I've been out of the game for quite a while, but eventually (like so many people), I came back because I wanted to continue playing with friends and there was a bunch of new content in the meantime to try out. By far the content of the game I played the most, all the way since the launch of the game, was fractals. I knew I would be rusty and I would probably die a few times, but that'd be okay, so long as I would still have fun. Unfortunately, after getting back into the game, I was back to nearly the skill level I was before in every part of the game (including raids), except fractals. Fractals just isn't what it used to be.
- On launch (lets call it the first iteration), fractals was a series of random levels you played in a row. No breaks in between. To my knowledge, this taught the developers it was better to split them into separate levels, so people didn't have to all levels over if they failed only the last one.
- In my opinion, the time after that (the second iteration) was the best suited style for fractals. It was accessible to all, people learned the mechanics of each fractal as they increased their personal fractal level, and even at tier 4, it could be forgiven if 1 person of your party wasn't as good as those who've done it for a long time. This made it so anybody could join, even at the highest tier. No toxicity or elitism required, and good rewards to keep it interesting for everyone. Sure, at some moments, people really wanted a specific party composition to blaze through it as fast as possible (e.g. 4 minion masters and a chrono), but other than that everyone could play it the way they wanted and in my experience, there was very little complaint if someone didn't run a meta build.
- After not having any updates to fractals in a while, it was given attention again (the thirds iteration). New fractals were added and existing ones were revamped to clarify the stories they were telling. The Chaos, Nightmare, and Mistlock Observatory fractals created an interesting arc, though the length of these got increasingly longer, introducing the problems from the first iteration back in. It also introduced Challenge Motes, which opened up the path for people who were looking for more challenge (mostly raiders who were limited to rewards per week instead of per day). A less desirable side effect of this was that these people would also do T4, but demanded meta builds and parties. This also led to more toxicity and elitism, making fractals less accessible to everyone and more to those who wanted more challenging content. The big difference between raids and CM fractals at this point was the fact that boss fights didn't take as long and were not reliant on mechanics.
- At this point, I hadn't played in a while and when I came back, there was a fourth iteration of fractals. After having played the old and new fractals, with revamped mistlock instabilities, I don't know to who fractals now is supposed to cater. Several combinations of mistlock instabilities and fractals are now total party kills if 2 players are not at raid-level or have meta builds with proper mastery of a rotation. The new fractals remain longer, have more bosses, more mechanics, and higher difficulty. The prime example of this is Siren's Reef, where the final fight at T4 will have you fight not only a boss that moves around, but also dozens of enemies, environmental knockback, green circles, red circles, and a relatively small area to place these red circles. This is a very large jump in difficulty from the fractals in previous iterations. This would also strangely enough make the fractals in this iteration harder than most raids, party because a death in fractals reduces your party by 20% instead of 10%, so compensating is much more challenging.
All this concludes to my question: what is the purpose of fractals in light of the content it adds to the game? Given that only 1/3rd of all fractals are either challenging or have a challenge mote, people who are looking for a challenge will be bored by 2/3rd of the content. It also doesn't cater to raiders who were looking for similar content, because unlike raids, fractal bosses don't rely much on observation, timed/reactive mechanics, or cooperation. It doesn't cater to people who played fractals before either, since updates to fractals make it less and less like it was and more like something completely different. And finally, it doesn't cater to people who just want to casually play (though that has never really been the case). People who can play up to T3 will find a very large gap when trying to get into T4, given the additional mistlock instability and expectations of other players.
Personally, I would really like the difficulty to be scaled down and leave CM as-is for those who want to keep the challenge for those who want more of that in the game. Raids will be there for those who wish for a tight cooperative experience. Fractals can then be played by anyone with basically any party composition or be a step in between difficulty of open world and raids.
I hope you'll take this feedback under consideration.