When all the good of the gameplay is locked within memory and there are no current efforts which could build future nostalgia, something is very wrong.
To understand the topic, we have to understand memory and nostalgia.
Memory is in the brain. The brain is finite. Therefore memory is finite.
Since memory is finite, the brain has to prune memory. Recent memories must exist, and so some earlier memories have to fade.
Memory is a tool for us to learn from our experiences. Without it, we'd often make the same mistakes over and over instead of making more beneficial choices.
So what kinds of memories would be most beneficial for us to keep? The positive and negative ones.
It's oversimplified to say that positive memories reflect good choices. I'm certain there are nuances such as morale that are reinforced by positivity. Still, positive memories can be seen as important to the brain, as it does not prune them as much as it could.
Negative memories, like mistakes and regrets, are also kept. Many are nigh impossible to forget. With a significant amount of time, bits and pieces of the details may fade, leaving a "feeling". Even when faded, there's still some remnant of such memories.
Pruning is done on memories which are not thought on for some time. For example, memories which apply to situations not experienced in some time. Thoughts which are held or repeated will stay in memory much longer. Study, practice and intentional memorization are examples of leveraging this mechanism.
Memory is inexact. We are not capable of recording all input from all senses. Perhaps this is a limitation of the speed by which our brain "records". Perhaps input has to be queued before recording, so it can be internally-examined and prioritized.
Not only is recording inexact, but storage and subsequent recall is inexact. Memories can be mulled over and relevant pieces can be recalled but the entirety of any experience cannot be exactly recalled by most people. The brain stories only pieces, and after time it pruned less relevant pieces. So to recall an event, the brain stitches together what it can and fills in the blanks with assumptions. Sometimes the recall of those pieces helps the future recall of additional minor details, but sometimes the brain falsifies memories.
Yes, memory can be self-falsified. I understand that this is most visible when working with children, that their suggestibility is so high it can be demonstrated they can be given false memories. It's creepy as all hell to imagine this, but it's understandable given their underdeveloped brains.
I first learned about that from an academic describing the invalid court case which started the child abuse in daycare/etc scare in the 1980s. What came to light was the accuser, a mentally disturbed woman, fingered a man. The methods used to "interview" the child as the only witness were demonstrated to falsify memory and responses.
Nostalgia is taking bits of positive and often trivial or useless memories and keeping them dear in the mind. They are reflected upon, especially in related situations.
They are "the good old days".
Nostalgia is, however, inexact like all other memory. It is the fragments of positive experiences surviving the pruning process. Mulled over and stitched together with assumptions filling the blanks.
For developers of online gaming, their product is a moving target. The main product is published, and future "expansions" or "updates" bring additional content.
Games which are sandboxed allow players to entertain themselves for significantly longer than other games. Games which have player-versus-player (PvP) content, such as competitions, have additional replaybility since there are fresh players with fresh tactics.
On top of sandboxes and PvP, games try to have a significant amount of variety. This can be seen with classes, equipment and other gameplay-influencing variations.
Even with all of these things, gameplay is finite. For a game to remain relevant it must have additional content.
Old content ∞
If developers want their product to continue to sell subscriptions, they must continue to produce content. This creates a divide between "new" and "old" content.
Goals, philosophies, styles and methods will change over time. Staff come and go as development continues.
Some developers assume that "new content" also means a need to make changes to the game or gameplay. This makes no sense to me. If a player likes it, they want it. They don't want something else. Arbitrary changes under the assumption that the game becomes fresh and new are a terrible idea.
Still, non-content gameplay changes are done for all sorts of other quite good reasons. Adjustments to the market is a debatable excuse, but concepts such as removing exploits or balance are valid.
Nostalgia and old content ∞
While old memories and therefore nostalgia relate to old content, they also relate to a version of the game and that earlier environment. They relate to times before game mechanics adjustments or changes in the player base.
A player who returns to old content will feel a sort of nostalgic regret. They will compare their present-day experiences with their fragmented memory that only vaguely take into account non-content changes.
The version of "the good old days" is a little different for a gamer revisiting old content. They may find they don't currently like what they thought they loved at the time. They may be dismayed at how things have changed since those times. They will probably feel a sort of regret.
Developer focus ∞
Developers of a product of significant age do not recognize the power of nostalgia. They correctly understand the need to have development resources put toward new content. They may or may not understand non-content adjustments. They definitely don't understand the value of their old content.
The more aged a game is, the more old content there will be. More old content is more nostalgia. While the culture of the developers may change, the "culture" of the game's old content will not. If new content does not pay significant homage to its old content roots, then player nostalgia will work against their feelings toward new content.
