Revisiting the 90s and surviving the live service storm


Revisiting the 90s and surviving the live service storm

It’s looking like a big time ahead for Warframe. Publisher and developer Digital Extremes has been steadily ramping up, crafting an arc across updates leading all the way to the looming Warframe 1999 expansion.

Personally, Warframe fascinates me. It’s one of those constant “always games,” like EVE Online, that lingers on my periphery until some big news or wild story reminds me that it’s got a fervent, engaged, huge fan base. I point this out to clarify that my handful of hours in Warframe don’t really qualify me as a “Warframe player.”

So when I sat down with four big names behind Warframe, I approached it as such. Warframe creative director Rebecca Ford, Soulframe creative Geoff Crookes, community director Megan Everett, and voice actor Ben Starr were all in town for PAX East, hosting the Devstream 178 live on-stage. [Disclosure: Ben was also on my PAX panel, swiping on fake Tinder profiles I made for video game characters. It was unhinged.]

Warframe is intimidatingly large, yet its fan devotion and turnout make it clear there’s a lot to love here. So I tried to explore that, through the lens of what’s in store for 1999, how Digital Extremes plans out such large updates ahead of time, what inspires and drives these updates, and how Warframe has stuck around for so long. And maybe also some funny jokes, too.

The first thing I wanted to ask, and this might be explaining Warframe to me a little bit, but it really seems like you’re ramping up. Whispers in the Walls, Jade Shadows, and into 1999, kind of building one large narrative arc across all these updates and expansions. So I was wondering how you plan around this. How do you plan those things out and space them out, over all this time?

Rebecca Ford: I think the planning of story and story elements has it’s always been a, like, an acquired skill once you get handed the reins to Warframe. So generally, I am very much a planner, compared to my prior. [laughs] Geoff is laughing in the background. Why don’t you answer that question, Geoff?

Geoff Crookes: No, I like this. [laughs] I’m just chaos.

Ford: I like organized plans. But I love Warframe. And I’ve been with Warframe for 11 years with the team. And I think just generally speaking, the aspiration to plan the story beats has always been part of Warframe. Like we’re gonna have, we need one quest a year minimum, we want our players to always be fed a really interesting narrative experience in Warframe. And now we’re doing that, we’re just doing it with a lot of breadth. It’s the same motivations, the same desires, the same, a lot of the same teams working on it, we just are getting ourselves in a situation where we’re really focusing on planning the year out. So people kind of know what they’re working on or not. Longer, whether or not that proves itself remains to be seen. But that’s sort of the, the energy we’re bringing into this year, is plan the shit out of everything. Until we can’t, until the plans fail or succeed. You tell us, dear reader.

Crookes: It’s looking very promising.

Ford: Thank you, Geoff. We love to plan.

Screenshot via Digital Extremes

You mentioned wanting to have something big, every year, something narratively big. Warframe has been going for a long time. At some point, I’m not asking if you see an end point, but how do you keep building on a story and growing on it? Is 1999 part of that, you’re looking back now?

Ford: Yes, I think the one thing that has me most excited for a lot of Warframe‘s next several years is the arc we’re planning. I think that the first 10 years of Warframe have been like episode one, of what’s going to be a multi-multi-season storyline, with really focused character development. The player will just absolutely be doing a lot of things they probably don’t expect in the next couple of years. I’ve always loved the stories we’ve been able to craft together and sequence them in a way that has been unexpected, you know, from The Second Dream in 2015, to the New War in 2021. And now 1999, in [TBD]. And beyond that, it’s just about continuing what makes Warframe very unique and special, which is unwavering and perhaps foolish ambition every year.

Crookes: I think you’ve fully embraced that.

Ford: Yeah, I’m a fool this year. An ambitious fool. I have the disease.

With all that, you’ve got the story going, but there are also players like me who are kind of newer players. How do you think about onboarding as you keep building on Warframe? Because when you add stuff to Warframe, that’s more for a new player to potentially have to grapple with.

