Syp and Snaffy spent the most recent episode of their MMO podcast doing a retrospective on WoW. It was interesting to see where the perspectives of two guys who know MMORPG's and have some experience with WoW, but don't necessarily consider it their primary MMO, line up with things I've been thinking about of late. Reacting to the then-rumored Cataclysm expansion, the narrators express surprise to see the old leveling game seemingly triumph over the endgame. I would argue that the picture is perhaps a bit more complicated than that.
The face of WoW in November 2004
WoW introduced the genre to solo PVE and tapped a huge market that had nowhere else to go. After that huge initial investment, however, WoW spent its first four years obsessed with accomplishments. Group content was tuned to be challenging for appropriately geared players (to the point where PUGS would bring double the appropriate number of players and still sometimes fail to complete a 5-man at level 60). The new solo content added in patches and expansions was aimed squarely at players who had already neared or reached the current level cap.
The lesson of the TBC and Wrath eras is that players who do not want to raid are not actually asking for smaller raids. From the Dungeon 2 Set questline to Karazhan, Blizzard believed that players wanted them to bring the full challenge of the achiever-driven endgame to groups that were smaller for logistical reasons. It turns out that players came to WoW and its descendants because they wanted to be able to sign on when they want and play for however long they wanted. Accomplishment-driven mechanics (attunements, gear checks, consumables) flew in the face of what brought so many of these players into the genre in the first place.
And so, Wrath delivered the first installment of a real overhaul, stripping the accomplishment prerequisites from the group game with a dozen 5-mans and entry level raids that were readily puggable by appropriately geared characters. The solo game, however, remained buried behind dozens of levels of accomplishments. The goal of the Cataclysm is, in part, to bring the last four years' worth of improvements to the solo PVE game down to players who have not wanted to pursue the accomplishments needed (55+ levels) to see the fruits of Blizzard's labors in Outland and Northrend.
In short, perhaps the shift isn't really a new direction at all. With four announced raids for the expansion launch, including optional hard modes, there will be much more accomplishment-driven endgame to go around than Wrath had at its debut. Meanwhile, the expansion will return WoW's focus to the accessible solo PVE game that it brought to the genre in the first place and neglected for the last few years. In some ways, the Cataclysm is less of a revolution than a return to the game's original roots. Given that the game can assemble prominent Warhammer bloggers to talk about its impact five years later, that may not be a bad direction to go.
Now if only we could get them to go back to making hats that actually look like, well, hats....