Monday, November 9, 2020

Feet On The Ground, Head In The Clouds

These past few weeks, I've been playing various characters at widely differing levels across many of World of Warcraft's continents and expansions and one of the more surprising discoveries I've made has been the sheer, overwhelming scale of the landscape. Not just the number of zones which, while substantial, doesn't come close to matching the many hundreds I'm theoretically familiar with in the two EverQuest games, but the breadth and sprawl of the geography itself.

These are huge zones by the standards of just about any mmorpg I've ever played. I commented last year, as did several other bloggers, on the time it takes to travel on foot from one end of the Barrens to the other but I'd been thinking of that in the way I think of West Karana or Eastern Wastes in EQ, exceptions that put the rest of the zones into context.

Based on recent experience, I'm not sure the Barrens is anything out of the ordinary for Azeroth or its related planets, dimensions and time periods. I have to put it that way. I've taken so many portals of late I'm never really quite sure where I'm supposed to be at any given moment.

Every zone seems to extend for virtual miles in all directions, out, around, up and down. The in-game meter that ticks off the distance to your current destination is calibrated in yards but the experiential effect is orders of magnitude larger. I know what a view of a few hundred yards looks like and it normally doesn't come with a horizon.

You might be thinking this is all a combination of playing lower level characters and Blizzard's decision to limit flying in later expansions but, counter-intuitively, I've found it to be the exact opposite. Yes, it takes quite a while to cross zones on a ground mount but it's not until you take to the skies that the true extent of the distances you've been covering becomes apparent.

The view from above is stunning. I've flown in plenty of games but I'm not sure I've seen anything that so convincingly expresses a sense of scale. The forests, from above, display a dense, impenetrable canopy that, should you be foolish enough to attempt to fly through it, turns out to be every bit as vision-impeding as you'd expect. WoW has some of the more visually convincing forests in the genre even from the ground but in the treetops the impact of such a weight and volume of foliage is overwhelming.


As for cityscapes, again I can't remember ever seeing anything quite like it. Cities in mmorpgs have grown over the years from small clusters of buildings, a few streets that would barely make the grade as a county town, to mighty citadels, filled with soaring towers and sweeping bridges. In Azeroth and related environs, though, spectacle frequently gives way to density.

The architecture may not be as spectacular as in other imagined worlds but the urban sprawl makes up for it. From above, Stormwind reveals itself to be a rats' nest of alleys and avenues, squares and parks, a place where it's all too easy to imagine losing your way, finding yourself back where you started, something that happens to me almost every time.

As well as making for some fine photo opportunities, all of this has made me think differently about the concept of flying in mmorpgs. I've long been an advocate of free flight as a travel option in these games, becoming a convert when I got my flying mount in Vanguard. It altered the entire nature of the  game, changing it from something I loved playing into somewhere I loved being.

Being able to fly fundementally changes the sensual envelope. The barrier between game and virtual world dissolves, giving way to something much more fluid and self-propagating. I love flying in every game that allows it. I take full advantage of whatever version of flight I'm offered. Even so, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the argument that letting players fly too freely, too soon, diminishes the impact, effectiveness and immersive grip of the content flying lets them skip.

It's certainly true that being able to take off like a vtol fighter jet, avoiding any and all obstacles in your path, before plummeting down to land on a handkerchief beside your quest target does cut to the chase. Arguably, it renders the very concept of the chase moot. I ought to know. I do it all the time.

Just because you can doesn't mean you should. As I found when playing a stealth class in Star Wars: the Old Republic, avoiding fights much of the time can also mean avoiding experience, loot and entertainment. With Classic last year and Retail this, I've written a lot about how much fun I've had. Much of that fun has been rooted in exploring the environments in which my characters find themselves. Skipping over or past it isn't doing myself any favors.

Limiting and restricting access to flight is one way that developers try to make sure players don't do themselves out of a good time in games that purport to maintain some degree of virtual worldliness. Of course, the problem is that there are plenty of players who wouldn't describe the content in question as being much of a good time in the first place.

And sometimes it really isn't. I would very definitely agree with those who object to having to fight their way through scores of annoying and inconsequential enemies just to get to an objective. I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about the frustrating, infuriating and ultimately miserable experience of traveling anywhere, for any reason, in Guild Wars 2's dismally difficult and overcrowded Path of Fire expansion zones.

WoW doesn't seem to me to have that problem. Mob density is mostly reasonable and not too many enemies employ crowd control effects. Leash distances are relatively short and few, if any, creatures seem to run faster (or even as fast) as a basic ground mount. If you keep running you'll usually be fine, especially since getting dismounted is a rare event.

