Building Warframe: Digital Extremes on updates, independence and the free-to-play market
If you’ve been able to nab yourself a key in either of our sizeable Warframe beta key giveaways, you’ll likely know that Digital Extremes’ co-op, space ninja title is emerging as an impressive free-to-play release. Along with games like Tribes: Ascend and Planetside 2, Warframe is helping to lift some of the stigma associated with the free-to-play model, and proving that not every title in this area has to be a Zynga-influenced cash grab.
With whispers of a large update to the beta in the offing, I fed some battered quarters into the Skype-slot and settled in for a chat with Warframe’s creative director Steve Sinclair and Digital Extremes’ PR and marketing director Meridith Braun.
If you fancy listening to this interview rather than reading it, an edit of the audio is available to stream or download at the bottom of this page.
IncGamers: So I’ve heard that there’s a big update coming, what’s going to be in that update?
Steve Sinclair: Well, the main thing people have been clamouring for is a new set of levels to play in. What we have right now is the Corpus ship set and what we’re adding is a Grineer mining base set [pictured above] to give people, basically, more environments to liven up the game again. We have a procedural level system in Warframe, which I’m very proud of, but obviously people can still get burned out on the same set no matter how many times we reassemble and create new permutations of it.
So this is a really big surge for us to bring in a whole new art set and with it we’re bringing more enemies into the Grineer set, we’re adding two more awesome Warframes and we’re adding more mobility to the game. A lot of the feedback we’re getting is that the ninja aspects of the game are really resonating with people and they’re saying “I wanna have more melee, I want to do more crazy moves as a space ninja!” So the really cool thing in this update is ziplining and wall-running, which really changes up the way that you play the game.
And it’s kind of great because it’s coming in with a larger, more expansive level set. The Corpus set is tight spaces for the most part, pretty claustrophobic, and this one’s really broad, kind of like a ‘Mines of Moria’ feeling. You get to run across the walls towards enemies, and shoot or sword-strike while you’re doing that, so really that’s accidentally the coolest part of this update in my opinion.
IncGamers: That’s one of the things I know people have been enjoying, the emergent way attacks can come out. How much work went into that system, how difficult was that to put together?
Steve Sinclair: The first version of Warframe, when we started on it, had no swords. It was running around and casting powers with pistol and a machine gun and we kept telling people “we’re making this space ninja game.” Then Geoff Crookes [animation director] said “guys, we keep saying ‘ninja’ but we have no swords.” This was right around the time we were about to announce, and we really didn’t have much working yet when we did that promotional diorama where the camera flew through the first stuff we showed of the game.
We put in a kind of offhand dagger attack, not something that was really central. Once we had that in we saw swinging the sword and how it popped into the hand, and it looked really like garbage. But once we saw softening up an enemy with a machine gun and then finishing him off with a sword, the whole game seemed to just click. So yeah, it’s actually gone pretty smoothly once we had the acceptance of how important that was to the game.
Daniel Brewer who’s our animation and AI programmer, and Jacques, one of our other programmers, they would come up with the ideas. They’d say “what if you were sliding and you could do an attack out of it?” and prototype things, and work with Geoff. Basically anything that came to mind they would try, and we’ve had really, really good success with the system we have now.
One of the things that happens, I think, for players when they first play Warframe is … I didn’t want to make the tutorial too long, so we don’t really force a lot of this knowledge on you. So sometimes we get the occasional forum post, like, “first impressions of Warframe: melee is really spammy and you just have one attack.” Now you have players piling on saying “OK, did you know that you can sprint, and slide and do damage this way? Did you know you can leap and strike down and do an area effect stun?” The wallrunning is going to expand that even further, so there are a lot of different things you can do.
Really the main problem we’re having now is growing melee weapon diversity means that we have to support all of these things. Like, what happens when you’re sliding with the hammer? It just creates more and more permutations for us. But that kind of work is really fun for the animators so, you know, I’d like to tell you a tale of woe, but it’s pretty much roses right now.
I know that Geoff is at his desk working on what sword strike do you get … so you’re doing a wall run and then you release jump and you push off … what happens now when you do a sword strike? And I think Jacques put in this awesome thing where, if you run and you leap and you hold crouch, you’ll go into the slide position while you’re in the air. Well now that’s a Liu Kang kind of kick, so you’ll actually knock over enemies if you do that. There’s a lot of intricacy and depth that we’re trying to add, but also keep the game fluid.
IncGamers: You mentioned as well that you’re introducing a couple of new Warframes in this update. Can you tell us a little about those?
Steve Sinclair: Absolutely. Their names are not set in stone right now, and our lead designer Scott is still working on the powers. I think Meridith [Braun] came into his office the other day asking “what does this Warframe do?” and he was like “ehh … well, it does this right now, but we think it sucks, so we’re changing it.”
