Tobold asks if Rift proves that Cataclysm is too hard? He eventually comes to this claim: "Most players prefer a game in which they don't have to constantly justify their performance."
That sounds about right. I'd even go so far as to say that most players prefer a game in which they never have to justify their performance. Please don't take this as a "they have lives" argument, but when people have serious jobs full of their own challenges, family and social arenas to navigate, and at this moment, a whole lot of economic uncertainty, who the fuck wants a 'challenge' when they start a game?
Challenge is great and all, but when there's too much of it (a subjective measure) and when it's "not my job", it morphs into frustration. Top it off with an obnoxiously realistic preparation cost, gems, enchants, glyphs, pre-learning fights, and the raiding game in WoW could very quickly resemble a job, except unpaid and without even being able to pretend to contribute to society. Not that I am saying there is anything wrong with raiding, just that it's not a productive activity. Again: recreation is fine, good in fact, essential, but it is not and should not take on too much similarity to work.
But I don't think this is the entire situation. There is another aspect: consistency. Historically, WoW has been on a trend of anonymity and speed, even before LK, though that is when it mushroomed into the awful pile of awful that it is now (I mean the trend, not WoW; I'm not going to be a WoW-basher just because I left). Leveling got faster, grouping got faster, gear got faster, everything got faster, we overgeared faster, we zerged and rushed and zergrushed and merged adjectives into nouns into verbs with some adverbs generously scattered on top to complete the recipe, as if we were making German words.
Raiding went in the exact opposite direction. Fights became more complex. Smaller raids gave less room for error, and for carrying lower-performing players. We went from basic concepts like "stand here and kill that, but watch your aggro, run away if you're the bomb" to "kill the boss but when the slimes come you switch to them and you have to stay close to them unless it's the orange and it's chasing you, then you need to stay away from it, and now that you're back on the boss you need to watch out for the ooze puddles and also there are the orange vials that you cannot stand in, and now we're going to be in phase three where you're moving constantly so I hope you don't have a predisposition toward muscle craps because you're going to be twisting your hand a bit to keep up your rotation since this is a burn phase but keep moving and if you stand i the orange stuff we wipe because that will wreck your DPS and fucking fuck you god damn noob you killed us how hard is it to keep track of A, B, C, D, E, and F while also maintaining your rotation?"
And then we go back to dailies, facerolling a half-dozen mobs at once while we contemplate our next angry forum post about how X fight is too lag-dependent and how my class is so underpowered.
WoW used to be harder or less convenient and fast or some mix of the three. I'm not saying leveling wasn't always easy. It was. That was one of the selling points. But your average world elite wasn't a total joke. Your average instance wasn't going to be rolled over in your sleep. I'm not suggesting it was "hard", if theoretically there was an objective, quantifiable measure of it, but that the average play experience was a little bit more normalized. We waited around more, so when we found ourselves waiting around, that was normal, as opposed to an outrageous outrage. We wiped, so when it happened, well that's what happens.
WoW used to be more consistent. The loss of consistency, I believe, is part of what made hard heroics so undesirable, even if they aren't all that much harder than past hard 5-mans.
21 hours ago