Warframe, Free-to-Play and Community; my day with Digital Extremes

Digital-ExtremesJust finding the office of Digital Extremes is an adventure in and of itself. The reclusive London, Ontario-based game development office lies hidden in a mess of office tunnels, false entrances and blank corridors. Even when you finally find it, you’ll only be greeted by security doors that require proper clearance to get through.

Given how shy this developer can be, it was quite an honour to be contacted for an interview. I would be the first journalist to actually enter the Digital Extremes office and directly report on the studio’s free-to-play opus, Warframe, right at the source! It was exciting, and more than a little nerve-wracking. I’d be making history for my hometown, however small!

Taking out my notebook and reading over my questions one last time, the company’s PR rep finally opened the security doors and greeted me. Dressed informally and laid-back, I felt myself relax as I was ushered in. The worst of it was signing a non-disclosure form before a tour of one of the most secretive offices in the entire city. I have to admit, it was a little overwhelming at first!

Warframe - Title BannerFor those unfamiliar, Warframe is a free-to-play third-person shooter with an emphasis on co-op gameplay. Players take control of what the developer affectionately refers to as, “Space ninjas”, specifically called The Tenno. Awakened from hundreds of years of stasis, the Tenno find themselves at war with humanoid soldiers known as The Grineer. The term, ‘Warframe’ comes from the exoskeletons donned by The Tenno, which allow players to utilize both protective and offensive technology, along with acrobatic and fluid melee combat.

Being a free-to-play game, simply downloading and diving into Warframe won’t cost you a dime. Instead, players spend money on content packs and in-game currency that grant them new capabilities and features to expand the play experience. This allows them to control just how much of the (massive) play experience that they want available to them, and is not at all just a pay-to-win scenario. This is particularly true given that Warframe has a heavy emphasis on online co-operation with other players.

While the game is currently a PC exclusive, there is a PlayStation 4 port planned for the console’s launch this Holiday. Warframe can be downloaded for free from both Steam and Digital Extremes’ own website right now, if you opt to play on PC. For console games however, the PlayStation 4 build may be preferable, as I ran into some hiccups trying to download the game myself from Steam before the interview, apparently attributed to the high traffic of the Steam Sale going on at the time. This was before I was made aware that the game could also be pulled off of the Digital Extremes website. Oh well.

Dark Sector - Promo ArtNonetheless, as I toured the office, I saw numerous monuments to the company’s history. Posters, collectibles, sketches and other such paraphernalia of Dark Sector, Darkness II and Star Trek: The Video Game were all over the place. Clearly, this was a studio that was proud of their work. It only made Warframe seem all the more ambitious, being a novel free-to-play project in a studio mainly known for console-based action games and little else, even if the company got its start designing pinball-themed video games. No, seriously!

Of course, the industry wouldn’t be what it is without Digital Extremes. After all, it was here that the better part of the Unreal franchise was born, working in collaboration with well-known American publisher, Epic Games. Unreal naturally spawned the Unreal Engine, which would go on to be the foundation for numerous games and game franchises. Yes, Digital Extremes didn’t have a direct hand in these games, but you can’t have a chicken without an egg!

Just for fun, let’s count down some high-profile games and game franchises that gamers would not have today were it not for Digital Extremes’ work on Unreal. Here’s the short list:

Deus Ex, BioShock, Brothers in Arms, Lineage II, Postal, Ragnarok Online 2, Thief, Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell, Army of Two, Batman: Arkham, Borderlands, Bulletstorm, DC Universe Online, Deadpool, Dishonored, DMC: Devil May Cry, DUST 514, Fable: The Journey, Gears of War, Homefront, Infinity Blade, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Killer is Dead, Lollipop Chainsaw, Lost Odyssey, Lost Planet 3, Mass Effect, Medal of Honor, Mortal Kombat, Painkiller, The Bourne Conspiracy, Shadow Complex, Shadows of the Damned, Silent Hill: Downpour, Singularity, Spec Ops: The Line, TERA, EndWar, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Tribes, Turok, Warp, Wreckateer, X-COM.

