How Warframe Got Free-To-Play Model Right

A story of parkour, space ninjas and a lack of loot boxes.

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My first trip to Warframe wasn’t exactly one of those love-at-first-sight moments. I downloaded it back in 2013 once I heard game would be updated on Steam with achievements (yes, I’m that cheap). It was an informational mess. The game had something called Void keys, the UI was chaotic and I had no idea what was I supposed to do in missions. So I got a bunch of achievements and called it quits. Then in July last year I found out that Warframe would soon receive free a roam map in Plains of Eidolon update, ability to craft your melee weapons and a bunch of other things. I figured, let’s see what else is new since the last time I played it. Short answer: a whole lot. Long answer: a whoooooooooole lot. But on a serious note, I found a different and vastly improved game.  The void keys are gone, the game looks prettier and runs better, the UI is not so confusing anymore and it was easier to get a grasp of what to do now. Everything was more user-friendly. No need to look for answers on Warframe wiki. Overall the game felt less linear since the last time I played it. I had a big choice of story quests to pick from, along with locations and weapons to unlock.  First Warframe encounter in 2013 lasted no more than a couple of hours and ever since my redownload of the game in July, I’m well over 800 hours of playtime. I’m also close to owning (read: hoarding) 6000 games on Steam so lack of new games to play is something I’m unfamiliar with. The fact that one f2p game managed to draw me into spending so many hours in a such a short time should give you a hint of how enjoyable, immersive and fun it is. Yet, underneath all that, there is a bigger story here. Something I felt it was deserving of a lengthy article. Despite being a free-to-play game, at no point in my journey was I met with offers of buying an exp booster, a money booster or a loot box that would give me give me a small chance for a legendary, stat-boosting, rainbow-colored mount. In the wake of the recent controversy with loot boxes, microtransactions and devs/publishers trying to milk every nickel and dime from us here is something uplifting to read for a change. This is the story about the good people from Digital Extremes and how they got the free-to-play model right.

Let me Tenno you a story

I’d like to say I hit my pun quota with the line above, but that would be a lie. Either way, a story is needed. I can’t just say that “the game is good” (even though it really is) and leave it at that. We need some background on who, where and how you kill. In Warframe, we play as one of the Tenno, an ancient race of warriors awaken from cryosleep to find themselves in the battle with Grineer, Corpus, and Infested. Grineer is a faction made of the worn-out human clones, great in numbers and controlled by a matriarchal entity known as Twin Queens. On the other hand, Corpus is an advanced mega-corporation driven entirely by profit and greed. Lastly, we have Infested, disfigured and monstrous victims of the Technocyte virus ready to feel the sharpness of our blades. You will encounter some new enemies down the line, either through story quests, doing planet nodes (aka missions) or through the Plains of Eidolon area. Mentioning the rest of the enemies would count as huge story spoilers so I’ll just leave it for you to discover. One thing I have to recommend is to play the Second Dream quest once you get the hang of the game since it has one of the best plot twists I’ve experienced in games lately and turns the whole lore of Warframe upside down.

What’s cooler than being a ninja? A space ninja, of course!

Warframe‘s slogan is “ninjas play free” and it’s not just there to sound cool. One of the best things about mowing down small armies of Grineer, Corpus or Infested enemies is the freedom of movement. Your battle suit, also known as “Warframe“, possesses a good number of offensive and defensive abilities, along with enhanced strength and speed. On top of that, you also have a huge arsenal of primary, secondary and melee weapons to choose from. The end result is you being an unstoppable force of destruction and creating some remarkable moments that would put Michael Bay to shame. There is nothing cooler than launching myself high up, landing a couple of headshots with my Lex Prime before dive bombing into a group of Grineer soldiers. My choice of Warframe is usually Zephyr for her improved mobility but there are dozens of others, spicing up the gameplay in their own way. In other words, it is pretty hard to reach the endgame here considering the available combinations of weapons and Warframes. Also, with this being a free-to-play game, new content is constantly added. After all, it is the lifeline of every MMO and keeps the player base alive.

Shut up and……don’t take my money?

Since we’re this far into the article there is one lingering question in the mind of every reader. What is the catch? It is a free-to-play game, but nowadays that could mean that only registering an account is free and you have to pay for everything else. So do I pay for Warframes? Instant max level scroll? A potion to instakill all enemies on the map? Weapons are free but they charge me for bullets? The truth is, there is a lot of stuff you can buy in Warframe with real money. Warframes, weapons, crafting materials even. But here is the thing – every one of those can be earned or found just by playing the game. They even let you trade in game stuff for platinum with other players and vice versa, which is something not many f2p games allow you. Strange but a clever move that keeps nothing behind a paywall. A healthy trading economy like this is a key to a large player count. As of writing this, Warframe on PC is always seen on the chart of top ten played games on Steam, being a competition to the majority of the paid ones. There is an improved version of certain weapons and Warframes known as “prime” but here is the plot twist – even those can be earned, crafted and traded from other players in the game. And it doesn’t include investing an insane number of hours, grinding away while living on fast food and hoarding pee bottles next to your PC. Make no mistake, the grind is there but Digital Extremes found a way to make it an exciting part of the game and dare I say it- fun? Here is how it works: every Warframe and a weapon can be raised to level 30, after which is seen as “mastered”. You raise mastery through affinity, which is gained via killing enemies and completing objectives (so yeah, another word for exp). Raising mastery to high enough level will eventually give you a chance to undergo a mastery trial for your space ninja. It puts everything you learned to the test and upon completion, it opens up the access to the new locations, quests and weapons. Despite its large arsenal, none of the weapons seem slightly different than the other. Each has a different look, fire rate, recoil, handling and works best on certain enemies.

