When I last played Warframe it was very much a vanilla space ninjas game. Just over a year later and there are still space ninjas but they sit alongside extras like tradeable space puppies. The player activity has been extensive too - there are user-created clan dojos so big the developers have had to add teleport functions to the game to make them navigable. As I write this it's at number ten in the Steam top games list with 16,382 people playing right now. It's also about to get wings.
In Warframe you play as one of the Tenno, an ancient warrior race who must don exo-armour (the titular warframes) to fight militarised clones called the Grineer. In the latest update, Archwing, players will be able to use new augments to allow their warframes to fly and fight in the vacuum of space. To find out how the Archwing update will work I spoke to Steve Sinclair – creative director of Warframe developer Digital Extremes.
RPS: The last time I looked at Warframe it was lots of space ninjas zipping through levels murdering things...
Sinclair: The game is still at its roots what you're talking about, running around slashing and shooting, using your warframe abilities but it continues to grow. We're adding social hubs really soon as well. We're going to continue to update it aggressively as long as they keep paying us to come to work.
RPS: The latest update features the Archwing which lets you fly around in space. Is that an entirely new warframe or an augmentation you can add to existing warframes?
Sinclair: It's a flight augmentation for your warframe. What our existing players will like is they get to pick and customise their warframe. They're very familiar with this idea and we're not throwing that out when you go into Archwing mode. If you have your cool Loki and he's got all these different upgrades on him a lot of that will continue into Archwing mode rather than risk saying, "Now you have this vehicle and that investment doesn't matter anymore". We wanted to respect that.
RPS: Will there just be the one Archwing available or are there multiple types?
Sinclair: It works a little bit like our other weapons and warframes in that you finish the Archwing quest and get the first one – the Odonata. That one has a whole bunch of upgrade slots. You can find upgrades while playing that game mode to make it better. There's another one that's still in development but will have a slightly different playstyle and feel and statistics to it.
RPS: Will there be crafting elements that affect your Archwing?
Sinclair: There's the mod system which is a huge part of how our upgrading system goes. How we would bring in crafting elements to that game mode would be like, Oh, you found parts to make a different weapon you can equip while in Archwing". We usually use items to accomplish that sort of stuff - maybe there's a cool new Archwing hammer you can get and you find the blueprints by killing a crazy Archwing boss. You craft it and then you bring that into space and smash fools...
RPS: Speaking of weapons, will there be melee in space? In the demo you gave it was all ranged attacks.
Sinclair: Its a little rough in the demo so I think [my colleague] was avoiding showing it too much. The animators are still working on fleshing that out. We wanted it to be – for lack of a better description – as anime as possible. You have a big heavy weapon and then you have a giant ridiculous space sword which you're smashing through spaceships
RPS: You mentioned that Warframe levels have that Diablo 3-esque procedural generation aspect – how have you approached the space segments?
Sinclair: Good question. One mode called Trench Run is a bit like the maze the Millennium Falcon flew through in Jedi – it's twisting and turning and you're inside the guts of a large ship. That one is definitely procedural generation as we usually do it in the game. The more free-flight mode has procedural generation in that we place the debris and the enemies procedurally but it's open so it doesn't really have that Diablo maze-like affordance. Only the contents are procedurally generated.
RPS: How does the transition from being in a ship interior to flying in open space work? Are there mixed levels or are they separate?
Sinclair: If we're doing a blended mission you'd go through the corpus ship, meanwhile the Grineer would be screaming at you - "We're going to blow up that ship, we really mean it!" Then they would blow it up and we would transition you into the spaceflight mode. There's definitely a mix of those level types in one mission. I feel like we'll be scratching the surface and we'll see what our players really like. There's a lot of real excitement for it. We definitely want to explore.
RPS: Tell me more about the new game modes.
Sinclair: We have a lot of different game modes in Warframe now. Some are infinite modes like defence and there's a survival mode that's super popular. We're trying to bring in as many game types as we can so that people can not only fly around and be awesome but they can try their hand at what's it like to play a co-op 4 player defence mission in space where the enemies are coming from all over the place. We're trying to add as many mission types that map to the existing mission types but with you flying around like a crazy space ninja.
RPS: Warframe has always focused on agility and supermobility. Were there problems on that front with transitioning the warframes into space?
Sinclair: We wanted to take all the muscle memory [players] have from the game for sliding and dodging and that sort of thing so all of that is mapped to Archwing. Your sprint is a boost instead and when you slide in space you do this cool drift manoeuvre so you're harder to hit. One of the decision we made early on which was a bit controversial was – I'm not sure if you ever played Descent? – you could bank and what was "up" could change. The first version of Archwing had you flying around and nothing was [predefined as] "up" so you could tilt and then up was to the left. It was super vomit-inducing and went one step too far into being uber hardcore.
RPS: So at first you had no absolute directions or compass points?
Sinclair: Yeah, so if you got into some strange configuration you had this woozy feeling and couldn't figure out what was happening. We locked that plane. You can still move in those six degrees of freedom but there's a very specific "up"!
RPS: Tell me more about the dojos – how have they grown and how will they work with Archwing?