BioShock 2 - Box ArtNo, that is indeed the short list! Basically, when you’re enjoying Batman: Arkham Origins this Fall and the Thief reboot next year, or perhaps going through repeat playthroughs of the Mass Effect trilogy or the various Tom Clancy-endorsed sagas, or perhaps even just messing around with your friends on Mortal Kombat or Injustice: Gods Among Us, don’t forget to quietly thank Digital Extremes to yourself. You wouldn’t be doing any of that without them!

Of course, you may not anticipate that incredible pedigree of indirect industry influence from looking at the Digital Extremes office, as it’s probably the most peaceful and comfortable work space you’ve ever seen. Modestly decorated beyond the nods to the outfit’s history, with so many employees in slippers and geeky t-shirts, it’s an office that’s immediately comfortable and inviting. Developers are allowed to do what they do best, with easy access to a pop machine and a surprisingly robust cafeteria selection. Honestly, it felt like home, even for me, a sentiment echoed by the handful of employees I talked to briefly during my tour.

I got to see a few more out-of-the-way spaces, including a presentation room, and an area where livestreams are held right out of the office. Dev kits and retail builds for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were frequently noticeable, even though all of the company’s resources are currently focused on Warframe, a PC exclusive at present.

Appropriately then, just about everyone had their nose in a computer, tinkering with this and that to make sure that the game runs smoothly and perfectly at all times, while consistently having fresh and new content on the way on a healthy basis. It was striking, really. People worked hard because they wanted to; Not because some corporate overlord was intimidating them into it. I could never imagine a more friendly and yet productive environment before walking through the Digital Extremes office!

I couldn’t become intoxicated by the atmosphere for too long however, as I still had an interview scheduled. I would be talking to Digital Extremes’ community manager, Rebecca Ford. Rebecca also happens to be a voice actress in Warframe to boot, voicing an overseeing character called The Lotus that doled out orders and objectives to the various Warframe players.

Warframe - Tenno WeaponsIt was an outstanding honour to get the chance to talk to her, especially since her workload constantly keeps her glued to community management and player moderation. Not an easy task, particularly given that Warframe is a co-op game! This made Rebecca more important than ever, and perhaps most important of all in some respects, to the game’s smooth operation!

Being nudged into Rebecca’s surprisingly tiny office, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was greeted by a NERF sword in the corner and several other cute, geeky decorations. It was then I saw that the almighty overlord of the Warframe community, both in the real world and the game world itself, simply, and surprisingly, looked like little more than the girl next door. Kind, bubbly, energetic and amazingly sweet, I found myself shaking hands and conversing as if I’d known her my whole life!

It was no wonder that Rebecca was so popular in Digital Extremes livestreams and the Warframe community at large. Funny, charismatic, attractive and very smart, she was the perfect face for the most ambitious project that Digital Extremes has ever attempted, even considering their work on Unreal and Unreal Tournament! I was probably the most envied man in the Warframe community at that very moment. I was the one and only guy who was summoned to interview The Lotus on her home turf, and I was determined to make the most of it!

After inquiring a little about Rebecca’s responsibilities at Digital Extremes, I immediately followed up with how she felt communities like the one she’d helped create were more important than ever in the industry.

“Free-to-play demands a great community!” Rebecca declared. “Players need to love the game, but they can’t do that unless we, the developers, love them in turn.”

Warframe - Gameplay 4As a lifelong gamer myself, just like Rebecca, I knew that she was right. To that end, she answered my next question very enthusiastically, claiming that she loves her job, and there is nowhere else she’d rather be. This led to a quip about her still wanting to be Warframe’s community manager into her eighties, managing the game’s community from a walker, even when gamers had moved on to the PlayStation 15 or so. That’s dedication!

I then asked if the emphasis on community has made the industry better or worse.

“Better! Definitely!” Rebecca responds. “Community has evolved since the days of Unreal. Online gaming is commonplace now, and the community is something that can now develop and grow simultaneously with the game itself.”

