Warframe was panned by critics and played by few people when it was released in early 2013. But Digital Extremes constantly updated and improved its free-to-play loot shooter. It grew with time, becoming one of the most consistently popular games on Steam. It’s in the top 10 most popular games nearly all the time, and it worked hard to get there.
Bungie’s Destiny was met with mixed reviews when it was released in 2014, but it quickly became one of the most popular games of the year.
Destiny had the initial playerbase to make a run at the long term. But, unlike Warframe, there was a sense that it was just the first game in a series, rather than something to be built on as a living game. Content updates were big, but relatively infrequent. Players wanted more.
Then, Destiny 2 was announced. To some (maybe many), it felt like a betrayal. We had committed so much time in the first game that it only felt natural for it to grow more and more until it had evolved into something bigger, much like the PC MMOs of the past.
There’s a sense of déjà vu a few weeks into Destiny 2. The endgame meatiness just doesn’t seem to be there. Meanwhile, I’ve been playing the same Warframe character for months with no end in sight.
Can Destiny 2 become the living game that Destiny seemed, to fans, destined to become? The answer may just lie in whether Bungie can learn the lessons of Warframe.
Same in loot only
Destiny and Warframe have the same gameplay loop at their core. You shoot dudes, get better loot from the dudes and then use that loot to kill increasingly more difficult dudes. It’s the Diablo model, where every action you take is intended to find stuff to make your stats go up. Watching numbers go up in a game is extremely satisfying, as it turns out.
But their approaches to the loot game genre differ drastically.
Destiny 2 is all about the straight up loot grind. The constant drip of new guns and armor is key to its gameplay loop. The first 20 levels are a constant cycle of finding a new gun, dropping the old one, finding yet another one, dropping that last gun and so on. It’s a great way to constantly demand players to test out new gear while showing off every style of weapon the game has to offer.
The late game focuses on improving the guns you like by way of infusion and mods, but gear is perpetually shifting for the vast majority of any player’s time with either of the Destiny games. Even while I work my way through the raid, I’m still finding myself constantly swapping guns and armor, never sticking with any one of them long enough to fall in love with a specific play style.
Warframe has a very different type of grind.
Warframe asks its players to craft gear and level it up much in the same way you’d level any RPG character. That means you’re sticking with that assault rifle right up until you run enough missions and kill enough robots (or Warhammer 40,000-style marines or “Infested” versions of either) to get that particular weapon up to level 30. Every item level increases your account level, in turn making any future weapons slightly easier to level up. You’re also collecting materials to craft more guns and Warframes (effectively classes in Warframe) to level up in the future along the way.
Like in Destiny, most of the time spent in Warframe is hopping from planet to planet, completing a variety of mission types. There are wave-based survival, hostage rescue, assassination and just straight up “Kill X enemies” missions, all set on randomly generated levels. Think Diablo level design, but in a fast-paced third-person shooter. Warframe has more gameplay similarities to Vanquish than it does Gears of War.
No weapon or Warframe is inherently better than any other. Instead, it’s up to players to plug mods into them, changing their stats to favor specific combat situations or just player preference. Mods also have to be leveled up, adding to the huge — occasionally bloated — amount of stuff to do.
The result is a grindy game with a heavy focus on figuring out loadouts, customizing them with mods and slowly grinding out even higher numbers. Because Warframe is free to play, some of that grind can be reduced by throwing Digital Extremes a few bucks for more resources or to speed up crafting times, since guns can take 24 real-time hours to craft, while Warframes take three days.
That may seem bananas at first, but there’s a ton to do in Warframe. The crafting often happens in the background while you’re off doing something else.
I want to make this clear: I love the changes Bungie has made so Destiny 2 becomes palatable to more players than its predecessor. Loot games are often difficult for new players to get into, particularly when the best content sits behind a barrier of entry only broken by hundreds of hours grinding out gear. And I certainly don’t want it to go to the extreme of Warframe.
I just worry that these changes were made in sacrifice of late game depth. Granted, it’s early in Destiny 2’s lifespan, so there’s plenty of time for that lack to be addressed. I’d also never argue that Destiny 2 should go for the full-on grind of Warframe. But there are things Bungie’s premium shooter could learn from the design of Digital Extremes’ slow burn of a success.