Playing these last few sessions, I've found that even with characters whose mounts are able to fly, I don't always choose to unfurl the wings. I like that I have the option but I don't feel I have to use it all the time. Whether I'd be making that choice were I not coming off the back of fifty levels of very enjoyable but enforcedly ground-based fun with my shaman, who can say? 

Flying is so convenient, after all. Can anyone resist the temptation for long?


Which, I think, is a good reason for the kind of compromises being made nowadays. Compelling people to cover new ground, literally and metaphorically, before they get to fly past it, ditto, is probably a good decision for the long-term heath of the genre. We could all exert some self-discipline and discretion and choose not to fly but, realistically, would we?

The argument that denying flying is paternalistic has weight but these games are by their very nature coercive to a degree. Many, many opportunities are gated by level, class, gear, faction, reputation and a score more flags and markers. Why pick out flight as being any different?

In the end, as with boosts to the cap and similar content skips, there's an existential question to be asked: why do players pay (or grind) just to be able to avoid the very thing they're supposedly there to enjoy? If the content was sufficiently entertaining, surely no-one would pay extra or jump through hoops for the privelige of being allowed not to play it.

It's an easy question easy to ask but a much harder one to answer. Even the obvious explanation - that levelling and endgame are really two unconnected playstyles that should never have been joined together - doesn't tell me why I like both flying and level boosts so much, myself. Maybe it's that all these things offer their own kind of fun and it's possible to want different things at different times.

For now, it's been refreshing to be reminded that there's plenty to see and enjoy both on foot and from the air. I'll try to do my best to appreciate both viewpoints from now on.


  1. I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about the frustrating, infuriating and ultimately miserable experience of traveling anywhere, for any reason, in Guild Wars 2​’s dismally difficult and overcrowded Path of Fire expansion zones.

    I feel like we must have played different games, as I don’t recall ever feeling like POF zones were overcrowded or especially difficult, certainly not compared to Heart Of Thorns.

    1. I'll clarify a little - sorry if this comes across as a bit of a rant in response to a perfectly calm and reasonable comment!

      Yes, most people feel that way about PoF vs HoT. I am still completely incapable of figuring out why. As you said, it seems to me as though we're talking about different games entirely. As evidenced by the posts I made about HoT at the time and subsequently, I found that expansion to be far less problematic than others seemed to. I never had, then or now, any of the problems in getting from one place to another that were so often reported. I found the mob density reasonable and the mobs themselves almost comically overrated in terms of difficulty as obstacles to be bypassed. I took half a dozen characters through the expansion, all different classes, and none of them had any signinficant problems doing anything they wanted to do.

      Path of Fire, however, I found a nightmare from start to finish. Leaving aside the actual story, which I thought was both badly handled and boring, the real problem was travel. Firstly, I detest the mount system. The inertia makes all of them literally unplayable for Mrs Bhagpuss, who becomes nauseous and has to lie down for an hour if she spends so much as a minute on one. This was well reported by many people at the time and completely ignored by ANet. Nothing has ever changed there. I don't have any problems with the motion sickness but I find mounts in GW2 the most clunky, awkward and anoying implementation I've seen in any game I've played.

      That. though, is a minor issue compared to the insane mob density, the fact that a huge proportion of the mobs have strong crowd control abilities which they use aggressively and constantly, the many areas whose geography is literally toxic and fatal to cross and the intentional and repeated gating of areas behind specific mount or other gimmicks. It's not so much an open world as a psychotic clown's death trap, something The Joker might have dreamt up... and, oh, wait, Joko...


      It's no co-incidence, in my mind, that the last 12-18 months of content has avoided most of these issues and played in a much more friendly and approachable fashion. That was all created after some major personnel changes at ANet. It's that which gives me at least some hope for the third expansion because it's certainly true that PoF was much better received and much more popular than HoT. If they do end up with expansion #3 as PoF 2.0 then I fear that coudl be the last straw for me.

  2. I’ll tweak this a bit, in that you view maps as positive (things) and negative (not things) spaces. Flight is to avoid things, to get to other more important things. I like to view flight as removing the negative spaces - which is exactly the purpose of flight paths (and the whistle). That said, yeah, I can see the drop-in/out benefits if you’re aiming for a single item (like framing herbs/ore), but that isn’t really a larger driver, is it?

    Take flight in BfA - you were flying to places where there were things to do, avoiding terrain. Making it an end-game function that isn’t related to questing. If flying has a problem it’s that it’s TOO fast and has zero danger. Mount up at 100% speed - get hit once, lose the mount. Fly at 310%, and never get hit. It speeds up leveling to an insane degree. I wonder what would happen if flight was 100% and ground speed was 310%.


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