WoW Factor: A brief history of flight (in World of Warcraft)

Why Pathfinder breaks flying even while adding it

I want a milky way.

Flight has been a part of World of Warcraft as long as the game has existed. No, not just flying mounts, even though you could argue that has been, too; flight masters dotting both continents meant that people have long associated the game with flying from place to place, but you can debate over whether flying on a bat counts as a proper “flying mount” or not. You cannot debate, however, that ever since The Burning Crusade players have had an expectation of hopping on the back of something airborne and taking to the sky.

Flight has changed a lot over the years, though, and I think the ways that flight has changed says more about why the announcement of a new flying achievement for Shadowlands was met with exasperation rather than relief. In fact, I think part of it is that the designers now working on the game have forgotten how flight used to work and how it works now – and yes, if you’re thinking it still works the same way, you’re not entirely right. So let’s start by looking back at the expansion that started it all.

Blood flight.

The Burning Crusade

One of the big selling points for The Burning Crusade was the addition of flying mounts. They were a big deal, in no small part because Outland is a collection of islands floating in space. Thus, we were told, one of the exciting ideas for the expansion was to have places you could navigate only via flight and how it was a natural response to the toppling landscape.

This was a lie. Only a couple of map areas really even rewarded flying with access you would otherwise lack. But who cares? Flight was still a fun reward, and it was a big landmark to reach level 70 and suddenly be able to take to the skies. Swooping in and out of zones you hadn’t yet finished all the quests in was a delight, and it was redoubled with the addition of more endgame stuff to be done for reputations and such. You got flight when you started your time at the level cap, and that made it all the more fun.

Of course, much as with ground mounts, flight was divided between faster and slower speeds. The slower speed allowed you to fly, but flight masters were still much more efficient. Epic flight was the one you wanted if you really wanted to go anywhere in Outland without bothering with flight masters. It was a feature somewhat missed in the old world, of course, but that was old content and it also had the explanation of being an entirely different world. And things were fine.

Whooshing noises!

Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, and Mists of Pandaria

Of course, you can’t give people the ability to slip the surly bonds of gravity and then have people happy when it’s taken away. The next three expansions all found a good balance to strike with how flight worked by adding additional skills to be learned. At the level cap, you would earn a new skill allowing you to fly once more; you could also buy a tome that was bind-on-account, allowing your alts to start flying right away instead of forcing you to wait on your second go-round.

Cataclysm broke this format very slightly, but it started introducing a larger sense of discontent because it allowed players to start flying more or less right away. This meant that all of the expansion zones were basically explored from the air first, and I suspect the people who were working on the expansion but not yet in control of decision making bristled at this fact.

Regardless, this particular stretch of time was resolutely fixated in the same basic model. Flight was one of the rewards for when you first reach the level cap, the beginning of your time at max level.

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Warlords of Draenor

Here’s where things got dicey. The development team played it cagey for a long time about what the plan was for flight in Draenor, but it definitely wasn’t there at launch. There’s a lot to be speculated about there, frankly, and no way to be sure about whether no flight was always the plan, or flight was the plan but then the developers liked not having it, or what was going on there.

Regardless of when flight was planned to be added, it wasn’t added for a very long time, and then it was belatedly announced that the developers didn’t want flight to be in at all. This resulted in one of the many, many apocalyptic responses that have marked this general era of World of Warcraft, but it ultimately resulted in the addition of Draenor Pathfinding as an achievement and the destruction of flying as a game mechanic.

By the time Draenor Pathfinding was added, players had already played through much of the expansion’s content; thus, the meta-achievement basically tracked a bunch of stuff that players had already done. It was eminently possible to have many of the requirements finished before Tanaan Jungle opened, and then you could focus on just doing the Tanaan Jungle bits to get your flight. Plus, it was account-wide, and so you didn’t even need to spend gold to get your alts flying!

However, the big difference here was that instead of flight being added at the start of the expansion, it was now added at the end. This was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that we didn’t even know if flight would be added for a very long time, so having it added this way at the end felt like a reasonable compromise. A lot of people were willing to see this as more about growing pains and a belated decision.

This was not the case, however. Warlords of Draenor was not the outlier; it was the model of the new normal.

It's all gone to hell!

Legion and Battle for Azeroth

The pathfinder achievement for Legion was in the expansion from launch… or at least, half of it was. Much as in Warlords, the plan here was that you would earn an account-wide achievement, and also much like the prior expansion it required you to do a whole bunch of stuff through the expansion to earn it. Your alts could thus fly without fear and you would know right away that flight was coming later; it turned out this was even with the same numbered patch at 7.2.

