Digital Extremes has a long history in gaming, from working on the Unreal and Unreal Tournament franchises to creating the multiplayer component for Bioshock 2.
It wasn’t enough.
The team realized the publisher model was going to end up costing them the studio, and began work on a strange, H.R. Giger-esque free-to-play multiplayer game that built on some of their ideas from Dark Sector, a game they developed and released in 2008 to middling reviews. It was, to put it mildly, a long shot.
Today, Warframe is a successful title with a fiercely dedicated fanbase that supports Digital Extremes’ team of around 160 employees. Patches, updates and fixes are released constantly, where they’re devoured by a vocal but loving audience.
While Digital Extremes won’t talk about the conversion rate of free to paid players or how large the audience is, outside of noting the daily active players of 2017 was double what it was in 2016, they will talk about how they got here by crafting one of the few non-abusive free-to-play systems in the industry. It’s a story that is only becoming more unique in the age of loot boxes and very public stumbles in monetization.
And that process began on the first day of release.
The story of Warframe
“We kinda made the decision to do this game, and go out on our own and go from the publisher model that we realized was going to shut down the studio,” Geoff Crookes, the art director of Warframe told Polygon. “We weren’t getting any publisher interest in our free-to-play game and we didn’t feel like we had enough street cred to do a Kickstarter.”
What they did have was a tiny, working slice of the game with a single tileset and four warframes, or suits of armor that give the players different abilities. The game focused on acrobatic movement during combat, an addition that helped it stand out from the more standard, plodding combat of its competition. It was a multiplayer, co-op third-person title when competitive first-person games tended to dominate the charts.
“We knew we had to convince people with a prototype, and we used that prototype to build our Founder’s Program,” Crookes said. “The founders really are responsible for this game being around today; they supported it right from the hop. They saw into what we were doing and helped us grow it.”
The narrative around Warframe is that the game was released, more or less failed, and then the team continued to work on the ashes until something new rose from the corpse.
The reality is that the game started small, found its fans and those fans spread the word and grew the player base from the first day through today.
“I think that the real narrative is that the community and use worked hand-in-hand right from the start to build the game together,” Sheldon Carter, the studio manager of Digital Extremes told Polygon.
Warframe took a very long path to success with constant growth, which is a different story than an initial stumble and return to prominence.
“[The first players] were playing this really small bloop of this space ninja raiding game, and they decided they were going to support us, probably because we’ve been really community driven from the get-go,” Carter said. “We were live-streaming, we were interacting with these guys.”
Digital Extremes didn’t have much of a choice but to pay close attention to those early players and try to keep them playing and inviting their friends. The future of the game depended on it.
“We didn’t have lofty expectations,” Crookes said. “We were just so excited people were playing it and giving us feedback, they had really cool suggestions that are in line with where we wanted to go, so we said ‘let’s implement this.’ So that weird relationship at the start naturally built this collaborative development relationship that we still have to this day with our community.”
The game was “released” in 2013, and was also one of the first free-to-play games on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The IGN review sums up the state of the game at the time: Fun, but a little bland. The important part, the thing that allowed the team to continue building the game, was that the moment to moment play itself was satisfying and enjoyable.
“Movement and shooting feels smooth and responsive, targets are plentiful, and there's just enough ragdoll silliness in the enemy death animations to always make me look forward to my next kill,” IGN wrote at the time. “There's a good variety of guns to choose from, including a powerful bow that can pin enemies to walls, and although the sci-fi swordsman archetype might be overplayed lately, the melee combat here is also satisfyingly weighty. Charged attacks that can slice enemies clean in half are their own reward.”
The review also noted the relatively low player count on the servers, which could make it hard to find a full team of four players for missions.
That slow start made the early days of the game tense for the development team.
“There were a few of us that would look at the numbers every morning and see if we could afford to keep everyone on staff with this project, and it was every morning,” Carter told Polygon. “I remember the day when I checked my computer in the morning and I was screaming at home when I saw we had hit a day where, if that day continued, we would be able to support everyone here. We were freaking out.”
They continued to refine the game, and interacted with the community and listened to feedback every step of the way. That first day over that important threshold didn’t just continue, the fanbase continued to grow.
The early days of constant communication and sharing from the developer to the players continued, and players saw how much impact they could have in the game’s development by sharing their own thoughts. What started out of desperation became a selling point for the game.
One of the most important reasons why the community cares about the game so much, and why it’s so easy to pick up and continue to play, is that the monetization system is extremely fair. That didn’t happen by accident.
Well, there might have been a few accidents.
How to ask for money with style
“Warframe is the game where essentially everything we have in the game that’s game effecting, you can earn it,” Carter explained.
You never have to pay a dime to play if you don’t want to, and there is always an item to work toward or to level up in your inventory. Warframe’s endgame content feels not just endless, but meaningful in a way that Destiny 2 is seeming to struggle with. And you can play it all without paying any money. You want to feel like a powerful space ninja, and they want you to be able to feel that way even if you don’t pay any money.
You’re also not competing against other players, which removes the need to balance the game for competition.
