Flying is second nature to WoW players. We've been doing it for almost eight years now. Sure, we've adventured in a few flightless places, like the Isle of Thunder, the Isle of Giants, and the Timeless Isle. Even The Burning Crusade, where flying originated, had a no-fly zone on the Isle of Quel'Danas. (What is it with these isles anyway?) But almost always, since 2006, we've flown. And we always expected to, for the vast majority of our in-game time.
Now, because of Blizzard's impassioned arguments against flight on Draenor, flying is suddenly controversial. If you look back, you can see why: flying has changed the game like no other feature before or since. Let's start where it all began, however, with classic WoW's humble flight paths.
They used to be cool
I'm about to express something that you may not believe. Once upon a time, flight paths were cool. Yep, I said it. Before flying mounts, when you couldn't even get a ground mount until level 40 and epic ground mounts were just a dream for most due to the steep cost, in that early version of the game where you spent most of your travel time walking or riding at the pace of a Throne of Thunder gastropod, flight paths were cool.
Not only did they get you around the continent at the fastest possible speed, they gave you a cinematic view of Azeroth from the skies. It was the only time you could get that view from above. The first time most classic WoW players rode a gryphon or wyvern from A to B, we loved it.
No other MMO at the time had anything like it. We felt like masters of the world -- at least, when we could afford to take the trip. Most players were broke in the early days, and using flight paths too liberally often meant forgoing buying a new skill when you leveled. Taking a flight path was an indulgence, a treat, instead of the annoying hassle we see them as today.
Back then, they were even more inconvenient. Until patch 1.10, you had to land at each town and click on the next step in the journey. Players often set up PvP ambushes at flight points because they knew every player passing through had to land at that exact spot.
The friendly skies
The Burning Crusade took flight to the next level, like the expansion did for so many aspects of WoW. You couldn't hop on your flying mount right away, however. First you had to level to 70. But even then, many players couldn't afford to fly when they hit the level cap.
Training the expert riding skill (basic flight) cost 900g. A mount was 100g on top of that. Gold was a bit easier to farm than in classic, but that was still a tall order that could take weeks to earn.
Once you managed it, your mount was ... very slow -- the same speed as a normal ground mount, 60%.
But you didn't care. With the ability to fly, Outland became your oyster. You had the freedom to go anywhere, without worrying about being dazed and dismounted (at least, anywhere but Skettis), or ganked by players. You could find herbs, ore, and fishing pools without fighting through monsters. You could complete quest objectives with incredible efficiency.
The Netherwing, in particular, was a faction based on flying mounts. You needed one to complete their quests. You raced against other riders on your mount. The quest line for the Netherwing was so involved, it probably deserves its own WoW Archivist feature someday. In the end, you received your very own Netherwing.
The expansion also introduced the first crafted mounts: the Flying Machine and the Turbo-Charged Flying Machine.
If you wanted serious flight speed, it was going to cost you. Epic flying mounts gave you 280% bonus to movement, for a whopping five grand in gold for the training, plus 200g for a mount. Many players couldn't afford it until Wrath.
The flying mounts awarded at the ends of Arena seasons allowed you to learn the 280% skill when you summoned them. So if you were good enough at Arena to earn the Gladiator title, you could skip out on the cost of artisan riding. Many players complained that this was unfair, but Blizzard didn't change it.
During the design of Wrath of the Lich King, flying presented a difficulty for Blizzard. It was such a popular feature that they didn't want to take it away from the players completely. Yet they also didn't want players zipping around completing quests and skipping content in Northrend from the moment they set foot on it. They didn't want you to be able to fly to Arthas's doorstep within five minutes of the expansion launch.
The compromise was called Cold Weather Flying. It's an additional skill that you need to purchase to fly in Northrend. Today you can train it at 68, before you head north. Back then, you couldn't train the skill until 77. At that point, you had quested through most of the zones Blizzard didn't want you to fly in while questing. The last two zones of the expansion, Storm Peaks and Icecrown, were created with flying adventurers in mind. Icecrown even had quest hubs set on airships hovering high over the glacier.
Flying, along with all mounts, also got a bit of a buff during Wrath. In patch 3.2, Blizzard reduced the cast time to summon a mount from 3 seconds to 1.5.
Advent of the sparkle pony
Wrath also brought us perhaps the most controversial item ever added to the Blizzard Store: the Celestial Steed. Mounts had always been prestige items in WoW. They came from tackling the toughest content the game had to offer, whether it was conquering the hardest hard mode raids or reaching the top of the Arena ladder. The idea that someone could just up and buy a cool mount caused a massive outcry. Players' opinions on the matter were mixed.
People also decried what they saw as a ludicrous price: $25 for what was essentially a vanity item. Mount aficionados were not deterred, however. The "sparkle pony" was tremendously popular.
In fact, it was so popular that it inspired a scam. People sent out fake emails telling players that they had either won a sparkle pony or someone had given them one. "Blizzard" just needed to verify your account information so they could deliver it to you... Seems legit.