Ford: Yeah, we are very much in the thoughtful maintenance phase of onboarding, we know it can be a little rough early on. So we’re not going to, you know, tear up the highway and put in a Shinkansen or anything, but we are going to give you… that’s a speed train joke for all you train-heads out there. [laughs]

Ben Starr: Never forget the train-heads.

Ford: But we find ourselves thinking that the experience is what makes a lot of people fall in love with Warframe. So rather than really re-architect for people that have never tried Warframe, make sure that the people that know and love it can tell their friends that it’s only getting easier to get into the game they know and love. So we don’t want it to become unrecognizable early on. And story matters for people to care about Warframe. So we don’t want to, you know, amputate the parts we don’t have to.

So it’s about the balance between bringing new players on, and then old players, obviously, you want to keep them happy and keep them playing. Do you find that difficult at all? It sounds like Warframe is just like, this is what we do, this is what we are, hop in if you want to hop in.

Ford: Honestly, there’s no shame in that anymore. I used to be kind of self-conscious about, oh, we’re not accessible to this and that, and that is a problem, and we aren’t ignoring it. It’s just hey, why hit the brakes on everything, when we know that the content we’re making works for the people that love Warframe. This is evident, you know, not just at an emotional level. But when we measure performance of updates, Whispers in the Wall was one of our best performing updates of all time by every metric. And that was the tip-of-spear story, you had to have played everything to get there. And if it’s performing and resonating with players, why would we move the gaze of focus away from those people that want to be fed a meal that we can cook? Versus the ones that we still learn the recipes for, which is onboarding.

Screenshot via Digital Extremes

When you look towards the past of Warframe, like you’re doing with Warframe 1999, you’re digging into the roots of Warframes and Protoframes. Is it weird to go and play with that stuff and go into the roots of what Warframe and be like, ‘how are we going to detail this stuff out? How are we going to affect this?’

Ford: It’s actually probably one of the most refreshing things we’ve done. For instance, with Ben – Warframe has always had faceless, silent protagonists, which it will still have. Play Excalibur, do what you want. But we’re testing brand-new tech, prototyping some Warframe gameplay that has voice lines. So Ben has very kindly lent his voice to Arthur, as we’re working out a way when you’re playing that quest, which I won’t say too much about, but you actually hear Arthur interact with the 1999 world. And it is, it’s like…

Crookes: The prototype looks amazing.

Ford: Yeah, it’s very interesting.

Starr: I’ve had a blast. I suppose it’s kind of a cool thing, really, because I came on, I remember when you asked me to do this. And the whole thing has been very collaborative, I think. The process has been, what do we find interesting? How do you want to integrate this very new thing into a game that has an established toolset? And people understand how to interact with it and going well, what we’re asking you is to understand what you’ve experienced for the past 11 years, but it’s just something ever so slightly new. And I suppose that’s how you re-engage an audience that have either experienced it before or fallen off a little bit and say, come back. And I just love the fact that we get to tell a really cool story.

Ford: Yeah, we’re focusing a lot on the 1999 platform as a story for Warframe. And it’s an expansion, you know, it’s not a separate game. You, the player, if you’ve played Warframe, for 11 years, you’ll be there, and Arthur, Protoframe. He’s the first. There’s other Protoframes we’ll be introducing. And you’ll have to see how you, as a player, interact with these characters and what the future holds with that type of relationship, and what they want, what they need, or how they view you, as friend or foe.

Starr: Mmmm, the tease.

I’ll come back to the Protoframes in a second, but I did want to ask Ben, when it comes to Warframe, what drew you to Warframe?

