The problem of old content, and is recycling the answer?

Anyone else love gossip and speculating about games you know nothing about? Yeah, me too. I was pondering the next WoW expansion a few weeks ago and mentioned in passing the notion that they might come totally out of left field and rework old Azeroth in its entirety. Except I didn’t really think it was a serious option.

I’m still not convinced about the latest Cataclysm leaks, although we’ll know more very soon since Blizzcon is this weekend. Me, I suspect some of the leaks will turn out to be true (new race/class combos might be a smart way of luring people into rerolling without actually having to generate any extra content). I’m still dubious about the sheer amount of work that would be involved in redoing everything in vanilla WoW.

But one thing is for sure, people have reacted with excitement about the possibility of revisiting their favourite old zones and instances in an up to date 2010 edition. Even the one raid boss who we know for sure is being revamped, Onyxia, has stirred plenty of interest.

The Problem of Old Content

In MMOs I have played, PvE content has a definite life cycle.

  1. It is new and a bit buggy. People flock to do it. They abandon the old zones they used to hang out in.
  2. Bugs are ironed out, content is better tuned. People complain about nerfs. More people flock to do it.
  3. Content becomes old hat. It stays popular if it is either fun, required, or offers good rewards for time put in.
  4. New content is patched in, go to #1.
  5. (Old content stays in the game, but no one goes there any more. It becomes part of the game’s mythology. Old players tell new ones about what things were like ‘back in the day’ when the old zones were busy. New players shrug and get on with the new stuff.)

We see this particularly with new expansions in games like WoW. The expansion is intended to reset the endgame, so the old endgame content is meant to be mostly abandoned. There are no relevant challenges or rewards there any more.

Even if the old instances could get revamped a bit, it doesn’t solve the problem that a lot of players are bored with them anyway and just don’t want to go back. So you can easily end up with vast areas in the game where no one ever goes. Perhaps the occasional exploring newbie will stumble into it, unaware that it’s not on the optimal levelling path.

Now aside from the fact that it’s quite atmospheric to have empty zones as well as full ones, this always feels a bit sad. And while there are ways to keep the old zones busy, they’re just not as exciting for players as a constant stream of new content.

But … could a cataclysm in which every old zone got a total revamp — new graphics, new quests, new updated storyline — could that be the way to make everything old seem new again? Maybe it could.

Aside from the fearsome amount of work (yeah I’m still not convinced), what better way to lure back old players who had quit than the offer of cool fun things to do in the zones which they remember? And that’s exactly the audience Blizzard needs to be looking for at the moment. To add some extra charm, reviving 5-year old content in this way is far enough in the past that even old players who ran it to exhaustion might be over the boredom and ready to go check it out again. So maybe, just maybe, the leaks are on the money…