Digital Extremes talks evolving Warframe's open worlds and coexisting with Destiny 2

Warframe's ambitious Plains of Eidolon update is out now on PC, and brings with it an open world playground—the first to appear in the free-to-play shooter since its arrival back in 2013. For the most part the latest offering has been received well and, despite its scope to split opinion, has doubled its concurrent players record in the process.  

Against this success, I caught up with Digital Extremes' live ops and community producer Rebecca Ford, aka The Lotus, at the end of last month to chat about how Warframe is doing today, how its evolved over the last four years, and where it's headed into the future. 

Following Plains of Eidolon's launch, what's the general feeling like at Digital Extremes at the moment?

I think it's like we're a mad scientist who are looking at their experiment and are saying: 'Oh my god it worked'. And now we're just keeping it all together. Now that we know it worked and people liked it that it continues to be of the quality that people want it to be. We put the lightning bolt into the crazy experiment and now it's about keeping it together, making sure that we're updating it in line with what our players want, and keeping it going. 

None of us have seen a collective success like this with Warframe yet. It's been better than anything we've ever done in terms of people coming to check it out, so you're really feeling the 'all eyes on you idea' so you want to be making sure that what you're working on continues to meet those expectations. 

PoE is the biggest expansion to Warframe to date, adding a considerable amount of new resources. How challenging was it doing something so big and so different?

It's sort of the ultimate in: How do we make this work with five years of game development that already exists in Warframe. We had to look at what we felt would feel the best for veteran players, but would also work for new players. Getting those two paradigms of approaching Warframe working at the same time has been really difficult. Also, technically, we're dealing with something we've never had to before. That's maybe having a level of detail that we've never had to put in a game before because out distances have never rendered this far, and having a streaming of two levels which at the same time supports multiplayer which we've never had to do before. 

Everything has been loading into levels [up to now] but it's a real streaming of a town and play area that's massive, so the technical challenges have been pretty huge. At times it's been like: 'How are we going to make this work?' But we did. We still have ways to make them better but it's certainly been the rule of firsts for us here. Which is not something you'd expect five years into a game—to be reinvented something, but here we are. 

Before, at most, you were looking at our assets at maybe 200 metres away. And they always on a different tile and weren't in direct line of sight. Because we have a direct line of sight across a two and half kilometre landscape, that means you have to have level of detail rendering with imposters and certain types of technology for near and far distances that we never had before. Because of this we really needed to create an asset library from scratch to support that.  

How has Plains of Eidolon been received?

It's been hard to say that there's been a consensus because for me watching every area of the internet react to it has built a library of reactions, if you will, depending on how familiar someone is with Warframe. If someone is completely new to Warframe they're either like: How is this free? Or: What do I do. So the new players are either overwhelmed with the amount of free content in the game because of course they didn't pay a cent when they downloaded it. Or they're just like: How on Earth do I get started here? It's then that you see our community flock to those areas to help them out. 

If people are familiar with Warframe, they usually ask [the same questions], but then they also say: Okay, so now that we have all this free stuff, how do I complete this new expansion as soon as possible, because everyone is looking to play everything at the same time. It's like this appetite to engage with the content as fast as possible, and then you just see people feeling like they've never been able to do anything like this in Warframe before. Which is a huge victory for us in the sense that we've been able to give something completely new.  

Some new players appear to be struggling with the economy and rewards in PoE. Do you feel these criticisms are just?

Yeah, we've done, nine hotfixes [at the time of interview], I think—the game has only been out for ten days or so [see above]—to try and patch up all the, let's say, daunting things for new players. We've done some patches to try and speak to the economy which doesn't tie into the the rest of the game. The criticism is valid and while we've tried to do little things, I think the big things to consider are still on the board for us to address. 

We need to consider: Okay, how do we not make someone feel like they're drowning and were never taught to swim? There's so much there that, yes, you can discover and explore it, but there's also a lot to be said about having a bit more of a hand-hold. We're really not sure about how far we're going to go in that direction, but needless to say if it wasn't for our community helping those new players then we'd be in a much tougher spot. Thankfully, we do have a really helpful community—but of course the responsibility is on us to keep people feeling like they have any idea what they're doing. 

How tricky is it making the grind here feel rewarding, without also giving away too much too easily and spoiling players?

It's tricky. With this update in particular, it's one of the strangest integrations of grind, I'd say, because you can't really pay to bypass anything. Typically in Warframe you can buy a weapon or Warframe, but with the Plains themselves, it's an equal playing field where you're starting from zero—whether or not you're paid or a free player because it's all resource accumulation. I guess I should add an asterisk there: You can buy boosters that double your yields, but it doesn't really apply to day/night, you can't really rush past those things. 

Everyone is subject to the same grind—whether they're paid or not, including us a staff. This means we have a really good feeling of whether or not any given thing is worth our time or not. In these hotfixes that I was talking about earlier, we've really been able to make it feel better. It started a little bit rocky because your economy is only as good as it is in your head, and then once it's actually tested you're like: Ah, of course, those things matter. We've been pretty good at getting hotfixes out for that and it'll only get better from there, especially now that we get to play it with our players.  

