On flying and World of Warcraft
Okay. I’ve been mulling this one over since Ion Hazzikostas’ interview this week. And it’s not going to make me a lot of friends, I expect. So best to just rip the band-aid off and go for it. I think Blizzard’s analysis of the effects of flight on quest and world design is spot on. I think flying absolutely does remove danger from the world, shrinks the zones down, and trivializes a whole host of quests. I don’t think any of this is in dispute — one of the reasons we like flying is because once you have it, you can fly over annoying mobs to get to the herb or ore nodes in the world, go over terrain obstacles with ease and thus avoid being channeled into exploring what we were intended to explore. It definitely and absolutely makes things feel safer and easier. Ion is absolutely right — flying detracts from gameplay in a host of ways.
But taking it away from the player base is worse.
I understand the desire to put the genie back in its bottle. As a leveling experience, Warlords has felt much better than the Cataclysm 80 to 85 with complete open world flying did, and it even tops the excellent Mists of Pandaria questing — but Mists didn’t allow flying until you reached a zone you couldn’t access until 77 or 78, so at most you have flying for a couple of levels. The fact remains that while not having flying until max level absolutely makes sense and provides a sense of tension and danger for players, not having flight at max level really only matters for a few daily quests and the Garrison Campaign, and it would be easy enough to simply restrict flying while completing those objectives without disabling it forever.
We have had flying mounts since Burning Crusade. They’ve become an ingrained part of the game for many players. Players go out of their way to acquire them, they pay extra gold to fly at maximum speed. Blizzard has actually sold flying mounts for real money. By this point, simply declaring “We think they have detrimental effects on gameplay” feels like a bit of a cop out. It’s making a design choice that makes design easier — now you don’t have to come up with a way to keep flying mounts from trivializing old-style questing — but one that has a negative effect on many players’ enjoyment of the game.
I don’t particularly care if we don’t have flying in Warlords of Draenor, and I’m not particularly concerned that we won’t have it going forward. But what I am concerned with is the feeling of other players who do care. Admittedly, my method is completely unscientific. I listen to my friends in game, the players I talk to on Twitter. What I’m seeing is the following: There are people who don’t particularly care, and people who are very angry that flying is gone. I have seen a few players who are actually glad flying is gone. I have interacted with players who want flying gone until they reach max level, and a few who want it gone entirely, but the majority seem to enjoy everything we’ve listed about how flight trivializes gameplay, because they’ve bought into the message that World of Warcraft has been selling since Burning Crusade — namely that leveling and max level play are different worlds and they should feel different.
These players want the world to feel smaller and safer once they’re at max level. They want to be able to explore the way they want to. They want the freedom to avoid all of those mobs and just open the cage and fly off. They’ve done the work of leveling — they’ve fought their way through those mobs, explored those zones, been frustrated by the unclimbable hill with that tantalizing cave at the top. At max level, they have done as the game has demanded for years and shifted their focus to dungeons and raids, and now they want their interaction with the world at large to be easier. They see hitting max level as graduation — they’re big heroes now, they don’t have to sweat the small stuff. This is part and parcel of the experience the game has been promising players for years now, repeated in every expansion to date save Cataclysm.
It’s not fair or accurate to say that this is the biggest problem with endgame in Warlords. I find myself wondering if more players would be out in the world exploring if they felt the empowering freedom to do so – without being chained to jumping puzzles that don’t work very well in WoW’s current engine, for example, more might explore Nagrand or Spires of Arak. I know I’d be more inclined to revisit Gorgrond if I could feel free to just explore it, taking the time to get a good look at the lush scenery. Flying gives max level players a sense of empowerment, of finally having hit the point where the once dangerous world is less so and you can turn your focus to the big threats, the ones in dungeons and raids — the places you can’t fly in.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have had flying in Northrend at all — we wouldn’t have gotten so attached to it, we wouldn’t have gone after various flying mounts that dropped from bosses, we wouldn’t have grown accustomed to it. But over the past decade, flying has grown from a nifty feature to a mainstay. It’s even a druid class feature. Making flying something that is restricted I absolutely understand and support. Simply removing it from relevance entirely excuses the designers from having to design with it in mind, and it takes away from the players to accomplish this. All those things that make flying detrimental to gameplay are exactly why players enjoy it. It allows players to overcome gameplay.
That says to me that you need to design new models of gameplay that flying doesn’t overcome, or accept that it’s healthy for the game to allow players to avoid it after having completed it already. Flight at max level doesn’t keep the world from having felt huge and dangerous when it counted, when it was actually leveling content — it simply allows players to say to that content “I’m back” and get a sense of triumph over those limitations. And that’s as good as letting them come back to a zone in gear from a raid and demolish mobs that once threatened them. That’s not an experience to lament, it’s one to savor.
As a friend said to me on this topic, what’s next? Will we disallow raid gear because it trivializes open world content? Think back to your SoO geared characters on the Timeless Isle – while players in gear available from the island struggled, players in the gear from Siege would simply gather up as many yaungol as they could and AoE them down. Is that going away next? It makes quests trivial, the world feels less dangerous. No, it shouldn’t go away because it’s all part of the promise the game makes – you will grow more powerful. Being able to fly is just another kind of power.
In the end I hope Blizzard reconsiders this decision. The removal of flight is the removal of a tool you can use to keep players feeling invested, motivated, and powerful. Work with it, not against it.
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