In Warframe, you control a character which has access to a variety of abilities which grow in strength and magnitude as you play. Your progression is marked by a notable increase in power with these abilities which can make a substantial difference in the flow of combat. The abilities differ between each class of Warframe – the powered suits which the players control – and provide combat utility, support for allies, or pure destructive power against your enemies. These abilities can be further modified using upgrade modules players can earn through gameplay as well. The focus of this article is to analyze a variety of these abilities with a primary focus on base values for Range and Duration effects and how they are used.
As a general preface before the article, I just want to say that I am aware of many of the more recent issues players are experiencing and reporting in regards to Specters of the Rail but I have not had the time to properly digest or prepare an editorial on the topic. The general rule of thumb for me will be to wait at least a month before addressing new content in the game. However, I am concerned with many of the changes made to the Market and the apparent disregard to addressing the issues of affinity generation. I have addressed both of these topics in the past here on TCN as well. If interested, you can view them here:
And as a final note: Hotfix: Specters of the Rail 4 addressed my main concerns with usability and presentation of information in the market. Expect a follow-up to the article linked above in a few months from now.
Introduction to Warframe Abilities
The nature of this article will focus on Warframe’s gameplay mechanics and will require some knowledge of the game to understand. This article assumes you possess some of the knowledge necessary to participate in this discussion, but for those of you less familiar I’ll try to give a brief overview of the various aspects addressed in the article.
Warframe abilities serve as the defining features of Warframe’s take on a Character Class system. Each warframe comes with varying levels of the same attributes of Health, Shields, Armor, Power (also referred to as “Energy”), and Movement Speed. The differences between these attributes helps define the roles of the various warframes, but the abilities are what make each warframe unique and changes the way a player handles combat. A warframe such as Excalibur has attributes which make him capable of withstanding incoming damage and its abilities are centered around the idea of being a melee-combat fighter. On the other hand, the warframe Mag’s attributes are much lower, rendering her more vulnerable to incoming damage, and her abilities are centered around the idea of using the enemies strengths against them. A bold swordsman and a powerful caster made distinct by their abilities.
In Warframe, your abilities cost Energy to use which is somewhat similar to fantasy games with spell casting systems centered around the idea of mana – a reservoir of magical power which goes beyond physical limitations of the world. That is to say, unlike the guns or melee weapons your enemies yield, abilities are manifested out of your warframe and can do things above and beyond the capabilities of a gun or blade. In regards to other similar games oriented around gunplay, think of abilities as special grenades which you can only use a few times per mission unless you happen upon a cache of ammunition for them. Energy can only be generated by chance after killing an enemy or through the use of specific mods such as Energy Siphon and Rage, abilities which restore energy such as Trinity’s Energy Vampire, or special passive effects such as the Zenurik Focus School’s passive perk “Energy Overflow” which grant various amounts of energy over time. For the most part, the only restrictions to using an ability is to have the Energy necessary to do so.
Each warframe has 4 different core abilities (some function in multiple ways) and each ability is governed by its own set of attributes which can be enhanced by upgrade modules (commonly referred to as “Mods”): Duration, Range, Strength, and Efficiency. A Loki warframe may want to prioritize mods which increase Duration and Range whereas an Ash warframe may prioritize Strength and Efficiency. These mods will enhance the base values of these abilities; for example if an ability lasts for 10 seconds on use, having +100% Duration would increase it to 20 seconds.
The last thing to know about Warframe’s ability system is that each ability starts at Rank 0 when unlocked and can reach a max rank of 3 for a total of 4 possible ranks. These ranks will increase passively with your warframe’s rank. Each rank of an ability will increase its potency but keep the same energy cost.
For more information, I would recommend consulting the wiki in regards to abilities in general or for specific warframe ability information. The following information in this article will require familiarity with Warframe.
