World of Warcraft introduced flying in The Burning Crusade in January 2007, and after fifteen years, it remains an endgame skill, requiring players to jump through hoops and gates to unlock. Once learned, flying serves to shorten World Quest completion times for max level characters, and speed up leveling of alts. It is long past time flying carried into a new expansion, into environments designed to embrace the opportunities it offers. I have no doubt this will not be the case when the next expansion is announced in April, but hold out hope Blizzard will someday take this creative leap.
The High Cost of Flying
Although flying was a major new feature during The Burning Crusade, it was a luxury. Flying required players to be max level (70) and have saved 800 gold for training, and an additional 100 gold for a standard flying mount. This was no small feat in the days of a much smaller game economy. Investing the 1,000 gold rewarded the player with a flying mount capable of traveling only 60% of land mount speed. Blizzard justified the speed reduction as being balanced with the ability of straight line travel and mob avoidance. Players who saved an additional 5,000 gold could learn the max level skill and purchase an Epic flying mount for another 200 gold, capable of flying 280% speed.
Thankfully, flying has become more affordable over time. In Shadowlands the skill can be learned at level 30 for 250 gold, plus 50 gold for a flying mount. This initial training permits 150% travel speed. Upon reaching level 45, players can invest 5,000 gold to be able to fly at 310% speed. The game economy has grown so that even a first time player can have the gold ready upon hitting 45. These changes benefit player alts to cruise through leveling content which a main has already experienced.
Hoop, Skip, Jump and Fly
The reduction in level and gold requirements were welcomed improvements, but steps were implemented to slow main player progression. Flying in expansions still required max level, but players also have to complete achievements, such as exploring all the new zones. Patch 9.2 introduced the achievements needed to unlock flying in the new Shadowlands zone of Zereth Mortis, even for players who already earned Shadowlands flying.
A New Direction
Flying is fast, convenient, and provides a wonderful view of the world. It is time it was used to enhance game design, not be considered the villain of it. I cannot locate the reference, but if memory serves, a counterpoint Blizzard offered about flying while leveling is the player misses all the ground level work and detail the developers have put into the zones. If this is true, then I recommend developers take up the challenge of creating locations and content which are not only irresistible when spotted from the air, but reward the effort to land and explore. In a broad sense, a better flying experience needs an open world, but to do this means World of Warcraft has to become bigger.
The first time I played through Bastion, I was surprised the story had me proceeding to Maldraxxus with seemingly half the zone left unexplored. When I ventured into these areas, I found them filled with level 60 mobs; they were endgame content. Having a large section of the starter zone level gated bothered me. For being the afterlife, Shadowlands player activity space is actually rather small and segmented. Developers masked this fact by creating a broken topography with winding roads, to increase riding time. I did not consider this an issue in Legion or Battle for Azeroth, because the zones seemed larger and the space far better utilized.
A Brave New World
A larger world means more open space to populate with creatures and places, without them being practically next door. The large swatches of wilderness between towns and quest hubs is where exploration and discovery flourishes. Here are suggestions for what I believe would increase the game’s immersion and adventure further in larger zones:
- Reduce the number of roads. The mini-map already displays a player’s objectives. Is it necessary to also have roads leading to every spot on the map? This provides freedom for design, since there isn’t concern a road has to run through the area.
- Limit the number of flight paths in a zone, and substantially increase the speed. Flight paths travel just over 434% speed, but, like roads in Shadowlands, they still weave about. Bump them up to 450% and make them a straight flight. It’s flying. Why weave? A flight path serves to get you to a major quest hub from where you mount up and be on your way.
- Bring back the Flight Master’s Whistle and have it be calibrated to each new zone you enter, for those times when you’re pressed for time to get to a quest hub. Attach a lengthy cooldown and usage cost to keep it from being used as a flying workaround.
- Use the environment to add unpredictability to flying. Heavy rain, fog, and winds can reduce visibility, make control difficult, and land travel the safer and easier option. How about a forest with a dense canopy that prohibits flying? Flocks of winged predators that swarm you? Hit by lightning?
- A expansive wilderness can conceal hard to find but rewarding locations. Maybe the site is noticeable from the air, but it takes a ground search to locate the hidden entrance. This would be a great time to introduce solo dungeons. Think Torghast, but fun and satisfying.
This is just me brainstorming, but it illustrates the potential for World of Warcraft to evolve and grow into something special again. Will everyone like it? No. Will players leave? Yes. But they’re leaving now, so maybe the time has come to try something new.