I've been trying to play No More Heroes, which has very fun writing and a great sense of style. Unfortunately, I find it unplayable.
I suspected I would when I saw my friend playing it, and I definitely do.
It has the same flaws that many other modern games seem to be developing. It's that style of play that's very flat, with the only interesting bits being the writing. Occasionally the play changes, but it simply changes from one very flat style to another very flat style, often with some arbitrary and really irritating limitation.
I think this style of play became really popular with the Grand Theft Auto imitators. No More Heroes is just one example - many games have it to some level or another.
To describe it: in No More Heroes, you play a guy with a beam sword. Kind of a Tonka-toy light saber. The play consists largely of sabering people to death and an occasional throw.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of limitation. The play in Sonic games consists largely of running and jumping.
The thing about this "flat play" system is that, instead of making the system itself interesting, they try to add in a thousand side rules to make the system interesting. Because sabering is inherently pretty boring, they add in finishing strikes, throws, high vs low sabering, "killing spree" power ups, BLOOD, time limits, box-smashing, and ten-million-HP bosses.
This is still quite shallow, so they add in completely unrelated games (even more shallow) to give you breaks in which you can forget the shallowness of the basic play. Things like coconut-collecting missions, driving around, buying clothes, playing with your cat, cell-phone conversations, and the ever-popular cut-scene.
The basic approach is that you have a core gameplay mechanic and, instead of making it interesting, you simply add on more and more features until nobody can say it's boring and still feel sane. "How could something with so many different things to do be boring? My general malaise while playing this game must have some other cause..."
AKA, the "Hey look! A distraction!" method of game design.
Let's look at a sliding scale of depth.
At the zero-depth side is No More Heroes. When you cut away all the silly add-ons, the core gameplay mechanic is one of simple timing and choosing one of three buttons to press. Block is the default, stay in that state if necessary, then when you see an opening either hit A, A (vertical), or B. Hit until you need to go back to default blocking.
Your position on the level is only of the most limited interest - you simply need to be close enough to attack. Against bosses it is a tiny bit more interesting, since you usually want to dodge and that means dodging AWAY from pillars or walls.
That's not exactly deep, though.
At the mid-depth side is Dynasty Warriors (let's say, 5). Again, the basic play of the game consists mostly of stabbing things with your sword (or fans, or magic deck of cards).
At its core, Dynasty Warriors is pretty similar. There are three attack buttons, but they can be somewhat mixed up to vary the path and sweep of the attack. The special button isn't a generic kick, but a charged supermove.
In addition, there is no lock-on and no passive block, and the tide of enemies frequently makes maneuvering important. This means that there are more tradeoffs and more complex need to navigate a level. You can also jump to help navigate, which is a huge improvement over No More Heroes.
However, the play is still fairly shallow. To make up for this, Dynasty Warriors 5 allows you to alter the level, situation, weapons, and items by controlling your nation. While these are technically add-ons, their results pipe back into the main play style: killing things with swords. New clothes, playing with the cat, and driving around don't really pipe back into No More Heroes' combat system in any kind of significant way.
As a side note, Assassin's Creed has about the same level of complexity in combat, but instead of a nation mode, it has a running-around-tall-buildings mode that more closely intertwines with moment-to-moment combat but doesn't intertwine with long-term combat at all. IE, you won't get a better sword by jumping to the top of that roof there, although you may be able to avoid or engage an enemy as you choose.
I can't think of any real-time melee combat games that have a really deep play mode, because melee is inherently a crowded, messy situation without much room to maneuver. However, we can compare this to a game that uses long-ranged combat.
Now, what if we compare these games to, say, Half Life Two, Episode Two.
Episode two focuses primarily on running around and killing stuff, pretty much the same as our earlier examples. Except that it has almost no side-games or mini-games. Yet it's pretty good.
It's not simply the writing - No More Heroes has great writing, Bioshock has great writing, they still have terrible gameplay.
Although there are only two buttons and no block in episode two, shooting someone isn't simply a matter of clicking as in No More Heroes. It's more exacting than the "face the right general direction" in Dynasty Warriors and Assassin's Creed. You have to have it pretty exactly.
Similarly, movement is many times more critical. Since it's no longer simply a matter of getting close enough to kill, you find yourself maneuvering to get behind good cover, to remain unshootable while you do your shooting.
Even without the addition of many different weapons, life, and ammo, you already have deeper gameplay than the earlier examples.
Of course, you can go deeper. A lot deeper.
Portal is a first-person-shooter, except that shooting something directly alters your level navigation. How you can walk is directly tied to what you shoot. This tightens the interplay between the two halves of the main system. It also tightens the level design requirements...
The point is, playing a game doesn't have to be flat.
The most proven method of deepening play is to give the player more control over how he approaches a situation. In a shooter, make it matter how good his cover is, how good their cover is, whether he shoots the lights out... make it matter whether he comes in from the left or the right, whether he outpaces his allies or waits for them.
A melee game will have a harder time of it, because how you approach melee combat is always pretty similar: you rush at it headlong in order to get in range. Many melee games include either a stealth or strategic element specifically to allow the player some amount of control over their "approach". However, the actual melee combat is typically very simple, consisting mostly of button-mashing.
There might be some solutions. One solution is to use the "million mook" approach, like Dynasty Warriors. Instead of melee combat being against an enemy, it's against a faceless horde of enemies, and optimizing your approach consists mostly of which direction you face and the area-of-effect hit pattern you choose to use. This seems like it might "max out" pretty quickly, only improving your play a bit.
Another solution is to really, really slow the melee combat down. If you closed to melee combat and then the game slowed down, it would allow you to actually perceive the nuances of the melee attacks. This would allow you to choose a reaction - is it best to dodge to the side, or to parry? If I parry, would my sword be out of position to parry the man to my right? If I dodge, will I be too off-balance to parry?
Please note, I'm not advocating a button-matching system. I'm advocating a deeper system where the combat is a terrain - swords here and there moving like this and that, you trying to navigate them, deflect them, protect your various squishy bits. Armor could slow you down, but it could also allow you to deflect strikes that hit metal rather than flesh.
Basically, all the things we've abstracted - armor values, attack values, critical hits - can be UNabstracted if you're willing to slow things down.
Anyhow, just thinking.
"That's all well and good, but how do you know if gameplay is shallow?"
Here are some hints:
If you want to put a time limit on a mission, your gameplay is probably shallow.
If at any point you think about doubling a boss' HP, your gameplay is probably shallow.
If you think adding lives will make it better, your gameplay is probably shallow.
If you want to add random games such as driving or playing with kittens, your gameplay is probably shallow.
What about you? Any "probably shallows" you can think of? Comments on the nature of of things?