Digital Extremes’ Take on Free To Play

What do you do when everyone tells you that your game will fail? How do you react? What do you change? Digital Extremes spoke openly about the origins of Warframe with PCGamer.com and Venture Beat in recent months, shedding light on how the game came to be what it is today. Emboldened by the success of a new wave of self-published games, Digital Extremes took the rejections from potential publishers in stride and tried their hand at self publishing. Four years later, Warframe is still going strong. Whether it was out of spite for their rejections or if it was unwavering confidence in the product, Digital Extremes has proven Warframe had the potential to not only survive, but flourish.

About Digital Extremes

James Schmalz founded Digital Extremes in 1993, choosing to pursue his passion as a game developer. The Canadian company saw success within its first year as Epic Pinball proved the shareware model was a great way to enter the market. Excited by the possibilities of 3D game development, Digital Extremes pushed forward to develop the Unreal games which first released in 1998. Digital Extremes continued to grow from the success of the Unreal series and partnerships with their publishers, but the first decade of the new millennium had tested them in unexpected ways. Somewhere along the timeline of developing Dark Sector and then Warframe, the company had hit a bit of a rough patch and began to lay off some of their staff.

 

Dark Sector began as something completely different than what it became. The original trailer, first shown in 2004 and now available on YouTube, may look very familiar to anyone who has played Warframe for even just an hour at the start of the open beta. On the other hand… the trailer for what Dark Sector became was something completely different (also available on YouTube). The game had shifted in a major way between the time Digital Extremes was looking for publishers and when the game was released. It could be that potential publishers were impressed with the graphics and potential of the original ideas for the game, but wanted to change the environments and gameplay to play it safer to what was popular at the time.

For some time, Digital Extremes also functioned as a studio for hire by other publishers and worked on games such as Bioshock II and The Darkness II. Perhaps one of the most notorious projects they have worked on was Star Trek which was regarded by critics as a flop. Meridith Braun, Vice President of Publishing for Digital Extremes, described the Star Trek game as having almost ruined Digital Extremes in her interview with PC Gamer. It is reasonable to assume that the issues resulting from Star Trek‘s failures added to the difficulty of finding a new publisher for the studio.

 

 

Digital Extremes had grown tired of being a hired gun for other publishers and wanted to create a game they wanted. Looking back at the original design of Dark Sector, Warframe became what Dark Sector had aspired to be. This time they would not waver or concede their ambition to a publisher. Schmalz had full confidence in the developers behind Warframe and so Digital Extremes became their own publisher. Regarded by many as the spiritual successor to Dark Sector and confirmed to be somewhat canon in regards to the story and lore, Warframe became a manifestation of hope for Digital Extremes.

The market for free-to-play (F2P) games had grown tremendously in the years following the release of Dark Sector and with massive success stories like Riot GamesLeague of Legends, it was at least plausible that they could manage to do the same with the resources they still had available. The company had began with a shareware model and free-to-play games seemed to be the natural progression of that idea. With digital distribution becoming widespread and effectively removing the hurdles of selling physical copies of a game, the only limit to get their product to the player was the user’s willingness to download the game. Described by Steve Sinclair, Creative Director for Warframe, as a “Hail Mary” for the company, they pursued an uncertain future driven by their collective hope, ambition, and passion.

Free-To-Play Design in Warframe

The closed beta experience of Warframe was dramatically different from what players know today. As described in the Venture Beat article, the original revenue model utilized the same principles of their original shareware model for Epic Pinball: give away part of the game for free, but require a payment to access the full game. The community was outraged and Digital Extremes quickly learned that a less aggressive approach would serve to their benefit.