The Inherent Flaws of Ability Design
For this topic I decided to cut straight to the heart of the matter rather than dance around the intent. This article will address the base values of Duration and Range for a variety of abilities; what they are, why they are a problem, and how they could be improved. My intention is to objectively identify conflicts between design intent and realized gameplay in hopes of inspiring discussion and change. However, this entire piece is opinion and not to be treated as fact.
The core of my point of view is simple: Warframe is a fast-paced game with a great deal of emphasis on mobility and high quantities of enemies. Many abilities simply fail to be reliable enough for use without a heavy reliance on mods or energy restoration mechanics. This is problematic for both new players and experienced players as it can lead to misinformed first impressions or lead to modding in a way which renders some skills useless.
Many of the cases below are unsurprisingly about the older Warframes. The ability system used to require Mods to use which made it possible to use a Rank 3 ability when your Warframe was still Rank 0. It wasn’t until Update 15 that the current system was introduced and the old ability mods were removed from the game. The old system still had the problems listed below, but they were not much of a hindrance because you could essentially pick the rank you wanted to use.
Case Study 1: Ash – Smoke Screen
The Core of the Problem: The base duration is too short for lower ranks.
Smoke Screen has a casting time of roughly 1.5 seconds. At Rank 0, the invisibility lasts for 2 seconds. Each rank adds 2 additional seconds to the base duration of this ability; 2/4/6/8 seconds duration at ranks 0/1/2/3, respectively. Though the energy cost is much lower than many other #2 abilities, this ability is nearly useless at low ranks due to the long casting animation. However, the duration at Rank 3 is acceptable for what this ability seems to be intended for; 8 seconds is enough time to re-position after staggering enemies and getting in a few hits before being revealed once again.
Suggested Changes: Increase the base duration per rank from 2/4/6/8 to 5/6/7/8 and consider reduce the casting animation to 1.0 or up to 1.2 seconds.
With this change, the end-game use of Smoke Screen will more or less remain the same while simultaneously providing a much better experience at lower ranks. Smoke Screen is clearly not intended to be a permanent invisibility tool due to its lower duration relative to other invisibility-oriented abilities; it is meant to apply some minor crowd control to enemies surrounding Ash to give him time to either adjust his position or stealthily deal with enemies. These changes would not interfere with the augment functionality.
Case Study 2: Banshee – Sound Quake
The Core of the Problem: The energy costs are too high at lower ranks which results in a very short duration at lower ranks.
Without modding for efficiency or extra energy capacity, when you unlock Rank 0 Sound Quake at Banshee Rank 10, you can only keep this ability active for roughly 5 seconds. Even then, that is assuming you were at max energy before casting. Though it is apparent it was meant to encourage players to earn ranks on this ability, the result is that this ability is simply not feasible for gameplay.
I will make note of the vulnerability issues and lack of mobility when using this skill, but I do not think those are design flaws. Sound Quake is an ability meant for defensive or stationary events whereas the rest of her kit is mobile and fluid. It encourages you to choose wisely when you want to use the ability and is meant to be a supportive crowd control for allies to attack the affected enemies.
Suggested Changes: Adjust the energy costs per rank to be a normalized value of 12 energy per second.
Players should expect to be able to use this ability without fully draining their energy for at least a few seconds at a time. Many of the newer warframes which use energy drain toggle abilities have a similar design where the drain does not change per rank – as do many of the reworked warframes. I do not think it is necessary to adjust the augment; the energy costs are justified.
Case Study 3: Chroma – Elemental Ward and Vex Armor
These two abilities share the same core problem and will be addressed together.
The Core of the Problem: The base duration is too low at low ranks.
As a preface; I find it problematic how Chroma’s elemental affinity selection works. Regardless of that, both of these abilities share the same duration growth: 10/15/20/25 seconds at ranks 0/1/2/3, respectively. 50 Energy is difficult to come by every 10 seconds in gameplay, let alone 75 or 125, and make these abilities difficult to maintain or justify using often when no energy replenishment sources are available. Considering the barren descriptions on the abilities page in game, the short duration compounds the difficulty of understanding what the ability even does when used.
