Other games introduced flying years after launch, and changed forever with the decision. World of Warcraft began offering animal mounts that could fly with its Burning Crusade expansion in 2007. Immediately, flight was controversial. To ride a superspeed “Gryphon,” players had to grind up to level 70 and drop serious gold on a Rare or Epic-quality mount. At first, only these high-level, deep-walleted players could access the good mounts, which in turn let them avoid deadly monsters, dominate the best resource-mining spots and even speed away from opponents in player-versus-player battle. Poorer, less experienced players were constantly reminded of their lower status by magical beasts whooshing by.
Some players argued that flight made World of Warcraft feel more “minimally” than “massively” multiplayer. “It was such a sudden shock for people,” says Jessica St. John, an MMORPG Twitch streamer who goes by Zepla. “Everyone was on the ground together, going from place to place together. Once flying was introduced to World of Warcraft, it felt like people were more disconnected.” Players just chatting with each other in the game would idle above cities in their flying mounts instead of standing around in crowds by the auction house. Some players felt flight drained World of Warcraft’s sense of community presence.
“The world feels a bit more populated when everything is at a slower, smaller scale,” says Hazzikostas. “You can see someone next to you. They’re not 50 yards above you. So there’s no question that adding that extra dimension has the effect of making some of our cities feel a bit emptier.”
Proximity bred connection, or at least the feeling of it. So did challenge. To get through tough zones saturated with high-level monsters, Final Fantasy XI players often asked each other to manually escort them, incentivizing forming social bonds. Getting a party to the right cave full of lizards might entail 10 minutes of treacherous on-foot travel, and if a partymember died, everyone would have to wait for them to run back. What else was there to do but shoot the shit?
Unlike Final Fantasy XI, 2013’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has flying mounts, in addition to a bevy of ease-of-life mechanics that streamline the game. (To earn the ability to fly in many zones, players must explore them thoroughly first and collect “aether currents”—knowledge of the area’s wind patterns.) Not only can catgirls skate across islands on broomstick; they can toss their names into a queue of random players that the game’s algorithms assemble into a dungeon-raiding party. Getting from quest to quest or battle to battle is faster and more seamless, but also a socially fragmented experience. After players take down a band of birdmen as part of a Full Active Time Event, or FATE, they might explode out in all directions on flying mounts instead of traveling as a pack of merry adventurers. Easier to play and less time-consuming, Final Fantasy XIV’s improvements have made it more challenging to meet people through shared circumstance in-game.
“We’re shrinking the amount of time they’re traveling from point A to point B; by definition, you’re not going to see as many people because they too are going fast,” says Emmert. “It becomes about the destination, not the journey.” Because it’s much harder for level designers to funnel players to a location in three-dimensional space, his team designs landscapes and gameplay around points of interest, like social hubs. There, maybe, type-A players can encounter people, and scope out their outfits.
Still, it’s possible that “meeting people” is no longer a primary function of MMORPGs. Long-lost are the days when players had to know each other intimately enough to share IRL phone numbers and coordinate raids; to spend 30 minutes talking about life, night elves and everything on an escort mission across an icy tundra. “It’s chicken or egg: Did we start making teaming up easier and that became successful, and now, that’s the standard? Or is that social pressure?” says Emmert. “Is that the players themselves wanting the illusion of connections, but without the commitment of connections?”