Games in general, and Elite especially so, are a form of escapism, in most cases. People like to make fun of people who are all about "immersion" and suspension of disbelief, etc, but in reality, that's what it's all about. So just purely throwing something away as "having no gameplay" and "adding a grind," etc, is really short-sighted. Elite is not a path to success. Any time you put into the game is, effectively "wasted" in the sense of any sort of real-life accomplishment. So, it's just all about adding joy and satisfaction to your life, allowing you to experience things you wouldn't otherwise. In that sense, the argument that things that "just take time" like supercruise, hyperspace-jumps, landing, etc, are antithetical to "gameplay" are naive and driven from materialistic compulsiveness in most cases.
These notions come from the notion that the "goal" is to "be in a big ship." and that somehow will make you happy. The trouble is that "having" things, while it does bring a temporary sense of satisfaction, does not create a sustained feeling of wellness. Each time you get something, it's great for a bit, but then you want to get another thing, and another thing. It might sound like I'm being negative; I'm not. It's human nature and that's okay, as long as we don't destroy ourselves and others in the process.
So, that said, let's bring that back to Elite. While Elite seems like a purely capitalist venture; it's not. That's not its strength. It's not a super well balanced economic simulation, or PvP simulation, or... any other kind of simulation. It IS a fantastic immersion engine. An escapism engine. (Again, when i speak of escapism I speak mostly in a positive connotation. Escapism is important for humans in many ways) All of the other aspects of the game help provide a dynamic and challenging world to provide purpose and suspension of disbelief. To give you the feeling that there is something awaiting you. Some work yet un-done. Some sights yet un-seen. There is no "end" and there shouldn't be, and any change that gets you to the end faster betrays the purpose of the game.
I'll state that again. Any change that gets you to the end faster betrays the purpose of the game.
So, to roll that back a little, there is always balance needed. If you're constantly spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere, then that's not satisfying, and thus the game has no purpose. However, if you take out all of the immersive elements in order to make it faster to just make your numbers go up, again, you're not really escaping so much as you are indulging an addiction you materialism, and while the game might serve a purpose in this case, the purpose has been corrupted.
There have been change after change after change in the course of this game that have eroded away at the purpose of the game, escapism, immersion, progress, in favor of the corrupted purpose; materialism, instant-gratification, compulsion. People have now managed to get to Elite in what, a day? When the game was created that was supposed to be something that took perhaps a year or more. Something that meant something, not because of it's value, but as a symbol that represented the time and effort and memories and challenges and dedication of this challenging life in the void.
So, to that effect, something that is immersive, is satisfying, and takes time, but slows down your progress IS or at least CAN BE and done right SHOULD BE "gameplay." Being able to walk around under my ship. On top of my ship. Inside of my ship, even if there is not some big economical benefit to it would be immensely satisfying to me and many others, because for us, the gameplay, the purpose of the game, is to be in this other place, living this other life, now and then. To feel your ship around you as a huge, lumbering piece of engineering, not simply a glowing HUD in front of my face.
So I absolutely reject the notion that simply being able to walk around ships, planets, and stations is not "gameplay" unless there is some arbitrary benefit that comes from it, or some arbitrary puzzle or challenge that is included with it. I *wish* for space-legs to slow the game down. Any challenge, mini-game, and benefit that comes from being able to walk around is an added bonus, just like the background simulation, or the combat, or the economy, to add to the immersion, but they are NOT the point of the game. All of these things are flavor. The progress is flavor. Bigger ships is flavor. Combat is flavor. All of this is the salt and pepper but the PURPOSE of the game is to simply BE somewhere else. To fly.