Player obsolescence ∞
A player's gamer-age is linked to a game's content-age. The "older" the gamer is, the more nostalgia they will have for the oldest content. They are significantly different from a new player.
Players "die". Maybe their interests change, they get busy or they literally die. However it happens, a player base will thin out over time. Developers recognize this and want to bring in new players. "Fresh blood" comes from a population of players who do not have nostalgia to a game's old content. They come from a marketplace where all the forward-facing fronts of competing games are showing new content.
These forward-facing fronts all want to show off the latest and greatest that games have to offer. This competitive front makes games continue to produce new content and make mechanics and other changes which evolve and diverge from their earlier versions and oldest content.
Old content must inevitably become obsolete. The oldest and most nostalgic players are obsoleted alongside old content. They are abandoned.
The advantage of elders ∞
Particularly ancient games do not recognize the value of either their old content or their old player base. The older a game is, the more "die hard" its oldest players are. They are sincere, active and wizened. They are also the foundation upon which the new culture of players grows.
Paying homage to elder gamers isn't something to take lightly. These players are valuable not just for their far-reaching tendrils in a game's community, but because they are a great influence on a game's footprint in the marketplace.
Gaming is now a mature enough market that games are being passed on to the next generation. This has been done with computer and console games for decades now, and a few of the eldest online games are becoming capable of the same thing.
Parents are starting to introduce online games to their children. I don't think many developers understand how valuable this is. Marketing has long held the value in directly selling products to children so they can nag their parents into purchases. Gaming now has cases where it's reversed.
Building new content for nostalgia ∞
If nostalgia is valued, then new content must be built with it in mind. This means a unbroken line connecting old content to new content.
While the forward-facing new-content must be blown by the winds of marketplace competition, the old content must stay connected. Instead of thinking of old content like an anchor which must be left behind if a game is to "continue on", old content should be thought of as the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built.
New content should be proud of old content. Old players should be welcomed into new content. Nostalgia should be warmed by updates.
Maintaining old content ∞
In order to maintain a connection between the eldest, older and new content, a general theme needs to be maintained. Connection can be made between old and new by spending development time on old content. Even if the connection is illusory, the purpose is served.
Every time new content is released, old content must be updated. Old content should be updated more often then new content when there is more of it. These "maintenance" changes must be gentle. Jarring adjustments damage nostalgia, which is why many small changes are better than fewer and larger changes.
Maintenance as replayability ∞
Right now, developers seem to be making minimal changes to, or entirely abandoning, old content. The oldest games should instead be diverting significant resources to maintaining old content for their existing and oldest players.
Sometimes this is merely to maintain the unbroken connection between the oldest and newest content, but it can also be thought of as making the old content both playable to new players and replayable to older and nostalgic players.
However, gentle changes are a long way off from replayability.
Replayability of obsolete content ∞
Old content cannot be made replayable. However, there is a substitute. Where new content is the vanguard for the whole game, extending it forward, additions to old content are filling in what's already been produced.
The best way to create the illusion of replayability is by finishing old content. New content, when it is released, is frequently released unfinished. Loose ends of stories and entire areas are not completed in time for publication. Withholding an update is impossible for most developers, and so they must release what they have in as good a condition as they can make it.
Remember that programming is an art, not an act of construction.
New content has strict constraints, but old content does not. Its updates can be done at leisure and largely without pressure. Also, additions to old content is relatively unobtrusive to the development process as a whole.
Resources put toward old content ∞
General maintenance of and additions to old content have some value. However, there is no simple way to define what amount of resources must be devoted toward them. The vague answer would be "whatever is left over", though there usually isn't anything left and even if there were, more than leftovers should be allotted.
Just as old content has nostalgia for players, it has nostalgia for developers. The staff within a company can have their own version of nostalgia rekindled. There is value in encouraging old content improvement for developer morale.
Companies usually begin with barely adequate internal processes which are thereafter refined. Further-developing old content doesn't need to bring the regrets of earlier days. New processes, tools and other resources can be brought to bear on old problems. This should help remove developer hesitation.
Less pressure from time constraints, the fulfillment of completing earlier ideas and solving old problems with new tools are great motivators.
To begin, some minimal amount must be allotted to these efforts. That amount can be increased as the player's react positively to it.
Lastly, a developer must not be bashful about stating the necessity of balance between general product improvement, new content production, and the maintenance and extension of old content. Players, most especially the eldest, will be supportive.