Back in July, Noisms, of Monsters and Manuals, posted about how D&D is about ambition, if you're looking at it from an 'indie gamer/GNS' type way.
I think this holds true for the TSR versions of the game, but definitely fails in the WotC versions of the game.
I think it all boils down to the leveling mechanics compared to the game world. In old school D&D, you have to struggle to level up, but when you do you see a noticeable increase in your powers. You get more hit points, better saving throws, more spells, better at class skills. And that's not even factoring in the magical loot you may acquire.
Higher level characters in OD&D, Classic D&D, and AD&D fight better, make more saving throws, and just have more power (both personal and social) than lower level characters. Sure, there are bigger monsters to fight, and challenges still for those high level characters, but there are rewards to that ambition to achieve those heights of power.
In d20 D&D, you really don't get that reward for your ambition. You get more powerful, but the challenges scale with you. Yes, there's a certain logic to higher level spellcasters' spells being harder to save against compared to lower level ones. Yes, there's some benefit to being able to increase a kobold up to 10th level to challenge the 10th level party.
But where's the sense of achievement? You get better at making saving throws, but the DCs of the things you need to save against increase at the same pace. You get more hit points and better at whacking stuff, but so do the goblins and feral/half-vampire/fiendish/anarchic gelatinous cubes.
It really does feel like the CRPG grind. No matter how good you get, the opponents are still just as good, the battles as hard (against the same opponents even!), and it's still just as hard to disarm that trap or ensorcel that enemy.
I haven't played that much of 4E, but I've seen enough to make me think it's the same. We were playing The Keep on the Shadowfell, and the 'boss' of a cave of kobolds was a goblin. With over 100 hit points. And this was an opponent for 1st level characters!
The scale has changed, but it's really just the same as in OD&D, only instead of doing 1d6 damage and being able to take that goblin down with one or two hits potentially, weapons only do 1 point of damage, so you need to whack that goblin leader 10 times to take him down.
And it seems again (from my limited experience, I could be wrong here), that 4E is again designed to 'move the goal posts' as you advance in level.
There's no real reward for advancing in level with that kind of system. You don't get better in any real sense, things just get more complex. You've got more powers and abilities to play with, but since the opposition is that much tougher, you're still struggling just as hard to overcome them, but having to manage that much more stuff in game.
You're adding complexity only.
I wonder what's the appeal of that sort of game. Sure, you level up and get more powerful, but does it really feel like you're more powerful in play?
In older editions, you fought goblins at lower levels and they were a challenge, then as you get higher you face things like owlbears and displacer beasts, and they are a challenge but goblins are a piece of cake. Then you get higher, and dragons or giants become the main challenges, and those displacer beasts don't seem so hard any more. And eventually your Monty Haul DM throws you up against Orcus and Tiamat together and you blow through them easily.
But with 3E/4E, you could be facing those goblins all the way up, if the DM so chooses. And it's just as hard to defeat them at 15th level as it was at 2nd. And you've got to spend long amounts of time going through your huge lists of powers, magic items, and spells to defeat those 15th level goblins, when at low levels you could actually manage everything well enough in your head.
I just don't get it. Where's the reward?