The sky in Final Fantasy XIV is full of catgirls on brooms and elves on dragon backs. In World of warcraft, orcs glide in giant metal rockets, and humans guide horse-sized birds across miles of desert. In the decade and more since flight first arrived in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, digital airspace has grown as populated as the ground, maybe more crowded.
When game developers introduced theft to online superhero gaming City of heroes and World of warcraft in the mid-years, it changed the MMORPG genre forever, both for better and for worse. It turns out that one of mankind’s greatest wishes has sparked major controversy in the world of video games. For years, dedicated gamers have complained that stealing makes online gaming less social, too easy, or even mercenary. Some developers even hinted that, if they could, they would remove theft from their games entirely. But like Pandora’s box of gameplay mechanics, theft is here to stay.
Distance was a defining characteristic of early major MMORPGs by design. “The first MMOs had no tonne content, ”says Jack Emmert, CEO of Dimensional Ink Games, creators of DC Universe Online. These games relied on subscriptions to make money, but the developers couldn’t release a whole new world every month to keep players engaged. Instead, Emmert says, “Every round has been shot. I shouldn’t say ‘stuff’. But everything was created in a way that compels players to play over and over again. It made sense to have some distance. The time it took to get a quest giver to their item was a feature, at least for the developers, and not a bug.
Stuck to the ground, players can spend 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch crossing a continent to their destination (less if they had a mount like a horse or a giant wolf). Mountains and architecture forced roundabout routes through valleys and around towers. Up close, players can appreciate the variety of textures and colors the designers put into the game. In more challenging MMORPGs like those of 2002 Final Fantasy XI, players were forced to traverse deadly zones on foot, which meant stealthy resource management potions and artfully dodging prying eyes from monsters. If they died, they’d better leave enough time to retrace their steps. The virtual world seemed more frightening, more strategic, more intimate; and at the same time, bigger, more impressive.
There were other advantages to keeping players on foot. “The more freedom you give players to cross, the fewer shortcuts you can take to build worlds. It is true to fly ”, declares Ion Hazzikostas, World of warcraftthe game director. World of warcraft launched in 2004 with predetermined flight paths to get players quickly from point A to point B, but no flight with a full agency. With paths set in the air, developers could hint at a city on the horizon as artistic blossoms without ever having to actually build it. Popular places like the catacomb-like Undercity and the blood elf capital Silvermoon City had no roofs. No one would know, so why bother? (“Thank you for flying,” wrote a poster on World of warcraft‘s subreddit long after the theft was introduced. “I didn’t know the whole mountain was a snake.”)