However, that is not to say that these abilities should be expected to have 100% of the time. It’s more of an issue of the base duration being too short to feel as if it is being useful against enemies. There should always be a cost to the benefit.
Suggested Changes: (1) Allow these buffs to be re-cast at will so that when you do have energy you can preserve the benefits (particularly from Vex Armor). (2) Increase the base duration per rank from 10/15/20/25 to 18/20/22/25.
(3) Alternatively to the second suggestion, adjust the base duration to 15/16/18/20 and add new mechanics which can extend the duration based on combat. For every time an enemy is afflicted by your attuned element (Heat, Cold, Toxin, or Electric) status effect, extend the duration by 0.5 seconds (scaling with duration mods) up to a maximum of +20 seconds (scaling with duration mods). For every enemy killed, the duration of Vex Armor extends by 1.0 seconds (scaling with duration mods) up to a maximum of +20 seconds (scaling with duration mods). This change to Elemental Ward could potentially give Spectral Scream a new opportunity to synergize as well.
10 seconds is not enough time to really make use of either of these abilities and that should be addressed. Chroma does boast a larger energy pool than other similar tanky warframes, but even he struggles to use these abilities in conjunction. The third suggestion plays into Chroma’s feral aesthetic; by lowering the base values but adding duration on kill with a cap, players would still have to re-cast the abilities and utilize his sizeable energy pool.
Case Study 4: Ember – Fire Blast
The Core of the Problem: The range of the ring of fire limits the viability of this ability.
Ember’s kit has gone through some awkward transitions in the past, though ultimately the current version of her World on Fire ability has earned her a spot as one of the most reliable choices for Exterminate missions. Fire Blast, on the other hand, has become an ability which does not mesh well with her other skills. Though I won’t be addressing damage balancing in general, it is worth noting that Fireball deals double the damage of this ability. The ring of fire left behind after casting is too impractical in standard gameplay as well.
Suggested Changes: (1) Add functionality to the space within the ring of fire and possibly (2) allow range mods to affect the size of the ring of fire.
As a stationary ability, a base radius of 4 meters is difficult to make use of in the first place, but tying the damage and effects to the ring itself is unreliable in most forms of combat within Warframe. By giving the inside of the ring some functionality – be it damage, crowd control, or utility – players would have an incentive to use the skill. Examples of utility could be to apply Ember’s Passive ability when inside the ring or to cast Accelerant (at half range) when enemies are killed within the ring. If the ability remains stationary it should provide a more profound effect than being a mild inconvenience for melee opponents which dash through its circumference.
Case Study 5: Excalibur – Exalted Blade (Radial Blind)
The Core of the Problem: The base range of this utility functionality of Exalted Blade is impractical.
For half of the cost of a Radial Blind cast, you will blind enemies within 20% the range of Radial Blind. Though it could be argued that the energy cost is the larger problem with this ability, the effect is ultimately what weighs it down. 5 m insignificant in the flow of battle and is a poor base value for scaling values with mods.
Suggested Changes: (1) Adjust the blind radius to 5/6/8/10 per rank of Exalted Blade (or Radial Blind). (2) Alternatively, increase the blind radius to a flat 10m at all ranks.
As it stands right now, the slide attack is simply too expensive for the benefits it gives. Adjusting the energy cost could improve the situation as well, but it still leaves you with a very impractical effect which barely covers your immediate vicinity. I think it’s justifiable that the Radial Blind cast should be more potent as a crowd control effect, but not by this magnitude. The slide attack, as it is right now, is a detriment to Exalted Blade channeling.
Case Study 6: Mesa – Ballistic Battery
Though this ability is not affected by it, there is a flaw in its design in regards to duration.
The Core of the Problem: This ability takes far more time to prepare than the payoff is worth.
