I wanted to talk about how boring, unfocused games are good.
... Okay, this might be a bit hard to talk about clearly, and I might be overstating things. Let's try it.
What I really want to talk about is the fact that there are at least two different goals for gameplay.
One goal is that the gameplay should be "good". Intense, interesting, fun - whatever your measure is, the gameplay should sparkle. This involves careful pacing and balance in addition to structuring the surrounding game around the gameplay. Driver: San Francisco, for example, is all about driving. The entire game (setting, fiction, and all) is engineered to make the gameplay flow exactly as designed.
But not all gameplay serves that goal.
Some gameplay is designed to be boring.
If you ask the devs, they'll say they designed the gameplay to be "good", but that's not really the case in these situations. And that's fine. Boring gameplay can be good. In fact, if you make the gameplay good, it'll screw your players over and make the game fall apart.
What am I talking about?
In an open-world game, the play isn't intended to be good. It's intended to be "weight".
As an example, consider Skyrim.
Skyrim's gameplay is not very good. There's a lot of it - exploring the wilderness, dungeoneering, fighting, helping out in cities, crafting, enchanting, picking locks, sneaking, marrying - and that's before we even get into mods. But each individual play element is really bland.
Skyrim's far from the only only example. Almost every open-world game is like this: Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, GTA - they all have very bland gameplay. In some cases it's quite polished - Far Cry generally feels quite good - but the play itself is a mess. Badly paced, unbalanced, a very polished train wreck.
And that's good.
See, in those games, the play exists to give the player's experience weight. Rather than "progressing", the player is "living".
Probably the most obvious example is The Sims. It has pathetic play, of course. But the weight of time crushes down on the player and all the player's avatars. Shipping an avatar off to work actually adds to their characterization, since they have a complex state caused by their needs and the lack of time. When you throw a party, it's easy to "understand" "how" the characters "feel" as they muddle through the party in a soup of random nonsense, needs-directed annoyances, and player directives.
If you play The Sims for a reasonable length of time, you will come to empathize fairly strongly with the characters. The more you cheat, the less empathy you'll likely feel, because the crushing weight of time and money are what give shape to the characters' lives. As the character's situation evolves, you feel their lives evolve because the pressure of time and money change how they push at you. Your opportunities and activities expand steadily, and it seems you can feel the characters struggling to live.
The same is true in Skyrim, Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, GTA, etc. You choose exactly which of the many kinds of gameplay to do exactly when. The focus is not on progressing through the game, it's on living in those worlds. Experiencing those worlds.
The pressures in these games are not as overwhelming as in The Sims, probably because the failure conditions are much harsher and more omnipresent. But the idea is the same.
When you choose to wander the wilderness, you are filling in the life of your hero. When you choose to hang-glide into an enemy stronghold, you are not trying to "progress". You are filling in the life of your hero. Filling it in with outlandish crap, sure, but it's still a life.
This is in contrast with the life provided by the story. Many open-world games assign you a hero and give them a story, but most people don't play as that hero, not in any explicit sense. The players are filling in a life, but it's not really the same life that the cutscenes try to fill in.
Now: why boring gameplay?
Well, part of it is simply that the player has to be able to jump into any kind of gameplay at any point, no matter what state the hero or the story is in. Being player-guided means balancing, pacing, and chaining play are almost impossible. Moreover, being player-guided makes it hard to impose anything on the player.
You can't create a skill gate to teach the player a skill, because the player can bypass it. You can't insist they like or dislike a specific character, or pick up a specific item.
I mean, you can. That's what the main quest line is for. But the main quest line is generally the weakest part of an open world game and everyone knows it. Tutorials feel canned and oppressive, because the gameplay is already so tired. It works fine if it's contributing to the life of the player, but the uncompelling nature really works against you as you try to teach the player how to do things.
So the play has to be pretty self-explanatory. You can't try anything too new, because a lot of players will skip your deadly boring tutorials. Even context help is more annoying than helpful, and it's a pale imitation of a tutorial.
In short, the play has to be boring. Because if it's involved, the game stops being about the life of the player and starts being the focus of the game.
With this in mind, it's possible to analyze the gameplay in some open-world games and figure out whether they can be refined further.
There are two aspects I'd like to focus on: the weight the gameplay adds to the player's current life experiences, and the way that changes to the player's life change the weight it adds.
In order for these experiences to add to the weight of the player's current life, it has to integrate into the player's life.
One way to do this is to have a wide-open approach. If the player finds a stronghold in Far Cry, they can choose exactly how to engage depending on their power, their preference, their current task, their whims - whatever. You create a place for the stronghold in the flow of your life, whether that is "the stronghold looks to dangerous, I'll just creep by" or "LEMME GO GET AN ELEPHANT!"
The other way to integrate is to have an immersive approach. When the player chooses to go diving for treasure, there's not a lot of options about how to go about approaching it. But once you start diving, that is the whole of your experience: it's a different world down there, and everything is weighted and paced differently. It's still up to the player as to how long they keep at it and so on, but you can think of a diving segment as its own chapter, rather than integrating fluidly.
Integrating into the player's life experiences is critical, but an overlooked element is that life is about change. These games are not just about your avatar's life as they are, but about their life as they will be and were.
Skyrim does a decent job of this. As you progress through the game your stats improve, sure, but that's largely cosmetic. The important aspect of leveling is that your options grow and change. You don't simply get a stronger attack spell: you get a spell that turns you invisible, or raises the dead, or causes enemies to fight amongst themselves.
Far Cry does a mediocre job of this, because the 'open world' upgrades are linear. All the paradigm-shift upgrades such as binoculars, helicopters, ally strikes, and so on are integrated into the story rather than your character. They appear and disappear at unnatural, stilted times. They're not part of the player's life, they're part of the hero's life, and they don't feel very smoothly integrated into the flow of life.
Still, Far Cry does better than Assassin's Creed or GTA, both of which are almost entirely about the linear upgrades. Most of the significant upgrades they see are new kinds of play rather than new ways to engage the existing play. You learn to fly a jet, but that is a completely new kind of play that doesn't really change how you do the things you have been doing. There's no sense of closure or change to your existing life, just some new facet that has no weight attached to it.
With these intentions in mind, we can propose that an open-world game have
A) Wide-open engagements - things that come up in the course of play that can be engaged in any way the player can imagine and integrated into their life story without a bump. Disengaging or changing approaches should be relatively straightforward as well, to the point where it can be part of "the plan".
B) Closed engagements - things the player can choose to engage or disengage freely, but while engaged they close out the rest of the world. They become the world.
C) Progression which allows us to approach the challenges in the above engagements in new ways, with new options. Progression should ideally be under player control, rather than integrated into a mandatory storyline.
But there are a few additional points to add:
D) Free-roaming. This is obviously an open-world game.
E) Continuity - the player should never feel like their experience is being negated by stampeding designers. All challenges, engagements, and plot points should feel like they could happen in the world when they do happen in the world, keeping in mind the many ways the player might be experiencing the world.
F) Modding - the player should be able to make specific kinds of play much more difficult or prevalent, whether through downloaded mods or through self-imposed challenges. For example, beating Far Cry with only the bow, or installing a mod which makes all the guards in Skyrim attack you on sight.
G) Lures - the player should encounter something similar to sidequests in an algorithmic way. For example, random city citizens might need specific things. Lures should weight other things in the game world, making them stand out. Knowing someone needs a photograph of a monkey will make you look for photographs of monkeys, and in turn give the world some presence. Be careful not to assign too many lures at once, though: 3-5 max.
That's my thoughts on boring gameplay. They're kinda half-formed, sorry.