When The Burning Crusade added flying to World of Warcraft back in 2007, we all felt like it was the most liberating move the game had done yet. Having the ability to move about freely and explore this game world in a new way was a heady rush — and one that hasn’t really gone away since. I had previously loved City of Heroes’ flight for many of the same reasons: it was a boon to explorers, it was convenient, and it was simply fun.
And while flight is exhilarating to be sure, it introduces a significant problem into MMOs. By using flight, players can simply bypass the landscape obstacles, journey, and challenges below. Questing ends up being a helicopter experience of flying in safety to a spot, landing and doing the objective, and then airlifting out. Danger is vastly reduced and the sense of going on an actual quest, complete with meaningful travel, is eliminated. This isn’t even touching on another issue, which is that flight removes the player distance-wise from the crafted landscape and keeps them from getting immersed into the world that developers have made.
World of Warcraft has struggled with what to do with flying ever since Burning Crusade due to these issues. Flying is fun, but in non-superhero settings it doesn’t seem to work when left toggled on all of the time. Blizzard has erred on the side of grounding players for a long long time and then making them doing a lengthy grind with each expansion just to “earn back” flying. That has rankled players and feels like a clumsy solution.
Now that I’ve been going through Heavensward in FFXIV, I’m inclined to agree with my MOP colleague Eliot — Square Enix developed a much better solution with aether currents. The idea here is that flying is unlocked on a zone-by-zone basis, with the only requirements being a handful of quests and locating ten or so floating misty orbs on the map. Since both the locations and quests are discovered as you go through the main storyline, there’s no way to blitz ahead and unlock it too early. But around the time you finish up the main storyline in that zone, flying is unlocked for future use there, and so it doesn’t feel like it took that long to accomplish.
It’s a Goldilocks scenario: Neither too long nor too short. You do have to spend some time grounded, but I never am resentful of this because I feel like at every step, I’m earning that flight. I don’t get the impression that the developers are yanking away my privileges. After all, FFXIV is a game that’s all about unlocking features, one step at a time, and this fits into that format well.
I wouldn’t mind seeing this sort of approach spread to other fantasy MMORPGs with flying, to be honest. It is a darn sight better than what Blizzard is stubbornly clinging to with WoW.