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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.