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Warframe and its developer, Digital Extremes, are entering a new world. The MMO shooter has managed to remain a hit for years, thanks to its free-to-play accessibility and steady stream of new content. A major update, The Duviri Paradox, is coming out later this year and will add a new open-world environment with rogue-lite elements.
Digital Extremes is also working on a new game, Soulframe, a fantasy-based MMO. Keeping one online game going is hard enough. Having two MMO hits is a taller order.
With Soulframe’s development comes a shift in Warframe’s team, as some veterans are moving onto the new game. With this, Rebecca Ford is now Warframe’s creative director. Ford has been with Digital Extremes since 2011, most recently working as the live operations and community director. She’s also the voice of Lotus, the character who guides players throughout the game.
I had a chance to talk with Ford ahead of Tennocon 2022, which took place on July 16. I asked her about her new role and the future of Warframe. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
War never changes … well, maybe a little
GamesBeat: You’re now the creative director for Warframe. How does that feel? What are your goals?
Ford: Everything I learned from the community and working with the dev team so closely over 10 years, and just putting it in a way that translates into updates and changes that feel very impactful for the future of Warframe and what people like about the game. Trying to nail it as much as I can, but also hopefully having enough experience with the community that, for the moments that are me finding my footing in this new, much more high pressure role, that there’s going to be a lot of respect and understanding that it is a transition period, and we’re all in this together. That’s where my heart and soul are.
GamesBeat: Is the team simply splitting into two to support development of both games, or are you hiring to expand both teams?
Ford: We are hiring. We are hoping to get as many folks as we can interested in both our sci-fi and our fantasy endeavors. We have a really early development lead on Soulframe. There’s a tight strike team working on it. The team size there isn’t as big as Warframe yet, but we’re hoping to grow into that and see what we can do with some fantasy experts in our sci-fi realm.
GamesBeat: I imagine it’s pretty busy this time of the year when you’re thinking about TennoCon.
Ford: It is. It’s our seventh year doing it. There’s always a different series of challenges. The first year, the challenge was, is anyone gonna watch? The second year was, how do we make it better than the first year? Then you have that competition with yourself to make it an impactful event for everyone that cares about Warframe at all, or hopefully new people that care about it.
This year the challenges have been, now we’re doing a transition in the middle of it, so let’s see how we swing that. We started the transition in this new role of mine much earlier in the year. The team gave me a big trial period to figure things out with the team, which has been great. But this one has had a lot of back and forth about, can we even have our own staff watch the show due to COVID? There’s been a couple heartbreaks this week where another wave is happening in Ontario. I was about to see 200 of my teammates for the first time in two and a half years, and now we can’t. Those types of challenges are a bit more emotional, because you think you’ll have this live audience with just your team, who made it all happen, and then for safety I totally understand we can’t do it.
But then of course there’s actually the demo itself. We always do live gameplay, making sure that every bit that can be polished is polished for showing the version of the Duviri Paradox that we think is demo solid, and then actually coming back right away after making it all happen.
GamesBeat: Is it stressful getting ready to show off so much new content?
Ford: It would have been if we didn’t make the Duviri Paradox work, because of the power and the world that Warframe is. This is sort of a different time and place in Warframe’s canon timeline, where we’re now going to be able to leak everything Warframe into this world that just plays at a different pace. It is a rogue-lite, and it is Warframe. If you can imagine everything you know about Warframe, from the amount of weapons we have — we have more than 300 weapons, 50 Warframes, 500-plus mods, all these different things, and we’ve thrown them all in a funnel where players get to choose what ones make their build for that day, and for what the game asks of them in a given loop or cycle for the open world experience. We’re really trying something different, but none of it would work without the nine years of legacy content we have to make it work in this shard universe where you’re starting from a very different power level.
GamesBeat: You’ve mentioned that The Duviri Paradox has rogue-lite elements. Just how far is it going in that direction?