At this point, the next question would be “well, who pays for anything?” If nothing is behind a paywall and everything can be obtained just by playing, where is the incentive to spend real money here? Well, I can’t speak for the rest of the player base but in my case, that would be….gratitude. If I buy an AAA game and get a good number of hours from it ranging from 15 to 20 and more, it was money well spent. What to say about a game that costs nothing and the gameplay sucks you in for 800 hours and more. The common decency dictates that something should be given back as a way of supporting the developers and showing gratitude. I’m a member of a Warframe clan called Ascending Dragons and for Christmas, we had a Secret Santa event there where we would gift some bought Warframe cosmetics and weapons to each other. Recently Digital Extremes also ran a Tennobaum event where every in-game gift you give to someone else would be towards increasing a donation to the Children’s Health Foundation. Pretty noble cause. So I stalked a region chat there for a couple of days and randomly selected another player to send them something nice.

In my opinion, these are the foundations necessary for a stable economic system in every MMO:

  1. Make sure that everything can also be earned in game, not only bought.
  2. If the grind is there, try to not make it a chore.
  3. Try not to remind players all the time that they can spend real money (for me, it will have the opposite effect and only push me away from playing).

All of these can vary from an MMO to MMO, but in case of Warframe, there is one element that stands out and makes Digital Extremes unique in their approach: a close relationship with its community. Which brings me to the next point.

Every space ninja needs a Space Mom

Above sentence is something that makes zero sense on its own. Yet, in the context of Warframe, it needs no explanation. Space Mom is the “second name” of Rebecca Ford, Live Ops & Community Director of Warframe. Along with Megan Everett and Steve Sinclair, they’re the faces of Warframe during the frequent Prime Time and Dev streams on Twitch. The involvement doesn’t stop there. They’re often seen lurking (and commenting) on Warframe subreddit and it is not uncommon that many propositions from players there soon enough find their way in the game. They’re quick to iron out any new bugs or glitches. A lot of devs often say that their game is driven and shaped by the community but in the case of DE, their actions and involvement speak more than words. It shows that as much of it is their job, a whole lot of it is driven by their passion and love for the game. Nowadays I tune in for their Twitch streams just for the positive energy that can be felt from the studio, as silly as it sounds. And sometimes merely to laugh, as their Prime Time streams derail into complete randomness and occasional false fire alarms. The community involvement can be something that will make or break the game, regardless if it had a well-received launch. Often I’ve been a witness of many games on Steam digging their own grave by going against the players’ wishes, having zero communication or adding stuff later that no one asked for. It all leads to a dying and eventually – nonexistent player base. Involvement of the folks at DE is something that seems like it latched onto the whole Warframe community. On my return there, I had many questions regarding the new stuff they implemented. Every time I asked something in region chat, it felt like people were racing who would message me first with an explanation how something worked and offering me more help. It’s something I haven’t encountered in any MMO so far. The friendliness of the players seems almost surreal compared to the overall theme of the game where you often need to hack n slash through as many enemies as possible.

Extraction is available, if you need it

So here we are. For certain devs and publishers, simply buying a game doesn’t cut it anymore. Some resorted to charging us some more through loot boxes or downloadable content that felt like it was taken out of the game just to be sold separately. It’s like all the worst from mobile and free-to-play games found its way into AAA releases.  Last year, gaming press would call out and condone such behavior whenever it was possible. Rightfully so, I’d say. For the most part, 2017 felt like it was all about that. And who knows, maybe it is if we choose to only focus on the negative. I’ll remember it as the year of being reconnected with a game I played years ago. This time finding it in a far better state, and all the addiction & time sink of an average MMO. With an added bonus of welcoming community and fun gameplay mechanics this already feels like a game where I’ll spend 800 more hours. For everyone else, just give it a go. It’s free, fun and without any of the bad elements that one might expect from a free-to-play title. Warframe is not just an example of making a f2p game right, but also a story of hard work, dedication and lot of passion from the developers behind it.

In any case, you’re all welcome to find me there under the nick of xarabas02 and Warframe is available to download from Steam for free here. See you on the Plains, Tenno!

I play video games from time to time and sometimes they manage to elicit a reaction from me that I can't help but write about them.

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