Chris at Game by Night brought to my attention the current WoW raiding scene. I am wondering if this is a winning scenario for Blizzard.
Back before Burning Crusade, before badge gear, raid progression was set in stone. Players went Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, Ahn'Qiraj 40, Naxxramas. Zul'Gurub and AQ20 were mixed in occasionally to get a few odds and ends. If a guild was fresh to the raid scene, they went to ZG and MC.
In Wrath, this insertion point progresses with the aid of badge loot. Naxxramas and Ulduar are obsolete, and subsequently see little action. It seems like the vast majority of fresh raid teams try their hand at ToC (after acquiring their mound of badges).
This is what players wanted. Raiders in 1.x cried foul when Naxxramas was released, claiming that they would never see that content (never mind that they still had parts of BWL and AQ to see). Now the newest raid is but one stepping stone away, but this stepping stone can be pretty mighty for unseasoned raiders (as Chris points out).
I would be very curious to see some numbers comparing these two systems. This is completely speculative, but let's say that the percent of players who "consumed" part or all of raids was something like: 40% MC, 35% BWL, 20% AQ40, 12% Naxx; while with in Wrath: 35% Naxx, 30% Ulduar, 30% ToC, 25% ICC. In terms of content consumed, I think the Wrath system is better. Sure there are some players who are late to the game and won't see Naxx and Ulduar (because they jump right to ToC), but those same players wouldn't see AQ and Naxx in 1.x. At least now they could potentially go back to the obsolete raids to see the pretty lights.
In terms of gameplay though, I think the former system is superior. I don't think either is particular good, but as a friend of mine points out, "[Guilds] could still go in [to AQ] and feel like they accomplished something. Now you are just silly if you go to Naxx to get gear."
Observing these two systems, I can't help but wonder if playing an MMORPG is really "play". CrazyKinux linked a very good article about a psychologist's definition of play, and this stuck out to me:
To the degree that we engage in an activity purely to achieve some end, or goal, which is separate from the activity itself, that activity is not play. What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions. The actions are merely means to the ends.In play, however, all this is reversed. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares less about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends.
This is in relation to play in general and not just games (play with goals), but it seriously threatens the notion of playing an MMORPG. Don't think about "fun"; fun is an illusion, a bag of tricks to keep you entertained: random item drops akin to slot machines, leaderboards, etc.. When was the last time you actually played an MMORPG? Used your character to perform some action for sake of that action itself? Visited a dungeon you liked not for an Achievement and not for a piece of loot? Or even just fought a monster to play around instead of consuming it like a resource?
When there isn't actually any play involved, raid content dies. Naxx and Ulduar will be forever empty like ZG, BWL, and AQ with its enormously entertaining C'Thun fight. The "carrot on a stick" design mantra of WoW is great for entertaining users, but later on players will painfully grind reputation and badges.
Don't think I'm picking on WoW; the entire genre is like this. And it is very unfortunate.