There are a number of posts on the persistence of MMORPG rewards in the blogopshere of late.
- Unwize is concerned that LOTRO legendary weapons will not last into the next expansion, a fact which defeats the whole concept of having a signature weapon that your character keeps.
(Update: While I was posting this, he posted a further analysis of Turbine and Blizzard's approaches to old content revamps.)
- Syp bemoans the fate of Old World Azeroth in the face of the latest travel changes.
- Tipa has had enough of the "flush everyone’s current gear and spells down the toilet every couple of years" model of expansions, such as the widely presumed level cap increase in this year's EQ2 expansion. (In an aside, clever trademark searches reveal that said expansion will be titled "The Sentinel's Fate", whatever that means.)
The Problem With Progression
The central problem driving all of these issues is the need for constant progression. Basically the entire genre to date is designed around the principle that time invested in a character results in a more powerful character. The specifics of "more powerful" are unimportant. Whether your players are gaining levels, gear, talents/AA's (Tipa's post claims that entry level EQ1 raiders are expected to have earned a staggering 3,000 AA points - merely clicking to spend that many points sounds like a pain), or even cosmetic rewards, you're creating an entry barrier for new players to overcome.
You cannot expect new customers to spend four years of gaming time to get to the point on the power curve where the four year veterans are. If the new players don't all quit on the spot and actually spend the requisite four years, they'll simply arrive to find that the veterans are another four years beyond them. The problem becomes even worse if the progression path requires players to find groups of other players in the same level range (and/or players willing to do low level content that offers them little to no benefit just to help newbies).
If you do not take any action to help new customers enter the game, you'll eventually run out of customers as your old ones leave. This means that every developer of every game has to take the kinds of actions we're talking about on the blogosphere - faster leveling, occasional gear resets, etc.
You don't necessarily need to raise the cap and reset gear every single expansion, nor is it absolutely essential to go with a Zubon's idea of a fixed /played time to the level cap. However, the longer you allow things to build off of a static base, the taller the mountain is going to get. (Even EVE's notorious real-time-based skill system has a limitation of sorts; a new player will never match the versatility of a veteran, but there are only so many ranks available for most combat skills, so there are limits to how far ahead veterans can get in any one specialized area.)
Why not leave the progression behind?
Progression may be the root of the problems with older content, but it's also a fundamental part of the genre and its business model. We have games that offer class-based tactical PVP combat and zero need to reset gear or worry about trivializing older content. They're called First Person Shooters. The thing is, FPS players are historically very hostile to any concept of persistent character progress - see Keen's comments on a recent failed attempt to add random gear drops to Team Fortress 2.
This leads to an issue of scope. Persistent worlds and characters add a tremendous amount of incentive for players to stick with a game. Valve isn't going to have a problem if I play TF2 for 10 hours, decide that there's nothing for me to work towards, and quit. I've already paid them all the money they're going to get for the game, and I might even pay them for the sequel if I had fun during the time I did spend playing.
Valve would have a problem if they wanted to create a massive world, like Azeroth, Norrath, or Middle Earth. That type of project would cost money that can only be recouped through truly massive sales (which no investor can count on) or the power of the monthly fee. Perhaps players will eventually be willing to pay the kind of money that MMORPG's require for games that offer fewer incentives for sticking around. At the moment, though, that's simply not where the market is.
In a very real sense, constant progression for everyone - not merely players who got into the raiding circuit years ago - is the price we pay for the ability to experience the game worlds we get to play with. That doesn't mean that it isn't disappointing when an expansion or patch diminishes our efforts. It certainly doesn't mean that we won't consider a probable impending gear reset in deciding whether it's worth grinding X repeatable quest Y hundred times for Z minor upgrade. Still, we all expect our games to make enough of a profit to remain open, to continue to add content, and to attract enough new players to fill the inevitable open spots in our groups as old players drift away.
Personally, it's a trade that I'm glad to make.