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Warframe: The game that redefined “free-to-play”

Rhino is an absolute unit (Image via Digital Extremes)
Rhino is an absolute unit (Image via Digital Extremes)
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Arnab Chakrabarti

Warframe is one of those games that everyone eventually ends up playing. It gets mentioned in passing, and two days later, everyone in the group is either farming Void relics, taking down Eidolons, or helping their friend how to bullet jump. It’s infectious, satisfying to play, and rewarding in its niche way.

With over 40,000 average players daily and millions of registered followers, Warframe has broken the mold of free-to-play stagnancy that permeates the industry. From a title that no one wanted to publish to becoming one of the most beloved third-person shooters, here’s how Digital Extremes proved everyone wrong in style.

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Humble beginnings

Warframe’s story begins in maple country. Before creating Warframe, Digital Extremes made its name as co-creators of the Unreal series, alongside Epic Games. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, they’ve also worked on multiple PC and console games, such as The Darkness II, Bioshock 2, and Homefront.

Dissatisfied with operating as a “work-for-hire” studio, Digital Extremes sought to expand its horizons. It settled on creating a brand new game, with its visions and ambitions put into it.

Dark Sector, released in 2008 for consoles and 2009 for PCs, was a challenging game to get off the ground. It went through multiple thematic changes throughout development and even struggled to find a publisher.

Due to Dark Sector not being a critical commercial success, Digital Extremes went back to working as a work-for-hire studio. But it didn’t sacrifice its vision.

The company spent the next few years developing a proprietary engine and repurposing unused assets from Dark Sector to build its next title. And as fate would have it, it would soon experience history repeating itself.

Dark Sector is technically canon in Warframe (Image via Digital Extremes)
Dark Sector is technically canon in Warframe (Image via Digital Extremes)

Becoming

Warframe

Warframe, or its initial concept, was created in 2012, with a mere two months of work put into it. Stitched from parts of Dark Sector and other unused ideas, Steve Sinclair and James Schmalz pitched Warframe at the 2012 Game Developers Conference.

Their efforts were met with frosty enthusiasm from Western publishers and outright rejection from a Korean publisher.

The cause of these rejections would ironically be the factors that set Warframe apart from the rest of the free-to-play bunch. After being turned down, Digital Extremes decided to go fully independent.

It developed its server structure, microtransaction infrastructure, and a playable version of the game titled Lotus, all under nine months of development. Lotus, repackaged as Warframe, was announced in June of 2012, and a closed beta version was released in October 2012.

Warframe’s past is very different from its present (Image via Digital Extremes)
Warframe’s past is very different from its present (Image via Digital Extremes)

Shortly after launch, Digital Extremes discovered that maintaining a free-to-play structure wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. Early on, the game had a few systems that would give an unfair advantage to players who could throw a few dollars at their screen.

Thus, it was quickly booted out of the game, and Digital Extremes has since maintained its stance on free-to-play being the paramount feature.

Warframe went through a lot of growing pains to get to where it is now. It was released when looter-shooters were churned out like candy, and free-to-play games had already burned their bridge with most players out there.

Warframe just happened to combine the two aspects that made it incredibly hard to market. And being constantly compared to high-budget AAA titles like Destiny and Borderlands series hurt the title even more.


Ninja’s play free

The Founder’s Program was Warframe’s life support (Image via Digital Extremes)
The Founder’s Program was Warframe’s life support (Image via Digital Extremes)

Warframe’s growth can be attributed to its loyal player base. By purchasing special founder’s packs that were Warframe’s Kickstarteresque efforts, gamers ensured the game didn’t die early on.

Slowly but steadily, the title increased its player base through word of mouth, by being introduced to Steam, and appearing in small showcases.

The coverage that put Warframe on everyone’s radar was by John Peter Bain, better known as TotalBiscuit.

TotalBiscuit’s reputation as an advocate for consumer-friendly games and practices was crucial in cementing Warframe as a non-predatory free-to-play game. From that point on, Warframe only climbed higher.

At the same time, Warframe was also delivering quality content, though some users criticized the speed of the content pipeline. Early in its life, Warframe went through many mechanical and technical changes that either improved visuals, physics, mechanics or outright revamped them.

