Tobold instigated a recent discussion about what we would want to change to make WoW harder, a discussion which spread to several other blogs. I'm not really interested in that discussion, because the change between Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 made me realize I do not actually want my game to be hard. Why then after many many years of gaming was something so basic such a recent realization to me? And why do so many others claim they want things "harder" despite the overwhelming popularity of WoW, an inherently easy game, above many harder choices?
Obviously we have to start with what it means for a game to be "hard." Since I know of no game mechanic which would make the game harder, but at the same time actually make the player more skilled, we have to assume that anything which makes the game "harder" makes the player more likely to fail. Why would we want that? People do not want to fail, they want to succeed.
So why would we want a game to be hard, or at least think we do? A big part of this lies in psychology. When asked about positive traits such as intelligence, nearly all people believe they are above average. Obviously half are wrong, but the important thing is that humans tend to think they are better than most other humans. When players say they want a game to be "harder," they are imagining OTHER players will be the ones to fail while assuming that they are more skilled and will still succeed.
The heart of many games (especially MMORPGs) lies in delivering a sense of achievement to your players. The sense of achievement gained from a given accomplishment is based largely on the player's perception of how "difficult" the achievement is.
Take, for example, one of the greatest accomplishments that any player achieved in the history of WoW: a level 70 Druid is the first to solo Onyxia. Hours and hours of planning and re-planning, wipe after wipe, and even a little assistance from his buddy on the wandering add. After all that, to bring a 40 man raid boss down by himself. I can only imagine, based on my own much less impressive solo feats, how proud of himself he must have felt.
Now imagine the exact same scenario, only let's say Onyxia (balanced exactly the same) is considered a solo encounter that the majority of players beat easily. Our Druid friend steps in and the same consistent failures at something he believes most others can do lead to a huge amount of frustration. While he is facing exactly the same challenge himself, the perception now is that this is "easy" and he is therefore unskilled for being unable to do it right away which changes his experience drastically. Same game, same encounter, same ACTUAL level of challenge. But this time he will likely quit rather than stick it out and finally pass it.
So I think it boils down to this: we want a game that we perceive to be hard, not one that actually makes us consistently fail.
I now believe this to be the most important key to the popularity of WoW. WoW is a game which any idiot can succeed at, but at the same time that idiot will FEEL as if they are succeeding not because the game is easy, but because they personally are skilled. For instance, gathering up quests and going on quest runs to complete all the tasks along a given path or in a general area makes players feel like good planners, like you are more efficient at completing them than others (even though in reality the other players are all doing the same thing). Or doing instances as you level, which Gevlon is now in the midst of demonstrating can be done by only one or two players significantly lower level than the level of the instance.
The point is, WoW makes you feel like a skilled gamer. I'm sure there are many gamers who are loyal to WoW while being unable to understand why they are good at WoW but bad at so many other games.