Multiplayer games are inherently competitive, even when they are formally not. While in a single player game the progress of the player is his own only and even mentioning further progress is considered “spoiler”, in multiplayer games, the players compare themselves to others not just because of “keeping up with the Joneses”, but because it’s needed to be able to play together.
In such setting, the progress cannot be defined against the content, only against other players. For example Arthas, the final boss of Icecrown citadel is now a soloable vanity mob with no rewards of value. Back in his heyday (early 2010) he was the ultimate boss and firstkills of him was worthy of mass-viewed videos. His strategies were learned and his drops were valued prizes of the best. I still remember killing him, despite it was somewhere in the summer, not when he was fresh.
The important thing is that today’s soloable vanity boss is the very same Arthas. What changed is the progression level of the players around him. This isn’t a thing in solo games, if I grab an oldie from 2010 which I never played, I can play it like it was 2010, assuming I didn’t look up spoilers.
This causes the inherent competition: Arthas does not have inherent value, defeating him and taking his loot is valued only against the progression level of others. In January 2010 it was awesome, in the summer it was decent, today it’s irrelevant. This is the mindset the players are in, regardless the devs like it or not. This is why yesterday’s hot zone is a ghost town.
In this inherently competitive community, catering to a group (helping their progression) automatically damages the progression of other players. For example if the WoW devs would double the damage of gnomes, all the non-gnome players would be outraged, despite their avatars and the content they are facing didn’t change. What changed is their relative position to gnome players. After the change, a casual gnome player has higher DPS than a top non-gnome. Raids would want gnomes and all competitive players would roll gnomes and soon even pugs wouldn’t take non-gnomes, despite the content was and still is doable without them (just like they demand overgearing for normal raid pugs).
Now, probably not even a WoW dev is dumb enough to double the damage of the gnomes, because – even if he is unaware of the above – he is implicitly feeling that such gnome-buff would be wrong. However the devs – or rather the suits behind them – doesn’t have such problems catering to other groups, like “casuals”, “whales”, “time-rich players” or even botters (by not banning them as they pay subscription). They don’t seem to realize that by doing so, they damage the relative progression of other players (even if they are technically not changed) and decrease their satisfaction with the game.
Developers have to understand that anything that affect the progression of anyone affects the progression of everyone. Giving welfare to one group is equal to decreasing the progression of the rest of the players. Allowing progression methods unavailable to others (like botting, playing 10+ hours) directly hurt the progression of these “others”.
This is why devs should – from the beginning – stick to a niche, a group that has shared ideas about the game and cater to them. If changes happen in the focus in the name of “expanding the playerbase”, the result is necessarily the decreased satisfaction of the old playerbase, even if technically they aren’t affected. Let me give a clear example: if the dev wants to cater to a casual playerbase, then limiting the weekly playtime to 21 hours would be a very good idea. However a suit would come showing the amount of angry forum post about it and say “hey, let’s also cater to the time-rich, not like it affects the others”, and suddenly he gets better PR and better next quarter subscriptions. However the original casual base who are no longer competitive and are viewed as “scrubs” by the community for their “shit gear” are less than happy. Along comes the suit, demanding catch-up mechanisms and welfare gear, and suddenly those who put in no effort at all are competitive and everyone else is mad and leaving. Then of course the suit will consider the game “beyond its prime” fire the developers and only keep a maintenance crew to run the servers, oblivious to the fact that the game would still be strong and earning 3x more if he would allow the devs to stick to the 21 hours per week rule.
Summary: since MMOs are inherently competitive, the devs must anger those who are not the targeted group and accept the fact that they will leave to keep the targeted group. Catering to a non-targeted group will damage the relative progress of the targeted group and make them leave.