Starr: Do you know what genuinely drew me to Warframe? So Rebb and I were talking for a while, because we share a lot of like, loves, and we would just talk about stuff had nothing to do with work. Just Final Fantasy, but just like, weird shit that we were playing or whatever. We were just chatting. And then [Rebb] just said, ‘Do you want to read some lines for this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, fine.’ And I did, and you went, ‘Do you want to play this role?’ And I was like, for real? You really want me to do this? And I knew you, I’ve known Warframe for such a long time because like, even though I’ve never played it, I’ve always been aware of the community. And specifically, I’ve been aware of a lot of great content creators, and it’s like, there’s a Noclip documentary about it. Like, I remember when you first started talking to me, I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Rebecca Ford from the Noclip documentary about Warframe.’ And like, I know, Ralph, I know SkillUp, and I’ve watched a lot of his content. And it, it’s been this amazing universe that’s been so present and adjacent to my life at the same time, that I just haven’t ever had the time to play. But the fact that you kind of trusted me anyway, ‘do you want to come onboard,’ and I was like ‘yes I fucking do.’

Because I’ve been a part of, the past year, I’ve been a part of the Final Fantasy community, who are incredibly loyal and passionate. And I love being a part of, and engaging with, communities that love the thing that they play. So the opportunity to be a part of another community that are so deeply, deeply passionate about the thing that they love, I just think it’s the coolest thing. And, yeah, I just like good characters. And I like playing badasses, because I’m not a really badass person. You sold it to me like, he’s a badass.

Ford: He’s got a sword. 

Starr: He’s got a sword, he’s cool. So yeah, it drew to me, that is, the fan base, the people who make the games… I’ve never felt so welcomed into a process before. Like I had, obviously an amazing time on Final Fantasy, I’ve had an amazing time on other games that I’ve played, but this feels like a family and a community that I’ve been welcomed into more than ever. And I feel like I’m also having, I feel like I get a little say over the character, really. Like we’re building it together and figuring out how we can bring the best of what we do, to make this the coolest thing that you could possibly play.

That segues neatly into the next thing I was going to ask, which was, compared to previous projects, how has Warframe 1999 been different? Especially the live service, evolving game aspect, does that change anything for you?

Starr: No.

Or does it kind of feel like you’re just playing a character?

Starr: It’s a story. It’s a story and it’s performance, at the end of the day, like, that’s what I do. I’m not a game developer. I turn up and I read the lines, and I explore the world. And I work with the performance directors. We go, how can we make this as cool an experience as we possibly can, while still engaging people in the story and the gameplay. And it’s not different, but it also is in some way, because we’re building this as we go. We know what the arc is, we know what the character is, we know what the background is, but the rest of it is very much play, explore, figure out what’s good and what doesn’t. And I’m really excited to go on this journey with a game that is so good at listening to, understanding, and respecting its fans. And that is going to be the coolest thing to get to do going forward. I just feel like I trust you guys. Like I really trust what this is going to be. Because we figured out whether we liked each other before we ever wanted to work together.

The team then lightly ribs each other about getting on each other’s nerves.

Starr: But it’s a different experience, because every experience is different. But I’m so pleased that I get to play in this cool sandbox that they’ve created.

Screenshot via Digital Extremes

So playing Arthur, you get to like, define a character in this world. How much of it was brought to you, and how much do you feel like you’ve put into this character?

Starr: Both. It’s like any, any process of creating a character is alchemical. It’s like, you tell them, you go, I’m gonna bring you this. And then when we’re working in the booth, there’s like five people on a call, maybe, when we’re there, because I’m recording it in the UK. And it’s really cool because you know, we’re actively changing the script on the fly. You’ll have the script that will be there. We’re going okay, here’s some different versions of the lines, let’s try them out. What sounds the best, what sounds the most authentic? And so what I really love about this is they’re not, you’re not forcing dialogue on me. You’re going, ‘what sounds the best and the coolest’ in that moment, and then we’ll kind of insert it into the game. So yeah, it feels like if I say a line and it’s not working, we can find a cooler way of saying that line. And I’ve loved in the sessions where it’s always been like, ‘let’s try this, try this, and now Ben just do like five however you want.’ And it’s wicked, and for the weirdest ones. I really think that like someone’s… there are some weird versions of the lines, because they just go, ‘Ben, just do weird stuff.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, if you want me to do weird stuff…’

Ford: What would a weird, ’90s obsessed guy do? It’s kind of because Excalibur, the frame, has existed in Geoff’s mind for, since 2005.

