But how much?
For $15 a month you have access to all content in WoW. With a catch. There are barriers. These take three general forms: time, skill, and organization.
Time barriers mean needing more time for content than you have. These can take the form of needing large blocks of time during the content, such as multi-hour heroics or raids which take even longer, which was a serious problem before raids could be saved week to week. Or the barrier can be not one of continuous blocks of time, but just time overall. Consumables can be major material sinks, meaning time sinks, as best symbolized by the original Naxxramas where the consumable requirements were so bad that a few high-end guilds became notorious for gold-buying (to buy pots) and eventually alchemy was er, tweaked (heavily nerfed) which is where the battle/guardian elixir system came from. Repair costs are somewhere between the two categories, being incurred by the raiding but using time outside the raids to compensate.
The ideal spot for a time barrier isn't simple to figure out. While no barrier at all sounds ideal, this can instead deprive players of a sense of investment. It can also act as a filtering mechanism. While it's hard to say that farming flask materials indicates skill, it does indicate some level of dedication, a quality which is frequently as necessary as skill. It's like a guild application: the actual answers are frequently pointless, but the guy who cannot even fill out an app is probably not the person you want around for serious content.
I'll keep this short: If someone isn't skilled enough for content, they aren't going to beat it. Let's just ignore the carrying/overgearing bits because those are beside the actual point. Skill is a barrier to seeing content. No, I'm not going to define skill. Pretend I did.
This is the task of assembling the required number of competent players, with competent being a theoretical mix of skill and gear which matches the minimum required for the content. This is closely linked with skill and time, since it's harder to find players if skill matters and time constraints get ever more difficult as you add people. Think of organizing five people for an hour. Now make that forty for three hours. See why there weren't a ton of raiders in vanilla? Now add a bit of skill requirement and it's a wonder anyone even got past BWL. A big server population will help, just by giving more chances of sufficient numbers of sufficiently skilled players being on at convenient times.
At this extreme content requires little to no skill, not much time, and is easy to organize, or done for you. Think LK heroics. Weren't those a blast? And there we go: why a "everyone sees all content" ideology isn't so great. Or as I said yesterday: "Get rid of all this “we want players to see content” crap. It’s not working out so well. It’s fundamentally incompatible with challenging content and good community." In retrospect, I could have phrased that less in a less combative manner, but I still think it's true.
The problem with this extreme is that everything ends up meaningless. There is no challenge overcome. No sense of investment. Nothing at all to inflate an ego, and if an MMO isn't inflating an ego, what is it doing? Oh sure, there's that social angle, but if the organization part is trivialized, that's going to take with a lot of the social binding.
Time, skill, and organization requirements are tuned such that you, whoever you are, will not have the combination of time, skill, and personal connections to even attune yourself for the Raid of Doom. This is the second job type thing, but working overtime, with a side job to pay the gold costs. Anyone who cannot do this is free to prance around the world at level 5, hoping the Doomboars doesn't kill them forever.
This is clearly the opposite of the All ideology. In both causes and effects. Sure, you cannot possibly get anywhere in this game. But if you did, oh man, would it feel awesome. If you beat the Raid of Doom you'd have the courage to do anything, like expose your by now translucent skin the the sky-bound nuclear ball known as the sun, protected by only some wisps of assorted gases known as the sky.
Sure, it's great that the few winners feel awesome, but so few people will possibly feel awesome that no one is going to play for long. Even the winners will have no one to gloat to. Trust me, that girl over there has no clue how awesome you are for killing Doomlord of the Doom Council on heroic mode in the Raid of Doom. Or that guy. Or that guy and girl. Two guys. I don't know, whatever you're into. Beside the point.
Ah yes, the theoretical happy middle. In this magical land there are time sinks to keep us busy and feeling invested. We need a bit of skill, not so much that we're hopeless, but we're pretty sure that someday with practice we can go to the Raid of Significant But Not Overwhelming Challenges. Meanwhile the Raid of Puppy Flowers is fun enough. And man will it be cool to see the Raid of Doom! Organization isn't too bad, with raids which aren't gigantic, but we're still always eager for another person to play with.
But how much content do we actually see in this magical world?
Barriers should be such that players feel confident that they can progress, eventually. Enough content should be available to keep them entertained. But there must also be content that they cannot yet reach. Maybe some that they will never reach. But they can strive for it and not feel that it is in vain. Or another way to see it is that content should block players enough to feel meaningful to overcome, but not so much that it is unable to be overcome.
This still doesn't quite answer what to do with the amazing player and the garbage player. Can they play in the same world? To challenge the better player will mean blocking the lesser player, and likely the majority of players. Content creation must be profitable, attracting/retaining players to at least cover the cost of developing it. However the simple math of "this many players saw X content that cost ~Y" is not the full story. We also have to know how exclusive content affects the rest of the players. Is it something to strive for or is it a frustration? The attitude of the game company and how it communicates will affect this. Do they create the content as something to strive for or as an exclusive gift to their favorite players?
These are the killer.
In vanilla I did three raids: MC, ZG, and AQ20. I never even saw Naxx or AQ40 and BWL killed me on the first boss. I have mixed memories of this. On one hand I wanted to see more content, and I did feel that there was a bit too much catering to the highest tier of play, but it wasn't a game-ruiner for me. I thought that someday I'd clear BWL and maybe even make some progress into AQ40. Someday.
I also did every 5-man, and the UBRS 10-man, many times. And some of the now-gone dungeon 2 upgrade chain, a set of quests which turned my blue set into a slightly better mix of blues and epics. This chain was long and for the time, expensive, but told an interesting story and even gave some more content in the form of additional bosses that I could resummon. This was the attempt, or impression of, alternative content.
In BC I had higher hopes. I really wanted to clear through Tempest Keep. I didn't. But I did do Kara (best raid ever), Gruul's Lair, Magtheridon's Giant Room, Zul'token'trollraid, and a little bit of SSC. I'd also hoped to clear SSC. Alas, BC introduced a stupid problem: the 10-25 man transition in raiding, with kara being the starter raid with 10 people and then every raid but ZA (which was released very late) needing 25 people. This created an organizational problem that constantly tore apart guilds and were generally a huge headache. If not for that, I think things might have gone better. So that may be my first time when I felt I should have gone further than I did and the devs were to blame. That is not a good thing.
I don't remember what I'd hoped for in LK. Honestly, I think by then I was starting to burn out. But I was disappointed at not clearing Ulduar. Very. But next thing badge inflation set in and I was progressively pushed into an incredibly shitty excuse for a raid called ToC (I refuse to even look up or remember what the stands for, trial of the crusader? Tournament? Who fucking cares?) and then the overhyped depressing place known as Icecrown Citadel. Sure, I killed the Lich King. Didn't really care. I wanted to get going on Shadowmourne. In this way Blizzard managed to combine the depressing power of trivializing content with the depressing power of excluding players from expected rewards. These go together.
As I see it, I should have barely even seen ICC. Ulduar, sure thing, all dead. ToC, yes, but in this theoretical space it is a raid worth caring about, not a buggy (no pun intended) gimmick festival to distract us from the lack of content. In this imaginary version of LK raiding, I'd not think that I in any way deserved the last legendary in the game. But because everything was made easy easy easy have this have that and that as well, and then suddenly something is help back: not fun.
Cataclysm piggy-backed on the LK expansion to take this to a whole new level. Maybe that's why six hundred thousand people left. There's the take-away lesson from this post: do not create expectations in players that you will not fulfill.
P.S. I expect that I won't have any more super-long posts like this for a while.
P.P.S. I wonder if I can fit more tags on here.
P.P.P.S. Woo, Blogger gave me the post back!