Ford: There’s a lot I can say and a lot I can’t say, but from a very conceptual point, for players who are familiar with our franchise, we want players to know and to feel that when they approach this, there’s going to be an overarching progression that allows them more control over what the world will throw at them.
Usually when we do open worlds, we do something called syndicates, where you’re hitting a daily cap to turn in and rank up. We’re treating it a little differently this time. We’re going to let the player progress as a player in the world. That allows them more control of what happens as they engage more with the content. I don’t want to put labels to it just yet. Some players would be able to sniff out exactly what we’re going to do. But there will be progression points where players will just be given a wider arsenal to choose from in certain moments.
There’s a beat in the TennoCon reveal where your drifter walks into a room with three starter Warframes. That’s really to convey a couple of things in terms of where this could fall in the game, or the fact that you will be making choices like that in your gameplay experience. If you can imagine, the more you play, the more choices you’ll have available to you to fine tune and carry over your experience.
GamesBeat: Does progression in The Duviri Paradox tie back into the main game?
Ford: Yeah, we’re going to have some bigger picture unlocks for the main experience. There will be gear and other things that you’ll bring back with you. There’s also a couple little, I would say more RPG-like things that we’re hoping to bring back as well. There’s a little home we have in a certain part of the game, so having more for that could come from this as well.
GamesBeat: I enjoyed seeing some puzzles in the open world.
Ford: It’s really different for us. For the first time we’re like, okay, what can we put in an open world that will be a little activity that someone can do to get XP or get a perk or something for a given play session? We’re trying to seed the open world with little optional things people can do to contribute to perks for that play session.
We play a lot of open world games, and we’re trying to either make them feel as tight and simple as the Korok Seed puzzles from Breath of the Wild, or in the case of the quest one that you saw, where you have your younger mirror dimension self from a different time and place, that one is a very narrative-focused one. There’s a pretty big breadth of complexity. The quest one you saw is of course probably the top end complexity for the narrative, but we’re doing some other little ones just so a player can engage with it, unlock something on that run. Maybe they’ll get another role or boon that a player who didn’t engage with that didn’t get.
GamesBeat: You’re also playing with color a lot in this world. Everything is black-and-white unless you start messing with things. How did this idea come around?
Ford: The first thing they had to do is nail down the artistic direction and what color actually means and how important it is to player agency. Once you build and germinate a seed of intention, then the tech follows. Luckily our tech team and our art team and our technical artists were able to make color on command really work. And then of course you need your entire art team to build a world of color underneath your depth layers, so you can activate it when you want the player to activate it. Which all worked out very nicely. For just general choices and where that’s going to go, the finale of color, let’s say, will have a lot of splendor and moments for the player to really feel like they made a difference in their lives in this world.
GamesBeat: Before even Duviri launches, you have another update, Veilbreaker, coming out.
Ford: Well, it’s a huge surprise, because no one had any idea we were doing it. Getting to show a trailer for a very, very tailored post-New War experience for players is quite exciting. I like surprising people with where we’re taking things. Veilbreaker for me is an update that brings back the excellence of the New War. The New War was a solo campaign, four hour quest, that took players through a ridiculously detailed series of assets and characters and world. And then you’ve done the New War. We wanted to make sure everything that stood out in that update gets a second pass in the player’s hands in a way that makes sense narratively and that is fun to play. Bring the multiplayer in for the boss battles with the Archons, and then bring a beloved character back, who is named Kahl-175. He is back. He’s going to–players will get to play as him again and do some operations that allow us to further the Veilbreaking cause. Because somehow, Veils are still out there and people are still supporting the enemy faction.
GamesBeat: The game is getting ready to introduce its 50th Warframe. So out of all of those frames, which one is your favorite?
Ford: Oh, Lord. You’re trying to make my first week as creative director. Well, not literally my first week, but you’re going to make this dramatic. But right this very second in time, as though time stood still, it would be Protea right now. I just think she’s super fun. She has gadgets. She has power. She’s beautiful and powerful, and I love her.