A few more points on flight in World of Warcraft that have come up that I wanted to note in a bit more detail since last time:
1. A “smaller world”.
I’ve written it before, but I consider this to be an inaccurate statement. Flying doesn’t make the world any smaller, it changes how quickly you travel through it. That will probably make your world feel smaller if you’re only interested in Point A and Point B, but if that’s all you’re looking for in the first place, the interstitial points (like fights with bad guys or weird pathing issues) are just filler (time sinks) anyway, and the points off of the beaten track are irrelevant to you and how you view or feel the world. Flight doesn’t remove any content, it lets you access places that you never could before. If anything, it makes the playable world, the part you can get to and the sights you can see, much, much larger.
No, a smaller world is one that’s just Potemkin villages and a tight, controlled experience that doesn’t let you explore the world at large. A smaller world is one where you play the developers’ story and don’t explore the world around it. The game’s title is World of Warcraft. It has been lamented before by me and others, but the World part keeps contracting, and I believe it’s a detriment to what the title has to offer. (Tangentially, Final Fantasy XIII is perhaps the most maligned of the post-SNES era of Final Fantasy games, and that is mostly because it’s a very controlled experience. Gamers like freedom to explore. This is not an MMO problem, it’s a game problem, since games are all about player autonomy. This is a problem that savvy developers leverage instead of fight. It’s part of why Minecraft is so huge.)
2. Game development costs.
I am not privy to the costs of developing World of Warcraft. I have, however, worked on Tiger Woods video games and smaller titles that are heavily invested in facades. It is not a huge time saver or money saver to make them instead of making full 3D worlds. Designers still have to find ways to curtail player viewlines, which takes time and possibly engine work with programmers. It takes finesse and massaging to try to keep the boundaries organic instead of arbitrary.
Artists still have to find ways to make all possible views interesting. They have to make buildings and terrain anyway, and often, it takes more time to go back and prune polygons on the “back” of objects, or to go make more pieces of geometry to be used specifically as facades. It is often actually faster and easier to have instanced buildings and oddments that look good from different angles and then place them strategically. The data footprint is smaller since you can reuse objects in more places, and savvy programmers can make use of that bit of savings. An object that can be viewed from many angles instead of a select few is more useful in the long run. There are even savings with LOD (Level Of Detail meshes that pop in to save processing cycles by having lower-polycount items on display at certain distances) construction that way, as a building need only have one set of LODs instead of making a variety of buildings with different geometry needs, each with their own LODs.
There is also a larger problem with players being able to see “behind the curtain”. If devs miss an angle, a place where the facade falls apart, it’s more obvious in a Potemkin village. Perhaps paradoxically, but entirely in keeping with the mental gymnastics our mind goes through to “fill in the blanks” that make the Uncanny Valley approachable with low fidelity art, the more controlled an experience is, the stronger the distraction effect if something doesn’t look just right. And yet, on the flipside, if a place in-game is presented as a fully explorable 3D space, some of those distracting little details are often ignored in the sheer amount of information on display and the freedom the user has to look at it from different angles. In more pithy phrasing, there are no curtains to look behind. All the warts are out there in the open, or easily discovered, and as such, are instinctively more forgivable.
I say this as an artist who has had to deal with making things look just right, and having parsed a lot of publisher feedback, it’s very interesting to see what people pick up on and what they gloss over. It’s very, very easy to swallow even big bits of weirdness in large if imperfect presentations, but smaller, more intimate content walks a much tighter line, and it takes time and money to make both styles work.
I’m sure they have crunched numbers to make an argument to the board members, but down in the trenches of development that I’ve seen, the differences aren’t huge.
Also, as a brief aside, speaking again as a 3D artist, I’d much rather players see my work from a variety of angles, rather than make a widget that looks right only in tightly controlled circumstances. It lets me show off my abilities more when I can make a component that has a more holistic appeal. This, to me, is the appeal of sculpting (digitally or physically) in the first place. If I wanted to just show one angle, I’d simply make a painting.
3. Player costs.
WoW is still a subscription game. As such, it is in the company’s best interests to make players take as long as possible to get through content. If they can be strung along for long enough, the next subscription time period ticks over, and the financials look better. Players trudging through ever-respawning enemies to get anywhere will take more time to play through the developer stories. I’m cynical enough to think that there’s a bit of calculus involved to discover the best way to string players along so they pay for one or two more months than they might with flight as a travel option. At least, the players who do the content once, don’t look around much off the beaten trail, and unsubscribe when done with “the story”.
Speaking of content, if players are skipping your content by flying over it, the problem is not the player. The problem is the content that they do not want to engage in. Going through yet another rebel/pirate/demon/enemy camp to kill the leader, then muddling back out, fighting every few steps… it’s just not interesting gameplay content to someone who has done it many, many times before (and almost anyone in Draenor is in that position). That’s a problem with the design, and it’s not going to be solved by making players do more of it.
I firmly believe that the best stories in MMOs come from the unique ability they have to let people interact with each other and with the world. The sense of place is important to these fictional worlds, or it should be. Emergent play is important. Weird nooks and crannies make a place seem more interesting, and they need to be experienced at their own pace. Players need to be able to take in the sights and get a sense of the world. Cities offer this, quiet spots offer this, and flight offers this breather space. If players are constantly being prodded through the narrow “developer experience”, they simply don’t get a sense of what the world has to offer. They are too busy dealing with the cardboard enemies that are all too often neither interesting nor challenging, merely time sinks.
Those moments when things are different, when something unique happens, those are often the best memory making moments. A sternly guided experience will have these moments, if done correctly, but there is little room for the sublime accident, the quirky discovery, the quiet moments of awe that come from momentarily buying into the idea of being in a different world and seeing something new. Those can happen on the ground, certainly, but flight facilitates them both by allowing more angles to see the world from, and more opportunities of quiet reflection.
It’s not the quests or the endless killing that are the best that WoW has to offer. Blizzard’s work on this sort of content is entertaining enough for a while, but it’s not amazing, and it’s not engrossing, at least, not for long. Letting players poke around to see what is off the beaten track can help fill in the world, give it context, and breathing room. If a player has to be on their toes dealing with “danger” all the time, they will not relax, they will not find the world welcoming or worth exploring. They will burn out faster.
The World of Warcraft has never been high on verisimilitude, and I’m simply not convinced that putting players into ever-more-controlled experiences will help that in any way. That’s quite apart from flight purely as a mechanic, but as flight is a way for players to take their time and manage their approach to the game, it’s highly relevant.
Developers do have to manage expectations and design a stage for players to play on. That’s part of game design. I simply believe that the more controlled an experience, the more a game is like a movie, and less adroit at leveraging the true strengths of games as a medium. Players want control, otherwise they would be watching a movie or reading a book. Designers need to ease off the reins and let players play. Flight has allowed that, and taking it away isn’t going to make WoW better in the long run, not for players. It will absolutely make it easier for developers to manage the presentation, but I believe that’s missing the point, and players and the World of WoW will be lesser for it.