"No MMO is so inexhaustibly rich in content that the dev team can afford to throw away entire zones."
I couldn't agree more. Yet, for no sane seeming reason, MMO developers do this all the time. Forget about the old, in with the new!
Take the Catacombs in Dark Age of Camelot. It used to be some of my favorite content when I was playing in the early 2000s. When I returned to DAoC a few years ago, I found a PvE game that was much richer than I remembered from the previous decade. There were two entirely different chains of PvE quests, a new one running through the main zones of the game and another much older series of quests that ran through the Catacombs. About six months after I started playing, Mythic effectively amputated Catacombs. All of content in the zones was cut out so the zones could be repurposed for raids. In the process, the amount of solo PvE content in the game got cut by nearly half.
I don't like raiding, so it was a net loss for me. I also never understood why Mythic couldn't have created duplicates of the zones and left the old quests in place in the original zones. Adding insult to injury, the gear that you earn in those raids is now much easier to earn with bounty points (which can be obtained solo) than by running the raids. The raids have very little reason to exists now, and all the quests I remember with rosy nostalgia from when I used to play in the 00s are still gone.
Mythic is far from alone. The most recent large update to Destiny 2, Beyond Light, removed entire planets. I had only been playing the game for a little over a month at the time. The update removed Mercury, Mars, Titan and several other whole large areas from the game. Most of what they removed I had yet to even set foot on, and it absolutely killed my enthusiasm. Instead of being excited about all the new content being added, all I could do was mourn the loss of zones I would never get to explore. Destiny is another game community I don't really follow. However, in general players don't seem all that enamored by the shakeup, with current Steam reviews of Beyond Light trending "Mostly Negative."
Other notable examples include the Cataclysm expansion in WoW, which set all the old levelling zones on fire (in some cases literally) to make room for revamped zones. At the time I enjoyed the changes, but hindsight has not been kind to the expansion. It's now widely considered the expansion where Blizzard started to lose their way. There was also something called the NGE, where an entire game was pretty much ripped out and replaced with some other game using the same setting and art assets. Players were not amused.
I can see why developers amputate systems. In many cases the only way to implement a new system, like switching character development from skill lines to classes, is to remove and replace it. What really baffles me are designers that seem eager to remove entire zones, with all of their content. Play zones are an absolutely enormous amount of work to produce. The art, the writing, the items that you can earn; game designers put their hearts and souls into all of it. When you remove a zone from a game you are likely removing thousands of person hours of work from a product. In a series of offline game players can always load up older editions of the game if they want to. Not so in a MMO. If you close off areas they are simply gone, and all the work from that designers put into them has basically vanished.
Losing explorable content hurts especially hard in a MMO. One of the main reasons I love MMOs so much is because they give me the illusion of exploring a living breathing world. There are two things that really make MMOs pop for me. Other players, the knowledge that there is a real person behind so many of the digital avatars I encounter, are a big part of it. However that's not enough by itself. The other half of the equation for me is the places themselves, how enormous they tend to be and how permanent they feel. The feeling that I could spend months there seeing new sights and having unexpected new adventures. The knowledge that like any real place, things still happen and change when I'm not around.
When developers decide to rip content out of game, that sense of endless possibilities is diminished. Of course it makes the game smaller in a literal sense of diminished virtual real-estate. However, it also reminds me that the game is not a real place, and that ultimately MMOs are as impermanent as any other game that ceases to exist when you shut off your PC. Further, if the developers don't care enough about the content they build to even bother to keep it around when they add newer content, why should I get invested in any of it?
Now of course there are a lot of very good, or at least explicable, reasons for developers to retire zones. To keep players from getting too spread out as the geography of a game expands. To reduce the footprint of a game on storage devices. To stop players from wandering into older areas that no-longer meet expectations for design quality. So that the lore of the game makes mores sense, and players aren't wandering between zones with story lines that obviously take them back and forth in time. I could go on.
Yet all too often it doesn't feel like these or similar sensible reasons to me. Frequently it feels like zone amputations happen for some combination of one of two reasons: (1) To force players to buy new content by removing old content that competes with it or (2) New designers want to put their stamp on a game, and place little value on the things that designers before them built. Rather than a a reluctant choice forced by the holistic needs of the game and the player base, too often content removal feels like greed or hubris.
If you aren't sure whether to leave a zone in or take it out, maybe it's better to err on the side of making your game a bigger, better value for players. More importantly, maybe it's better to err on the side of not ticking off everyone that likes the zones. Sure some players won't care much one way or another. But in a MMO, the ones that do care will likely care deeply.