Digital Extremes' free-to-play shooter Warframe first landed in 2013, and has since built up a strong and dedicated following—to the point where it's now a regular feature in Steam's most-played lists. To this end, we caught up with the developer last year about how it's managed to keep its playerbase happy over the past four years.
Now, Digital Extremes has announced a partnership with esteemed indie label Top Cow Comics that will see a Warframe-inspired comic series launch later this year. We spoke to Top Cow's president and COO Matt Hawkins to find out more about the collaboration and how the comic series ties into DE's ever-popular game and its respective lore.
Matt Hawkins is a veteran of comic book publishing, having worked in the industry for close to 25 years. President and COO of Top Cow Comics, Hawkins is also an avid videogames devotee—having spent years engrossed in WoW, and more recently taking to the likes of Prey and of course Warframe.
PC Gamer: First of all, I'd like to ask you about your own relationship with videogames—what were the first games you played and what are you favourites?
Matt Hawkins: I hate to reveal my age but I started out with Pong in the 1970s. I was thinking about that today—as we're interviewing this, it's the Star Wars 50th anniversary which I saw in the theatre at the age of seven. I grew up on videogames and played pretty much everything from the Atari 2600 to Apple 2 Plus and I was an avid roleplayer. I loved Dungeons and Dragons and did all the relevant nerdy stuff. I played World of Warcraft for ten years—I had a warlock and believe it or not I was actually top-ranked on PvP for a while and had a guild on the Garona server.
I played Age of Empires and was well ranked there too. I've kinda mellowed out a little in my late 40s on games because I have two teenage sons and they tend to dominate all the TVs and consoles, but recently I finished Horizon Zero Dawn, I beat Prey which is one of the hardest fucking games I've played—I was shocked with how hard it was.
As far as your latest venture goes, why Warframe?
Sheldon Carter (the studio director at Digital Extremes) is a guy that I've known for a while ever since The Darkness videogames. They were based on comic books that we published and I worked with Starbreeze and then Digital Extremes on the second. That's how we started that relationship. He emailed me about a year ago and told me about Warframe and that was the point that I downloaded it and started playing it. They said they were interested in going a bit of marketting for it, that they had this huge community and over the course of the last 12 months I met up with the guys, they came along to a couple of comic book signings I did and we worked out the details of the Warframe comic series.
One of the things I always look at when doing these things is the depth of the story because there's a lot of games that don't have a depth of story. Once you get into Warframe—I'm kind of shocked at the depth and level of stories, characterisation, the mythology. It's pretty amazing. It rivals pretty much every science fiction epic I've ever fallen in love with. Great story.
Tell me more about the structure—I understand it's to be a five-issue series. What elements of Warframe and its lore and eras will you be focusing on?
That's the plan, hopefully we'll do a lot more. It tends to be the case that when we get into these things we develop them out and create volumes. I try to do a minimum of three volumes for anything because in terms of business this number sells better in bookstores and it allows us more time to dig into it too. Ideally, we'll keep going.
The first comic is actually going to be a free one, it'll be available digitally for free which we'll make available in loads of different platforms. It'll also be made available as a printed book that we'll be giving away at San Diego Comic Con at Tenno Con and the New York Comic Con as a free printed book. We'll be handing those out to anyone that wants one. But the basic story and setting was written by Steve Sinclair actually. I don't want to give too much away, but it's set on an island with this young girl and there's a Grineer attack by a general who's attacking this specific city in search of an Orkin artefact.
One of the things I really liked about what Steve wanted to do with the story and how we developed it out was that it really showed that the Grineer are not just completely mindless killing machines—General Vor actually has some narrative in the storyline which makes you kind of feel for the guy a little bit. I always like having villains that are sort of heroes of the their own story. The basic Tenno involved in this is Excalibur and it covers a lot of material and it's very exciting.
What I think is most interesting about the idea of a Warframe comic is, unlike a number of videogames, its lore is always evolving and has been since its 2013 launch, due to its free-to-play nature. The comic series also aims to expand and evolve the Warframe universe—is it possible that the comic's storylines could overlap with the game itself further down the line?
I think that'd be fantastic. I've seen companies do that with other franchises and this one certainly has a big enough fanbase to warrant that. Most of the time comics tend be stories that take place in between certain storylines or their stories will expand on certain storylines. There's sort of this basic game world and then these stories would add to that.
There's obviously narrative in videogames but a lot of the time you don't get to see really what's inside people's heads. I think one of the great things about comic books is that's what we use narrative for—we're able to use narrative to show the difference between what people are thinking and what people are saying. As a writer that's always one of the most interesting things about making comics.
There are scenes in this one where General Vor is questioning what he's doing and whether not this is the right thing. At the same time, he's saying things to his troops that are different to what he's thinking. I love that stuff—I think it's this stuff that adds a human element and makes us realise that these stories are universal.
Top Cow Comics has been involved and has overlapped with videogames on more than one occasion in the past. The Darkness is a series which stands to mind that was a comic first and then a videogame. You guys are doing Warframe in the opposite direction—speaking generally what are the pros and cons of this approach?
This can be cool because there's already a built in fanbase but it can also suck if you don't do a good job. That's sort of the challenge that's addressed to us: how do we do this in a way that's not just cheesy or what not. There's a lot of licensed comics that are put out that aren't great. They're put out there to grab some dollars based on an awareness of a brand or franchise, but the one thing about Top Cow is that we don't do a lot of comics. We do maybe four or five books a month, total. I'm not saying all licensed titles aren't good, some of them are great—the Marvel Star Wars stuff that's out just now is fucking fantastic—but it's a tough balance.
I think it's a situation where you need to work closely with the guys and girls at developers so that it gives us an in. Digital Extremes has been working with its fanbase for so long that it knows the pluses and minuses of it all. We've had experience with this kind of thing before—we did 50 issues of Tomb Raider, 20 issues of City of Heroes. I wrote a series for the Adrift videogame. I did a book years ago for Soul Reaver.
We've worked with videogames on several occasions, then, but this one was a little more challenging because there's such a depth of material—you have to pick and choose what you're going to use and highlight. It's a combination of telling a story, revealing something new, showing a little bit more than what you might get in the game. You also need to do a little bit of fan service too.
In the press release blurb there's a line that says: "Seasoned Tenno may even find hints to future updates in the series not yet revealed in the Warframe universe"—are you able to expand on that at this stage or is that under wraps for now?
[Laughs] I think that's under wraps. We are introducing a new Grineer creature, so there's definitely some new stuff in here. I don't think we have any new moves or anything like that but there's definitely a new bad guy—something that players will come against at some point and be part of future storylines. There's definitely some hints to future continuity, I think the fans are gonna see stuff that they'll enjoy and say: 'oh, this is cool'.
What's your timeline like—when are you hoping to ship?
The first issue of the comic we should done in around three weeks. The goal is to have printed copies at Tenno Con and San Diego Comic Con. And since those are coming up very quickly, we'll be wrapping up the first free issue for then. I think for the actual series we're looking at a September/October/November launch. We'll run there for the five issues and then the volume, the collected edition, will come after that. That'll probably be some time in 2018.