Just when it seems like Digital Extremes has gone all-out with Warframe, the free-to-play Space Ninja MMO, the developer reveals something that is so contrary to your idea of the game that it leaves you speechless.
Last year, this was the Plains of Eidolon, an open world with a new culture, a day / night cycle, colossal boss battles and a hub. This year, with Railjack, a collaborative surface-to-space experience where you and your friends can mine huge warships, the team has taken it one step further.
And this is just the biggest unveiling of Tennocon 2018, which also features the next open world update, Fortuna, and a teaser trailer for the next cinema quest, The New War. Five years Warframe and it is clear that Digital Extremes is not lacking in creativity and ambition for the science fiction MMO.
Love Warframe? Take a look at our list of the best Warframe builds from Atlas to Excalibur.
We talked to Warrin'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 Bugfixing of the Railjack demo the night before release ,
PCGamesN: Tell us about Railjack and what does it mean for Warframe?
Steve Sinclair: It's a big surprise for our players and we are realizing a version of Dark Sector that we can never do.
It is this idea of space flight, ground combat and co-op, tactical gameplay between players. It's the dream game we never thought we could do, but now is the time to say, "Screw it, let's just try it."
We tried the open world thing and we obviously do it again, but how can we surprise our players? So, you get a ship, it has several stations, there is the basics of a game like FTL, this is one of my favorite games, so you have tactical energy management, you coordinate with the rest of the team – who? You might play Warframe by running and shooting – and try to combine that with Space Combat and Archwing. It's like taking all the strange ideas from Warframe and saying, "What if they were connected in a single mission?"
What restrictions are there for the player, does everything happen in real space?
It's happening in real space, but Warframe is moving fast, so we're not saying you're flying over Venus now, and it's this whole planet. We're not a space simulation game, so you call your ship, you step in, you go up, and now you're in space and there's this really cool transition that feels more seamless. We tried to do that with the game using more streaming technology – we did that last year, and we did it with Venus, where you go into the elevator and go up and the world is already loaded. We do more to remove loading screens from the game. We are not trying to be Elite Dangerous where you fly all over the planet.
So it's not like an open galaxy?
It's not … it's not [an open world] because we're trying to stay true to the spirit of Warframe, the high fidelity action gameplay.
We also try to connect to the space element of the game. One thing that was interesting when we focused on this open-world stuff is that there are a number of long-time players who say this is a space ninja game. And they say there are trees and stones and stuff, but there is an original promise that you were in space.
For me, [this is about] to go back to these really old ideas and bring them into play by using our experience to become more ambitious. There are moments in the demo where we show where somebody plays the game normally, shoots and shoots forces, but then looks out the window and sees another player shooting all those fighters with the railjack. Meanwhile, her buddy is on the ship to put out fires, so it's all the interaction. I think it will be hectic in a good way. The response I pray for is, "I did not know I wanted that, but now I really want that." I want it to feel at home in Warframe.
We saw some different vehicles in a previous devstream, I think they were 109, what are the plans for that?
Because the hoverboard did so well, we said we should focus on that. The enemies will use these other vehicles and you can temporarily take them over. But we saw how excited the whole studio was about hoverboards, so we focused on them.
Talk about the two new frames – they're both vampire-based, right?
Yes, that was a total accident. We have our Concept Art team working on things and it comes down the pipeline, then people have design ideas and they adapt them to these visuals, so it's a complete accident.
What kind of roles do you want to fulfill for the players?
I think Revenant would be more of a support framework, but he went so far in that direction that he was missing any kind of punch. We have seen the reaction of the community and that's why we went back and worked on it to make it a bit snappy. Garuda is still very early in his design.
What can you tell us about the ship adaptation?
Warframe is all about customization, so you can customize your ship at will. We're a Looter shooter, which means we have progression curves in all, so what kind of reactor do you have [in your ship]? What kind of weapons systems do you have and do you replace or update them? Do you want to paint your ship a different color? All these things are in development.
We also plan to have different classes of ships, but the hard part is that we do not ask players to invest deeply in one thing and then say, "Here's another one." Warframes do that, where you update them and insert the forma and modest – we want to do that [in Railjack]but it took a hell of a lot of effort to get this one ship. First, we will say that there are many adjustments [for this one ship], more than in a game like Star Citizen, where all the different ship classes are concerned.
Well, Star Citizens model also costs a fortune …
[Laughs] That's right, we're still a free-to-play game.
How will this be incorporated into the story? Will it offer players narrative rewards?
Yes absolutely. Players who follow the quests and see The Sacrifice quests we just launched need a trusted ally and paint them in gray. We have been thinking this for a long time and [that character] Way of departure and is called back somewhere, and we feel so invited to a space adventure. That's all I can say now while we're still working on it. We are a cicada, we come out and live one day and then die: we work very fast with these ideas.
