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.
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.”)
But not every game could keep players so easily constrained. Jack Emmert had a hand in almost every superhero MMORPG out there, from 2005’s City of Heroes to 2009’s Champions Online, and he says that there was “a lot of internal debate,” about whether to include flying. Designers were worried that cutting down on travel time would make the MMORPGs’ worlds appear less full and alive. Ultimately, they decided that it would be ridiculous to make a superhero game without the ability to fly. Imagine a grounded Superman jogging onto the scene to save damsels in distress! As a result, Emmert’s superhero games had flight from the get-go. Champions Online, for example, delivers on its promise of feeling like a superhero very early into the game, when it allows the player to glide their avatar down from the sky to intervene in a mafia gang terrorizing an innocent waitress.
Other games introduced flying years after launch, and changed forever with the decision. World of Warcraft began offering animal mounts that could fly with its Burning Crusade expansion in 2007. Immediately, flight was controversial. To ride a superspeed “Gryphon,” players had to grind up to level 70 and drop serious gold on a Rare or Epic-quality mount. At first, only these high-level, deep-walleted players could access the good mounts, which in turn let them avoid deadly monsters, dominate the best resource-mining spots and even speed away from opponents in player-versus-player battle. Poorer, less experienced players were constantly reminded of their lower status by magical beasts whooshing by.
Some players argued that flight made World of Warcraft feel more “minimally” than “massively” multiplayer. “It was such a sudden shock for people,” says Jessica St. John, an MMORPG Twitch streamer who goes by Zepla. “Everyone was on the ground together, going from place to place together. Once flying was introduced to World of Warcraft, it felt like people were more disconnected.” Players just chatting with each other in the game would idle above cities in their flying mounts instead of standing around in crowds by the auction house. Some players felt flight drained World of Warcraft’s sense of community presence.
“The world feels a bit more populated when everything is at a slower, smaller scale,” says Hazzikostas. “You can see someone next to you. They’re not 50 yards above you. So there’s no question that adding that extra dimension has the effect of making some of our cities feel a bit emptier.”
Proximity bred connection, or at least the feeling of it. So did challenge. To get through tough zones saturated with high-level monsters, Final Fantasy XI players often asked each other to manually escort them, incentivizing forming social bonds. Getting a party to the right cave full of lizards might entail 10 minutes of treacherous on-foot travel, and if a partymember died, everyone would have to wait for them to run back. What else was there to do but shoot the shit?
Unlike Final Fantasy XI, 2013’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has flying mounts, in addition to a bevy of ease-of-life mechanics that streamline the game. (To earn the ability to fly in many zones, players must explore them thoroughly first and collect “aether currents”—knowledge of the area’s wind patterns.) Not only can catgirls skate across islands on broomstick; they can toss their names into a queue of random players that the game’s algorithms assemble into a dungeon-raiding party. Getting from quest to quest or battle to battle is faster and more seamless, but also a socially fragmented experience. After players take down a band of birdmen as part of a Full Active Time Event, or FATE, they might explode out in all directions on flying mounts instead of traveling as a pack of merry adventurers. Easier to play and less time-consuming, Final Fantasy XIV’s improvements have made it more challenging to meet people through shared circumstance in-game.
“We’re shrinking the amount of time they’re traveling from point A to point B; by definition, you’re not going to see as many people because they too are going fast,” says Emmert. “It becomes about the destination, not the journey.” Because it’s much harder for level designers to funnel players to a location in three-dimensional space, his team designs landscapes and gameplay around points of interest, like social hubs. There, maybe, type-A players can encounter people, and scope out their outfits.
Still, it’s possible that “meeting people” is no longer a primary function of MMORPGs. Long-lost are the days when players had to know each other intimately enough to share IRL phone numbers and coordinate raids; to spend 30 minutes talking about life, night elves and everything on an escort mission across an icy tundra. “It’s chicken or egg: Did we start making teaming up easier and that became successful, and now, that's the standard? Or is that social pressure?” says Emmert. “Is that the players themselves wanting the illusion of connections, but without the commitment of connections?”
MMORPGs aren’t primarily used as a 3-D chat room anymore, says Hazzikostas. Fifteen years ago, joining strangers on adventures across a misty fantasy jungle may have been novel. “That’s a given nowadays. You don’t get bonus points for that,” he says. The genre has have evolved along with the rest of the internet. Social interactions that once may have been forged inside virtual worlds are now taking place in apps like Discord and Twitch. There are thousands of Discord groups, full of thousands of players, designed for each and every time of MMORPG player on each and every server. Conversations are separated into tags like “tavern,” “combat classes,” “raids” and even “other games,” where players who share a love for Final Fantasy XIV can link up over a shared bloodthirst in first-person shooter Valorant.
Shortly before we spoke, St. John had been racing around Final Fantasy XIV’s sky with a swarm of players in what she calls a “hunt train.” She met the group over Discord and then joined one of their in-game chat groups. “Everyone gets together, mounts up and flies from place to place. It’s an extremely social experience,” she says. “You start to recognize some of the same people who are always at these.” St. John streamed the experience on Twitch for her 188,000 followers, who can track her down her in-game if they choose.