We have a female Warframe that has some interesting psychic attacks. She can turn the enemies on each other, which is really surprisingly fun. She’s one of the few Warframes that has a direct damage attack where she doesn’t need to target it at all, which is pretty cool. And she has some other stuff that kinda sucks right now [laughs], so we’re going to lock him in his office until he finishes that.
The other Warframe … he keeps singing ‘Frosty the Warframe’ and driving me up the wall because I share an office with him. It’s an ice-based Warframe and it gives you some really cool … this is one that gives you that classic Zelda-esque or Goron-esque line attack where it does freezing and creates icicles and stuff, as well as freezing and crowd-control powers.
IncGamers: Not only is he singing that song to be annoying, it’s out of season as well!
Steve Sinclair: I know! Well … it’s actually pretty darn cold here [London, Ontario].
IncGamers: Ah, fair enough.
Steve Sinclair: For Christmas in Warframe we put in like little presents you could open instead of crates and some snowflakes, so he’s hooked up the most flamboyant snowflake effects for this one.
IncGamers: So, more broadly, is this going to be the update pattern moving forward? Introducing new level sets, new Warframes, periodically updating the game?
Steve Sinclair: Yeah, yeah. To be honest it’s been such a crazy, emotional rollercoaster trying to get beta to work, because it’s kind of a nightmare of going into a new … into the free-to-play marketplace which is completely different in terms of how it affects game design. Into providing a service, where if you’re not … if your servers aren’t up, you create pissed off people and disappointed players.
When we update we’ve got thousands of people concurrently hammering on the update servers and all that kind of nonsense that’s going with it, you know, routers and firewalls, customer service. All of that experience has been massively eye-opening, so actually the update frequency has been a little bit less than I think we’re going to have once we finish our firefighting.
But absolutely, we’re looking at new weapons, on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. Trying to do new environments monthly. But also we’re trying to grow the systems of the game every time, so not this update but the one following, we’ll introduce a lore system and there’ll be some gameplay around that, and some new types of collection mechanics. So we’re trying to build on what we have but really broaden as well, rather than just freeze the system as it is and add a new gun every week. We really want to grow the design as well.
IncGamers: You’ve mentioned the free-to-play model being a different design approach. The marketplace that’s in at the moment, is that finalised, or still in flux?
Steve Sinclair: Yeah, I think it’s … well, I dunno, the GDC slides and the people I’ve talked to say you need to, like a good carpenter, measure twice and cut once.
So, you know, we’ve just got the ability to measure what people are responding to. I’m hoping we’re starting to build a reputation with our players that we respond to their feedback. We’ve had changes, like the ‘Go Pro’ system, which players absolutely hated and felt it was completely unfair to free players, and we ripped it out. We crunched and we smashed the thing out, it took us about two weeks to make a better system that felt more fair to them. So we’re absolutely tuning it as we go.
As for the market in general, there’s some cool systems that I want to add to it after this update, but hopefully more growth and better UI and organisation is really what it desperately needs right now.
IncGamers: So would your philosophy for the paid for components be one based on feedback, listening to the players?
Steve Sinclair: Yeah, I mean absolutely. I think we’re starting … you know, the first version of some of those things were terrible and they gave us hell for them, and we changed them. For those people who’ve been with the game for the last month, active on the forums, I think those people have seen what I’m hoping we’re going to build a reputation for, which is being absolutely focused on what players want.
The problem with this market is concerns about ‘pay to win.’ There’s a lot of cynicism and almost like a cult-like negativity, I think, towards that. Frankly there’s a lot of poisonous attitudes towards those players who are supporting the game. There’s some really strange attitudes, and it’s been very eye-opening.
That said, I think we’re being completely reasonable. This is a game, this is not like a casino slot-machine exploitive game. This is a game we built to be fun first, and before we even thought about how to place it in the market, we thought about what’s going to be awesome and how does it feel to be a space ninja. The rest is figuring out how we can keep this going as a business, and, because it’s an independent project we obviously need to keep it going. So far I think we’re doing pretty well, although there’s always going to be ten percent of people who really don’t agree with me.
IncGamers: There’ve been quite a few recent games under the ‘free to play’ banner that have had pretty high production values. I’m including Warframe in that, but things like Planetside 2 and Tribes: Ascend as well. Do you think that’s what’s needed to turn around the negativity that you mentioned?
Steve Sinclair: Man, if I could answer that question, I would be trying to sell that answer to you.
