Why Flight Is So Controversial in Online Games

The sky in Final Fantasy XIV is full of catgirls on broomsticks and elves on dragonback. In World of Warcraft, orcs glide along in giant metal rockets and humans steer horse-sized birds across miles of desert. In the decade-plus since flying first came to massively multiplayer online role-playing games, digital airspace has become as populated as the ground, maybe even more so.

When game developers introduced flying to online superhero game City of Heroes and World of Warcraft in the mid-aughts, it changed the MMORPG genre forever—both for better and for worse. One of humanity’s greatest wishes, it turns out, has sparked major controversy in the world of video games. For years, dedicated players have grumped that flying makes online games less social, too easy, even mercenary. Some developers have even implied that, if they could, they would withdraw flying entirely from their games. But like Pandora’s Box of game mechanics, flying is here to stay.

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Distance was a defining feature of the first major MMORPGs by design. “Early MMOs didn’t have a ton of content,” says Jack Emmert, CEO of Dimensional Ink Games, makers of DC Universe Online. These games relied on subscriptions to make money, but developers couldn’t release an entire new world every month to keep players engaged. Instead, Emmert says, “Every trick was pulled. I shouldn’t say ‘trick.’ But everything was created in a way that forced players to keep playing over and over again. It made sense to have distance.” The time it took to bring a questgiver their thingie was a feature—at least for developers—and not a bug.

Mired to the ground, players might spend 20 or 30 minutes at a time trudging across a continent to their destination (less if they had a mount like a horse or a giant wolf). Mountains and architecture forced circuitous routes through valleys and around towers. From close up, players could appreciate the variety of textures and colors designers put in the game. In more challenging MMORPGs like 2002’s Final Fantasy XI, players were forced to traverse deadly zones on foot, which meant resource-managing stealth potions and artfully dodging monsters’ leering eyes. If they died, they’d better have budgeted ample time to retrace their steps. The virtual world felt scarier, more strategic, more intimate; and at the same time, larger, more awe-inspiring.

There were other upsides to keeping players on foot. “The more freedom you give players to traverse, the fewer shortcuts you can take in terms of building the worlds. That’s true for flying,” says Ion Hazzikostas, World of Warcraft’s game director. World of Warcraft launched in 2004 with predetermined flight paths to get players quickly from point A to point B, but not full-agency flight. With set pathways in the air, developers could hint at a city off on the horizon as an artistic flourish without ever having to actually build it. Popular locations like the catacomb-like Undercity and blood elf capital Silvermoon City didn’t have roofs. Nobody would know, so why bother? (“Thanks flying,” wrote one poster on World of Warcraft’s subreddit long after flight was introduced. “I didn’t know the whole mountain was a snake.”)

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