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No one backed Warframe to be a success, but five years on it's going from strength-to-strength - MCV
So just how did work-for-hire studio Digital Extremes use the free-to-play model to take control of its own destiny?

“Night and day.” That’s how different Warframe feels to play today compared to when it launched five years ago, according to Meridith Braun, VP of publishing at developer Digital Extremes. And it’s an equally stark difference in terms of its business fortunes.

When it launched, few saw the title’s potential, as a free-to-play minimum viable product it was compared unfavourably to the likes of Destiny. “We kind of threw out this vertical slice and hoped that it would gain traction,” Braun remembers.

After five years, the game has gained that traction, and then some, amassing a playerbase of 40m registered users. And it’s far from done yet, with Braun telling us that active player numbers “more than doubled” last year after the launch of the game’s huge open-world update, Plains of Eidolon, while last month’s The Sacrifice quest saw concurrent player numbers hit nearly 130,000.

Meridith Braun, Digital Extremes

Meridith Braun, Digital Extremes

It’s arguably unusual in design too – a purely PvE free-to-play title, one that’s generous with its free content, and which contains no random paid loot boxes of any kind.

Despite, or maybe because of, its differences Warframe has quietly become a huge success. With its fifth anniversary this year, as well as Digital Extreme’s 25th birthday, it’s an ideal time to look at how this unusual game found its place and why it could easily make it to a decade.

COME ON IN, THE FIGHTING IS LOVELY

No one in the free-to-play space wanted to back Warframe when it was first pitched. “We were super nervous after being turned down by a lot of the large free-to-play publishers,” Braun admits, continuing: “We were hoping someone would help us publish this originally, and when they didn’t see that this could be a successful product, we ultimately decided to just do this on our own.”

That’s a decision that some must be regretting now, though arguably Warframe might not be the game it became today had a publisher had a steer on it. Braun says the decision to go it alone made the developer determined not to just follow a template of “cookie cutter publishing.”

And it certainly stands out from the crowd. Braun is keen to point out that other big free-to-play titles legitimised the space, such as World of Tanks, Fortnite and Paladins, especially on console. But all of those games revolve around PvP play, making Warframe’s purely PvE gameplay somewhat unique. That lack of competitive one-up-man-ship makes its community a far more welcoming proposition. “Because it’s a co-op game and not PvP, there isn’t that immediate adversarial stance from the players,” Braun says. “It’s more about all coming together and making Warframe great together, and that’s how we treat it.”

PAY-AS-YOU-GO

It’s arguable that it helps players respect each other when the game respects them all. Microtransactions in console games haven’t had the best press of late – but Battlefront II’s problems have actually made well-designed free-to-play titles look comparatively clean. And the critical consensus is that Warframe is the kind of generous title that players are happy to support.

Braun is happy to agree with that: “I think we’re finally showing gamers that you can have great gaming experiences with this kind of business model and it doesn’t have to be gross.”

There are no purchasable random loot boxes in Warframe, and if you’re buying anything with the in-game currency you know exactly what you’re getting and exactly how much you’re paying.

“That was a conscious effort, when we started looking at all the other free-to-play games out there, and primarily most of them started in the east, and seeing the tactics used to just attack someone’s wallet was so gross to us,” Braun adds.

Those games didn’t put the studio off though: “We still felt this model was the best way to make the game we had always wanted to make, we just had to be sure we were respecting our players, respecting their wallets.

“And it goes back to our roots as a shareware developer, if you make a great game they will pay for it. If you’re giving them a great experience, giving them great value, giving them great service… We get a lot of comments where people say ‘I didn’t have to pay a dime into this game but I still did because they did the work here and it’s amazing’.”

There are of course those who have spent a lot of money on the game, we proffer a figure of $600 that we saw online: “It actually scares us when we see those kinds of numbers, but then we see that person has played the game for four years,” Braun reacts. And some players have put in truly epic numbers of hours, with a recent trailer highlighting numerous players that have clocked up north of 2,500 hours playing time.

THE SECRET DEVELOPER

There’s lots of content keeping them busy, plus lots more to come, says Braun. We ask her if the studio has a more realistic idea of how long it takes to implement new features now, so they can better plan the game’s roadmap? “Oh no!” she replies laughing. “Our creative director [Scott McGregor] certainly has a vision for where he wants Warframe to continue going, and he comes up with these grand ideas and determines whether or not we can technically do them. But it definitely is a malleable process with our community on where the game goes.”

And McGregor knows that community well after clocking up over 2,000 hours in the game in 2016, playing anonymously with a fresh account and no developer privileges, to gauge what the new player experience was like. Efforts like that are supported by the usual balancing act of social media and forum feedback, tempered with an increasingly sophisticated set of in-game analytics that Digital Extremes has built for the game. Though at first Braun admits it was just ‘who’s screaming the loudest.’

“Change is hard for everybody, so when you change something, you see what shakes out of the tree in the first couple of weeks and then you start to manage the feedback from there – because all the tempers have started to cool. You can’t take the first crack at feedback, you have to wait it out a little bit.”

Good advice, especially for a game where massive changes have occurred on numerous occasions.

FREE AND OPEN

The most significant of those updates to date was adding an open world last year: “With the Plains of Eidolon last year, we knew it was going to be really exciting for our playerbase that we were adding this humongous new mechanic of open world. We didn’t realise how far it would reach beyond even our Warframe community and gather a whole new set of gamers who hadn’t thought of giving the game a try before,” Braun says.

“We haven’t even started to plateau five years in and we’re excited to offer another few updates like that this year , with another big announcement at Tennocon 2018.” That being the third annual community event which kicks off in just a few days time, where over 2,000 passionate fans make the pilgrimage to London, Ontario to meet up and talk to the developers.

After five years the constant demands of a live game are taking its toll though: “We’re tired,” Braun admits. “In January it eases up a little bit, but the rest of the year our hair’s on fire! We have a team that just doesn’t stop.”

Digital Extremes, as with UK outfit Splash Damage, is now owned by Chinese gaming investment vehicle Leyou. “They give us everything we need to manage Warframe ourselves and grow it as much as we can,” Braun tells us.

That doesn’t mean the company is concentrating its efforts on cracking the Chinese market specifically. Braun won’t be drawn on a longer-term strategy for the game, but affirms that the company is done with work-for-hire and retail games, stating: “Free-to-play is definitely the future for us.”

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