I think the production values are part of it, I think because it’s creating an appetite in players who aren’t used to free-to-play. The problem is, generally speaking, the number of people who are paying and the number of people who aren’t. The ratio is so massive that you … you still have to run your servers and pay for patches and pay your employees to make the new art that everyone is demanding. So … part of it I think is simply acceptance, and maybe you’re right, I think the high production value of those titles is bringing in players who normally would’ve rejected that type of game.
For us, it’s giving us an opportunity to make a game on our own terms that we never could before. This is a game we tried to make. We tried to make it in 2004, and at that time no-one really knew about free-to-play. It was happening on the other side of the world, mostly. This, for us, is not a cynical thing, it’s a thing for the independence of the company … to have something that’s maybe not quite mainstream. It’s space ninjas and it’s hard sci-fi, but it’s something we’re really passionate about and I’m hoping people are responding to that.
… That is the worst meandering answer I’ve ever given by the way.
IncGamers: [Laughs] No no, it’s all good.
Steve Sinclair: What’s going to change [the mentality] is awesome titles that people who hate free-to-play cannot resist. They’re drawn in, and then they see a game that isn’t exploitative and they’ll support it. And they’re going to see that a game like Warframe is not a six hour single player game, this is a game that’s like a hobby. They’ll return to it, they’ll build a clan and build relationships. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do.
IncGamers: You mentioned seeing some people actively trying to turn others off from supporting the game. How does it feel when you have those players trying to undermine the finances that would go towards improving it?
Steve Sinclair: It really depends on how they present their ideas. I do feel … I have a very positive attitude towards the free players, because they are there giving supporting players people to play with. For a co-op game like ours it’s absolutely crucial to have a healthy player base, and if that means that we need to make compromises, like we did with the updates for the super-charging of the gear and unlocking the upper tiers of its abilities … if we have to make those compromises to make sure people are staying and creating a vibrant community, that’s awesome and I’m totally happy to do that.
What I’m not happy about is when they try to shame supporting players and say “you’re a jerk because you got X because you paid for it.” I can kind of feel where it’s coming from in terms of … they’re trying to feel cool, everything they do is earned the hard way. I live in Canada and as you know we have Socialist tendencies … you know, we have universal health care. And I feel we are sensitive to fairness. But the truth is, supporting players keep the game alive so that the other people can enjoy it.
It does piss me off when they attack those players. It doesn’t piss me off when they attack us, because they’re frustrated and they want attention and they want to say “look, this sucks, I can’t access the upper level of a Warframe unless I pay, and I’m a student” or whatever. We changed those things, we responded to those things. But when they insult a guy who has a master badge on the forum, man that drives me over the edge.
So I tactfully go in there and say “I’m sorry you feel that way, but these people are supporting the game.” I do my best to build a bridge of understanding between them.
IncGamers: How many people do you have actively playing Warframe right now?
Steve Sinclair: Well … when our updates are not crashing … I’m actually looking at Meridith because I think my boss would be really angry if I revealed that right now. I think I’m supposed to avoid that question.
Meridith Braun: The reception of the game has been amazing, and it’s beyond our expectations.
Steve Sinclair: For a closed beta … let’s put it this way, we’ve had to install load balancing already. It’s thousands and thousands.
Meridith Braun: Tens of thousands. And we’ve had the highest rate of activations from [IncGamers] beta keys. You can quote us on that.
IncGamers: Oh, excellent. I guess my final question then … is there a point where you’ll leave beta and move to a version 1.0, or is it just going to kind of organically evolve through regular updates?
Steve Sinclair: Yeah, I think it’s something … yeah [laughs]
That’s a tough one. To be honest I just left my desk after reading our logs, where there are files corrupt for people in Europe and … god, it just hits you in the gut because they’re angry, but they’re angry because they want to play your game. So it’s this weird, confusing reaction. We’re in a firefighting mode. That stuff is settling down. We’re introducing this new art set so we can extend the life for our existing players and have them not burn out as often, and then I think it’s time for us to take a step back and say “OK, when can we open this up?”
Meridith Braun: I think we’re trying to plan a trial run, which would be a time-based open beta for a couple of days. And then we’d close it back down to just beta keys again. We need to test the waters on how many people will try to download it at the same time. We’ve semi-tested that now with the beta keys, but it’s all been fairly controlled because we control the amount of keys that go out. So once we let the gates down … we don’t know what’s going to happen.
IncGamers: Then all bets are off! One more question actually. Do you have a release date for the next update, or is that a “done when it’s done” kind of thing?
Meridith Braun: Yeah, we’re shooting for early next week [28 January onwards]
IncGamers: Thanks very much for providing the time to talk to you both.
An audio version of this interview can be heard below. We’ve managed to get hold of more Warframe beta keys too, so head over to the giveaway page to snag one of those (before they run out again!)