Warframe is free-to-play online action game where players get to act as space ninjas wearing battle suits called warframes. Players equip themselves with gear and weapons to explore the universe and save it from menacing monsters. Although everything in the game can be earned through gameplay, players have the option to purchase gear and cosmetic items using premium currency. But unlike many free-to-play online games, Warframe focuses on four-player cooperative gameplay without much emphasis on a competitive element, which is especially noteworthy given how its developer, Digital Extremes had a hand in creating iconic games such as Unreal Tournament and the multiplayer mode in BioShock 2.
Meridith Braun, VP of publishing at Digital Extremes, told [a]listdaily that Warframe was created as a last-ditch effort to transition away from the work-for-hire development it had been doing for 15 years. “We saw the change in the industry—the ballooning of AAA budgets for games that weren’t coming to independent developers. So, we needed to pivot to survive.
“Looking into the free-to-play model was the answer for us. It was something that we had a bit of experience with because Digital Extremes was founded in the shareware days, which I feel is kind of the originator of the free-to-play mechanism—you give the player a sample of what the game is like, and if it’s great and they love it, they’ll pay for more.”
Braun detailed how building a community was a key focus for the company when it started development on Warframe almost four years ago.
“[In the shareware days] we were connected directly to our players, and we got to talk to them closely. It was nice to get back to that model, where we were talking to them in real-time,” she said. “Now, in modern day free-to-play, we’re able to work with our community to change the game as they’re playing it, progressing and providing feedback.
“From the beginning, our community philosophy was to be transparent, update rapidly, and don’t be gross. There’s so much information that players have at their fingertips, so if you’re not on the ball with your communication—if you’re not straightforward and honest—they can see right through it. Updating rapidly gives us the opportunity to show them that we’re listening on a constant basis. The PC version receives anywhere from two to five hotfixes a week and major updates happen every six to eight weeks. We have conditioned the community to have high expectations of us, just as we have high expectations of them to stick around with us.”
To clarify what not “being gross” meant, Braun explained that “it’s our philosophy for a fair free-to-play model. We are all gamers, and we don’t like being hassled for our money. If the game is great, then it’s worth paying for. That’s the bottom line no matter what kind of business model you’re working with. We make monetization decisions that are much more subtle than other free-to-play games, and we hope that we’re paving the way for a new trend and a brighter outlook on what the free-to-play reputation has been since the early 2000s.”
When asked why Digital Extremes went with a cooperative shooter when it had a history developing competitive shooters, Braun said that
“It (Warframe) became a cooperative shooter after looking at the competition in the free-to-play landscape at the time, which was all PvP (Player-vs.-Player) focused. We thought that a differentiator was that there wasn’t one really good PvE (Player-vs.-Environment) shooter out there. But even though the publishers that we showed Warframe to loved the concept, artwork and gameplay, they said it would fail as soon as we said it was PvE. Luckily, we didn’t believe them, and we decided to do it on our own. The community was refreshed by a cooperative shooter, and our community was immediately set up as a friendly one, as opposed to one with immediate angst because they’re competing against each other to be better. Many people who participate in our forums and regular livestreams are surprised by how inviting, engaging and welcoming our community is.”
Warframe also released for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2013, and Braun talked about how it was more difficult to reach a console audience compared to on the PC. “On the PC, you already have them on a computer, so it’s easier to get them engaged in our community because they can go straight to our forums, Twitch page or social media pages. Both consoles have added a lot of great community features to their dashboards, but it’s still limited. You don’t have a keyboard for quickly chat with other people. So, it’s a lot more challenging for us to come up with creative ways to engage them and bring them to our other channels.
“It’s key for us to have very good relationships with Sony and Microsoft, and to work with them and let them know how Warframe is doing—especially since it’s an ongoing title and everybody is looking for the next new shiny thing. We’re in their ear on a regular basis, letting them know that Warframe is still big and still growing. We haven’t even peaked yet. We’re heading into our fourth year and we’re still growing.”
Braun also discussed how console players differ from PC gamers. “I think console players are fresher to this type of game. Free-to-play is fairly new to consoles, mainly with the PS4 and Xbox One, so we’re hitting a whole new set of gamers, and I believe that they’ve greeted it with much less skepticism than PC players. PC players have had this type of game for a long time and there are tons of free-to-play games out there that aren’t that great, so there’s more of a risk for them in picking the right ones. But Paragon released last year and so did Paladins. I think console players are very lucky because they have received the cream of the crop.”
As a free-to-play game, Warframe has done some CPA (cost per action) advertising to grow its player base, but Braun admits that Digital Extremes hasn’t done a lot to reach past its core community. “We’re starting to do more, but the stuff that we can’t measure makes us very nervous. When we first started Warframe, we barely had two nickels to rub together, and that’s why we focused on community and viral marketing—it was the least costly for us. We were watching games like Hawken and Firefall do enormous brand awareness campaigns and we were very nervous because we felt ourselves being dwarfed by their awareness. But we realized that we didn’t have to do that because they did, and they’re not around anymore.
“It was much more economical to start in the grassroots area, and less scary because we could measure it all. We could see players coming in from the various ways we were reaching out, and still to this day, there’s nothing better than word-of-mouth, which is why Twitch and YouTube [are so great]. People want referrals and testimonials.”
Although Destiny isn’t free-to-play, it’s similar in many respects to Warframe, and it has tremendous marketing and development budgets behind it. Braun discusses what it was like when the gaming juggernaut launched in 2014.
“We gripped our seats tightly and hoped and prayed,” said Braun. “Destiny was the first AAA game that we saw dent our user numbers when it launched. We were very nervous when it first came out, and we’ve kept track of what they’re doing—when updates come out—and we continue to do our own thing. Our players appreciate that we’re staying true to Warframe, and I think there’s always room for great games.”
In addition to being showcased on The Game Awards last year, Warframe launched a major updated called The War Within on the Xbox One and PS4 in December. The update had launched for the PC earlier last year and it broke concurrent player records that weekend, rocketing it up to one of the top three games on Steam during its release. Warframe was named as one of Steam’s top 100 games in 2016, and Digital Extremes intends to keep that momentum going in 2017. Plans are already underway to celebrate its four-year anniversary in a big way.