She used recent PlayStation Store hit, Journey to illustrate the example of what she meant.

Journey is the perfect example of community done right. It’s an anonymous online player experience that is powered by the sole idea of anonymous player interaction. It is the purest example of something that brings people together and allows them to share an emotional and memorable experience, even unaware of each other’s identity.”

This naturally made me curious about something, given Digital Extremes often sticking to what they know and understand; Why Warframe? Why such an offbeat project for a developer mostly known for straightforward console-based action games, and some multiplayer suite tinkering for games like BioShock 2?

“We love Dark Sector, it was a real passion project for us” Rebecca explains, referencing Digital Extremes’ ambitious 2008 IP. “Unfortunately, we also found that Dark Sector suffered from a few constraints. There was a lot of publisher intervention, and when you deal with a publisher, you have to follow the publisher’s mandate, so it’s not totally your game anymore. With Warframe, the community funds the game, we deal with everything ourselves, and in many respects, Warframe is the peak potential of the kind of experience we hoped to make with Dark Sector back a few years ago.” I followed this up by cheekily asking if this meant that Digital Extremes wasn’t going to be pursuing a Dark Sector 2 any time soon. “No, I’m afraid not!” Rebecca chuckles.

Warframe - Gameplay 3I then inquired whether Rebecca felt free-to-play was a viable business model, or just a fad that the developer wanted to jump on while the gettin’ was good.

“Free-to-play has a lot of long-term potential” she responds. “There’s a lot of content flexibility that you don’t get with the current retail model. You can update and expand a game in all kinds of ways that just aren’t possible in your usual $60 console game” she elaborates.

She has a point. As much as many gamers don’t trust free-to-play, there are still legitimate advantages over the current $60 model. Warframe has proven to be a strong example of how to implement free-to-play without scamming players with back-handed funds, or creating a pay-to-win scenario. For content-rich games that rely on continual expansion, the free-to-play model is definitely something to be considered, whether gamers like the idea or not.

Being mostly a console gamer myself however, this led me to think about Warframe’s console plans. After all, free-to-play has largely stayed in the PC and mobile space so far, largely shying away from consoles and dedicated gaming handhelds, where gamers are often a lot less flexible on pricing models.

Warframe is coming to PlayStation 4, and we want to have it ready for the console’s launch this Fall!” Rebecca re-affirms for me. “Sony approached us with the idea, and before we knew it, we had dev kits almost instantly! It took us about three months to get a working model [of Warframe’s PS4 edition], and it’s proceeding very smoothly!” She admitted that Warframe was originally only conceived as a PC game, but considering that console development means a lot to many gamers, Digital Extremes certainly wasn’t going to turn down Sony’s proposal!

I assumed that an experience like this was probably a little ambitious for the likes of Wii U, even if Rebecca and I both chirped about our mutual love of Nintendo, and especially Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, more than once. Nonetheless, I had to ask whether Warframe was also in consideration for the competing Xbox One, which has popped up as a rumour in some circles.

Warframe - Gameplay 2“I’m not as much up to date on what’s going on with Xbox One” Rebecca concedes. “But I can tell you that right now we’re exclusively focused on keeping Warframe’s PC version healthy, and properly realizing the game on PS4. Right now, we only have the PS4 version [of Warframe] on our development slate at this time.” Fair enough.

Changing gears, I then decided to ask about Warframe as an example of community in the industry at large. Was Digital Extremes satisfied with the community they’d built? The question became all the more important when I recalled that Rebecca had been dealing with sorting out an unruly player right when I’d entered her office.

“We’re very happy with the community we’ve built for Warframe” Rebecca answers. “We have a very strong focus on appealing to the player, and by extension, the community that results from player interaction. We’ve pledged ourselves to constantly maintaining community support! It’s through this dedication to community that any game community may be allowed to succeed at all!”

With Rebecca being a community manager, I couldn’t waste the opportunity to ask her own personal opinion of what was necessary to maintain a strong gaming community, beyond simply the Digital Extremes philosophy.

