The Ascension of Warframe

Warframe, a free-to-start John Carpenter space opera, has become my latest obsession.

Think Monster Hunter in space. Every bit of gear is obtainable in-game, either dropping directly from an enemy, or dropping from a mystery-box relic (you earn by completing tasks). The ludic loop is simple: go places, shoot things, level up, get better gun, go places, shoot more things. Instead of hunting giant monsters, players instead co-operate to infiltrate facilities, to rescue comrades, to hold off against invasions, and to go fishing.

But also, to show off their frames.

See, while Warframe has plenty of opportunities to earn progress, you can’t buy swagger. Most of the colour pallettes are gated behind a microtransaction (of about five bucks’ worth of in-game currency). Because currency is tradeable, I traded away one of my extra warframes to get the Corpus pallette.

Right, Warframes. The titular Warframes are effectively different characters; 31 of them to collect so far, with different special active abilities, different passive abilities, and different playstyles. They also come in Prime variants (obtained via Relics, earned in-game); Primes have better base stats, making them viable for the endgame. I main Saryn Prime currently - her spore throw ability synergizes nicely with a flamethrower for fragging gobs of mobs.

Also, space doggies. As part of a story quest rather early-on, you’ll unlock your very own space doggie. They’re cute, can be petted, and have a knack for opening locked containers. Not unlike my poodle - who can sniff out a chocolate a mile away.

What’s the fuss about Warframe?

In the gaming community, Warframe has been lauded as an example of how to do Free to Play right. From longtime industry journos like Jim Sterling to mid-size outlets like Polygon, critics applaud Warframe’s restraint. Unlike 2017’s raft of pay-to-win AAA titles (looking at you, Battlefront II) you know exactly what you get. Everything is obtainable with a bit of elbow grease. No lootboxes, no crates, no keys. It’s a model straight out of 2010, and Warframe is raking in the green because of it.

Digital Extremes - the Warframe developer - is nominally owned by Sumpo Foods, a China-based chicken distributor. In what was almost a reverse-takeover, DE gained a publishing arm for China. The Warframe experience is… the same, with the exception of a major story quest (The Second Dream).

And DE is active, hosting weekly Q&A streams right out of their London, Ontario offices. DE moderators are right cheeky chaps in the regional lobby chat, trading banter.

It’s almost like DE cares