“One of the big advantages is that we’re a PvE game, we’re a co-op game,” Carter told Polygon. “You want to work with other players to advance, you’re not against someone. So the feeling that someone has something that looks different than you, there’s no sting to that. Our community turns into people who want to help each other achieve those goals. It really lends itself well to the type of monetization we do.”
You can pay real money to unlock blueprints for the gear you want or to speed up the crafting process, but if you do so you’re only helping your team. And part of the fun of the game is tracking down the gear you want, which can then be upgraded by actually using it in combat.
“Our community loves the feeling of being able to get that super rare thing by playing the game, but first you have to have the game they love to play and you have to have those loops set up to get the feedback from the community,” Carter said.
And, as the IGN review proved, they had the bones of a game that was satisfying to play from the beginning.
The act of finding your gear or leveling it up by doing missions is enjoyable because playing the game itself is fun. The satisfying feeling of playing Warframe can stand up next to Halo or Destiny in terms of how good it feels to use the actual mechanics, with melee weapons, bows and arrows and all sorts of guns and modifiers to experiment with. The crafting choices can, in fact, be overwhelming.
The in-game store also doesn’t focus on luck to get what you want. If you want a specific weapon, the game will show you how to buy the blueprints or where to farm to get the materials you need. You don’t need to run a raid over and over hoping for a specific weapon; if you really want something, you can play with purpose to earn or buy it.
You can pay money for specific Warframes or bundles of content, without spending money on loot boxes that may or may not give you what you want. It’s a store, not a lottery.
“We do have, just to be honest, mod packs that are random, but we say in the description that they’re random,” Carter clarifies. “However in the game you can look in the codex and see specifically which enemy drops that mod, so if there’s a specific mod you’re after you know how you can go after it. So then, even in the situations where there is some randomness in the game, there are ways to kind of understand where that is if that’s the thing you really care about. You can go hunt that enemy for awhile and you’re bound to get it.”
This is crucial when it comes to explaining why Warframe is so sticky. You largely know what you’re buying when you buy it, but you also know exactly how to get the things you want to get. You can grind with purpose, without worrying about wasted hours or not getting what you want. The game will give you a path to the gear you want, and you can make that gear more powerful just by using it while playing.
You can also buy items for and from other players, trade items if you get doubles in a mod pack, and even sell in-game items for platinum using the in-game marketplace. There are multiple paths to getting what you want, including paying money, but you’re almost never at the mercy of a random number generator. Even short sessions can feel like they provide meaningful progress toward your goal.
There were a few hiccups along the way, but the tight connection between the audience and the developers allow them to be fixed quickly. Warframe allows you to breed in-game pets called Kubrows, and there used to be a system where, for a small amount of platinum, you could pull a lever and get a random color for your Kubrow if you wanted to change its cosmetic appearance. One player pulled that lever a ridiculous number of times, and fans began to complain about the random aspect of the system.
“We weren’t trying to make a lottery,” Crookes said, looking back on the situation. “That wasn’t the kind of system we wanted in there. We had that out within a day or two. As fast as possible.” They also said they refunded the players the money spent on the random coloring.
There’s a workflow they’ve established with the community where everyone knows what to expect, and on about what timeframe.
“Our PC audience knows that in the first couple of days, the first week when we release something, they’re the testbed to see if it’s going to work, and we’re just gobbling up their feedback, processing it and trying our best to alter, change, adjust values and balance it better,” Carter stated. “Once the console guys get it, they’re getting something that’s been thoroughly tested by our PC base, and our PC base knows that after a week we’re, generally speaking, having it in a place that they love it and we love it. ... Generally speaking, in that time we’ve ironed out those things that have offended them or we’ve made mistakes on. If we miss, we hotfix those things as quickly as possible.”
The path to success
So much of what Warframe does well came from a combination of luck and trying circumstances in the early days, but Digital Extremes knew to lean into the things that seemed to be working while working hard to fix the mistakes they made along the way. The early bond and transparency it shared with the players was important, and the team continued to share things other developers may have kept hidden.
“We show the raw stuff, things that a lot of people would be embarrassed to show, to get a gauge for how they players are feeling about the changes to get a feeling if we’re on the right path or if we need to massage things a little bit,” Crookes said.
Sometimes they have to massage things a lot, and they’re painfully aware that the fans know nearly as much about the game as they do, if not more.
“We’ve shown warframes on a stream and, after the reaction on the stream, we’ve totally changed the warframe’s power set,” Carter told Polygon.
That community and trust keeps the players coming back, but even that wouldn’t be enough without a monetization and progression system that focuses on allowing the player to make meaningful forward motion during every session, while leaning away from random elements like loot boxes or weapon drops.
If you want something bad enough, you can find the path to earning it. There may be a lot of grinding inherent to the game’s design, but Warframe feels good enough to play that it rarely becomes a problem. And if it does, the players will tell them.
“We’re this massive, ridiculous studio, but it feels like we’re a rock band,” Carter said. “We get the feedback from the fans because you go on stage and you see how people react to something, and you want to make more stuff for the audience to have that interaction.”
The developer and audience share the same energy, and after nearly five years and millions of players, both sides of that equation continue to come back for more. The days of looking at the numbers every morning to see if the company can survive are long gone.