Long before Warframe, the folks at Canadian studio Digital Extremes were known for their work on the Unreal/Unreal Tournament franchise alongside Epic Games.
Eventually, they tried to go at it alone. It wasn't an easy road, as demonstrated by the unsuccessful attempts with Pariah, Warpath and Dark Sector between 2005 and 2008. Digital Extremes got back up with The Darkness II, which had a positive reception in 2012, but by then they were already preparing the release of their ambitious free-to-play online third-person shooter - Warframe.
This cooperative-focused game actually had its roots in the original Dark Sector concept. Digital Extremes intended to marry the intense action of a game like Unreal Tournament with the character development available in a persistent online universe, as you can read in this sixteen-year-old press release.
The actual Dark Sector game released in 2008 turned out to be very different, but it's fair to say that Warframe kept the promise albeit quite a few years later. With no publisher believing in the project before release, Digital Extremes went fully independent - and succeeded.
Now, Warframe is regularly one of the most played free-to-play games on all the platforms (PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), having hit the impressive milestone of 26 million registered users earlier this year. With the latest 'The War Within' content update now behind us, we talked with Studio Manager Sheldon Carter about the past, present and future of the game.
You've talked about the long road to get recognition for Warframe. In the game's early development, where did you expect the game to be compared to now? Is there anything you'd do differently in hindsight?
Digging deep on the first questions! Let's see, we're still pretty in awe that Warframe has grown to what it is today. We were in a develop-to-survive scenario when Warframe started. We had grand hopes and dreams for what it could possibly become but we never expected the time we'd make a game people played for years to come. With the benefits of hindsight, we'd make a ton of different decisions of course. At a top level, hindsight would be great when designing game mechanics/systems that are difficult to change after players have invested so much time into them. That problem is coming up again for us soon with rebalancing the combat damage system. Players have invested so much in getting the mods and gear they have -- hindsight would be helpful here. But then again, there's always room for improvement in every system and that's the beauty of continuing to work on a live game that grows and evolves over time.
Some players in the community feel like PvP is getting more updates than Raids, despite the latter activity having a larger player base. Why is that?
I get why some players might have those concerns, but the Raids and PvP system (otherwise known as the Conclave) are two completely different beasts. Raids are a very large and difficult investment we need to solve. We think the game mechanic variety in there should be brought into the open more before we bite off another one... you will see some of this variety coming with the next update! In 2017, we are experimenting with sandbox play as well, always looking to figure out how we can expand and engage our vets with interesting content. Conclave updates do happen more frequently as you noted but keep in mind this is a very small team doing their best to evolve and grow that aspect. PvE content and evolution is the lion's share of our development investment.
That doesn’t mean we don’t support our Raid community, but those missions are one part of the larger PvE gameplay system, whereas Conclave is its own system unto itself.
Can you provide an update on replayable quests, which were originally scheduled for Update 19?
Replayable quests are being slowly rolled out. It’s a lot of dot connecting by our engineers to make sure they work the way they are supposed to while also not causing additional bugs in the game. Fitting this into our schedules alongside new content/gameplay additions is a tricky proposition but we’ll get there. In the meantime, the two cinematic quests, The Second Dream and The War Within, currently offer this feature, meaning that players can re-live the experience as many times as they would like.
You have talked a bit about how you're taking a 'sledgehammer' to the Focus system. How and why did things go wrong enough to the point of breaking it down after nearly a year of no updates or adjustments to the system?
Things didn’t necessarily ‘go wrong’ for a rework of our Focus system. When it was first added with The Second Dream, it was incomplete. I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but this new game feature, and its future development, relied on a mechanic that was eventually added to The War Within.
As our players know, The War Within took a little longer to get out the door than we had hoped for. But now it’s out on all three systems, PC, Xbox One and PS4, we can break ground by adding the changes that both we and our players have been waiting for.
How far away is the implementation of "Damage 3.0" and "Environmental Hazards 2.0"?
After this year, I think we learned the hard way to shy away from giving deadlines or dates, especially for monumental changes like Damage 3.0. These two reworks are something that will require a lot of discussion in 2017 before we can even think about implementing them. As always, we’ll keep players in the loop once we have more concrete information to provide so they know what’s going on, and so they can give us feedback to help us make sure we’re on the right track.
Are there any plans to update old quests with cinematic cutscenes and custom missions in the future?
As of right now, no. Updates are our lifeblood, and as much as some early-game polish would be appreciated, that polish doesn’t need to come with cinematics. When we put all that time and effort into creating cutscenes or special gameplay, it’s so the players can experience new content. Replaying old quests with a new pretty face doesn’t quite hit the spot in the same way that a brand new one would.
You said that HDR support is being worked on for Xbox One S. Will it be available on PS4 and PC, too? Also, which graphics elements do you think HDR particularly helps standing out in Warframe?
Our work on getting HDR support for the Xbox One S is going to pave the way for PlayStation 4 and PC as well. There’s not a lot I can say since it’s still in its early stages, but it will allow for wider brightness and colour ranges. This will help bring out the details in brighter areas, as well as adding richer, deeper shadows.
Are you going to support Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro anytime soon?
Warframe currently offers base support for PS4 Pro. Essentially, because of the PS4 Pro's beefier hardware, Warframe runs better currently without any additional work from our side. However, we are planning to take advantage of what the PS4 Pro offers in an official way in 2017. So yeah, I personally am looking forward to seeing how badass Warframe will look using the PlayStation 4 Pro’s tech.
Do you have any plans to add DirectX 12 and/or Vulkan support on PC?
We do, but without a specific timeline. Our current bottlenecks mean we're focusing elsewhere for the time being (animation and AI threading), but we're excited about the gains other titles have made! Doom rips and tears on Vulkan!
I'm sure you get this question a lot, but with more and more games supporting cross-play, it's worth asking once more. Are you still considering any form of cross-play (PC/XB1, PC/PS4, PS4/XB1 or even across all platforms) or is it permanently off the table?
Cross-play requires all platforms to be updated simultaneously, which is not what our development schedule allows for at the moment. Given the extra balancing passes needed to make this functionality fair for all platforms and the delay in releasing content that would be necessary for simultaneous updates, I unfortunately don’t see Warframe cross-play existing in the foreseeable future.
Do you reckon you'll be supporting Warframe past 2020? Can you tell us an ETA on the next big content update after The War Within?
Wow, just thinking of the year 2020 is so wild. Warframe living on in 2020 depends on our continued ability to provide for the needs of our playerbase, and our community’s willingness to continue supporting after all these amazing years. This game goes beyond being a passion project for us, so its longevity is something we look forward to and will always work towards. So, yeah, I definitely hope so.
PC Players should expect a new quest and Warframe by the end of 2016, i.e. really soon. But there is no word on when the third chapter of our cinematic experience will be released. And based on previous experience, we’ll be more tight-lipped next time around until our prediction skills have improved.
What's next for Digital Extremes? Do you have another project in development and if so, is there anything you can tell us about it?
Well, we just released our biggest update of the year – and maybe to date – on consoles and on PC. So right now, we’re riding the wave of positivity from our players and listening to what they have to say, while working towards continuing The War Within experience in another cinematic quest. As always, we will definitely let you know when it’s ready!
Thank you for your time.