Old trance was not more simple than modern trance, it was actually much more complex. And that's what made it better overall. That's not to say that there isn't complex modern trance being released now but my view is that in the old days far fewer producers bothered to produce the simple kind of stuff we hear so much of these days.
The reason for the complexity is simple. Vinyl sales could earn producers decent money. There was no piracy and decent money could also be earned from remixing. So, your reputation, originality and individuality matter a lot.
Old record labels had a far smaller output than the current lot. I mean some labels today seem to be releasing 15 - 20 tracks a month (FSOE, tranceallstars). Even Solastone's labels seem to be putting out about 5 tracks a month! Contrast this to a legendary label like Hooj Choons who probably put out an average of one release a month.
So when you produced in the old days it had to be good, it had to be clever and a lot of it was indeed highly complex. The period between 1997 - 2002 is probably where the greatest complexity can be heard. Now there is very little money to be made from actual sales of singles so to make money it seems like you are having to produce 50 tracks a year, if not more.
If you look at the discography of your average trance producer on Beatport you'll probably find hundreds of tracks in the last 10 years. When you have such a high output then of course the creativity is going to fall by the wayside and there will be a huge number of copy and paste/template type jobs.
At a quick glance Darren Porter has about 400 releases and remixes spanning from 2011 to the present day. Back in the 90s a producer could spend months on producing a single track - e.g. Chicane - Offshore took at least 5-6 months to produce?
The advent of massive stadium trance gigs in the modern era and their lucrative pull also meant that simple tunes that were loud and could catch the attention of the entire stadium were the order of the day for DJs who played in these venues, which in turn spawned more producers who made this kind of music and so on....
Back in the old days DJs played in smaller clubs to much smaller and more discerning crowds who could appreciate the complexity of something that was 10+ minutes long and had many twists and turns, and ups and down. Now that's true art.
All good points here...but when you think about it, Airwave's biggest classics have been finished in a couple of hours. Armin has said the same thing I think. And let's use both here as an example. Airwave's music is much more complex now, even if it seems simple. Musically, even. A lot more hours are spent carefully tweaking stuff and listening to it again and again - I mean, I bet he even knows much more about the theory than he did back then.
Plus, both of those, legends that they are, have put out loads of stuff in their early careers. A lot of it stuck and we know about those. But if you listened to every release they did back in the day, you'll find that they had a lot of stuff which reused lots of their components from their popular tracks. Armin has used his Touch Me bassline in at least 5 different tracks that I know of. They were generic (but by their standards), and mostly remixes. So even they did sometimes mass-produce for the sake of money, popularity or whatever. You can tell there wasn't a lot of effort involved with some of those.
I'm actually thinking the early tracks were maybe better because they went with the flow because they had to. You get a studio session, you make the most of it. That's something which I recognize as a producer - whenever I'm in the flow while creating something, I love the end result (even though it's not perfect or even finished). I find that when I stop and return to it after a while, I can't improve the track, and that whatever I do, I'll ruin it in some way.
Plus, let's be honest, at least back then people were not afraid of discovering something, exploring...now it feels like we've heard everything, nobody has any ideas, they are just fusing sub-genres endlessly. There's just too much context and standardization going on. Nobody has any fresh ears, and those who could bring something new don't really care about trance.