Still learning the ropes for what modern free-to-play required for success while managing the new challenges of self-publishing, Digital Extremes experimented with what players would be interested in playing and where the potential was for improving their revenue model. Gameplay came first, monetization came second. One of the tried and true methods of other successful F2P games was to introduce conversion points based on instant gratification; you could play the game to earn something or you could pay to have immediate access to it. Equipment such as warframes or weapons could be acquired by playing the game and earning resources and then waiting on a crafting timer to unlock them or you could choose to pay for them and immediately use them. Another common model was to offer a subscription or otherwise buy-in point which grants special non-competitive gameplay perks such as additional character slots or boosters for acquiring in-game items.

By the time the open beta began, there were two major branches of the revenue model. First, players could purchase the premium Platinum currency used in the game with money. Platinum can then be used to purchase in-game items ranging from instant access of new equipment to additional inventory slots for your equipment. Second, the Founder’s Program created a buy-in point for players to show their support for the game and receive some in-game exclusives in addition to Platinum. The Founder’s Program was split into four tiers which all included Platinum, though higher tiers would grant access to Excalibur Prime, Skana Prime, and Lato Prime as well as a spot in the Design Council. The Design Council is a forum which the developers use to discuss upcoming content and give their Master and Grand Master Founders the opportunity to provide feedback and even influence development. New equipment is often opened up to naming suggestions and sometimes the Design Council even plays a hand in creating new content such as the Nova warframe and several of the augment mods for various equipment items.

The Founder’s Program offered exclusive items which did impact gameplay to some extent. The exclusive warframe and weapons offered through this system could not be obtained in any other way and to this date remain unattainable. Digital Extremes has made it clear they have no intention of ever releasing this content again out of respect for those who helped fund the game when the studio was struggling to stay afloat. There have also been other exclusive rewards which can no longer be obtained such as the Lato Vandal and Braton Vandal, but were not tied to a cash purchase. Ultimately, Digital Extremes has moved away from the idea of offering exclusive equipment behind a monetary transaction and the Prime Access Packs which succeeded the Founder’s Program operate more on the point of instant access to new equipment with exclusive cosmetic offerings on the side.

The premium currency of Platinum can be used in a variety of ways ranging from purchasing additional Inventory slots to directly buying new equipment. Some of these items can be acquired through gameplay, but there are also Market exclusives which can only be acquired with Platinum. For example, Weapon Slots cost 12 Platinum for 2 slots, but players cannot unlock these slots by playing the game. Cosmetic items such as syandanas or alternate equipment skins can only be acquired via Platinum through the Market. However, nearly all items which impact your combat experience in Warframe can be acquired by playing the game. There is not a single weapon which can be acquired from the Market which cannot also be acquired through gameplay for free.

Digital Extremes has a third avenue of generating revenue indirectly related to playing Warframe: a merch store. Fans can purchase posters, statuettes, and apparel from store.warframe.com. A few of these items even include in-game digital bonuses of Platinum or cosmetic items.

Pricing in Warframe

The pricing and payment structure used for Warframe does vary to some degree between the different versions of the game. The PC version operates a bit differently in regards to payment structure as opposed to how it has been done for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Warframe China has its own regional packages and pricing as well. On PC, players can opt to buy in at several different pricing tiers to acquire Platinum:

Platinum Purchasing Options
Tier Cost in USD Platinum Gained Platinum Per Dollar
T0 $4.99 75 ~15.0
T1 $9.99 170 ~17.0
T2 $19.99 370 ~18.5
T3 $49.99 1000 ~20.0
T4 $99.99 2100 ~21.0
T5 $199.99 4300 ~21.5
Prime Access Purchasing Options
Tier Cost in USD Platinum Gained Platinum Per Dollar
PA0 $49.99 1050 ~21.0
PA1 $79.99 2625 ~32.8
PA2 $139.99 3990 ~28.5

As for ways to spend Platinum, the pricing of various items ranges greatly. Some warframes are available for 75 Platinum, others for 375. Weapons are available between 65 to 250 Platinum. Weapon inventory slots cost 12 Platinum for 2, warframe inventory slots cost 20 Platinum for 1. There are also bundle packs of somewhat exclusive items which are rare in gameplay such as the What Stalker? bundle available for 800 Platinum or the Hunhow’s Gift bundle for 516 Platinum which contains cosmetic items which cannot be purchased individually.

