Game developers often release PVE content that is like a Coral Reef, i.e. it’s relevant for a period of time (e.g. for some part of an expansion), but eventually with vertical progression (levels and/or gear), players outgrow that content and it’s essentially dead. By the next expansion, the previous expansion’s zones are ghost towns and only visited by those people leveling new characters through them. Over time, what you have is a world where 80% of the zones are no longer relevant, and only 20% is. That is, you have PVE content that evolves like a Coral Reef, and this is primarily due to the unsustainable nature of vertical scaling.
This is, indubitably, true. Classic RPG progression in an MMO creates a whole host of insidious problems, referred to by old school MUD devs as the ‘Hollow World’ problem. People tend to play games and hit content in a clump. A week after launch is often the only time that a level 30-40 zone feels crowded in most MMOs. After that, it tends to sit empty all the time as people level through it quickly on their alts. In subscription games like WoW, this also is true at lower levels, as not a lot of new characters are being created. This is less true at lower levels for F2P experiences, as there’s generally a solid trickle of newcomers coming in. One side effect of this is that it is hard to do low-to-mid level group content: WoW removed the Heroic difficulty of the questline near Tarren Mill, for example, because it was pretty much impossible to find 4 other people to do it with.
And believe me when I say that MMO designers would love to make less content. We certainly are aware of the costs of creating the content, especially creating well-tuned and well-balanced content. And to some degree, we’re already finding ways to extend the life of the content. Rift has the leader boards he recommends. WoW and SWTOR both use Achievements to create ‘alternate’ goals, as well as create normal and hardcore modes (and in SWTOR’s case, nightmare mode as well). But there’s only so far that you can go. The problems:
1. Content has a shelf life. Players get sick of playing the same thing over and over again. I mean, really, really sick of it. This is less true in PvP because in PvP, other players and the strategies they bring are content.
2. Players like progression. They like to feel like their character is growing, and they like to feel like challenges are advancing to make that progression worthwhile.
3. Leaderboards are, by their nature, exclusionary. Which guild can conquer a boss’ hard mode first is hugely important to the top 3 guilds on a server, but isn’t as much of a motivator to the rest of the guilds. You know how many times Russia has been to the moon? Zero. Once they lost the race, they decided they no longer cared.
4. Game designers have a good reason to want to keep players together, content-wise. If you have a wide band of content that people are trying to conquer, it gets increasingly difficult to do things like recruit a healer if all your healers quit. By making the ‘entry’ level to endgame content easy to get to and not far below the end level, it is easier for guild leaders to recruit.
5. Content has a shelf life. I know I said this, but I can’t stress enough how often I’ve said the phrase “If I have to kill Baron Fucklechips one more time, I swear I’m going to drive to Irvine with a lead pipe”.
On top of that, it merits mention that it is more difficult than one imagines at first to make class-agnostic content. A good example is that, in the old days, WoW paladins used to get their benefits by getting hit, which meant that they excelled at tanking trash, and were frequently one-shot when tanking bosses without any trash component. When Heroic instances were launched in Burning Crusade, there were literally dungeons that were untankable by Paladins. This is less of a problem in raids, where another tank can step in for that one fight, but it also means that the Paladin gets benched, which isn’t a great feeling.
Putting in achievements that don’t invalidate a class is really hard. An achievement to kill a boss without healing, for example, might really suck for the healer, or it might be trivial to do without the healer, meaning that most players might opt to just slot in a DPS, benching the healer. Putting in an achievement to dispel every instance of a buff that is cast means that healers that can’t dispel buffs get devalued. Putting in an achievement to kill a boss in an extremely fast period of time might value burstier DPS over DOT DPS if not designed right. The net result, tragically, are that over time, designers are forced to make the classes more similar so that more possible group permutations can do the content, and be appropriately challenged by it.