Everything we do in a game is voluntary. Yes, there are certain goals that you can only reach by jumping through certain hoops; but as reaching those goals is voluntary, you aren't forced to do anything in a MMORPG. You aren't even forced to play, you can quit at any time. Thus whether you play, and what exactly you do in a game is ruled by a simple calculation: Is the fun you expect from an activity worth the effort and the hassle to do it?
Of course both fun and the perception of effort are highly subjective. But given a large enough population, one can nevertheless observe certain trends. Thus in this post I'm going to look at World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion with regards to the fun vs. effort calculation.
On the fun side Cataclysm suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Yes, getting rewards and collecting gear is fun; but after over 6 years and in the 3rd expansion most people are collecting their umpteenths set of gear, fully knowing that soon it will be replaced by the next set, making the whole exercise somewhat futile. Furthermore Blizzard tried to stop epic-inflation, and that has a negative psychological effect: Collecting blue gear just isn't as much fun as collecting purple gear, regardless of actual stats.
On the effort side, Blizzard deliberately increased the amount of effort needed to get rewards. There were a lot of good reasons to increase the level of challenge in dungeons and heroics. But the developers underestimated the secondary effects that increasing the challenge level has: Harder dungeons take considerably longer to play through, thus even if the challenge doesn't put you off, the time requirement might. And harder dungeons by definition mean more occurences of failure, and pickup groups are notoriously bad at dealing with failure. As we discussed last week, different roles in a pickup group carry different amounts of responsability, leading to certain roles being more likely to be blamed for failure, whether they actually caused the wipe or not. That considerably adds to the hassle side of the equation.
In summary, Cataclysm offers for many players less fun for more effort and hassle. As a consequence the expansion shows serious signs of fatigue after not even 6 months, less than a quarter of its expected lifetime. World of Warcraft expansion usually have a serious dip in subscriber numbers, interest, and player activity in the summer 20 months after release. Cataclysm very much risks to have that dip a year early. With Rift offering a reasonable alternative for people who want to play that sort of themepark MMORPG, and SWTOR coming out in autumn, World of Warcraft is likely to take a serious hit.
That isn't to say "WoW is dying". Half of World of Warcraft's subscribers are Chinese, and they just got Wrath of the Lich King and haven't even started with Cataclysm yet. And of the American und European players, a large percentage is casual players who never do heroics, thus aren't affected at all by the increased difficulty. While the Cataclysm level 80 to 85 zones have their replayability problems, the one thing Cataclysm did right was renovating the level 1 to 60 part of the game, offering casual and new players a lot of stuff to do. So it is mostly the less casual and veteran players that suffer from less fun for more hassle. But as it is usually that sort of players who also run WoW blogs and talk about WoW on the internet, they create a rather strong negative vibe at the moment. Which can't be good for Blizzard.
In hindsight the increase in difficulty level should have been combined with a decrease in dungeon length. Shorter dungeons counter the secondary effects of increased difficulty of taking too long and causing too much strife due to never reaching the end. But of course that is nearly impossible to fix for the developers now. They could nerf the dungeons and shower everybody with epics, but even that at this point is unlikely to keep everybody happy until the next expansion at the end of 2012. What it would take right now to revive everybody's interest in World of Warcraft is bringing out the next expansion much, much earlier, after one year instead of two; but we all know that Blizzard doesn't work like that.
So Cataclysm is going to be remembered by many as the expansion that was less fun, and more hassle. Not a successful formula, if I might say so.