There are also special events and sales which take place time to time for Warframe which can affect pricing of both purchasing Platinum and spending Platinum. Players on PC have a random chance to acquire a temporary discount of 20%, 50%, or 75% off of their next Platinum purchase whereas players on consoles have a chance to acquire discounts on purchasing items from the Market (excluding bundles). The difference for consoles is likely due to the way purchasing Platinum is done through Sony and Microsoft as part of their online platforms. Additionally, players on all platforms can take advantage of limited stock sales from the daily Darvo’s Deals on the Relays and occasionally promotional sales are launched for both purchasing Platinum or for specific items on the Market.

One of the earlier editorials here on TCN takes a closer look at the way certain categories of items are priced on the Market. Since the time of that article, several changes have been made to the Market, though many remain at their original price points. You can view the article here: “Analysis of Warframe‘s Market Prices“.

Concerns Regarding Pay-To-Win

When I try out a free-to-play game, I generally start looking for red flags. How much of this game is actually free? Does it feel like my time spent playing the game is being respected? Would I recommend this game to a friend? Would I recommend a friend to purchase something in this game? The revenue model of a F2P game is just as important as the gameplay in regards to retaining players. Ultimately, these games are competing against other revenue models as well. Pay-to-win (P2W) is when a game has features or content which can be purchased to make the player far more powerful than those who do not pay — the biggest red flag of them all.

In my opinion, Warframe does not have any red flags in regards to pay-to-win design, though there are a few aspects of the game which raise concerns for my general checklist. The core gameplay design in Warframe is completely available for free and because it is a primarily cooperative game, there is very little in consideration P2W design. You cannot buy “power” directly from Digital Extremes.

Supercharged Expectations

When the Warframe closed beta began, one of the major conversion points for getting a player to make a purchase was the “Supercharge” system. A free player would be limited to 30 maximum modding capacity whereas a paying player would have up to 60. Players responded negatively to the system as it seemed like an aggressive reach for money; the doubled modding capacity was considered a basic necessity for progressing within Warframe. In response to overwhelming community feedback, Digital Extremes reevaluated their approach and sought to improve the situation. A free option for acquisition was added in the form of the Alert system.

Orokin Catalysts and Orokin Reactors, often referred to by the fans as “potatoes” due to their appearance, have always blurred the line of free-to-play design in Warframe. Though these items could now be obtained through the Alert system, players did not have any means of seeking them out directly or earning them through an investment of time. The alert system is a global one; an Orokin Catalyst is just as likely to go on Alert at 02:00 UTC as 20:00 UTC and typically only occurs twice a month. In regards to the short term, it is unlikely that a player could expect to encounter one of these rare Alert missions within the time frame they would try out the game and reach a point where the double capacity was essential to progressing. The community built third-party tools which would filter the Alerts and notify them when a desired reward was up for grabs to help one another be able to grab these essential items for free.

Several improvements were made over time in regards to the acquisition methods for these items:

  • Gift From The Lotus Alerts began popping up roughly once every two weeks following the Devstream broadcasts which would award either an Orokin Reactor or Orokin Catalyst (and now occasionally other items as well).
  • Events began to pop up to introduce new content or challenge the players with the supercharged spuds offered as rewards.
  • The login system (now Daily Tribute) has a small chance of rewarding players with an Orokin Reactor or Orokin Catalyst for logging in each day.
  • The Alert system was expanded upon with the Invasion system and included a chance for these items to come up as rewards.
  • The Stolen Dreams quest offers an Orokin Catalyst as a reward. There is not a quest which provides an Orokin Reactor.
  • Sortie missions have a chance of awarding these items upon completing the set of missions.

