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The Soapbox: Old content should stay relevant

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The archetypal themepark MMO model, as popularised by World of Warcraft, is a race to the level cap in order to unlock the best content on offer. New content is tacked onto the endgame regularly, accompanied by improved gear and perhaps a higher level cap. It's a system that's designed to keep people playing by keeping them on a progression climb that's constantly getting steeper. As a consequence, endgame activities render older content obsolete since these outdated activities carry little real benefit for fully leveled characters.

Exploring old content for the sake of experiencing it is not enough of a motivator for many players since this content simply cannot present the same challenge as it once did. Although you can technically go back and play through old dungeons, they will never be as fulfilling when tactics become optional and you can solo once-formidable opponents. In this week's Soapbox, I will mourn the loss of fantastic older content that was rendered obsolete through vertical progression, using WoW as a key example. I'll go on to suggest a solution that I think might allow for both old and new content to exist together in relevancy without significantly compromising the themepark MMO's existing progression mechanics.

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My love affair with the Lich King

Anyone who has ever explored endgame in a themepark MMO will have his own fond memories and nostalgic battle stories of the content that was current when he hit the level cap. For me, it was Icecrown Citadel in WoW's Wrath of the Lich King expansion. This was the first raid tier that I actively participated in, having never reached endgame in the previous expansions. To this day, I still haven't matched the exhilaration felt when I finally downed the Lich King after an untold number of wipes. Just one expansion and five levels later, the entirety of Icecrown Citadel could be soloed by freshly geared characters at the new level cap. I can never go back to this beloved raid and experience it as it was. I can technically complete the raid but will never have to watch my feet and use my wits as I did when the content was fresh.

I went on to raid throughout Cataclysm and saw the same effect even within that one expansion: When the Firelands raid was released, the original raid tier suddenly became a lot easier. The level cap had not changed, but Firelands gear made all the difference in terms of both damage dealt and protection given, thus removing the old tier's challenge. Most players had also outgrown the gear that dropped in the previous tier, so there was even less incentive to run these raids. Having separate lockout timers and valor tokens for each of the raids still provided some reward, but the pool of willing raiders was depleted by the perceived futility of completing old raids alongside the newer content.

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Expansions after their best before date

Expansions that came before you began playing are equally rendered obsolete by newer content. You might have paid for every expansion, but the linear nature of the vertical climb means you can't enjoy them in the same way as those who purchased when the expansion was new. I hate thinking about how many raids and dungeons in previous WoW expansions I could have experienced properly when they were current. Any time I get chatting with old-school players they tell stories about how amazing this older content was, and it's frustrating to think that I cannot realistically enjoy it in the same way despite owning the same game and expansions.

I don't like that players miss out on great content that is included in an MMO's purchase price simply because of the date on which they joined the virtual world. There is a clear demand for the ability to turn back the clock, as is evidenced by the emergence of renegade private WoW servers filled with would-be legal players gone rogue in an effort to enjoy the endgame of old. These players shouldn't have to break the terms and conditions of their favourite MMO in order to enjoy it in the manner they see fit when all they want is access to the content they most enjoy.

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Leveling zones are also invalidated content

MMOs offer a variety of different ways to reach the level cap, from quests to dungeons and PvP. By the time you reach endgame, chances are that you haven't experienced everything on offer during the leveling process, so you'd have to roll a new character to enjoy this content at the appropriate level. At the same time, you're sure to have come across a few favourite stomping grounds that you really don't want to leave just because a number on a progress bar dictates it. Linear progression often forces us to move on and ship out of zones as our level increases, whether we wish to or not.

As time goes on, server populations tend to become dense at the level cap and starting zones become all too quiet until finding people to explore with you becomes so difficult that some group leveling content might as well not exist. EverQuest II has a feature that reduces the divide between players of varying levels called mentoring; it allows you to reduce your level to match a lower-leveled groupmate in order to explore content with them. Solo players can similarly reduce their levels through chronomancy, lowering their stats and abilities to any selected level. Guild Wars 2 addressed this problem by scaling the character down to their chosen leveling zone, and characters can even be scaled up for certain world events and RvR PvP.

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WoW is not the only offender, but there is (limited) hope

Although World of Warcraft has been my chosen example to highlight my issues with redundancy in themepark MMOs, these problems are visible in many other titles. Classic MMO EverQuest, among others, realised that new players felt as if they were missing out and addressed this content redundancy by launching progression servers. Progression servers effectively reset the game back to the game's original launch state and then slowly unlock expansion content as time rolls on, allowing the players on these servers to enjoy older content as it was intended to be played.

The popularity of these servers is a convincing indicator that old content should not be rendered useless in an effort to keep us on the grind treadmill with the dangling carrot of new loot and a higher level. The progression server is not a perfect solution since even these servers will eventually reach concurrency, and if you miss the nostalgia train when the server opens up, you can't experience the old content any more than you could on a typical server.

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As noted by the developers behind EverQuest, vertical progression can lead to a level of redundancy that players -- including me -- find unacceptable. My ideal solution is simple and would alleviate the redundancy of older content while still encouraging progression. I would love to see the flexible level changes seen in titles such as Guild Wars 2 explored further, creating a system in which anyone could rescale her characters to the level of the content she wishes to play.

Rather than simply scaling down a character's existing stats and gear, I'd like my toons to have gear wardrobes for each old raid tier that are filled with a suitable baseline of equipment and the option to respec for each tier as appropriate existed. The system would be useful only if it didn't force players to sacrifice precious bag or bank space to store old gear by saving this excess equipment directly in the relevant gear wardrobe tab. Any gear gained through exploring old content could then be saved to this retro wardrobe, ready for use on your next nostalgic adventure.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!