The game that redefined “free-to-play”

Warframe is one of those games that everyone ends up playing. This is mentioned in passing, and two days later everyone in the party is farming Void Relics, slaying Eidolons, or helping their friend with a bullet jump. It’s contagious, satisfying to play, and rewarding in its niche.

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

Humble beginnings

The story of Warframe begins in the land of maple trees. Prior to creating Warframe, Digital Extremes made a name for themselves as co-creators of the Unreal series, alongside Epic Games. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, they’ve also worked on several 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 broaden its horizons. He decided to create a whole new game, with his visions and his ambitions.

Dark sector, released in 2008 for consoles and 2009 for PCs, was a tough game to start. It went through multiple thematic changes throughout development and even struggled to find an editor.

Due to the fact that Dark Sector was not a critical commercial success, Digital Extremes returned to working as a working studio for hire. But he didn’t sacrifice his vision.

The company spent the following years developing a proprietary engine and reusing unused Dark Sector assets to create its next title. And as fate would have it, he would soon see history repeat itself.

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

To become


Warframe, or its initial concept, was created in 2012, with barely two months of work. Sewn from parts of the Dark Sector and other unused ideas, Steve Sinclair and James Schmalz presented Warframe at the Game Developers Conference 2012.

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

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

It developed its server structure, microtransaction infrastructure, and a playable version of the game titled Lotus, all in less than nine months of development. Lotus, reconditioned as Warframe, was announced in June 2012 and a closed beta 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 fun. In the beginning the game had a few systems that would give players an unfair advantage who could throw a few dollars at their screen.

Thus, it was quickly taken out of the game and Digital Extremes has since maintained its position that free-to-play is the primary feature.

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

Warframe simply combined the two aspects that made it incredibly difficult to market. And being consistently compared to big-budget AAA titles like the Destiny and Borderlands series hurt the title even more.

The Free Ninja Game

The founder's program was the lifeblood of Warframe (Image via Digital Extremes)
The founder’s program was the lifeblood of Warframe (Image via Digital Extremes)

Warframe’s growth can be attributed to its loyal player base. By purchasing special Founder’s Packs which were Warframe’s Kickstarter efforts, players ensured that the game didn’t die too soon.

Slowly but steadily, the title grew its player base through word of mouth, being featured on Steam, and appearing in small storefronts.

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

TotalBiscuit’s reputation as an advocate for user-friendly games and practices has been 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, although some users criticized the speed of the content pipeline. Early in its life, Warframe underwent many mechanical and technical changes that either improved the visuals, physics, mechanics, or completely revamped them.

Visually stunning, artistically rich, and cutting edge in musical quality, Warframe has a scope for every artist.

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

This commitment to providing free, quality products is reflected in the amount of raw content in the game. From land missions to space battles, from single player missions to eight player raids, from bland kill missions to combat Nemesis-style bosses, Warframe has done it all.

Although this is a PvE game, Warframe is not child’s play. While the first few missions may give you a feel for the gameplay in horde mode, the factions grow larger as players progress. With new enemies, tactics, and tile sets, encounters become very responsive and teach users to be creative.

Tools of the trade, warframes, and weapons are themed, fun, and very intuitive for any RPG fan. Warframes, in particular, are very ability-oriented and, more often than not, are better suited for team play than single player play.

Character customization is handled through mods that alter weapon and warframe stats in a number of ways for different playstyles.

There are hundreds of weapons and warframes, mechanical wingsuits, a space combat fighter, skateboards, animal and robotic companions, modular weapons, and a fully functional robot.

With a fluid movement system that includes wall running, parkour, acrobatics, and a melee system that integrates seamlessly with run-and-gun gameplay, Warframe combat is unmatched in fluidity in the world of Game.

The second dream

Any conversation about Warframe is incomplete without its first cinematic quest, The second dream. Released in 2015, it was the most anticipated update in Warframe history and didn’t disappoint.

Throwing the community into a frenzy, Warframe put a real human figure behind the warframes. The hotly debated topic within the community encountered a character creation scene after thousands of hours of play and has become a meme ever since.

Since then, Digital Extremes has released numerous cinematic quests, expanding its storyline and the future of the game. Warframe features 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 appear to be (Image via Digital Extremes)
Things are not what they appear to be (Image via Digital Extremes)

The success of The Second Dream and the subsequent boom in Warframe led Digital Extremes to aspire higher. The aforementioned open world maps and space battles are the result.

The Plains of Eidolon, Orb Vallis, and Cambion Drift are the three open-world explorable areas that currently exist. All three are based on an enemy faction. They feature a plethora of activities such as wildlife conservation, mining, fishing, and the relentless killing of the 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 niche in science fiction. It’s almost as much because Digital Extremes plans to introduce temporal paradoxes and alternate realities with The Duviri Paradox.

Who knows, after Planes of Duviri, maybe they will go even further.

The dream continues …

Warframe’s unwavering commitment to upholding its “free play” mantra is etched in its very soul. Without such a friendly environment for players, the title would have ceased to exist long before.

This is a fact that is reflected in its consistent positioning among the 20 most played games on Steam, or with the multiple accolades given to it for being a beloved and community friendly game.

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

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

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

Warframe is by no means a perfect game. Criticism can be leveled at exploiting the resources required to craft each 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-ulter” type of game, where paying money alleviates some of the “grinds” and saves time. But Digital Extremes has cut costs and streamlined work multiple times each time the community has raised their grievances.

For a title that started out without any support, Warframe is considered a rogue success story. But it is nonetheless a success story of delivering the best experience to a community that has never given up on hope.

Whatever the future of Warframe, it has been a fantastic fairytale so far.

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About Cedric Lloyd

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