A reward for every session
I feel like I’m accomplishing something every time I log into Warframe for a few missions. Meanwhile, I’m regularly walking away from sessions with little or nothing to show for it in Destiny 2’s endgame.
A large part of Warframe’s ability to make me feel like I’m always moving forward is its crafting system. I’m always getting materials for something new to build, even if I haven’t gotten the blueprint for it yet. Every mission is progress, every kill moving me a bit closer to a new piece of gear or level.
That sense of constant advancement of my character isn’t as present in Destiny 2. Outside of gear drops on random mobs (most of which I’ll never use) and reputation coins (which I’ll spend on gear that, in all likelihood, I’ll infuse into something else), running around the various worlds and shooting Vex doesn’t net much unless the action is attached to a weekly milestone.
As more planets open up, I’d like to see more regular, small rewards that actually mean something for doing those smaller tasks. Spending an hour on a game only to feel like you didn’t move forward in any way is bunk.
Love blooming on the battlefield
There’s not much of a reason to play with anything else once I find a gun I like in Destiny 2.
Warframe encourages experimentation. Every gun, melee weapon or Warframe rewards you with item-specific experience when you use it. Destiny 2 encourages you to find the best possible weapon (side note: my guild was really mad at me for getting Sins of the Past as a guild reward, since I didn’t even do the raid!) and continuously infuse it until you level the power level cap.
If I had a strong reason to mess around with weaponry I wouldn’t normally try, I’d spend more time with Destiny 2 than I had with the first. The nice thing about Warframe’s mod system is that it makes just about any gun viable in the late game. An expansion of Destiny 2’s already existing mod system could achieve a similar effect, assuming there’d be some reward at the end of it for varying things up. Hell, even a quest to finish Lost Sector missions with a new gun would be something.
Give me a reason to use a Scout Rifle, Bungie! I hate those stupid things!
Guns, my way
While we’re on that topic, improving specific weapons could certainly use some more depth in Destiny 2. Warframe scoffs at your single mod slot and minor customization options. Digital Extremes’ shooter allows you to slide up to 10 mods into each weapon, asking you to choose from hundreds of customization options.
Destiny 2 doesn’t need to go that far, but if more options unlocked for weapon customization the more you used a specific gun, there’d be a reason to dive deeper into a wider pool of weaponry.
Of course, that would be a balance nightmare for PVP, but anything’s better than the matches filled with MIDA Multi-Tools we see so often now.
Short, sweet and meaningful
Most of all, the missions I missed most coming from Warframe to Destiny 2 were the rotating, frequently updated Alerts.
A bit like Destiny’s Public Events, Alerts offer extra rewards for repeating specific missions. Sometimes, you get really good stuff like a new Blueprint or an Orokin Catalyst (an item that doubles a weapon’s mod capacity), but most of the time you’re just earning some extra credits or bonus resources.
The nice thing about Alerts is that they’re active for somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, and are issued at a frequent pace. You can do them solo or in a group and they can take about five minutes to complete.
Alerts are fast, they have rewards commiserate with time spent and I can do them at any time. It’s a nice little bonus for hopping on at regular intervals that doesn’t require a massive time investment but also gives dedicated players one more thing to do.
On the Destiny side of things, there’s Patrols and Public Events to serve a similar purpose, but they never feel quite the same. They’re more repetitive than Warframe’s Alerts (Alerts can pop up in any mission type Warframe has to offer), don’t give up much in the way of gear and generally feel relatively inconsequential.
Destiny 2 has plenty of short options when it comes to things to do, but so much of it earns you next to nothing for your time. You’re incentivized to drop the game until your milestones reset the following Tuesday, and that’s a design failure for a game that should always offer some means to get ahead.
For the future
I love Destiny 2. I love Warframe. I love loot games in general.
But at the end of the my time with it, I want everything I do in Destiny 2 to mean something. For me to play this thing for hours on end into the long term, I want my dedication rewarded. Right now, I see the skeleton of that forming, but it needs to be fleshed out. And Warframe has within it the blueprint to do just that.
Hopefully, Destiny 2 can be the game Bungie commits to like Digital Extremes did for Warframe. I don’t want to make a whole new Guardian.