and even bad. As a mage my entire abstract gameplay consists of keeping enemies chain-stunned by chain-casting the exact same spell.
And that's it. There's really nothing else to it! Add to this that the character development is an unbalanced mess and the controls are terrible. I am 31 years old. Do I play Chess because the pieces are so beautiful and because the background music is heroic? No (in case you wondered).
I am not the only person being a bit confused. Extra Credits just tried to answer why they loved Deus Ex: Human Revolution so much and concluded that it is the simulation; and nothing else. I do feel a bit uneasy here. Yes, I like games with strong simulations - especially RPGs. And - yes - I like Skyrim. And - yes - the mass market agrees with this.
But just as ignoring the simulation and focusing solely on the gameplay was bad, so is ignoring the gameplay to focus on the simulation bad, in my opinion! I'm not sure I like where this is going, really.
Tadhg Kelly likes to say that “all games are played to win”. But this is just wrong looking at current games. Winning modern games has become irrelevant. And I don't think it becomes much better if you water down the word 'win' until it is nothing more than any goal however trivial to achieve, like Tadhg does. Also, this is not just a problem of the sub-genre that recycles the ever same gameplay to make money with (more or less) interesting stories. It's true for open-world RPGs, like Skyrim, as well!
One last thought: As long as games are not meant to be played for a long time, they might not need to have good gameplay. But if you want a game to be played for hundreds of hours it sure needs to have good gameplay ... doesn't it? Let's see how long players need until they bore of Skyrim's bad abstract gameplay ...