Visually stunning, artistically rich, and leagues ahead in music quality, Warframe has a field for all the artists out there.

There are 48 Warframes! (Image via Digital Extremes)
There are 48 Warframes! (Image via Digital Extremes)

This commitment to delivering free and quality products is reflected in the sheer amount of raw content in the game. From terrestrial missions to space combat, from solo missions to eight-player raids, from bland kill missions to tackling nemesis-style bosses, Warframe has done it all.

Despite being a PvE game, Warframe isn’t a cakewalk. While early missions might give a sense of horde mode gameplay, the factions get fleshed out as players progress further. With new enemies, tactics, and tilesets, encounters become highly reactive and teach users to get creative.

The tools of the trade, warframes, and weapons are thematic, fun, and highly intuitive for any RPG fan. Warframes, in particular, are very much ability-oriented, and more often than not, are better suited for team play rather than solo play.

Character customization is handled through mods that tweak the stats of weapons and warframes in multiple ways for different playstyles.

There are hundreds of weapons and warframes, mechanical wingsuits, a combat ship for space combat, skateboards, animal and robotic companions, modular weapons, and a fully operable mech.

With a seamless movement system that includes wall-running, parkour, acrobatics, and a melee system that weaves flawlessly with run-and-gun gameplay, Warframe’s combat is unmatched in fluidity across the gaming world.

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The second dream

Any conversation about Warframe is incomplete without its first cinematic quest, The Second Dream. Launched in 2015, it was the most anticipated update in Warframe’s history and did not disappoint.

Launching the community into a frenzy, Warframe put an actual human character behind the warframes. The hotly debated topic amongst the community was encountering a character creation scene after thousands of hours of gameplay and has become a meme since then.

Since then, Digital Extremes has released numerous cinematic quests, expanding on its storyline and the game’s future. Warframe offers quests, lore, characters, and storylines that more prominent developers have failed to deliver.

Their biggest cinematic quest, The New War, is currently live, and by the void, the storyline is fantastic.

Things are not what they seem (Image via Digital Extremes)
Things are not what they seem (Image via Digital Extremes)

The success of The Second Dream and the subsequent boom of Warframe led Digital Extremes to aspire higher. The open-world maps and space combat previously mentioned are a result of that.

Plains of Eidolon, Orb Vallis, and Cambion Drift are the three explorable open-world areas that exist currently. All three are based on an enemy faction. They feature a host of activities such as conservation of fauna, mining, fishing, and the relentless murder of aforementioned enemy factions.

With the introduction of Empyrean, Warframe’s version of spaceship-based combat, the game has reached a point of touching almost every single science-fiction niche. This is almost as much because Digital Extremes plans to introduce temporal paradoxes and alternative realities with The Duviri Paradox.

Who knows, after Planes of Duviri, maybe they’ll go even further beyond.


The dream continues...

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Warframe’s steadfast commitment to upholding its mantra of “free-to-play” is etched into its very soul. Without such a player-friendly environment, the title would’ve ceased to exist long before.

It’s a fact reflected in its consistent positioning amongst the top 20 most played games on Steam, or with the multiple awards presented to it for being a beloved community-friendly game.

Warframe’s financial struggles are a thing of the past, with the game making more than some AAA titles in its category. In an industry where microtransactions are predatory and manipulative, Warframe takes the approach meant for the people.

Graphic designers and artists are encouraged to design skins and different microtransactions for the various warframes and weapons. Fan-favorites among these are sold in-game, and a share of the earnings goes directly to the creators.

Some of these creators have even created warframes and weapons that exist in-game.

Warframe is by no means a perfect game. Criticisms can be levied upon the farming of resources required to craft every weapon and warframe, not to mention the companions, the Railjack, and a hundred other things.

Thus, some players consider Warframe to be a “pay-to-play-early” or “pay-to-unlock-later” type of game, where paying money alleviates some of the “grinds” and saves time. But Digital Extremes has toned down costs and streamlined the grind multiple times whenever the community has made its grievances known.

For a title that started without any support, Warframe is considered a rogue success story. But it’s a success story nonetheless that revolves around giving the best experience to a community that never lost hope.

Whatever the future might hold for Warframe, it has been a fantastic fairytale thus far.


Edited by Ravi Iyer
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