Just when it seems like Digital Extremes has exhausted every avenue with Warframe, its free-to-play space ninja MMO, the developer reveals something so contrary to your preconceptions of the game that you’re left totally dumbstruck.
Last year, that reveal was Plains of Eidolon, an open-world area with a new culture, day/night cycle, behemoth boss fights, and hub town. This year the team took it a step further with Railjack, a cooperative surface-to-space experience in which you and your friends can take down gigantic warships.
And that’s just the biggest reveal of Tennocon 2018, which also saw the next open-world update, Fortuna, showcased and a teaser trailer for the next cinematic quest, The New War. Five years into Warframe and it’s clear that Digital Extremes has no shortage of creativity and ambition for the sci-fi MMO.
Love Warframe? Check out our list of the best Warframe builds, from Atlas to Excalibur.
We spoke with Warframe’s creative director Steve Sinclair at Tennocon 2018 to learn more about the two major upcoming updates, Fortuna and Railjack, as well as new Warframes, Archwing changes, and bug-fixing the Railjack demo the night before the reveal.
PCGamesN: Tell us about Railjack and what it means to Warframe?
Steve Sinclair: It's a huge surprise for our players and is us realising a version of Dark Sector that we never got to make.
It’s this idea of space flight, ground combat, and co-op, tactical gameplay between players. It's the dream game we never thought we could make, but now it's time to say, ‘Screw it, let's just try’.
We tried the open-world thing and we're obviously doing it again, but how can we surprise our players? So, you get a ship, it has multiple stations, there are the staples of a game like FTL, which is one of my favourite games, so you have tactical energy management stuff, you're coordinating with the rest of the squad - who might be playing traditional Warframe by running and shooting - and trying to mix that in with space combat and the Archwing. It's like taking all of the weird different ideas of Warframe and saying, ‘What if they were cohesively connected in a single mission?’.
What limitations are there to the player, does it all happen in real space?
It happens in real space, but Warframe moves fast, so we're not saying that now you get to fly over Venus and it's this entire planet. We're not a space simulation game, so you call in your ship, you get on it, you go up, and now you're in space, and there is this really cool transition that feels more seamless. We've been trying to do that with the game, using more streaming technology - we did that last year and we did it with Venus where you get in the elevator and go up and the world is already loaded. We're doing more of that to remove loading screens from the game. We're not trying to be Elite Dangerous where you're flying over this whole planet.
So it's not like an open-world galaxy?
It isn't … it isn't [an open world] because we're trying to keep true to the spirit of Warframe, which is that high fidelity action gameplay.
We're also trying to make a connection to the space element of the game. One thing that was interesting when we started focusing on this open-world stuff is there's a portion of long-term players who say this is a space ninja game. And they say there’s trees and rocks and stuff, but there’s an original promise you made about being in space.
For me, [this is about] going back to those really old ideas and bringing it into the game, using our experience to be more ambitious. There are moments in the demo we're showing off where someone is playing the game as normal, casting powers and shooting, but then looking out the window and seeing another player flying the Railjack shooting all of these fighters. Meanwhile, their buddy is on the ship putting out fires, so it's all of that interplay. I think it's going to be frantic in a good way. The reaction I’m praying for is, ‘I didn’t know I wanted this, but now I really want this’. I want it to feel at home in Warframe.
We saw some different vehicles in an earlier devstream, I think it was 109, what are the plans for those?
Because the hoverboard turned out so well, we kind of said let's just focus on that. The enemies will be using those other vehicles and you may be able to take them over temporarily. But we saw how excited the whole studio got about hoverboards, so we shifted our focus to those.
Talk us through the two new frames - they're both vampire-based right?
Yeah that was a total accident. We have our concept art team who work on stuff and it comes through the pipeline, then people have design ideas and they adapt them to suit those visuals, so it's a complete accident.
What kind of roles do you want them to fulfil for players?
I think Revenant was going to be more of a support frame, but he went so far in that direction that he lacked any kind of punch. We saw the community reaction, and so we've gone back and worked on that to make it a bit snappy. Garuda is still really early in its design.
What can you tell us about ship customisation?
Warframe is all about customisation, so yeah, you'll be able to deck out your ship however you want. We're a looter shooter, which means we have progression curves in everything, so what kind of reactor do you have [in your ship]? What kind of weapons systems do you have and do you swap them out or upgrade them? Do you want to paint your ship a different colour? All of those things are in development for sure.
We're also planning to have different classes of ship, but the tricky thing is we don't want to ask players to deeply invest in one thing and then say, ‘Here's another one’. Warframes do that, where you upgrade them and you put the Forma in and mod them - we want to do that [in Railjack], but it took a hell of a lot of effort to get this one ship. Initially, we're going to say there's a lot of customisation [for this one ship], more than there is in a game like Star Citizen where it's about all of the different classes of ship there are.
Well, Star Citizen’s model also costs a fortune…
[Laughs] That's true, we are still a free-to-play game.
How will this feed into the story? Will it offer players narrative rewards?
Yes, absolutely. For players who follow the quests and who have seen the conclusion of The Sacrifice quests that we just launched, it takes a familiar ally and paints them in grey. We've been foreshadowing this for a long time and [that character] kind of departs and is being called back somewhere, and we feel like that invites us on a space adventure. That's all I can say right now as we're still working on it. We're a cicada, we come out and live for a day and then die: we work very fast with these ideas.
