Warframe is a silent success that has defines what a free-to-play PC and console hit can look like: High production values, slick gameplay, hardcore mechanics and monetision that keeps players happy.
Launched by Unreal co-creators Digital Extremes in 2013 – as the studio’s last ditch attempt to save itself – the title was met with mediocre reception. But over the last six years Warframe has grown quietly, layering features while porting to PS4, Xbox One and now Switch. According to SuperData, Warframe’s revenue has grown an average of 27% year-on-year, reaching $182.5 million in digital revenue across 2018. A figure which is comparable to the significantly higher profile Destiny 2’s estimated $300 million for 2019.
Warframe’s slow, silent growth, with no release fanfare, has meant that the game has slipped so many of us by. And this stealth success means we may have missed the important lessons we can gain from such a unique game.
1. Run the Marathon
Digital Extremes embraced lean principles for Warframe, with the game’s Lead Designer, Scott McGregor calling the initial release “the smallest thing we could get out”. GameSpot scored the game a disappointing 6/10 on launch, but following six years of constant improvement the review team recently upped the verdict to 8/10.
This rescoring draws attention to ostensibly the most notable lessons from Warframe: Developing service games is a long grind of constant improvement. At least it is for those that are successful. In fact, much of Warframes success can be traced not only to the quality of its releases but the speed and frequency. New content and new gameplay is what has kept players coming back (and spending) for over half a decade already. And this makes good business sense too, as keeping existing players is much more cost effective than acquiring new ones.
But light launching has also gained Digital Extremes insight in to it’s players wants and demands, letting the team build only features that are both wanted and needed, avoiding costly and unnecessary development. This player-developer integration also builds a grassroots community with a sense of involvement and ownership over the product, which for Warframe has granted life-giving virality.
2. Grow Your Community To Grow Your Game
“We wanted to be in the thick of it in alpha… we wanted to see where the problems were… it had us glued to the forums” – Rebbeca Ford – Live Ops and Community Director.
Digital Extremes’ symbiotic relationship with its player base has been present from early in Warframe’s life, with the developers fostering discussion with players in it’s forums, streamed Q&A and via email.
This close bond resulted in one of Warframe’s most iconic features: The parkour-like movement. Player’s had found an exploit which broke jumping and allowed a player’s Tenno (their avatar) to ping great distances across the map. This movement became popular but was abusable and needed patching. Rather than simply patch the exploit, the Warframe team listened to players and decided to bring a more controlled implementation of the movement into the game. This change revolutionised the way playing Warframe felt, but it also made the community feel listened to.
During this same time Digital Extremes were experiencing difficulty getting coverage from a PC gaming press reluctant to cover F2P games. But the goodwill from the community spilled over in to YouTube where influencers began talking up the title. This early YouTube buzz created a viral impact which has been the backbone of Warframe’s on-going growth. Simply put, nurturing a community that supports your work and feels involved in your game will result in evangelism and influencer endorsement that feels genuine. Therefore, hiring experienced community professionals and reorienting development to be influenced by community feedback is a worthwhile investment with big upsides.
3. Leverage Procedural Content
Warframe’s early development featured a skeleton staff who understood the need to maintain a service game with lots of content. The team made a smart decision: Build levels procedurally. Each Mission inside the game is randomly generated from a tileset, with each set depicting an environment and supporting unique features. This approach allows for greater replayability depth as the same Mission can feel different each playthrough, allowing for mechanics that encourage players to revisit content without it feeling like mindless grind.
When well designed, “proc gen” can let small teams build games that feel vast. It can also allow for emergent gameplay as unintended mechanics bump up against each other resulting in unexpected scenarios. The king of this approach is Dwarf Fortress, a title that creates epic gameplay scenarios despite a development team of two.
Even as Warframe gained traction and the dev team grew into the hundreds, procedural approaches maintained. Dynamic difficulty scaling and balancing approaches are used liberally, highlighting Digital Extremes continues adherence to lean principles even at vast team sizes.