It's crazy, you just finished The Sacrifice and you've already announced a new story quest …
People expected the sacrifice to be a coherent ending, but it's on a cliffhanger, so now we need to move on to the next step in the story. The whole thing surprised us – that people care so much about it – so we really try to impress them and give them what they want from tradition. When we started, we just thought we were writing weapon descriptions …
Back to Fortuna, what lessons have you learned from the planes of Eidolon?
Bigger is not necessarily better. If you ask people to go out and then give their bounties or MMO quests [at a hub] then it really creates a bad rhythm. What we did [in Fortuna] Is it true that after assuming a corpus base, you have a resistance leader there who can carry on the missions? This is one of the biggest lessons we have learned with Plains of Eidolon.
Another was that Eidolon was really big, so we wanted you to be able to cross faster, we gave you the Archwing. Of course, if you give someone a helicopter, the distance becomes meaningless. So, what we've tried with Venus is that we'll give you something really cool, we'll give you a hoverboard to do tricks with – it's the coolest thing we've ever added to Warframe. It lets you travel fast, but you still get the scale of the world and what we are trying to convey.
There are also technological lessons. Our game engine was never made for open world content like GTA or a Witcher game, and Plains of Eidolon was really just for reusing old stuff. There are many super cool technological things we've worked for Fortuna, but maybe they're not that interesting to hear …
Try me …
The only thing that had to be overcome frustratingly was to find the millions of places in your game engine that are hard-coded to say the world is no bigger than 2km, right? So the levels of Eidolon barely fit in [that space]and all the stuff that happened out of reach was just decoration. Now with the Orb Vallis and Railjack we blow the size of things apart. Literally last night, we fixed another bug that was 2km away. So, Megan [Everett, Warframe’s community manager,] As we practice for the demo, we climb the tower – we shit rocks – and she runs down, it looks great, she climbs the tower … and then the screen goes black and she falls into space, because she is teleported far away.
In your mind, you can think of all the classic games that are an open world, like the Ubisoft games, Just Cause games and GTA games. We are facing things we are unfamiliar with. When I sign autographs up there with fans saying they've been playing for three or five years, and I ask them why they still play because the game is constantly changing, trying new things – they're excited about the future.
Does the extended role of the Archwing in Railjack mean that we get an Archwing conversion?
Yes, there are certainly control improvements and a few other things that we are not satisfied with. With Railjack we have learned more about what constitutes a good control system and what gives you a good sense of scope and scope. So we have to go back and use that. It's the third time we've tried it: we've done a revision of 2.0 and it still was not enough. But here we are at this convention, and the players dedicated to the game are ready to fail with us for some reason. They give us a lot of leeway, perhaps because they know that we are trying to give them new experiences quickly.
Is part of how open Digital Extremes is as a developer?
Right, yes! I've heard a lot from players today. I met a guy who was delivering videos and he wanted to talk to me and said, "I've never met a company that was so transparent and willing to talk to its players."
Part of it was – to be honest – a sense of self-preservation. We had canceled all our projects, we had people laid off and we wanted to play a game with a small team and no money to do that, so how will we differ? Well, you can have different abilities and weapons, but everyone else surpasses you, so you can feel like you're listening more? Can you be more honest? Can you live up to your mistakes? Can you be less corporate? Can you feel refreshed by the community? All this has continued to do us good.
It's funny, because when we started it was before the rise of Twitch before it was owned by Amazon … we did not know what we were doing, we just did it while we went on. But then we would go to PAX or such events – Nvidia would lend us machines because we could not stand up – and we would meet people from Blizzard and they would say, "Oh yeah, we're Warframe, what are you doing with yours Updates? And we're like, what? You talk to us? They look at us? So, yeah, as long as we can, we try to make it as if there's an honest connection there.
You mentioned something about the policy of the Fortuna update earlier today. Did that write into the difficulties of the company a few years ago?
I think personally, it's about looking at people in my family and the trap they're in, where there are many people. It is a reaction to consumption and the ongoing debt culture. Honestly, [the political story] could have been anything, I was just looking for a human idea because it's a crazy update with all these singing robots, so I'm always looking for some human ideas. If someone is attentive, that may resonate with them.
There is another example here [at Tennocon] With this search, this species explores the idea of dementia and how music can be therapeutic. They still shoot boys and play the game, but for someone who is affected, it makes sense. Even if you meet a child with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and you see how they have decorated their ship, it comes from this quest, where there is a girl who is sick and constantly under medical supervision. With such things, we're just trying to add a level of meaning, and when it connects to a person, I'm happy.
Do you have a fixed release window for the Railjack update?
I hope I can get a version of it this year. It will probably be late in the year, but would not that be a big one? We always try to make a big movie or dramatic update. Once the Tennocon team has recovered, we will find out what it takes to bring it to our players.