It’s crazy, you’ve just finished The Sacrifice and you're already announcing a new story quest here...
People expected The Sacrifice to be a conclusive end, but it's on a cliffhanger, so now we've got to feed the next step of the story. The whole thing has taken us by surprise - that people care as much as they do - so we really try to wow them and give them what they want from the lore. When we started we just thought we'd be writing weapon descriptions...
Returning to Fortuna, what lessons did you take from Plains of Eidolon?
Bigger isn't necessarily better. If you're asking people to go out and then turn in their bounties or MMO quests [at a hub] then it really creates a bad rhythm. What we've done [in Fortuna] is that once you've taken over a Corpus base then you get a resistance leader there who can keep the missions going. That's one of the biggest lessons we learned with Plains of Eidolon.
Another one was that Eidolon was really big, so we wanted you to be able to traverse faster we gave you the Archwing. Of course if you give a helicopter to someone then distance becomes meaningless. So what we tried to do with Venus is that we're going to give you something really cool, we'll give you a hoverboard that you can do tricks with - it's the coolest thing we've added to Warframe in a long time. It lets you travel fast, but you still get the scope of the world and what we're trying to convey.
There are technological lessons, too. Our game engine was never made for open-world content like GTA or a Witcher game, and Plains of Eidolon was really just repurposing old stuff to fit. There are a lot of super cool technological things we worked on for Fortuna, but maybe aren't so interesting to hear about...
The one thing that's been frustrating to overcome is trying to find the millions of places in your game engine that are hard-coded to say the world's no bigger than 2 km, right? So Plains of Eidolon barely fit in [that space], and all of the stuff that happened outside of that range was just decoration. Now with the Orb Vallis and Railjack we're blowing apart the size of things. Literally last night we fixed yet another bug where something was constraining at 2 km. So Megan [Everett, Warframe's community manager,] gets on the turret while we're practicing for the demo - we're shitting bricks - and so she runs down, it looks amazing, she gets on the turret ... and then the screen goes black and she's falling in space because she's been teleported far away.
In your head you can think of all of the classic games that are open world, like the Ubisoft games, Just Cause games, and GTA games. We're facing things we're not familiar with. When I'm up there signing autographs with fans who say they've been playing for three or five years and I ask them why they're still playing, it's because the game keeps changing, trying new things - they're excited about the future.
Does the expanded role of the Archwing in Railjack mean that we're getting an Archwing revamp?
Yeah, it certainly begs control improvements and a few other things that we're not happy with. In doing Railjack, we have learned more about what makes a good control scheme and what gives you a good sense of scope and scale. So we absolutely have to go back and apply that. It's the third time we've tried: we've done a 2.0 revamp and it still wasn't enough. But here we are at this convention, and the players who are dedicated to the game are willing to go through our failures with us for some reason. They give us a ton of leeway, maybe because they know that we're trying to quickly give them new experiences.
Is part of that down to how open Digital Extremes is as a developer?
Right, yeah! I've heard this today a lot from players. I met a guy who does lore videos and he wanted to talk lore with me and he said, 'I've never met a company so transparent and so willing to have a conversation with their players’.
Part of that came out of - honestly - a sense of self-preservation. We had all of our projects cancelled, we were laying off people, and we were going to make a game with a tiny team and no money to do it, so how are we going to differentiate ourselves? Well, you can have different abilities and weapons, but everyone else is outspending you, so can you feel like you're listening more? Can you be more honest? Can you own up to your mistakes more? Can you be less corporate? Can you feel refreshing from the community side? All of that has continued to serve us well.
It's funny because when we started, it was before the rise of Twitch, before it was owned by Amazon… we didn't know what we were doing, we were just making it up as we go along. But then we'd go to PAX or and events like that - Nvidia would lend us machines because we couldn't afford a booth - and we'd meet people from Blizzard and they'd be like, 'Oh yeah, we're looking at Warframe, what do you guys do with your updates?'. And we're like, what? You're talking to us? You're looking to us? So yeah, for as long as we can, we try to make it feel like there's an honest connection there.
You mentioned some of the politics of the Fortuna update earlier today, does any of that tie into the the company's struggles a few years back?
I think for me, personally, it's about looking at people in my family and the trap that they're in, that a lot of people are in. It's a reaction to consumerism and the persistent debt culture stuff. Honestly, [the political story] could have been anything, I was just looking for a human idea, because it's a wacky update with all of these singing robots, so I'm always looking for some human ideas. If someone is paying attention then maybe that will resonate with them.
There's another example of this here [at Tennocon] with this quest that kind of explores the idea of dementia and how music can be therapeutic. You're still shooting dudes and playing the game, but for someone who is affected by that it’s meaningful. Even meeting a kid through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and you look at how they have decorated their ship and it's from this quest where there's a girl who's sick and constantly under medical attention. So with things like this, we're just trying to add a layer of meaning and if it connects with one person then I'm happy.
Do you have a firm release window in mind for the Railjack update?
I'm hoping that I can get a version of it out this year. It will probably be late in the year, but wouldn't that be a great closer? We always try to do a big cinematic or dramatic update. Once the team recovers from Tennocon we'll figure out what it's going to take to get it out to our players.