The most significant improvement to the acquisition of Orokin Catalysts and Orokin Reactors was an indirect one: the trading system. After openly deliberating about the idea of the very first Devstream (32:47) on February 27, 2013, the general consensus shared by the developers was that they did not want to create an auction house mentality in regards to exchanging items such as mods. Nearly 9 months later, the trading system was implemented in Update 11 on November 20, 2013. The trading system allowed players to exchange a variety of items in a free market with the only limitation being a mandatory Credit cost to complete a trade and a daily limit for the number of trades. Players could also exchange Platinum with one another. By allowing players to effectively earn Platinum through playing the game, they alleviated the pressure of having to spend money to acquire these items.

Though still somewhat on the line between free-to-play and pay-to-win design, the trading system presented a way for players to acquire the Orokin Catalysts and Orokin Reactors without having to spend money. However, it is important to note that Platinum received from promotional codes cannot be traded. Only the Platinum acquired through a direct purchase can be used to trade with, meaning at some point someone did pay for the Platinum used by a free player.

The Death Tax

If you were to die in a mission while playing Warframe, you’ll quickly discover the option to revive. For the majority of Warframe‘s still-short history, the revive system offered yet another way of spending Platinum. Up until Update 18, the revive system worked by giving players an allowance of 4 revives per day per warframe. If you used up all 4 revives, you would either have to wait until the next daily reset or pay 3 Platinum per revive token. You could only have up to 4 revive tokens at any given time, but you could purchase as many as you deemed necessary.

Reviving is by no means, nor has it ever been, a vital part of the gameplay experience. Death was always intended to be a punishment and was never a requirement to complete a mission. If you were out of revives, it would automatically fail a Solo mission on your next death, but it was still possible to complete missions without dying at all. Update 18 changed the way reviving worked in a significant way: You now have a minimum of 4 revives to use per mission and the option to purchase additional revive tokens was removed entirely. Additionally, each revive would cost 10% of the experience gained in a mission.

I would not consider this a pay-to-win design, even in its initial iteration. After all, it is quite common to complete a mission without dying at all. This change was a positive one that removed what could be considered a trap to get newer players to spend Platinum before having a good understanding of what the currency is used for.

The Power of Vanity

Digital Extremes dove into the world of premium cosmetic items and introduced alternate helmets for the warframes as well as new skins for weapons early on in development. Originally these alternate cosmetics also provided stat bonuses for the warframes and weapons. Players could pay with Platinum to obtain these items instantly or alternatively they could wait patiently for an Alert mission with the item to spawn and then craft it. The stat bonuses were designed as a positive/negative to create a sense of balance. You could gain 5% swing speed for a melee weapon, but lose 10% channeling efficiency. You could improve your warframe’s casting range by 15%, but lose 5% of its maximum health.

Eventually the stat bonus incentives were scrapped and newer additions of alternate helmets were entirely cosmetic. However, all existing helmets and blueprints for the items remained in the inventories of the players who had acquired them prior to these changes. Dubbed as “Arcane Helmets” and no longer available from the Market or from Alerts, players can trade with one another to acquire these limited quantity items. These Arcane Helmet variants still provide mixed stats, but cannot be used a base for Arcane Enhancements acquired from the Trials. Some weapon skins, such as the Fragor Brokk Skin, retained their stat bonuses and can still be acquired via the Market and Alert system.

Arcane Enhancements themselves present an interesting point of conflict in regards to allowing vanity items to influence your power. Originally, Arcane Enhancements were permanent installations on equipment (limited to Syandanas and Helmets). It wasn’t until several months later that the Arcane Distiller consumable was added to Syndicates which would allow players to safely remove installed Arcane Enhancements from a cosmetic item. The only way to acquire Arcane Enhancements or Arcane Distillers is through gameplay and there are syandana and helmet options available without having to spend Platinum.

Rare Versus Exclusive

In Warframe’s history there have only been a few instances of an item either being removed or otherwise becoming inaccessible. In most cases, as with the Prime Vault, acquisition methods are removed from gameplay but players are still free to trade items among one another. In other cases, exclusive items were only available by participating in events and could not be purchased. However, there was one instance of a Platinum-only exclusive aside from the previously described Founder’s Program: the Boar shotgun.

