Digital Extremes on 38 million players and 5 years of Warframe: 'Change is a constant for us'

Digital Extremes' free-to-play co-op sci-fi shooter Warframe celebrates its fifth birthday next week. Tomorrow, the developer will mark the occasion with the launch of a microsite designed to encourage players to "celebrate all things Warframe". Here, they'll share stories, watch trailers, and grab free in-game items.

In five years, Warframe players have crafted 52,972,344 Warframes and 234,766,197 weapons across its PC, PS4 and Xbox One platforms, Digital Extremes tells us. They've killed the game’s first boss, Captain Vor, 53,117,969 times; and have been part of 41,765,109 Stalker eliminations. 

All told, players have racked up a total of 136,747 years, or 49,912,765 days, or 1,197,906,351 hours in-game. 

With all of this in mind, I asked community director Rebecca Ford about Warframe's past, the challenges of realising its present, and how it hopes to grow into the future.

PC Gamer: Warframe is almost unrecognisable now since launch in 2013. Could you have foreseen its success to this point—and is what you have now what you imagined it would/could be five years on?

Rebecca Ford: You know, I think about that quite often. Warframe has gone through a lot of changes in the past five years. Could I have foreseen it? No way. In the beginning, the first couple years, we were just scrambling… scrambling to connect with our players, put out meaningful updates, add more Warframes, you name it. I remember many moments because I am always working on the update and/or patch notes and because my brain works like that, but some of it, frankly, is a blur. 

What Warframe is now is not at all like what I had imagined it would be. Parkour 2.0, Damage 2.0, 34 Warframes, an Open World area—the Plains of Eidolon—two story-rich cinematic quests… Kavats and Kubrows! That’s just the beginning.

What have been the biggest challenges of growing such an ambitious game in that time?

Gosh, what aren’t big challenges? Last year we put out three major updates including three Warframes—Octavia, Harrow, and Gara (almost four if Khora had made it), each including his or her own quest, and then we created the biggest update in Warframe history, the Plains of Eidolon. 

Because of the speed of our team and the volume of our output, creatively we are constantly challenging ourselves to find something new and different—a Warframe, or a weapon, enemy, vehicle, or a story—but that makes sense in our growing Warframe universe.

Everything is challenging because everything is a risk. It’s not just about making choices for content that’s risky, it’s hoping the community receives them well. And if they don’t, the challenge of making things right is endless, but it’s what we do! 

If you had to single out one feature that's surprised you in in the last five year—i.e., it's been unexpectedly successful, or poorly received by players when you expected success—what would it be?

I think, for us, Plains of Eidolon was a big risk. We had no idea if players would love or reject it. We hoped they would like it. And then when it came out, people loved it. Mostly. We worked on hotfixes for weeks and improved it, adding more content, holding events, like Operation: Plague Star, and then we started getting comments about various things that did take us a little by surprise. It was hard to stay together on the Plains with players of differing experience levels. 

In closed spaces, it was a little easier to stay together. But in the Plains it’s a little tougher. We heard things like, POE didn’t really tie into the bigger universe, or POE wasn’t that friendly to newer players. That was a surprise in some respects, too. These weren’t shocking surprises, like, whaa??? They were more like, oh, we didn’t realize that it took a newer player X amount of time to get an Archwing. Or, shoot, we should have streamlined returning to Cetus after every quest from Konzu (which is something we’re working on).

How important has the Plains of Eidolon update been to Warframe's growth, and how important will it continue to be for the game's future?

We constantly spin 5-15 different plates at a time. But some plates are bigger than others. Octavia’s Anthem and Chains of Harrow did well for Warframe—in terms of critical reception and growing our player base. But Plains of Eidolon has contributed greatly to the growth of Warframe over the past year in many ways—in terms of sign-ups, registered players and more—across all platforms. 

The other thing I think Plains of Eidolon did was to break through some kind of mental barrier for people. Before, in many people’s minds, Warframe was this labyrinth of procedurally generated sci-fi maps—and in some minds, it was hard to crystalize into something concrete. But when we introduced Plains of Eidolon, people were like, “Oh, a Landscape, an Open Zone… that’s a funny way of saying an ‘open world.’” Pause… “Wait, Warframe is now an open world? Oh. My. Gosh.” 

Our development decision to experiment in the open world space opened perception doors for that went well beyond our community base. So, all of these updates add an accumulative importance of their own, but Plains of Eidolon has been very valuable and important to our growth in every way.

Speaking to the future, let's return to question one. In five years time will I be comparing Warframe 2023 to Warframe 2018 in the same way? Tell me everything you can about how and why Warframe will change into the future. 

This is a very good question because, like your earlier question, we iterate fast and we are inspired by many things, so our road map changes fluidly. And five years, haha, is like 20 years in Warframe time. 

Two to three years ago, we would never have created a character like Octavia—a brightly colored pink and purple dancing Warframe who can mesmerize and slaughter enemies with music? Are you kidding me? Or heck, how is it that we have created a mandachord, an instrument that enables you to create your own music? We’re working on a pet Moa right now, and we recently introduced new Grineer variants with Ghouls on the Plains. Just to name a name a few things. Change is a constant for us.

What I can tell you is that we will continue to experiment and expand in science fiction and space. We will continue to explore open worlds, like we started with Plains of Eidolon, and we will expand even more with our next big open world space, Venus. But we aren’t restricted to just doing more open worlds. Expect us to continue to review and revise systems that need work or updating, or retiring for something better in the future. 

An example of this is the process of revising and rebalancing things like weapons and Warframes. And we’ll continue to explore the story, lore, and history of the Warframe universe. I am super excited about what the future holds because in five years I expect we will have approached and accomplished content and storylines I simply can’t even imagine today.