A single shot fired is not worth the time it takes to charge up this ability. It effectively limits your equipment options if you choose to utilize the ability, though I would recommend ignoring the ability entirely.
Suggested Changes: (1) Change the ability from affecting the next single shot to affecting all shots within a short duration of 3 seconds at all ranks (scaling with duration mods). (2) Alternatively, add an effect that empowers all of Peacemaker’s shots by consuming the stored power on cast.
This ability does not synergize well with anything else in Mesa’s kit or with over 80% of the current ranged weapon options. By allowing it to affect multiple shots or empowering Peacemaker, it could become far more useful in the flow of combat.
Case Study 7: Oberon – Hallowed Ground and Renewal
The Core of the Problem: The rectangular shape of the field lends itself poorly to defensive gameplay.
The beneficial effects from this ability are impractical to maintain as a fresh cast would have to be placed as allies continue to move through the fray. It is an ability far better suited to stationary gameplay and most notable useful in defense-based objectives such as Interception or Defense missions.
Suggested Changes: Improve the base width of the ability from 2/2/2.5/2.5 to 2/3/4/5. (2) Alternatively, change the range of the ability to be radial as opposed to its current rectangular shape.
Oberon is often referred to as the jack of all trades and master of none. This adjustment would not do much to change that, but it would improve the usability of this ability on defensive missions. A more interesting way to expand the coverage on this ability would to add a way to expand the size of the Hallowed Ground by using other abilities as a form of synergy.
The Core of the Problem: The healing over time is removed from allies once fully healed, regardless of duration.
Though potentially a useful ability for dealing with Nightmare missions with No Shields or Health Vampire and other similar mechanics were health drain is a concern in the mission, it is ultimately limited in effectiveness by both the energy drain and its tendency to end before you would want it to.
Suggested Changes: Allow the buff to persist even while at full health.
The nature of this ability is so that adding bonus duration reduces the overall duration of this ability. While that may be somewhat non-intuitive, it does create an interesting duality between the choice of optimizing immediate healing or providing lesser but long term healing. Removing the maximum health component as a factor in the duration would create more opportunity for optimization between those desired effects.
Case Study 8: Rhino – Roar
This particular case covers other abilities with similar buffing mechanics such as Valkyr’s Warcry and Volt’s Speed.
The Core of the Problem: The base ranges are too low for mobile gameplay.
The problem these types of abilities face is that through the course of gameplay you and your allies will ultimately spread out and sometimes venture beyond the affinity sharing range, let alone the range of these skills.
Suggested Changes: (1) Allow these skills to be re-cast at will and consider to (2) increase the base range to 50m (affinity range) for all ranks.
Either one of these changes would be sufficient, though it would certainly improve the gameplay experience by doing both. As seen elsewhere in this article, being able to re-cast abilities at will is recommended as a solution for buffing abilities once again.
Cast Study 9: Vauban – Bastille
The Core of the Problem: The base range at lower ranks is too small.
When Bastille was first added to the game it did not have a limit on the number of enemies it could affect. A tiny Bastille could be a massive net of enemies webbed together. This was changed in Update 9.8, but nothing else about the ability was adjusted.
Suggested Changes: Increase base range to 10 across all ranks.
The intent is not to cover an entire room, but affect more than a closet. With the target cap changing from an infinite amount to being 6/8/10/12 enemies per respective rank, a larger base range will not impact the feel of this ability. However, out of all of the other abilities recommended to improve the base range, Bastille is perhaps one of the few where increasing the range per rank gives a feeling of progression and growth to the player.
Case Study 10: Volt – Speed
The Core of the Problem: The base duration on lower ranks are too low.
Though at a much more manageable cost of 25 energy and being able to cast it again at will, 5 seconds of 10% movement/melee speed does not translate well into gameplay.
Suggested Changes: Increase the base duration to at least 10 seconds across all ranks.