“Transparency is paramount! The worst thing you can create as a game developer, especially when working with a gaming community, is the wrong impression!” she outlines. “It’s really up to developers to value a gaming community. Part of that is being honest and straightforward with them. The players need to know that we are committed to them, and they need to know exactly what we are going to do to look after them, and how we are going to do it!”

Moving on, I expressed my curiosity about whether the company’s history on developing the multiplayer for BioShock 2 and Homefront had any influence on Warframe’s final product.

“We’ve made our share of single-player-focused games, but we also wanted to take part in those multiplayer experiences so that we could talk to the community” Rebecca states. “There was some trial-and-error with moving away from that single-player environment and sort of embracing a more progressive, social arena in regards to modern online gaming, but this was a move we were determined to make. We wanted to learn how to exploit the trend of social growth in today’s gaming industry. We wanted to build something around that.” Hence, Warframe.

As much as I wanted to make sure I capitalized on being the one journalist allowed into the Digital Extremes office to give a juicy, colossal exclusive to Eggplante however, my thoughts still managed to turn to the Warframe community I’d recently joined. They would definitely be curious about something even more than business talk and community, and I wasn’t going to disappoint them either. They would definitely want to know about The Lotus, and how she came to be.

“You know, it’s funny, they needed a placeholder female voice, and I gave it to ’em. Turns out they loved me so much that I became the official voice of The Lotus!” Rebecca recalls, smiling and giddy all the while. “It’s even better because all of her voice is recorded right here, in the Digital Extremes office” she continues. “We don’t fly out to Los Angeles and deal with voice actors or renting a studio or anything like that. We record the dialogue, it goes in the game. Easy-peasy!”

Warframe - Gameplay 1

I suppose you can’t argue with the reliability of that practice, especially considering that Warframe is an ever-progressive experience that is currently eating up the entire office’s resources to keep as great as it is! Rebecca jokingly describes recording lines for The Lotus as, “Complacent volunteering by demand”, seeming to reference both her workplace duties and her sizeable fan following! Of course, I had to know whether being a voice actress was as enjoyable as it sounded.

“Absolutely!” Rebecca exclaims. “It’s at its best when you get to work with the writing process too. Being the voice of the character, I get input on some of her story. It’s great, because there’s a lot of mystery surrounding who or what The Lotus actually is in the game” she details. “The social support is also incredibly motivating! There’s a lot of people that love what I bring to her voice, and they’re always driving me to keep on delivering!”

With The Lotus being a mysterious and potentially deadly A.I. that seems at least at first glance to be aligned with The Tenno (though who is to say, really), my playfully referencing comparisons to Portal’s much-beloved homicidal A.I., GLaDOS was inevitable.

“It’s probably a similar process as GLaDOS, yes!” Rebecca tells me with a playful grin. “I just say my lines, they put the filter over it. Boom! Lotus!”

Warframe-mainShe’s clearly very passionate about her work, as Rebecca then starts reminiscing about the fact that she’s played video games for her entire life, and lending her voice to one is a dream come true. She recounts not only her time with Nintendo, but also old DOS titles like Jazz Jackrabbit. Consequently, she was thrilled that I had actually heard of and played Jazz Jackrabbit myself, despite the fact that the game is well outside of public consciousness.

We both loved games so much in fact that we took a brief respite from the exhausting and detailed interview process to write a facetious outline for our mutual dream game, The Sandwich Chronicles. “No one has ever made a game about being a sandwich!” Rebecca smirked when formulating the pitch with me. “What would the emotional journey of a sandwich be? Who knows! Someone needs to make that game!” So, if you see The Sandwich Chronicles show up on Kickstarter, remember to support it. It’s from The Lotus herself!

Anyway, getting back on track, I asked whether there were other games and game communities that may have inspired Warframe’s┬ácommunity direction.

League of Legends is a game that we looked at as a great example of a rich community” she starts explaining. “It’s got a pro gaming league now, and it’s started this trend of MOBA’s in its wake. Ultima Online was another example we turned to, simply as the trailblazer of this whole community-based gaming trend way back in the day. We wanted to be familiar with both where it started, and where it’s gone today.”