What's been the biggest piece of feedback from the community that you're looking to address?

The first one is the economics of the area. We've done some pretty solid patches in that area, and while I'm not going to say we're finished, we are closer to finished with that than we are with what is currently the biggest piece of feedback is: Let players be able to extract from the plains independently. Presently, what happens is you get matched with random people. Say one person in your group just wants to go fishing, and the other person just wants to get a few resources and leave. 

The problem right now is that you're kind of at the mercy of whether or not someone is going to cooperate with you. If that person wants to stay fishing, they might hold you hostage, so to speak, until they're done. We're looking at ways to give extraction a little bit more autonomy for each player. You can only rely on human nature for so much in videogames, and while I'd like to think that cooperation is something that everyone will do, the reality is that the goals in Warframe can be so conflicting between parties that it's just not shaping up that way. 

Given how much Warframe has changed over the years, is there ever a worry that introducing PoE so early to new players might give the wrong idea about what Warframe is?

Yeah, so I'm always in a perpetual state of worry with: How will this make Warframe feel for someone who doesn't know what is it? Because we put it right on Earth, which is one of the new planets, and if you're playing Warframe and are hopping around node to node, that sort of gives you a cadence of what to expect. But then, all of sudden, you have this area that's an open area and is unlike anything else in the game. 

Luckily we've been working on this for so long and players talk to one another. I think it's really difficult to play online games in a vacuum, so, luckily, we have this established relationship with our players whereby we take different risks. Plains of Eidolon is what a lot of people came to Warframe for, and I think a lot of people do understand that it's The New in the centre of everything else; it's this new slice. I would give players credit in understanding what it actually is, and how it's different from everything else, simply because it's been very talked about and followed in the industry since it was announced a couple of months ago.  

How is PoE going to evolve over time? Is what's available now the gist of it, or will new features expand on what players can do there already?

There are two areas, one of them I should be cheeky and say that hopefully players aren't getting too comfortable with how the Plains are right now, because you never know what could happen. And the second, of course, is the technology that it's all built on is something that we're going to add to other planets. We have the short term, which is maybe things will shake up a little bit—it's not always going to be so safe out there. And of course the long term which is just that we are absolutely going to be taking the technology that we built for this update and applying it to every planet hopefully as fast as we can. We already have planets almost halfway done.  

Can we expect more open world zones, then?

Absolutely. Whether or not the new updates were received with universal love—some people have said it's too grindy, for example—I think the one thing that absolutely resonated universally was: Holy crap, it feels so good to be out in the open. And that sentiment alone is enough to smack the forge of Warframe to this direction. You can't really put into words how good it feels to go from all these spaceship levels to the open area and have both to explore. 

On the subject of open worlds, your timing with Plains of Eidolon's launch rubs shoulders with Destiny 2's arrival on PC. Naturally, this has prompted comparisons between the two. How do you feel about those comparisons?

I think it's an exciting [time] to be a PC gamer who likes sci-fi because, holy crap, one of the biggest franchises ever has come to PC. First of all, I have to mention that. It's only a good thing from our point of view because the comparisons do get drawn a lot, and for me personally sci-fi as a genre is getting stronger and stronger, which is what I love to see. 

For us, our game is free, it has five years of random things we've thrown in to make the open zones feel really unique: we have jet packs, we have fishing, we have mining—it's a lot more like an MMO almost at this point than just a straight shooter. And that means that they [Warframe and Destiny 2] continue to be games going in different directions. Largely, it just means that sci-fi gamers are getting a little spoiled right now, which is always a good side to be on.

Not to put words in your mouth, but you're saying Destiny 2 and Warframe can coexist on PC—is that fair to say?

Absolutely. I'm a consumer of a lot of cultures and I consume a lot of culture that I'm sure people feel are competing. From my world I just love to see genres that I love get unique entries into them. 

They really are unique games foremostly. I don't know if you can fish in Destiny, for example, I don't think you can. But there's also things in Destiny you can't do in our game. At the end of the day, because the aesthetic is a bit quirky sci-fi, they do get compared. I'm just happy for players that they get the beauty that is another platform.

Given how diplomatic your answered there, I'm not sure how you'll answer this. But if you're a PC player who hasn't played Warframe and is considering Destiny 2 why should players choose Warframe?

Oh, what are you doing to me? [Laughs] I think if you're a PC gamer in the modern landscape, it's a gamer's market. For you to make a choice I think ti just depends on your time and your money. Sometimes people have a lot of one, people have a lot of the other, or they have neither so really the free download is always the thing on our end that speaks to a lot of people that can't afford AAA titles. 

But at the same time it's up to you, at the end of the day. If your friends play either—I always find the social gamer pressures are the ones that make people decide. Either way, as much as my answer would be: Yay, play Warframe! I respect gamers to do what they think will fulfill their enjoyment.

Our own Steven Messner contributed to some of the questions in this interview.