Another game with questionable gameplay that might have been a boon to the experience is Everquest. As a rabid fan of MUDs in college, I was excited by the idea of playing a "graphical MUD" (MMORPG), and dreamed about what it would be like to see the worlds I previously only read about. Ultima Online was interesting, but I was more excited by Everquest because it seemed more similar to the MUDs I used to play.
But it was a big disappointment because it seemed so convoluted. It was incredibly difficult to tell where to go, what to do, how to manipulate my interface, or do things with my fellow players, and what documentation existed was actually more confusing than some text-based MUDs I had played, and that's saying a lot. I was so unimpressed that I quickly passed on the experience, but was surprised at how it kept rising in popularity. I wondered why.
The sense of confusion was so vivid -- players shouting in channels begging for information from other players that might be a little farther ahead -- that it made me wonder if that early lack of information actually helped community form. You needed to make connections with other players just to make it out the front door to a confusing city or know where to train, and community is a big part of an MMORPG appealing. It's interesting to wonder whether poor starting information along with required grouping, corpse-runs, and a host of other painful conventions -- that WoW improved on, but needed to have an exhaustively fun, lone experience in place to do (in addition to new social mechanics) -- was really a benefit.
Labeling gameplay "good" or "bad" is meaningless without considering the experience they inform. Sometimes, even random guessing, bad controls, and awful learning curves can help build a classic. Tomorrow, a final word on "experience first" vs. "mechanics first" design.