What made this more different from before, though, was the fact that the new meta-achievement largely helped render flight wholly irrelevant.

In order to clear the first part of the achievement, you needed to earn Revered reputation with all six of the factions in Legion, fully explore the map, clear out the storylines of each zone (including the one you could only access at max level), clear out the meta-storyline, and do a bunch of world quests. That got you… faster ground mount speed. When the second part was added, you also needed Revered with the newest faction and fully exploring the new map as well.

Put it more simply, to earn flying again, you had to be most of the way done with the expansion. Instead of flying being something that marked the start of your endgame journey, it marked the end of most of it. It’s a reward to make the continued slog of getting Exalted reputations and/or hardcore gearing less obnoxious, not a fun new way to approach the world when you hit the level cap.

People were a bit more willing to overlook this in Legion because the expansion was generally being fairly well-received, although people did still grumble. Unfortunately, Battle for Azeroth does not have that same defense. It’s too early to tell if Shadowlands will get a similar reception, but people are definitely already miffed about the inclusion of the achievement-based flight unlocks.

All things go, all things go.

So what have we learned?

When flight was first introduced, it was as a part of an endgame model that expected some form of flight. Unfortunately, the addition of flight also leads people to expect not to lose that flight immediately afterwards, which led to friction right away when that flight was generally gated behind the level cap. The difficulties of designing around flight eventually led to the current state where the game holds back the ability to fly as long as possible until it finally has no choice but to open up flying for everyone.

Ultimately, more than the time commitment, this is what bothers people so much about the whole current pattern. Rather than flight being a foundation of the level cap, it’s a reward. And when you already have the mounts and the skills and everything else except the arbitrary gatekeeping, it doesn’t feel like such. Taking something away only to begrudgingly give it back once you’ve done 90% of the things you wanted to have that thing for isn’t a good feeling.

I like that flight is free and account-wide for new expansions at this point. But waiting so long to get back something I already learned to do – to return to what was previously my base level of ability – isn’t a good feeling outside of a Metroid game. And while I don’t see it changing back in the near future, I could see it getting worse… and I really don’t like the idea of having flight be even more of a last-minute return.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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…I’ve rather not have the pay for my flying unlocks like back in the ole skool days as some here have suggested. However, I see the why players are having issued with the current “can’t find ’em, grind ’em” method of the unlock. I’m not sure why they just don’t have it that each character can go through a simple quest chain to unlock it. No grind, no fuss, no golden sink wall. /shrug

Dani Reasor
Dani Reasor

It’s weird to think that there will be a future expansion where Pathfinder will have been the official paradigm longer than “just buy it from the riding trainer” was.


My biggest pet peeves with the wait to fly are the way some zones are designed. It isn’t as bad in bfa, but omg legion. It’s like the intent was to make zones annoying to get around, a death trap with drops everywhere, or both.


I’m so sick and tired of Pathfinder. It SHOULD be near the beginning of your level cap adventure. I shouldn’t have to slog through rep grinds, wait MONTHS for them to put in MORE rep grinds, and finally, by the time I’m ready to rage, get it. And yes, I’m happy to get it, but it’s more a feeling of relief, rather than joy. In BC, taking to the air for the first time was pure joy.

If they INSIST on the Pathfinder model, take out the rep. requirement. It’s just a time sink. Rep should be there for fun stuff, like mounts, toys, starter gear and tabards. Also, once you finish Pathfinder 1, they should give you the damn flying already, in the zones already open in that expansion.. When they introduce the new area, just require exploration and main storyline quest, and that’s it – you fly in the new zones. The rep-gating, then time-gating, and another rep-gate is too much. I always feel like they REALLY don’t want you to have something and are petulantly giving it to you, making it unpleasant – almost an act of spite. I think this is why we feel it can be much worse – because you know they don’t want you to have it.
Doing the main stories and exploration would make you SEE THE WORLD and CONTENT. Rep grinds are unnecessary. I have a guildie who never wants to set foot on Mechagon, now that he’s got flying, and got thoroughly sick of the place while rep griding.. I’m not sure that’s the reaction you want from players, about what’s supposed to be a fun zone..

I loved what they did with Wrath – create a world MADE for flying, rather than just difficult terrain that they make you slog through on the ground for months. They even had a “loaner” flying mount in some areas so you could do the quests before you had your cold-weather flying.

And certainly, once the expansion is old, have an option to easily buy flying. Shoot, even as early as pre-xpac patch for the next expansion, let people buy it.


I liked when I could pay some MONEY and get flying.

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At this point the main problem is that they have not come up with any retirement plan for old Pathfinder achievements, which make zero sense as requirements for characters leveling through obsolete expansion zones, or for returning players who skipped any Pathfinder-enabled expansions.