Megan Everett: He is Excalibur. 

Crookes: Yeah, 2004?

Ford: 2004 was like the first Excalibur to paper, and then this year, or last year rather, let’s give him a face. Let’s give him a voice. So you have like this, like, collision of everything that makes a character work in Warframe. And now I’m very grateful that Ben agreed to join, because it’s like, he’s so cool.

Starr: Also, how do you humanize that has been so… not-human before?

Crookes: Weirdly, I think the 10 years of Warframe kind of set this up perfectly. And then the setting you [Rebb] came up with for it is just, I mean, it’s just the right time for it. We always debated it, we always debated, how do we like… how are we going to tell stories with these voiceless characters. Like it was always a challenge for us, and we always had to write around it. And we talked about bringing it in, but it just, it would have been forced. And then this jerk comes along and pitches this brilliant idea. And honestly, it was amazing, and like, I was very jealous of it. But the timing of it also, with just how you segued it into where the story was going in Warframe, was just a perfect fit.

Ford: And I think the most important thing to respect, like a Warframe player that loves Arthur is not Excalibur. Like that’s a very clear divide. Arthur is his own person from 1999. He is a Protoframe. So he is not Excalibur in the character sense. Your Excalibur could meet Arthur, but I think it’s important that people know that we’re not trying to take the frames you love and turn them into people. It’s story driven, it’s narrative. Your Excalibur can meet Arthur and most likely will, and that’s, you can’t avoid that I fear. And that’s by design. It’s so Arthur can be someone that you’ll come to empathize with, and perhaps you know, really respect and see where he’s going. So this is the Arthur.

Starr: You’ll definitely respect him.

Ford: He is a bit of a Boy Scout, I can’t deny. A Boy Scout with some grit. You’ll see.

Starr: A gritty Boy Scout.

Ford: A gritty Boy Scout. A Man Scout. [laughs]

“I’m not a Boy Scout, I’m a Man Scout.” [mimicking writing on paper]

Starr: Put it on a T-shirt, put it on a T-shirt.

Ford: [laughs] Oh god, what have I done?

So when looking at frames, why Excalibur? Why Mag? For Protoframes, why these frames in particular?

Ford: Had to be Excalibur. That was, without a doubt, the most important thing to get right, is how do you give Excalibur a voice and a face and a character that isn’t Excalibur, but is based on him. Arthur, of course, being an old Arthurian legend, right, he had to. Arthur, Sword in the Stone, that was-

Crookes: He’s kind of the default mascot. 

Ford: He is, he’s the poster boy. Poster man. Poster Man Scout. [laughs] But then, Mag, we wanted to balance a pair, you know, and there will be more dynamics that play out in the initial cast of proto frames. It’s not just two, there are more than two, we’re not gonna say how many. But it was really important in the whispers in the wall quest to get that dynamic that Arthur had someone that cared about him and vice versa. We went with Aoi, which is a Japanese word for blue. And that is, of course, Mag’s Protoframe. And she, you’ll meet her today [at the PAX East panel]. You’ll see her for the first time, and you’ll see their banter. And she’s, she’s quite the gal. Super cool. Had to be Mag. I wanted a male and a female presenting characters there. And that’s how we chose.

It’s interesting now, to have these frames be around each other and interact. When I play Warframe, I’ve always thought of frames as like, you’re taking on a body, it’s like you’re putting on a different suit of armor or a different class, or something like that. Do you feel like that dynamic changes now that there are voices in there, that there are people involved?

Ford: We’re writing to very specific cases, that I don’t think we’re gonna talk about until Tenno Con, but you’ll see.

Crookes: Rebbecca has a very cool solution to this. It’s very cool.

Ford: I’m just a problem solver. I make the problems, then I solve them.

Crookes: It works really well.