Players love to fly, but for many years the one place they couldn't fly is the place they wanted to most: the "Old World," the original continents of Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms. Players dreamed of soaring through the skies over capital cities or touring the vanquished Qiraji empire from the air. Flying in the Old World was one of the most frequent requests.
Blizzard wanted to deliver this experience someday, but the task was a daunting one. The original zones had never been crafted with flying in mind. If players could fly, they would see all the missing geometry and textures that could never be glimpsed from the ground. In order to allow flying in the Old World, Blizzard would have to radically reshape the existing zones. It wasn't worth all of the time and effort just to allow flight.
But what if, Blizzard said, someone caused a global disaster, a ... cataclysm of some sort? Then they would have a reason to redo the Old World that tied in to the game's story. And if they were going to do all that work, why not double down on it and craft new, more modern quest chains, or assign new levels or new factions to zones to balance and streamline the leveling process?
I'm sure many factors weighed in to shaping the Cataclysm Old World revamp, but at the heart of it, I believe, was players' fervent desire to fly there.
And so we did, after paying for a Flight Master's License. Because flying in the Old World had been so heavily anticipated, Blizzard didn't make us wait. You can purchase the license at level 60.
Cataclysm brought a number of innovations to flying. As of patch 4.0.1, mounts no longer have an inherent speed. Instead, they travel at the fastest riding skill of the player who summons them.
The expansion also introduced the first (non-druid) "transformation" flying mount, the Sandstone Drake, taught by the Vial of the Sands. The mount turned you into the drake, and another player could ride in the saddle. To create one, you had to be a max-level alchemist who was also lucky enough to get the epic recipe from high-level archaeology dig sites in Uldum. The ingredients cost tens of thousands of gold, and the mounts sold for much more.
Cataclysm also added an even faster flying speed, at 310%, for 5000g.
Since Cataclysm, Blizzard has soured on flying for a whole heap of reasons. They don't like the way it allows players to skip content, explore and farm without danger, complete quest objectives with pinpoint precision, and avoid world PvP at a whim. They want us to be immersed in the world. They want us to feel danger as we explore, to have a real adventure rather than just take an aerial tour.
As such, Mists returned to the model of The Burning Crusade. We can't fly in Pandaria until we hit max level and purchased the Wisdom of the Four Winds for 2500g. Like in TBC, flying unlocked content previously unavailable, such as the Mogu'shan Vaults raid entrance, certain rare mobs, and the mountainous quest area for cooking dailies.
However, Mists also brought one of the most welcome changes to mounts in the history of the game: they are now account wide. Blizzard even gave us a handy new UI to sort through them.
Another TBC-inspired addition was a faction dedicated to a specific type of flying mount. Reminiscent of the Netherwing, the Order of the Cloud Serpent asks you to complete dailies for rep and eventually awards you with a unique type of mount.
For all of Mists, Cloud Serpent Riding was a character specific skill that had to be earned on every alt if you wanted access to the mounts on that character. Blizzard has said that the riding skill will no longer be required in 6.0.
In the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion, Blizzard is retreating even farther from flying. The shattered world of Outland, where we all first learned to fly, will be a distant memory. Instead, we'll spend our time on the very whole planet of Draenor, and we'll be grounded, at least at first. Blizzard isn't sure yet whether flying will ever be permitted on Draenor.
As compensation, we'll be able to summon our flying mounts and ride them along the ground. Bring plenty of balm to prevent chafing. Your mounts will thank you.
Players certainly have a lot to say on the topic. An official forum thread about the issue has already capped out ten times.
Blizzard also said they'd like to make flight paths less "scenic" and more efficient. I think for most players the issue isn't really that the paths are so slow. A lot of us just go AFK after we click anyway. It's that we have to run back to town to make use of them, instead of taking off from wherever we happen to be.
I'd love Blizzard to make an item that summons a gryphon/wyvern to pick me up like a taxi and take me to any flight point on Draenor. That would be way more convenient.
The future of flight remains unclear. Will all future content prohibit flight? Will Blizzard design special areas where flight is allowed, like an inverse Timeless Isle? Will flying mounts become less common as achievement and faction rewards, and ground mounts become more common? Like so much about Warlords of Draenor, we can't possibly guess at this point.
- Wowhead lists 165 unique flying mounts. Not all are available to players, such as the legendary Peep's Whistle.
- Ten factions sell flying mounts. The most recent is Emperor Shaohao.
- Eleven raid bosses and three dungeon bosses have rare drop flying mounts.
- All seven mounts in the Blizzard Store are flying mounts.
- Druids with their flight forms, along with death knights and their Ebon Blade steeds, are the only classes with class-only flying mounts.
- So far, only engineering, tailoring, jewelcrafting, and alchemy can craft flying mounts.
- Three flying mounts allow passengers: the Sandstone Drake mentioned above, the Heart of the Nightwing (another transformation mount), and the X-53 Touring Rocket.
- The first Ashes of A'lar phoenix mount was given to Ezra Chatterton, aka Ephoenix, as part of Blizzard's work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
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