Warframe developer Digital Extremes has an uncommonly close relationship with its community. So close, in fact, that earlier this year it tasked players with designing its 44th warframe—the titular suits of alien power armor that players inhabit and swap between. Players chose its theme, visual aesthetic, and even its abilities, with Warframe fan artists contracted to bring it all to life as concept art that Digital Extremes would then use to create the actual in-game model. It was a grand experiment to see what players might come up with and, as community manager Danielle Sokolowski tells me, a slightly terrifying moment of putting faith in players to create something cool. And, boy, they sure did. The new warframe, which will be released later this year, is named Xaku, a Frakenstein monster pieced together with shattered parts of other warframes and held together by a twisting skeleton of void energy.
"There was a moment where the devs were like, what do we even do with this?" Sokolowski tells me. "This is a peculiar approach to a warframe. Where do we even begin? So that presented, I guess, a bit of a design challenge. But I'm very, very happy and proud of the community for just really just showing us that they really know Warframe, and they really love it and want to participate in these things."
Though Xaku is the first warframe designed almost entirely by the community, players have been making their mark on the game for years. The TennoGen program, for example, is a unique partnership with Warframe fan artists who create 3D models of cosmetic upgrades like capes (called Sydanas) or alternate warframe skins. Using the Steam Workshop, players vote on their favorite designs and, a few times a year, the most popular are selected and put into the game and sold as official cosmetics, with the artists who created them earning a portion of every sale. More than a few artists have turned TennoGen into a full-time job, while others have used it as a doorway to getting hired at Digital Extremes.
So earlier this year when design director Scott McGregor floated the idea of letting the community design a warframe, it seemed like a no brainer. "That was the starting point of what ultimately turned out to be a several month project between the community and the devs," Sokolowski says. "The last time we had this sort of happen was with Zephyr, but she was a warframe inspired off of a community fan artist who actually now works with us. And that was, like, way back in 2014. But it was never like, let's put pen to paper here with the community and really start from top to bottom and design it with them."
At the heart of every warframe is a theme. Rhino is a tanky juggernaut who protects himself with a crystallized layer of armor, Limbo darts between dimensions, and Valkyr goes into a berserker rage, tearing enemies apart with her claws. Back in March, Digital Extremes put forth a call for themes that this new warframe would be based on. Anyone could suggest an idea, assuming it was original and fit within the lore. After a few weeks, the developers picked ten of the best, most popular ideas, and presented them to the design council, a special group of players who represent the community on more granular issues.
Of that top ten, any of them could have made for a badass warframe, but it was forum user eaterofstorms' suggestion of a "Broken warframe" that the design council chose. "It's obviously not put together correctly and it's pretty much the epitome of making a bug a feature," eaterofstorms wrote as a brief description.
Sokolowski says that concept took the developers by surprise. Without more context, Digital Extremes wasn't sure if the theme was a genuine idea or a joke. "I don't want to say it this way, but initially it was like, oh, is this kind of like a meme theme? Was this voted on because it was kind of like a silly concept?"
"[To] tell the truth I never thought of the broken Warframe as a meme," easterofstorms later clarified on the forums. "I had [an] idea of a frame who never worked as intended but made his own way regardless."
But Sokolowski says the team was still worried. Most of the previous 44 warframes had all been born of a clear idea that its designers fleshed out into a cohesive aesthetic and suite of abilities. "Khora, for example, that was [3D character artist] Michael Skyers' baby, as I guess you would say it. He had been working on that for a long time—the way that she looks and her abilities. It's not the only way that we've approached designing warframes, but it is one of the primary ways."
The concept of "broken," however, could be interpreted a bunch of different ways even within eaterofstorms' description. That's when senior game designer Pablo Alonso came up with a more fleshed out concept of a warframe pieced together from the shattered remains of other warframes, deviating slightly from the original idea to envision a warframe that wasn't just assembled incorrectly, but was scavenged. Choosing a theme was just the first step, though. The real work would be actually designing Xaku's looks and abilities.