I don’t mind doing the Pathfinder grind once, in an expansion that is current content, to get Flying for all my characters within that expansion’s zones. I did them in Warlords and Legion and it was fine. I get it. I know what the point is, and they’re not, on the whole, that bad to get, and mainly just involve actually playing the game.

What I do mind is the prospect of going through the motions of a meaningless grind in obsolete content to get the same thing, for territories that are never again going to be anything but midway leveling zones for my alts.

This is why, as much as I am excited about the leveling overhaul and getting to play through the story lines of older expansions with a meaningful feeling of progression, the BFA experience is going to be a hard pass for my alts because I’m not doing a Pathfinder grind for an expansion that was never current content for me, and that never will be.

The right thing to do would be to figure out some way to gracefully transition from restricted flying with Pathfinder required in the current expansion, to something like a simple paid for skill or just automatically granting flight with a single trained skill in all past, obsolete expansion zones.

They could even keep the achievement for the past expansions so that collectors and completionists can go back and do it later, and leave the mount attached to that as well, to give some reward for doing it. But just split off the flight skill itself into a separate trained skill and either make it buyable instantly or included in some sort of all-inclusive Legacy Flying skill.

The other suggestion I have seen is to migrate all older Pathfinder achievements to the Legacy tab after the expansion ends, and then make it so that if you complete Pathfinder for whatever the current expansion is, then it enables flying in all older expansion zones, automatically, account wide, as if you had completed all of the older Pathfinders as well (but minus the achieves and mounts ofc).

Either way, they need to do something to acknowledge that just leaving these old time gated grinds in place long after they make any sort of sense is just annoying and will only discourage people from playing through the massive amount of legacy content that the game continues to accumulate, which they’re obviously doing their best to encourage people to revisit with the leveling overhaul.

David Blair

Honorable mention to the Isle of Quel’danas bombing run!


Always aimed for the guys on the little ledges.

John Artemus
John Artemus

I wonder why Blizzard is so weird about flight. In FFXIV, you simply do quests and find aether currents to unlock flight, zone by zone. Granted, it’s not account-wide so you have to do that on all of your alts. But it’s a very organic way to play.

You unlock flight just by playing the game naturally. And there are no issues.

David Blair

I like the story reasons and the organic concept to aether currents EXCEPT that the last aether current is always the last dungeon in the zone before leaving. It still creates a lock-in that requires you to complete the entire zone on foot before you can fly it, I’d much prefer the currents be accessible in the zone itself, and, if explainable, by side quest rewards that can be accomplished at anytime so that those that want to work towards flying right away can do so. And preferably not in a way that still locks you into walking everywhere once.

Matthew Yetter

An interesting bit of trivia is why it took so long for flying to be added to Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms. The original zones didn’t get it until Cataclysm, creating a disconnect where you were able to fly in Outland in Northrend, but still had to remain land bound in the original content.

This was actually a result of the original game’s world design. You see, WoW was initially built AS a world, with a spherical surface. This meant that flying required making constant adjustments to compensate for the curvature of the land beneath you. Flight paths easily handled this by moving you in a straight line between waypoints. The waypoints themselves adjusted for the curvature. But with a player in control of the movement, this wasn’t possible. If the player set himself heading in a certain direction and walked away for a bio break en route, he’d return to find himself bouncing off the skybox ceiling.

With Burning Crusade, they got away from that design and instead built Outland with the flat earth model. They carried this forward to Northrend and everything else that they’ve released since. But Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor were still a problem. Cataclysm fixed that because in the course of breaking the world they also rebuilt it. The original zones became flat as well, and flying mounts for those zones then became possible. Which of course is why they were introduced at that point. :)

Bryan Correll

You see, WoW was initially built AS a world, with a spherical surface.

Could you cite some evidence for that? Because I’m pretty sure the world was never anything but flat*. The real reason flying couldn’t be added to the old world was that only the parts visible from flight paths had ever been designed to be seen from above and everywhere else would have looked decidedly unfinished.

* And even that’s stretching it since Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms weren’t part of a continuous landscape. They were two entirely separate flat places.

David Blair

Bryan, I can confirm your understanding. In the DVD that came with Cataclysm they talk about why they had to rebuild the world and actually show a lift-off in front of Stormwind where the city beyond just doesn’t exist in a way meant for a view from above. The cathedral and some elements in the back are just flat textures with no bottoms, most roofs have no visual, etc… it’s a beautiful look at how the original art team cheated the view and perspective.


hit the top level for that expansion and pay for a slight upgrade in flight speed-NO PATHFINDING. We learned to fly in BC.