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Som Pourfarzaneh : Does Gameplay Trump All?

By Som Pourfarzaneh on November 07, 2014 | Columns | Comments

Does Gameplay Trump All?

With BlizzCon ramping up for this weekend, there’s a fair amount of buzz here among the staffers regarding the Warlords of Draenor release.  I myself have received the customary pre-launch emails from Blizzard encouraging me to re-activate my World of Warcraft account with seven free days of game time.  Like with previous WoW expansions, I’ve given the thought of resubscribing more than a passing thought.  Unlike previous releases, however, I’m not as convinced that I need to jump back in.

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My reticence has to do with a larger theme in the MMO genre: the core gameplay experience.  In reviews and such, we talk a lot about how many MMORPGs’ gameplay systems are “old hat” or “tread familiar ground.” Yet, there are more than a handful of games that continue to achieve some degree of success irrespective of derivative gameplay.  The trappings, setting, and specifics might vary, but the core gameplay remains unchanged.

To be more clear, I take the term core gameplay experience to indicate the activity which you spend the bulk of your time doing.  For a lot of MMOs, this tends to refer to combat, but might also encompass crafting, exploration, dungeons, PvP, roleplaying, raiding, player housing, and/or participation in some sort of economy (note that most, if not all, of these systems usually involve some combat, even if tangentially).  So if I’m engaging in a combat system that is inspired by traditional hotbar tab-targeting, and spending the majority of my time adventuring, doing quests, gathering materials, and punching other players, my core gameplay experience is going to feel fairly familiar.

This is not to say that games employing traditional combat systems are somehow inferior - just that their core gameplay has less and less staying power as more innovative titles enter the market.  Heck, a lot of people enjoy the traditional tab-targeting model made popular by WoW, EverQuest, et al., and more power to them.  Still, there are more than a handful of games whose settings and worlds I love for their ingenuity and storytelling, but which I have no interest in playing more of because of their combat systems.  The Lord of the Rings Online, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and yes, World of Warcraft, among several others, have each been my MMO of choice at one point or another, and I still appreciate everything that they do in terms of world building and content design.  At the same time, the thought of engaging in hotbar combat has become more of a deterrent than a draw for me.

Even games that have sought to in some way break free of the traditional mold seem to still make too many concessions towards a tried and true core gameplay experience.  Age of Conan, Dungeons and Dragons Online, The Elder Scrolls Online, WildStar, and ArcheAge, for example, all conceptually make some effort to stray from the beaten path in terms of their core gameplay systems, but still wind up feeling conventional in their execution.  It may be a bit reductionist to say, but after getting through the initial learning curve and sense of wonder in a newly released MMORPG, it sometimes feels like I’m playing the same game that we’ve been playing since WoW and EverQuest.

Interestingly enough, and here’s the kicker, I’m having no such problem with Destiny.  Take a look at Rob’s review if you want to know more about our official take on the game, but suffice it to say that for me, apart from its stunning visuals, Bungie’s MMOFPS really doesn’t do all that much special.  Its story isn’t very compelling, content is thin and repetitive, item management and loot in general aren’t particularly interesting, and as Rob mentions, the requirement of constantly returning to orbit (and dealing with the requisite load times) to do anything is tiresome.  Importantly, however, the shooting mechanics are unquestionably solid, and the game is really fun to play.  Although I haven’t played nearly enough of it to provide a comprehensive opinion, I can definitely say that the core gameplay has grabbed me, and I’m enjoying it way more than its overall mediocre game systems would normally suggest.

Before assumptions are made about my predilection towards Destiny simply because it’s new, let me be very clear that I don’t think that it’s objectively a “better” or more well-made game than any of the others mentioned.  I’m fairly certain that I’ve gotten way more mileage out of LOTRO than can be offered by Destiny’s meager content, for example.  Furthermore, it’s not like Bungie’s game is reinventing the wheel for first-person shooters.  At its core, it offers the same stuff we’ve seen in the Halo series, along with everything before and since.  At the same time, the core combat experience is fun, and because of that, I’m willing to overlook other mediocre systems.

This preference begs the question: does the core gameplay experience - in this case, Destiny’s combat - trump other systems in terms of staying power?  I suppose it will depend on how we define core gameplay.  If, say, an innovative crafting system comprises the main activity in a sandbox-style MMO, then having a traditional combat system may not pose much of a draw or deterrent in any case.  Conversely, if we define core gameplay as combat, we might find that an exciting and fun combat system may have the potential to outshine any number of secondary systems.

At least for me, the obvious success story that flies in the face of this theory is Guild Wars 2ArenaNet’s flagship game tinkers with the aspects of mobility and skill selection mechanics within a traditional tab-targeting combat system.  It’s more of an evolution than revolution, and it works, but it’s not the freshest or most innovative combat system on the block.  At the same time, most of the secondary systems - particularly the way that exploration and dynamic events are handled - are super interesting to me, and outweigh any ennui I may have with the combat.  Guild Wars 2’s combat may just be “good enough,” but the game as a whole seems to have far more staying power in the gestalt of its secondary systems.

I suspect that the answer to the question of whether the core gameplay experience trumps other systems - whether gameplay trumps all - is a subjective one.  If farming, pirating, and engaging in a complex player economy are what you’re looking for, then it’s not going to matter to you that ArcheAge’s combat feels like more of the same.  Essentially, those other activities become your core gameplay experience.  On the other hand, in games for which combat is a central pillar, it may be difficult to get around a conventional or rote combat system.  Or, as is the case with Destiny for me, a game’s combat system could be fun enough to make you willing to ignore its other subpar features.

How do you define the core gameplay experience of an MMORPG?  And do you think that gameplay has the potential to outshine other systems in terms of staying power?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and a Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.