Update 10.3 removed the Boar, Ether Daggers, Gorgon, and Machete from the Market. Each of these items had their blueprints and Platinum purchasing options removed and eventually saw some level of reintroduction to the game… except for the Boar. Likely an oversight, the Boar remained accessible as part of the Wrecking Rhino Pack for 545 Platinum. It was not a particularly powerful weapon and was not a must-have by any means, but it was now only available through a Platinum purchase on the Market. Two years later, the Boar blueprint was reintroduced to the game as a potential drop from Drekar Trooper units.

There is an important distinction to be made in regards to the rarity of an item versus the exclusivity of an item. Currently there are not any weapons, warframes, or mods which can only be acquired through a cash or Platinum purchase directly from Digital Extremes. The only cash or Platinum exclusives available in Warframe are cosmetic in nature. There’s a case to be made in regards to the rarity some of the items available on the Market which can also be found in gameplay, but aside from the Orokin Catalysts and Orokin Reactors nothing truly enhances your power in a way that free players cannot.

Though Primed mods and Event mods are somewhat rare and have high Platinum trading values, they were never purchasable directly from Digital Extremes. Likewise, though the probability of acquiring a desirable Riven mod is astronomical, Digital Extremes is not selling those items directly to players. These would be examples of feeling as if your time is not respected, but not pay-to-win design.

The Cost of Warframe

Warframe is a free-to-play game through and through. There has not been a new warframe, mod, quest, or otherwise noteworthy addition to the core gameplay which was locked behind a paywall. There has not been a system introduced which requires a direct cash or Platinum purchase to use, though there are options to buy in to along the impatience factor. Digital Extremes has added new equipment, new tile sets, new quests, and so much other new content for the low price tag of $0 to play.

Though mostly in jest, many of Warframe‘s veteran players refer to the true endgame being “Fashion Frame” — to create your own unique look with the variety of cosmetic items made available. When you have all of the equipment and mods available in the game, the premium cosmetics become the last outlet for how to spend your Platinum.  Warframe has come a long way since the first cosmetic additions of alternate helmets and color pickers and now features a variety of cosmetic skins, attachments (armor and syandanas), sigils, emblems, and even decorations for your personal ship. The TennoGen program ramped up the quantity of available cosmetics significantly as well.

Personally, cosmetics have been one of the very few ways I’ve spent Platinum or made purchases in Warframe. I don’t feel the temptation of buying a new piece of equipment from the Market because I’m willing to invest the time to acquire those items through gameplay, but I’m definitely willing to pay for cosmetic items. If not for the cosmetic items offered on the Market, the majority of the Platinum I have would likely only be put toward unlocking more inventory slots as new equipment is added to the game.

This creates a bit of a problem for Digital Extremes’ revenue model: if players like me are not willing to purchase equipment we can acquire through gameplay for Platinum, how can they generate sales? If players can trade for Platinum, how many potential conversions will they miss because someone has acquired Platinum via trading as opposed to a direct purchase? Between Prime Access sales and general Platinum sales, Warframe has sustained itself for nearly four years and it is likely that Digital Extremes has found a viable balance for their revenue model.

Ultimately, the true cost of Warframe is the time you’re willing to invest in the game. Not just in the sense of working out the probability of acquiring a rare item, but all of the time you spend playing. Every time you join a public mission, you’re supporting Digital Extremes by breathing life into the game just by populating a squad. Every time you host a mission, you are supporting Digital Extremes by front-loading the burden of dedicated servers. Every time you make a trade, every time you chat with other players, every time you talk about Warframe outside of the game, you are creating value for Digital Extremes to benefit from.

There is definitely a conversation to be had about certain items and systems in the game which feel as if they do not respect our investment of time, but at its core Warframe fairly presents its content without a costing a dime.

Written By TGDM

Overly sarcastic video game enthusiast.

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