4. Don’t Shy Away From Complexity
“People are smart… they look at Warframe, they see that complexity and they smell that the game will require mental energy” – Steve Sinclair, Game Director (Warframe)
Another similarity to Dwarf Fortress is the game’s unflinching embrace of complexity. Released to the backdrop of an exploding mobile market driven by simplicity and accessibility, Warframe heaped on sprawling overlapping mechanics with abandon. To compound the inaccessibility further common gameplay terms were ignored; Tenno instead of avatar, or warframe instead of skin.
This makes playing Warframe daunting to a majority of players, but for some it’s a dog whistle. The initial exposure to complexity signals, rightly, that there’s a lot of strategy at play in the game but you’ll need to work to understand it. This quickly self-selects a subset of highly engaged players and, despite Digital Extremes’ efforts to improve onboarding, excludes everyone else.
There are many other examples of this approach, including the infamously bewildering but successful Game of War and its spinoffs, EVE Online and many of Asia’s top grossing titles. For the right audience a game’s complexity is not a hindrance to enjoying it, but the reason to enjoy it.
5. Do Pay To Win (Correctly)
One common sentiment from Warframe’s community is that it “does F2P right”. As a veteran F2P product manager this makes me flinch a little bit, thinking the game has a soft approach to monetisation. But from deconstructing Wargrames F2P model I’ve discovered two things: Monetisation is incredible deep and it is pay to win.
Warframe offers players the ability to purchase items, such as premium skins known as Prime Warframes, that offer strict competitive advantage. Something that’s commonly seen as a big no in PC and console F2P titles. So how does Warframe not only get away with it but also appear player friendly?
There are a few answers to that question:
- PvE Content: Despite some PvP options, Warframe’s primary focus is on collaborative PvE meaning that players are never in direct competition. One player spending does not directly put another at a disadvantage.
- P2P Economy: The game features a player to player economy that allows time rich players to grind for materials that can be sold to cash rich players, making nearly every item available to those willing to put in the graft.
- Customer Service: Finally, Digital Extremes are extremely attentive to player feedback having rescinded several profitable mechanics due to player backlash. Again resulting in the generation of good will towards the game.
So, moving away from zero sum gameplay, allowing reasonable grind to gain content and observing player feedback unlocks the ability to charge for competitive advantage and maintain positive player sentiment. Which in turn allows for greater content depth and appeal than cosmetics alone could ever offer.
6. Be MMO-ish
Warframe is not what most would consider an MMO. But, in keeping with the lean theme, Warframe has built an MMO-like structure on top of its core game over the last six years: Clans, hub worlds, customisable private spaces, and raid-like missions all add the important social aspects that create deep bonds between players and generate long-term retention. It also makes the game feel alive and, most importantly, gives players their own audience.
It is this audience, as described in the excellent 2006 research paper Alone Together?, that drives a great deal of player behaviour, including the peacocking of cosmetics, willingness to compete and the impetus to grind content.
Being an MMO isn’t a binary option. Smartly picking and choosing MMO-inspire features, while stopping short of building a fully persistent world, will give your game a longevity that it wouldn’t otherwise have.
7. Forge Your Own Path
For me the biggest learning from Warframe is how Digital Extremes found success outside of convention, perhaps by necessity but definitely from the strength of its own convictions. The game fits no traditional mould: An indie created AAA, unrelenting complex, weird sci-fi, F2P PC MMO-like shooter. It’s could’ve been a mess, but there’s an incredible coherence to the game.
The success of Warframe highlights that now, more than ever before in our industry, there are near infinite paths to success. And that this silent hit should encourage us as game makers to build titles that observe trends as much as break traditional wisdom. But most of all Warframe should inspire us all to be bold in creative visions and make games that confound expectations.
This article originally appeared on GamesIndustry.biz as What We Can Learn from… Warframe.