Rebecca also claimed that, while the studios don’t directly work with each other, Digital Extremes does correspond with employees at other Canadian developers from time to time. She admitted that some of Warframe took inspiration from Canadian-made Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer direction and feel, with the blessing and encouragement of BioWare, who supported the inspiration. It was a very uplifting thought, to think that Canadian developers can all work together and support each other, even if they don’t formally work on games together, as, you know, a community!

warframe2013-01-0212-m7jueShe concluded this thought with a decisive statement on what any developer should strive to deliver in their product, especially one with a community focus.

“As a gamer, if I turn on my computer, and I really don’t find myself wanting to play, regardless of who I’m playing with, then something has gone wrong. We have to make sure that this never happens with Warframe if it wants to survive as a game experience and as a community!”

Well said, I have to say!

Rebecca then went on to praise her co-workers and what they’ve built with Digital Extremes’ philosophy on community with Warframe.

“Where we’re at in the sense of community is great. We’re committed to content generation and to the player community, so we’re quite happy with what we’ve managed to achieve, particularly with Warframe!” she enthusiastically says, though also stresses that this doesn’t mean Digital Extremes has grown in any way complacent with maintaining the game!

“Like any good relationship, give-and-take is what drives the community forward in Warframe. It’s never useful to have gamers and developers at odds with one another. We want gamers to help us make the best game we can make, and we hope they understand that desire to make the best game we can for them!”

I tried to go for my journalistic Gold Star by inquiring about any projects that Digital Extremes may have kicking around, looking beyond the continued support of Warframe. Unfortunately, Rebecca stuck to what she said before; Warframe is the only game that is on Digital Extremes’ docket right now.

“Everyone at Digital Extremes is working on Warframe in some shape or form, so we don’t currently have any new game projects to discuss” she stated. “I would be happy to stay on Warframe forever though. I love it!”

Rebecca also stressed that while exact content distribution plans haven’t currently been ironed out between PC and PlayStation 4, Digital Extremes would never want to compromise content in the upcoming PlayStation 4 edition of Warframe over its currently available PC build, or vice-versa. The developer is bent on getting Warframe onto PlayStation 4 for the console’s launch, but they won’t be favouring one version of the game over another. Both will be the exact same experience beyond the difference of using a controller, or using a mouse and keyboard.


To close out the interview, I concluded with a predictable question; Why Rebecca felt that people should download and play Warframe, even with so much gamer distrust in the free-to-play model.

“When people can play free, you can enjoy the game without necessarily being money-conscious. It’s a great console-quality experience whether you’re on a budget, or have lots of disposable income to go around” she starts. “The gameplay is so amazingly fluid. I’m so impressed by how fluid and responsive we made the combat! You really do get the feeling of being a space ninja, and who wouldn’t be a space ninja?!” She then finishes off by saying, “Believe me, Warframe is the hardest I’ve ever worked, but working on Warframe, is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Walking out of this reclusive office, I found I had an immense new appreciation for the idea of community, and the work that goes into perfecting it behind the scenes. Warframe is not only a superb example of how free-to-play can be appealing to a wide gaming audience, but also how it can redefine and challenge the idea of what goes into a great gamer community, and how it doesn’t have to compromise a great gamer experience.

I have to commend Digital Extremes on their incredible hard work, passion and dedication in realizing Warframe. I’m also extremely thankful that they chose me to be the first journalist to actually be let into the office and inquire about the game. It was an incredible opportunity, and I absolutely loved doing it! Rebecca Ford herself is also one of the absolute coolest and most enjoyable people I have ever met as well!

Warframe is truly is a great experience, and you don’t even have to pay a cent when you make the initial download on Steam or the Digital Extremes website. If PC gaming isn’t your thing, be sure to at least give the game a look when it comes to PlayStation 4 before the end of this year. After all, Rebecca is right, who doesn’t want to be a space ninja?!

Oh, and keep an eye out for The Sandwich Chronicles. Someone really does need to make that game!