Years ago in the early expansions of EQ1, when you upgraded your armor, it was noticeable. When you acquired alternate advancement points, it made a huge difference. Just leveling and gaining spells you didn't have before made you different. My main had become a beastlord, while my husband was a warrior. We could not duo these two in dungeons in our 20's, 30's or 40's. But we could do so at level 60. We had access to abilities at 60 that made us more powerful so that fights were much easier than they had been previously. And because of this playing at level 60 was a heck of a lot more fun than it had been at 20.
In the early days of SWG, we'd wait in line for our doctor buff and charge into lairs with a dozen mobs pounding on us and survive. But of course this was removed when devs realized we weren't paying $15 a month to have fun, but really to have balanced game play. /sarcasm off
Fast forward to current MMO's. In the latest EQ2 expansion, armor rewards are unlike any I have ever been able to obtain previously. Beyond the usual stat increases, there are also effects such as + to power and health regeneration, spell damage, and healing abilities. At first glance it was a bit exciting. My mediocre mystic might actually be more powerful! But alas, it was not to be. In order to compensate for the better armor, mobs have been tweaked up in difficulty so that if you don't have this armor on, you will be worse off than before. I'm finding as I level, that my characters become weaker.
In LotRO, while I didn't feel weaker as I leveled, my characters were stagnant. It didn't matter that I equipped purple armor much better than what I had. My survivability was the same. Stats were very soft and just didn't make a tremendous difference to game play.
The current trend is to offer just the illusion of power so we think there actually might be something to look forward to as we level. So while the dungeons of Norrath sit empty, we can rejoice in fact that all is fair and balanced. I miss being the hero.