World of Warcraft, still the dominant MMORPG, lets players purchase mounts – riding animals like horses and so on – in order to speed up travel across its virtual world. As such, they are a greatly appreciated convenience. With Burning Crusade, the first expansion to the game, Blizzard added an improvement over the classic mounts: Flying mounts. Since the world featured in The Burning Crusade, the Outlands, is a ragged, torn-apart world with many mountains, valleys, and even outright gaps between areas, this addition made perfect sense. Flying mounts were also usable in the second expansion’s new continent, Northrend (with the purchase of an additional skill at a higher level). And since you can’t take something like this away from players again, Flying is going to be available all over Azeroth with the next expansion, Cataclysm.
There’s no question that using these flying mounts makes travel much faster, much more convenient, and lets one progress through the game much faster. In the old days, you had to travel to wherever your quest took you, often fighting unrelated enemies on the way, and now you can swoop in on the back of your griffin, complete your quest, and fly again on out and into the sunset.
But there’s also a price for this convenience. And it’s actually one that is much higher than most people realize.
These days, there’s the Midsummer festival in Azeroth, and with it came a lot of festival specific quests. As I was completing them with my mage, I kept coming across other high level players in places that are usually completely deserted. In one case we even grouped up for mutual defense against our enemies, the Horde, and at the end I teleported everybody to a safe city.
Memories came back to me, of my early characters. When I had to ride through the same landscapes to complete quests. Back then, I’d meet many people, and oftentimes, we’d join forces to complete the quests, role-playing and chatting along the way.
Once flying mounts become available, though, what would have happened is the same thing that happens in Outlands and Northrend now: People swoop in, take their quest objective, and leave again. They have a much smaller chance to meet each other, and even when they do see each other, they never form groups, except for the hardest of quests – and in those cases, it’s not usually by chance, but by out of character chat.
So the price of flying mounts is reduced interaction, reduced socializing, and reduced role-playing. I know some people couldn’t care less, but personally I think this is sad. Not only does it take away opportunities to meet new people, it also lessens the immersion in the game world.
Naturally this does not mean that Blizzard should remove the flying mounts, or even limit them. It’s too late for that anyway. But I know if I were to ever design an MMO, I’d think long and hard about adding such freedom of movement – and err on the side of caution.