Ford: So you’ll see. And yeah, I’m excited. We’re gonna really show the world what we’re cooking at Tenno Con. Today [at PAX] is very much a tease, setting up 1999. And then Tenno Con itself, we have a significant presentation on 1999 and all its parts. So that’s where you’ll see and figure out oh, that’s what’s going on.

So jumping to 1999, and I mean literally the year 1999, was it fun to just kind of like, dig into the ‘90s aesthetic and vibes?

Ford: It’s actually the most soul crushing thing to do, because we have people on our team that were born in 2001. And I was talking to one of them, and they’re like, ‘I wasn’t even born in ‘99, bro.’ And I was like, oh my god. And I was only nine, and I remember like Y2K, I was with my mom and my brother wouldn’t even go with us because he was so scared the world was gonna end. So my mom and I went by ourselves, for like a New Year’s party. And I love ‘90s, I think that we’re approaching nostalgia with a very specific Warframe lens. So it’s not just like, ‘oh god, I’m getting old, ‘90s were the best.’ It’s very much, there’s very specific conditions of the ’90s we’re thematically exploring. We’re going to be speaking to Y2K. That’s kind of our, that’s our… which some people didn’t even know for the record.

Starr: It was such a huge thing.

It was huge.

Ford: But people that were born in 2000, for instance, have no freaking clue what Y2K was. And that’s fine, because we’re going to redefine it and do our own thing with it. But we get to absolutely, just, touch on very specific parts of the ’90s that support the themes we’re going for thematically with stories, how we’re going to deal with entertainment…

Crookes: And we’re also, and you also managed to pay homage to kind of, what the artwork looked like as well.

REBB Yeah, Warframe was based on a Dark Sector concept from the early, early 2000s. And we’re going back but (snaps) twisting it giving it a little, little, I don’t know what that would be, a gesture of which I…

Like a pepper grinder?

Ford: Yeah, we’re hitting the pepper grinder.

Starr: Do you have any like, I don’t know if you can answer this, but I’m asking, what were like… you said you’ve gone for a very particular style of the ‘90s. Can you touch on like, what are particular aesthetic inspirations?

You took my follow-up question!

Ford: Uh ohhhh….

Starr: I work for Destructoid now.

Crookes: This might go for half an hour.

Ford: Yeah, I know. Uh… What you’ll see today, is our version of the motorcycle. So the “Atomicycle” is a vehicle coming, so we’re really leaning into… I don’t want to say The Matrix meets… But I could. I could say. The Matrix is in holy matrimony with… some nebulous partner.

Crookes: I don’t know if you want, like, people have made the Metal Gear references.

Ford: Yeah, it’s hard not to.

Ford: Matrix meets Metal Gear meets Warframe.

Starr: That’s how I’ve been describing it.

Crookes: But you’re looking at some like, legit fashion references and stuff, for sure.

Ford: Oh yeah, fashion for me, if I wasn’t in games I’d be in fashion, so there’s a lot of like… [clicks tongue]

Everett: Well even musically, Nine Inch Nails, being part of the trailer, such a huge moment.

Ford: That was Geoff who said, “Use Into the Void.”

Warframe 1999
Screenshot via Digital Extremes

I was even having a moment where, I think one of the guns in the promo art was like, I’m used to seeing very sci-fi weapons in Warframe. And like the gun that was in the promo art, for I think Whispers in the Wall [ed. note – it was the 1999 art seen above], was like an AKM.

Ford: But it’s like, our own.

Retrofitted, yeah.

Crookes: The weapons team gets full credit for that, too.

Ford: The weapons team this update, so, when we get deeper into like, the big weapons drop, the weapons team has actually ascended to a plane of existence I didn’t think possible.

Crookes: It’s phenomenal.

Starr: There’s something really exciting about analog, really. Kind of going like, I want to see something in a futuristic setting that I fundamentally recognize as grounded. I think that’s it. All the stuff that we’ve been talking about is like, how do you ground this? How do you make this like, grinding gears or something? I want to see the mechanical aspects of this work. And like, how does the how is that going to conflict with a lot of, kind of like, the smooth sci fi you might see and know, about, like, previous stuff.

