In 2013, Digital Extremes took a gamble. Its prior game, Dark Sector, didn’t do as well as the studio would have hoped, so it took what assets and designs it still had squirrelled away and released Warframe in the hops of finding salvation in a then-youthful, free-to-play market. A decade later, it turns out… that was all quite a good idea.
It’s been a hell of a ride for the sci-fi action grind-athon. The game – quick to jump on trends and shift with the turbulent environment the studio found itself gliding through – has managed to soar through several drastic changes to the industry, and escaped the live service no man’s land with a faithful playerbase, a unique spread of content among its peers in the MMO space, and (of course), a Harrow chassis.
As we inch towards the 10th anniversary of Warframe, I wanted to ask creative director Rebecca Ford if she could sneak me a Wolf Sledge Motor. But, instead, we talked about the game’s past, its future, and where the game stands in the eyes of the industry a decade after its conception.
“It feels like it should be an accomplishment – and it is an accomplishment! – but it’s also unbelievable,” says Ford. Warframe now finds itself at the start of a new journey, both narratively and in regards to its leadership. Among the many motions expressed by Ford, fear was perhaps the most contemporary:
“I think in the industry, we used to be the baby, and now we’re part of the legacy of a very remarkable shift in games. We were one of the first shifts in games towards this Western PvE games as a service model. We were doing something different, and now in our tenure we’ve seen every mistake we’ve made and every success at odds with an industry that isn’t even sure if it likes Games as a Service.”
It’s a very different world 10 years later. Where before the idea of continuous free content was a boon to the average gamer, the sight of a battle pass or cosmetic shop has started to leave a sour taste now, as the genre has aged. Live Service burnout is here, adding additional pressure to the Warframe team to keep things interesting.
As Ford puts it: “The pressure only ever gets worse every year, you don’t want a new year to stall… You say ‘hey, we’ve accomplished a lot in the last 10 years, and we hope to keep you around for 10 more!’ but what does that look or feel like?”
The answer? Mix up the formula. While the Warframe fan of old wanted more content in the form of a 40 minute Ash farm, or running extraction farms all evening, modern tastes call for the occasional swerve away from familiar roads. “If you keep giving people what they expect, you’ll never surprise them,” Ford exclaims with a smile. “So you have to navigate this highway of core ‘fun’ Warframe, and every now and then you have this intersection where you can turn off into the world of Railjack or Duviri.”
Ford points to the gameplay of Warframe, the bullet jumping and air gliding that has kept many a fan entertained for the past 10 years, as a solid foundation the team can build new and exciting content upon.
This approach, combined with the challenges COVID added to the world of both game development and everyday life, lead to the roughest patch in Warframe’s history according to Ford: the launch of railjack. An ambitious new adventure taking the player into space, this project would kick off what Ford dubbed the “post-Railjack COVID shitstorm”, where the team had to buckle in, and “pick up the pieces of Railjack and try to keep going” through a long stretch of fresh challenges that had, predictably, no easy answers.
That’s not to say it’s all been this harrowing struggle to keep the engines running, though. It’d have been an impossibe 10 years for the studio, if so. Ford named numerous community moments that fueled the fires for the team with wistful nostalgia: the first TennoCon (and the fact that people actually turned up), the explosion of popularity with the narrative dynamite packed in 2015’s The Second Dream quest, and The Lotus making her way into Super Smash Bros as a spirit.
However, it was at the tail end of the COVID lockdowns that the team pulled off The New War, a dramatic selvage to years of story threads and narrative teases. This, in Ford’s mind, represented the other side of the coin and her proudest moment at Digital Extremes… That is, until they make new updates.
Ford teased ‘the next 10 years’ in our chat – but what does the future hold for Warframe? The story of the Lotus and The Second Dream is firmly finished, so, instead, we can expect an exciting continuation on the stinger at the end of The New War, and additional details on narrative developments at this year’s TennoCon. Ford exclaims: “For me, how does the next five year arc look with weird and interesting gameplay to get us there? It’s all mapped out!”
In regards to future gameplay, Ford wants to raise the stakes. “I think the gameplay has to feel like Warframe, but we need to change the stakes for players while their muscle memory is respected,” Ford states. “That’s one of the biggest challenges, the infinite power of Warframe is both a blessing and a curse. When content is too easy, people get burnt out. So it’s like ‘okay we’ll make lateral type of content’, or something orthogonal to content for players do their core grinding in, or whatnot.”
Ford continues: “With our mission design philosophy since Angels of the Zariman, it’s all about feeding that stakes beast. So, sticking with what makes a core Warframe mission fun, and coming up with more designs that play into that.”
I wanted to know what Ford thinks about the reputation of Warframe – and, by extension, Digital Extremes. Where does she feel the team is, in the eyes of the industry? And how does she feel the game is seen, now that it’s becoming a veteran of the Service Game space?
“I picture a cafeteria, and it’s high school,” Ford muses. “You know who the cool kids are, you know their table. Then you have this weird table at the side that we’re sitting at. We’re nice to everyone, and we’ll give you lunch money, and no one thinks we’ll bite or cause trouble. But we’ve been sitting there the longest, helping everyone with their homework, perhaps. We’re not the teacher’s pet, but we’re a pillar of something that you can always rely on.”
It feels like a missions statement; a way of Digital Extremes saying ‘we’re not going anywhere, and we’re going to keep marching to the beat of our own drum.’ Warframe has long been unlike many other games – a bit weird, a bit off-kilter, and that’s something Ford seems to hold dear.
“At this table, we’re always wearing something weird, too – like Latex suits that make you go ‘what is going on over there?’” Don’t expect that to change any time soon.