I have a post half written with some advice on getting to be a raid tank in Cataclysm. It’s based on my experiences with raid tanking in Wrath, with some guesses about how the next expansion might differ. And while drafting it out, I learned a few things about how I feel about expansions.
First comer advantage
One assumption that flew out at me was the being there right at the beginning of the expansion. It’s much easier to get involved if you are at max level and ready to raid when most of the raid groups are still forming and still recruiting.
At the start of an expansion, the social structures are likely to be in flux. People are making plans right now, but even the best of plans can crumble when hit by reality. People will change their minds, they’ll decide they prefer a different alt or spec to the one they were planning, they’ll get seduced into different raid groups by charismatic raid leaders. It takes awhile for that to all work itself out, and that’s the easiest time to get involved.
Aside from the social side of things being less fixed, at the beginning of an expansion you get to learn the content alongside everyone else. In the past players have been more tolerant of mistakes or learning wipes, less critical of gear levels, more willing to work together. So even though the content itself was relatively harder, it was easier to learn through experience.
Of course, in the past we didn’t also have the random dungeon finder. It will be very interesting to see how that affects instance runs at the start of Cataclysm. I predict that again there will be an early advantage – the type of player who levels quickly (quickly here just means within the first month or so) are the keener ones who may also be the more hardcore. Or it may be that people will stick to guild runs and LFG will be a lonely place for awhile.
Front loaded content
Part of the issue is that an expansion contains a large amount of new content in a single push. All the new zones and levelling content as well as multiple 5 man instances leads to a lot of learning. First comers will have plenty of time to do this before the first content patch. Players who level later can feel pushed through the initial expansion content so that they can get to the current endgame. They’ll never get the content pace perfect. Hardcore players will always push through quickly and get bored. Later players will always feel either pushed into the endgame too quickly or else frustrated because the endgame is so inaccessible.
But for a brief shining moment at the beginning of a new expansion, the endgame is reset and everyone is on the same level. Lots of people want to buy crafted gear again. Levelling zones are busy and there is plenty of interest in group quests. People are chattier. It won’t last for long, maybe a few months, but once the moment is gone, it’s gone until the next expansion.
I have wondered before if there’s a way to stretch out this honeymoon period. But all I could think was to drip feed new players into the content a bunch at a time, which won’t make anyone happy. Or release smaller expansions more frequently, which would frustrate endgame players who prefer to relax into an endgame mode rather than having to relearn everything once a year.
Ultimately the only long term solution is more horizontal content, rather than more vertical, which would reduce the effect that progression in one area of the game would have in the rest. And in the very longterm? Maybe progression itself is one of the sacred cows that will have to be sacrificed ..