Bringing it to life
Given Warframe's bizarre space ninja look, it's no surprise that it attracts a large audience of fan artists. Sokolowski says the most exciting part of this project for her was being able to hire several of them to flesh out this idea of a broken warframe. Four artists from the community were chosen, based on their previous work: Eornheit would handle the overall design of Xaku, Faven would create an alternate cosmetic helmet, Karu would design a special Sydana (the cape), and kedemel would create Xaku's signature melee weapon.
"When I was offered to participate in the project, I was very excited," Eornheit says. "It was an opportunity to take part in the creation of the game that I play and that I really like, and to contribute to its development."
Sokolowski says Digital Extremes trusted Eornheit enough to give them a blank check to take the concept in any direction they wanted, using Alonso's and eaterofstorms' brief descriptions as a baseline. Eornheit envisioned a warframe composed of a core with void energy tentacles—a common visual element in certain levels—that snaked through the broken pieces of other warframes, binding them together.
Sokolowski says the first concept blew the team away. Not only did it look unique, it fit almost perfectly with Warframe's singular aesthetic. "It was a telltale sign of these community members and how involved they are in Warframe, whether it is with development or just participating in the community and participating in the game," Sokolowski explains. "It was immediately obvious to the art team that this person knows Warframe and this person knows our design approach. This person is familiar with the aesthetic, and they're also familiar with the story of Warframe. They're kind of telling that story through this Warframe."
It was those void energy tentacles that Digital Extremes wanted to emphasize, along with a greater feeling of brokenness. After a few revisions, Eornheit created the final concept—a Frakenstein monster entwined by creepy void tentacles. Once the final look was complete, the other artists could begin designing Xaku's cosmetics and weapons, and Digital Extremes again turned to the community to begin soliciting ideas for Xaku's abilities.
Similar to the call for theme ideas, Digital Extremes took to its forums to ask players to come up with ideas for Xaku's abilities, giving them Eornheit's finished concept art as inspiration. Each warframe has four active abilities with one passive ability, and players could suggest a full kit or suggest just one. Sokolowski says she didn't anticipate just how seriously players would take it. "I'm always very impressed with how much detail put behind people put behind these things," she laughs. "It took a team of three from the community team to sort through everything, read through everything, and present what ultimately was shown to the dev team."
Coming up with a cool look is one thing, but abilities posed much bigger challenges. Ideas might not be feasible—from either a balance or design standpoint—or they might simply be way too powerful. Others might require code solutions that were beyond what Digital Extremes could implement. "It's not like we picked one and we stuck to it solidly," Sokolowski explains. "We found inspiration from many different submissions and the different approaches that people were taking to this."
Sokolowski couldn't confirm Xaku's final set of abilities because the finalized version of the warframe won't be fully revealed until tonight, during the TennoCon Live presentation where Digital Extremes will announce the big new features and updates coming later this year, but one key idea that is expressed in Xaku's in-game animations is a feeling of instability. During their idle animation, which was revealed at a TennoCon art panel earlier today, Xaku's pieces of armor will sometimes shiver or detach from the void endoskeleton. It gives the impression that Xaku's armor could fall apart at any moment, leaving nothing but writhing void tendrils.
I'm excited to see Xaku in action, though. With 43 warframes, you'd think Digital Extremes might be running out of ideas, but it's one one of three new frames coming in the next year. Just on looks alone, though, Xaku easily stands out—if only because every other warframe looks like a complete set of armor rather than a smashed husk barely keeping itself together (which feels very appropriate for 2020).
At the same time, it's cool that Digital Extremes continues to find ways to empower its community of artists while also paying them. For people like Eornheit, an opportunity like this isn't just a chance to gain invaluable professional experience, but also leak a permanent mark on a game that they love so much.
"It's hard to describe it in words," they say. "This is very very inspiring. When I started to play and then draw fan art and fan-made creature design, I did not even think that I would ever be able to bring something of my own to the game. It's like a part of your creativity has come to life. When you see not only the feedback from the game community but also the approval from the developers themselves, it strongly motivates you to create more and do even better."