Sinclair: There's one clan that has ten obstacle courses because their warlord has decided they're going to be the most ninja and agile of all the clans so they have all these obstacle courses set up. They want their members to be practicing constantly. How Archwing will be integrated into that? Generally it will be in an indirect way. For example, suppose a month from now we want to add a new type of Archwing and it's like the Tenno have designed their own Archwing. What we would do is unroll that as research, so clans build research rooms – there's a little smell of XCOM – and then their membership contribute and make sure the research gets completed. Instead of having to go out and kill a boss for blueprints, they can go into their dojo and see what's been researched. Of course, we're going to have players saying that it would be cool to have a flight test room in the dojo. That's the kind of thing we respond to.
We're also continuing to push the customisation in [dojos] so they'll be able to paint the walls the colour they like now and that sort of thing. There's a lot of neat stuff and for the high-end players we have a PvP mode called Dark Sectors. It's this fortress defence and attack battle. What's neat about that is the clan builds a schematic inside their dojo for how that map plays when battling other players. We've tried to add connections to the dojo that aren't purely for a fun clubhouse.
RPS: Important question: can your kubrow space puppies come into space?
Sinclair: You sound like my Twitter feed! For now we're going to have orders for your ship to pick up your kubrow. I don't know if we're going to get the Laika treatment of the kubrow with a little helmet on, flying around with you, but I'm sure players will be wanting that. Probably a month from now we'll be sitting in a room going, "How are we going to put these damn kubrows in space?"
RPS: One of the new game modes as a relaxing endless exploration – how does that fit with rest of game's pace?
Sinclair: The long-term players we have are spending time in Warframe that isn't running as fast as you can along the walls. They're sitting in chat, maybe participating in trade, talking about their day. Increasingly, when you talk to players, it becomes a place to hang out. Once you're a really good player some of the game modes are also not as stressful as for new players.
RPS: It sounds like the community aspect of an MMO
Sinclair: It's become that. We have a lot of players who come from that world. They're confusing and terrifying to us but we want to make them feel at home! One of the things we're working on and didn't talk about is a place – we call them Relays – where people can walk around and talk and meet up to go on missions together. It's a socialisation place but rather than text chat they're there with their warframe and kubrow and all this cool stuff. We're putting effort into growing that part of Warframe and, as you say, it has an MMO feel.
RPS: What you're saying is you need a Deep Space Nine-type station
Sinclair: That's literally what we're adding. It has gardens down below and it's really cool.
RPS: Are you going to have trees?
Sinclair: Yes, we're have these weird space trees, of course. They're not just traditional trees, they're these white vine-y things.
RPS: Space trees are totally my thing at the moment so keep me posted on that. But now tell me about your giant Death Star/Eye Of Sauron thing.
Sinclair: Every time we do an event with our players we try to advance some kind of metanarrative and feedback what they liked and didn't like into the game. An old example of that was when we put in an event with General Vay Hek. The event was too easy and everyone flooded to the forums. What we did was on a livestream had Vay Hek interrupt us and scream "Did you really think it would be so easy?" and pretend he'd planned it all along. We went in and statistically ramped up how difficult the event was in response but were also playful with it.
That boss is back. He's screaming and yelling and he's got this giant ship – it's a Warframe-esque Death Star and the way the game mechanic works for that mode is it has this giant red eye that's trying to find the little Tenno flying around. If it sees you for too long and gets a lock on you it's going to zap you with a big red beam. It gives a bit of purpose. You end up sneaking and hiding amongst asteroids and burned out ship husks.
RPS: When the game was just starting out you had a founders' program payment tier which let players sit on a Design Council and influence the game. Has that continued and has it affected Archwing?
Sinclair: Archwing not specifically because we wanted to have it be a big surprise so we held that in secret for quite some time. Ongoing, though? Absolutely. Now we've ended the founders' program we have a draft where we slowly let people into the Design Council over time to keep the fresh blood coming through it. The growth of the game has made coping with the volume of feedback a little bit difficult but we run community hot topics, post design workshops - they get to see behind the curtain as much as possible.
RPS: When we spoke last year you mentioned eSports in relation to Warframe but don't appear to have aggressively pursued that angle. What's your thinking on that front at the moment?
Sinclair: It's a good question. It's something that we flirt with and agonise over. I think we got a certain type of player invested and interested in the game and sticking with us. For the most part they want to play with their friends not against them. We do have a growing faction of Warframe members who are invested in the Dark Sector mode I talked about and we have been improving Conclave which is our PvP duelling system. Unlike other companies, we haven't thrown out the things that have made the game successful at the expense of chasing after that.
It's something we're still looking at and when we went to GamesCom in Cologne we did it with ESL and they're all about [eSports]. We have a great relationship with them but we haven't really thrown as much weight behind that as other things we do that are more quest-focused or really expand the game from that PvE side of things.
RPS: Last question: what about the new resources and rewards? What can we expect on that front?
Sinclair: Right now it's fairly limited to things that are going to make your Archwing better. One of the great things about this update for our experienced veteran players is - when we add new stuff all they do is take the upgrades they've had for the last year and smash them on. There's not that interesting progression curve you get from new items because they can beef them up so quickly. The neat thing about Archwing, at least in terms of the Archwing abilities, is they'll be having to go out there and scrounge or fight enemies to earn that power back. I'm excited to see how they react to that.
The Archwing update is expected to be added to Warframe during October.