Digital Extremes on the surprising evolution of Warframe

The free-to-play brawler has come a long way in three years.

The free-to-play section of Steam is getting crowded, particularly with competitive shooting games. Yet despite not being part of our general gaming conversation the way the other competitive shooters are, Warframe, which originally released in 2013, has found an audience alongside Team Fortress 2 and the other residents of Steam’s most-played lists. We spoke to Digital Extremes about how they’ve managed to keep their fans happy for three years and counting.

PC Gamer: You guys are a regular fixture in the Steam most-played games list, but being free-to-play is no guarantee of a continuously engaged audience. After three years, why do you think people are still playing Warframe? 

Rebecca Ford, live operations and community producer: If you compare Warframe from three years ago and Warframe now, you’d see a lot has changed along the way. That’s the key for us to keep players interested: an unabashed fearlessness to mix things up if we feel like it’s needed. Warframe is an ever-evolving experience, so there’s always something new to try or do. We as devs have our hands on the game every single day, so we’re constantly aware that if we’re getting bored of something, players are too. 

Even looking at this past year, two major parts of the game have gotten a rework, with other facelifts along the way. It’s a balance between adding the really alluring parts through quests and new content, while ensuring that the basic aspects of gameplay are rock solid and addicting enough to keep players coming back between updates. 

PCG: You guys debuted Star Chart 3.0 for Warframe in July—what was the reaction to that? 

RF: Whenever we make a change, people will always react in a multitude of ways. It’s pretty jarring to be playing with one system for six months, or a year, or more, and to log-in one day and feel like you have to relearn everything again. But I think we accomplished what we set out to do: to create a more streamlined, easy to navigate, and visually stunning experience for players. After the expected “WHAT DID YOU DO?!” reactions died down, I think that players agree with us on that part as well.

PCG: You’re obviously aware that when you revamp something in the game, it won’t please those players who prefer things the way they are. Do you find these players eventually adapt in any case? 

RF: There will always be those “oh God why” responses to change. It’s going to happen, there’s no helping it. Saying that all players adapt well, or that they all adapt poorly is too much of a blanket statement. Some will like it, some won’t. Them adjusting to it depends on how well we can do our job at making something better but still making it feel like Warframe—while also ensuring it addresses the wants and needs of our fans. I feel like we’ve succeeded in this regard, from day one of these updates, but also in every day after where we are constantly listening and improving these systems to make sure they deliver on what they are supposed to do: make Warframe better. 

PCG: You’ve talked to us before about the difficulties new players might face playing the game, because you’re focused on keeping your existing players interested with updates. Do you have plans to look at that in future? 

RF: Improving new player experience was a large motivator behind the recent Star Chart and Fusion System reworks, and is something that will drive future changes as well. The goal here is to make things easier to understand and to introduce transparency into the game, not to make the game easier as a whole. There are so many facets to Warframe that can be overwhelming to new players, and we want to ensure that whatever we implement in the future will be easier to digest, but still as challenging and engaging as things we’ve done before.

PCG: Longer term, what are your larger plans to evolve or change Warframe? 

RF: Last year we released a cinematic quest (The Second Dream) that evolved and changed the meaning of Warframe’s lore. Just under a year later, the War Within aims to repeat that shift in meaning. As for what’s next, it really depends on player reaction. We invest a lot of time into these cinematic moments. This is the second year we’re aiming to deliver an evolution of lore. Player response to this will determine our next large move. Which means at this time, we don’t know. 

PCG: TennoCon seems to have been a big success for you guys—do you find that super-dedicated audience who wants to talk with you directly growing each year? 

RF: Our community team was just talking about the sheer amount of personal messages we receive on our official forums the other day, and I think that’s a perfect example of how much our player-base has grown. I remember being able to take the time to answer each and every single one, but now that task has grown to astronomical proportions. 

I’m a bit melancholy for the early days, because I do miss being able to reach out and talk to each fan personally, but there’s also something really amazing about how many people we’ve impacted now over three years. Hosting our very first TennoCon was a result of how large our dedicated player-base has grown and while we were nervous that we might be throwing a party no one would attend (with it taking place in our hometown of London, Ontario), we were overwhelmed by the attendance at the Con and now realise there’s no limits to the extent Warframe could grow in years to come.

Tom Marks caught up with Rebecca Ford back in September to discuss the game's future, you can watch that interview here.

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