Tobold’s post today does a nice job of summarizing what’s gone wrong with MMOs in the last few years in terms of design. The best example is this part:
If you consider a theoretical MMORPG with an infinite number of levels and free-for-all PvP, it is pretty obvious that the players spending the most time in the game would crush those spending the least amount of time.
The above is true, and it’s also terrible design. It’s why UO/AC worked as PvP games and had/have runs longer than almost any themepark. It’s why EVE continues to work, and it’s why Darkfall has its 3rd anniversary coming up. Those games combine the hook of character progression with the balance of player skill, and mix in a whole lot of social interaction to keep it all in check. The best PvPer might be a force 1v1, but they become a non-factor on the ‘grand scale’ of GvG warfare (unless, of course, they are in one of those guild, at which point they become a very powerful ‘boss’ figure).
The real evolution of MMO design is to not just balance between the octo-mom players and the hardcore, but to enable the two groups to complement each other. EVE gets this right in many ways, with the hardcore playing in 0.0 space, and the casuals benefiting from those actions in Empire (econ ramifications, being in the same world those major events happen, being able to jump into 0.0 when time permits, etc). In turn, 0.0 players benefit from all those miners and mission runners doing the ‘boring’ stuff in Empire that eventually makes its way out (and gets blown up, keeping the cycle going).
Poor design, such as creating raids that are initially too hard for most, and then nerfing them until they are faceroll easy, not only misses the entire point, but creates easy “us vs them” divides. This also leads to short-term content, rather than long-term solutions/hooks, and in a genre designed to be played for months (if not years), short-term content itself adds nothing in the long run. All of the end-game content from vanilla, TBC, and WotLK is now worthless in WoW, while (most) of the features added in each EVE expansion still matter today. The options in EVE expand, while those in games like WoW simply change (and if they change to something you don’t like, your only option is to leave, as I did pre-WotLK, and now even Tobold has done thanks to Cata). It’s not hard to understand why EVE retains its players for so long, while WoW is a revolving door.
And of course, if your game is designed around a revolving door, rather than retention, you have no motivation to create deeper gameplay. You have no reason to go as deep as EVE does with some of its mechanics, or to design combat systems that can’t be learned on youtube or reduced to a few scripts; your players leave long before they ever get to the mastery phase. And really, it’s not even their fault; it’s how so many of the post-WoW games are designed, and the results of such design decisions are on display for the world to see.