Though the effect would still be weaker than most might notice, increasing the duration would lend to improving the experience of the ability that has long been attributed to Volt as the core of his unique skills at lower ranks. As both a combat and mobility skill, 5 seconds is not nearly enough time to deal with enemies or traverse the mission.
A Shift in Design Philosophy
Many of the cases listed above stem from a change in design philosophy over the years; ability design from three years ago does not hold up as well with what the game has become. Newer warframes and reworks have been built around the idea of efficiency and filling a niche in gameplay with utility and mobility which make for interesting progression and use with the new skills presented. Many of the abilities listed in the case studies above have not been updated in light of what the game has become and remain relics of what the game once was. Some of the abilities listed above are flawed by concept; they’re interesting and unique but impractical for gameplay. This is not a problem that can be solved, only treated, because Warframe is an ever-changing game. A review or analysis of Warframe a year ago would confuse players that started just recently; massive changes are commonplace in Warframe’s development and the developers constantly build atop of what the game once was.
Many abilities would benefit from a flat baseline range or duration across all ranks. Rhino’s Roar was changed in Update 16.10 to have a flat 30 seconds base duration across all ranks and has in turn made modding for and utilizing the buff much easier. Though Valkyr’s Warcry is in a much better state now with the Eternal War augment, its base duration of 7 seconds is insignificant in the scope of the length of a full mission and the 75 energy required is expensive to come by. These two abilities are similar in that they are meant to empower you and your allies and though they differ in what they present, they share the problem that applying the buff to others in a standard mission can prove quite difficult without halting mobility to gather for the buff. Especially for Valkyr with such a low base duration, it can be difficult to utilize this buff or re-apply to all allies once it falls off.
It is my opinion that the focus of ability design should reflect the mobility of gameplay. If an ability is meant to be defensive or otherwise stationary, it should offer a meaningful reason to remain stationary. Comparing Ember’s Fire Blast to Vauban’s Bastille may be somewhat indirect, but it is my opinion that Fire Blast should provide a more tangible effect to control the area it is set in similar to Bastille’s utility in combat. If an ability is meant to empower allies, it should be capable of applying to allies without forcing them to stop and wait in a confined space. I think Digital Extremes shares this viewpoint as well – the more recent reworks to Mag, Volt, and Trinity in particular all showcase this ideology of improving the mobility of abilities and the feasibility in buffing your allies. Not every warframe ability needs a complete rework, but many could stand being brought up to the current standards and expectations.
Aside from all that was mentioned above, I still have deeper concerns that I would want to see addressed in the future. Warframe continues to grow and add new toys, new mechanics, and new environments in which to experiment with everything provided, but relics of older systems and mechanics continue to weigh down the abilities and weapons that were created back in those times.
Forma resetting a weapon to Rank 0 is no longer a major concern due to the changes with starting equipment capacity relative to Mastery Rank in Hotfix 18.13.2, but having all of your Warframe’s abilities reset still feels clumsy when compared to the pre-Update 15 mod cards. Earning your ranks the first time you level a frame from 0-30 should allow you to retain some of that power when applying the forma, especially with the aforementioned recent changes to starting mod capacity.
The energy system is feast-or-famine; either you have too much energy and you spam your abilities rather than using them strategically or you’re so starved for energy that you cannot use any abilities. The old system of 25/50/75/100 for skills #1/#2/#3/#4 has been challenged many times in the past, but it needs to be revisited again entirely and particularly for abilities designed to buff allies. However, changes the energy costs alone will not accomplish much; energy generation would have to be addressed in some form as well. Players do not have a meaningful method of earning or generating energy through combat and are instead either reliant on abilities, team energy restores, or just pure luck from opening containers or killing enemies (both of which are inconsistent at best).
Warframe will continue to grow and change in the future and I am optimistic enough to believe that these concerns can and will be addressed in the future. These are not crippling problems that will drive players away, but they are parts of the game which could be improved to create a better experience for more satisfying and rewarding gameplay.