Ford: Does rust exist in the Warframe universe?

Starr: They’ll find out.

Ford: It’s a rusty update. [laughs]

We’re at the 11-year anniversary of Warframe. Which, you know, that’s a lot. That’s a lot to do. And so, how far ahead do y’all plan with Warframe? Like, you’ve got 1999, I’m not saying tell me what the next thing is –

Starr: 2000. [laughs] 

But I guess, how do you think about a game in that many years? How do you start to expand the vision of, this is how far out we’re going to think about the game? Are you thinking about the game that far beyond 1999?

Ford: Absolutely. I’m already in the concept stage for next year with our art director. So yeah, we’re already looking to the next, at least, two years. And as long as our team continues to compress the game files… [laughs]

Crookes: But Warframe, in its 11 years, has always been, and I think you’ve, also the team, has embraced this as well, like just – it’s a live game, both in its service and its development. So even though there’s plans to get there, a lot of times those plans divert.

Ford: Yeah, we have a pantry. And we keep it stocked. And the game sometimes has a meal that’s based on what was in the pantry, or it’s like, oh, we’ve been, you know, growing this corn for two years, time to harvest.

Crookes: It can be chaotic. And honestly, like.. humblebrag like, as best a Canadian can do, I really do think our team is pretty special in the industry. They can.. It’s kind of a gross tech industry term, but be agile, and just kind of pivot and, and kind of be creative, you know, when a new idea comes to mind.

Ford: We know that, at the end of the day, we have to ship something frequently. So we try and set ourselves up to do that. Sometimes things take longer, sometimes you get a really quick update. But our master is to ship often. Like we cannot go dark for longer than three, four, five months, otherwise, we lose, honestly, a lot of confidence, a lot of a lot of those things. So we’ve learned speed matters and agility supports speed. Therefore, have good ideas that are shippable is a lot of the challenge.

Everett: Yeah, like we have 1999, which is obviously huge and what we’re focusing on, but you mentioned earlier, like, you have a Jade Shadows update that’s going to be coming before Tenno Con.

Ford: It should be coming before Tenno Con. [laughs] But if it doesn’t, we have to adapt.

Everett: Yeah. But it’s it goes back to that, you know, always updating and giving players something. And this has its own flavor of… Stalker, who’s been a huge character for a very long time, and kind of giving him a little bit more lore. So it’s kind of, you know, breadcrumbs along the way of still working on 1999, and everything that’s going to come with that. But there’s definitely a lot of other things that we’re working on. And like I said, two years, like at least two years, we know kind of where the story’s going. And it’s kind of in-between those big major beats, what it is the players want to see or play or learn about, we’ve got to take into account.

Screenshot via Digital Extremes

11 years is not just amazing in and of itself, but in this industry, where especially lately we’ve seen so many live service games go up and back down, and y’all have weathered the storm. Do you think that’s part of why you’re able to weather the storm, is just that the team has figured out the cadence, the development process, how to adjust?

Ford: Like Geoff said, we do have a special team. And I think part of that endurance is because we actually didn’t know we wanted to make a live service game. We just wanted to make a game in update form, because that’s all we could afford. So we didn’t, we didn’t embark on the quest for the Holy Grail to fail. We embarked on the quest to survive and succeeded. So it’s not as though we were seeking live-service reputation and model. We were on the survival track, not the premeditated live service.

Crookes: And weirdly, and now that you mention that, I think honestly, I think survival is still kind of stuck in our DNA. We still have that.

Ford: We are our own, we’re our biggest haters. So anyone out there that thinks that we suck, we think it more. [laughs] Like, we are still hungry and scared, and the volatility that you referenced, that has not escaped us at all. It’s part of our, what makes us, us.

Everett: Yeah, like this could all end tomorrow, but let’s try as hard as we can so it doesn’t. 

Ford: [To Ben] Yeah, you might be out of a job tomorrow.

Everett: Yeah, sorry Ben.

Starr: I hate Warframe. [laughs] No, no, no, I love you all.

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