There’s been a homogenization of MMOs in the last 10 years, where there really isn’t a whole lot to distinguish one game from the other. In continuum of RPG features, older games were more in the RPG space, with playing a specific role, choices made, and impacts that were felt over time. Something like an FPS had little RPG to it, so that the start of a game resembled the end of a game (think Halo).
Time goes on and both of those have started to meet in center. Nearly every game released today has a stats mechanic, often employed as a carrot for retention (bigger stats). Fornite and League of Legends may have everyone start on “even” footing, by the end of the game there are large power spikes from the RPG mechanic. Not to dismiss that an “underpowered” player can’t use skill to overcome, but the disadvantage is there.
MMORPGs on the other hand are moving into a more digestible experience, where the gap between a long term player (investment) isn’t so far away that no new players can come into the game. Say what you will about WoW’s model, but it is much more willing to let new blood in as compared to EvE’s skill point system. But is the WoW model where a new player can level to max in about a weekend’s effort the right path? Or where a new 120 can hit near raid level stats in a couple days?
I’m going to posit that it doesn’t matter primarily because the world of RPGs has so many options today. 20 years ago the people using MMOs were the typical geeks (self-included), so the RPG aspect was attractive. UO hit that button something fierce. EQ was a glorified chat bot that tested those social structures that made geekdom work. WoW’s greatest achievement isn’t the size of the playerbase, its that it normalized the playerbase in the eyes of society. My kids will never know a world where video games were derided, where geek is something that’s ostracised. The conversation has moved to from “you play games?” to “you play that game?” I’ll take that shift as a positive one.
Within a game you’re always going to have exclusionary activities. There’s not a developer on the planet that isn’t running some sort of heatmap of players vs. engagement. I am not some ultra wise guru that can divine the inner workings of games or gamers. So if a situation seems ultra obvious to me now, it most certainly was obvious to the developers beforehand. NGE in SWG was immediately clear. The Trammel split is not what killed UO, it was how long it took to be implemented vs. the launch of EQ. Atlantis in DAoC. EQ2’s grind vs. WoW’s open beta must have made people sweat bullets. Someone, somewhere, greenlight FF14 v1.0 as being acceptable.
The decisions are not bad except when measured to the stated goals. You want to increase the player base, you need to make it more accessible, not less. You want to respect the existing player base, you don’t wipe all their progress and have them start as fresh as a green leaf. You want to provide a perception of value, you make sure that the rewards are measurable and trend forward (*cough*azerite*cough*). You want to provide an element of choice, you need to make sure that there are multiple relative options to choose from. All of this is simple when written down. All of it is a nightmare to code and balance. But at the end of the day, that’s what gamers are paying for, and the insane amount of player choice today means that if devs don’t do this, then players will just move on. There is no single horse in town anymore.