"One of the core philosophies for the game was that World of Warcraft was going to be more accessible....
There wasn't going to be experience loss on death - that sort of thing. ...
We actually originally expected the game to go into more of an EverQuest-style free-form, where you go out there and you fight monsters until you get to the next level.
"What we found was that all the feedback that we got from our alpha testers was that once they ran out of quests, the game got boring. They were like, 'I don't know what to do any more, and I don't really feel like playing any more once I run out of quests'. We came to that realisation that, wow, this quest thing really works. We need to do this throughout the entire game!"
The Linear World of Quests
That quest system is exactly what is drawing so much criticism from oldschool players today, be they EQ1 vets or WoW players who thought the game was better back in 2004.
Keen complains (amongst other things) about the linearity of the modern MMORPG. This linearity makes Stargrace write that, after a solo-quest focused EQ2 expansion, "I pretty much never wanted to touch another quest again." Tipa writes that "These days, I tend to regard games that don’t force you into certain paths as more of an RPG that on-rails MMOs like WoW."
So why, then, has the "on-rails" model grown to overtake basically the entire AAA MMORPG genre?
The impact of accessibility
The reason the quote from Blizzard jumps out at me is that it offers an explanation for the numbers. MMOG-Chart believes that EQ1 and FFXI both peaked in the 500-600K subscriber range. It's difficult to get a precise apples to apples comparison since Blizzard doesn't like to release the portion of WoW's numbers that are paying trivial amounts on Chinese servers, but the estimate is 4.5 million US and EU subscribers as of January 2008.
For the sake of argument, let's call the difference roughly 5-fold. (This rounds up substantially for the older games, and probably disregards some of WoW's non-China markets, but WoW has the advantages of greater prevalence of gaming-capable machines with internet connections, and more players already in the genre recruiting by word of mouth compared to a decade ago.)
As those of you who played back in 2004 may remember, WoW was hardly the most stable game on the planet at its launch. Five years later, they're still working to dig the level 40-58 content out from the backlog that resulted from their late decision to switch to the pure solo quest model. In short, I would argue that the roughly 5-fold difference in subscribers is not beacuse of the mythical Blizzard polish, massive budgets made possible by sales of 10-year old RTS games, or anyone's dratted little dog. WoW got five times as many subscribers because players who were not able to play EQ1 and FFXI due to the lack of accessibility were able to play - and prosper - in WoW.
To restate the number slightly, I would argue that as much as 80% (4/5) of the modern MMORPG market is playing MMORPG's because the genre now offers accessibility. (Heck, even FFXI has solo players these days.)
A Choice That Isn't
Unwize suggests that the shift to accessibility at the expense of difficulty represents a new "Trammel" in MMORPG development. Ultima Online developers famously offered the option of not being killed and looted by other players, and the community overwhelmingly chose that road. Spinks stirred up a 55-comment hornet's nest back in May by arguing that a player who is online soloing and ignores their guildies' cries for group members causing a "tragedy of the commons", failing to foster the guild community. Both of these views imply choice.
Of course, there's always a choice. Perhaps I could cut a deal with my wife where I'm free to raid two nights a week in exchange for my covering the household stuff on two nights so she can do something else of her choosing. It's just not much of a GOOD choice. Two nights a week would still be under 50% attendence in a guild that raids four nights a week, and this would not leave me time to farm for consumables or gear improvements needed to actually contribute during that time. Meanwhile, the result would almost certainly be less time spent gaming and blogging than I currently enjoy at the end of the night after splitting the housework evenly.
Technically, I'm making a "selfish" choice that gets me what I want (more time online) rather than what Spinks wants (warm bodies for group content). Still, where Spinks sees me selfishly ignoring her pleas for a mage, in reality I may need to sign off in 30 minutes, or I might be online but called away half a dozen times to take the dog out, put away the dishes, and start the laundry. (EQ2 allows you to auto-consume food and drink when your buffs run out, and I've actually had to make a point of equipping these items in stacks of 1-2 to make sure that I don't waste too many of them due to being AFK.)
Perhaps I could, in the right guild context, contribute more as a half-time raider than as a full-time non-raider. Given where I am in life right now, though, my "choice" to be a solo player instead of a more group or raid focused player is about as meaningful as my "choice" not to try and become the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. It doesn't make sense for me to pay - both with money and with my limited gaming time - for a game that does not support my playstyle.
The road forward
Though I don't agree with Keen on issues like in-game travel, he's not entirely wrong. There are things in games that have lost some of their meaning over time, and the pressure for accessibility will only continue. There are, simply put, more players who need accessibility than players who would like the accessibility bar set at the toughest level that doesn't actually kick them personally out of the game.
As Eric of Elder Game (a former AC2 dev) puts it in a discussion on the psychology of punishment as a game incentive, players put up with the state of things in years gone by because "players didn’t know of any other game they could go to". In 2004, WoW's travel was along the least punishing out there. The game is even larger now that it was in 2004 precisely because they realized that the old games were actually occupying a niche - for social gamers with low AFK needs - in a yet-to-be-discovered genre of virtual world MMORPG's.
Perhaps developers, even Blizzard, have implemented the choice to add accessibility poorly. However, the alternative - not making the choice and writing off 80% of the potential market - is not much of a choice at all.