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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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Sorry Fortnite, but Warframe just might be the best free-to-play game on Switch

Speaking with Digital Extremes and Panic Button before the big launch

[Update: After our story went live, Digital Extremes reached out to Destructoid to further clarify the early days of Warframe, offering the following quote:

We’ve been making games for 25 years; we always knew we had something special with the original idea around Dark Sector and we took a big chance on it. The initial reaction to it confirmed we were right so we’ve laid everything on the line to grow it since 2012 learning from any mistakes along the way and working with our community throughout has been a key success factor.”]

In 2013, developer Digital Extremes released two very different games. One was Star Trek, a licensed adventure game that hit the market in time for Star Trek Into Darkness. The other was Warframe, an original IP — the company’s first since Dark Sector — that would end up being the company’s first attempt at a free-to-play game. Neither title set the world on fire at launch, but where Star Trek fans moved on quite quickly from the game, people playing Warframe decided to stick it out. Because this was an all-or-nothing gamble for the 20-year-old company, Digital Extremes stuck it out with them.

“A lot of the lessons we’ve learned, we’ve learned through mistakes,”Mark Ollivierreof Digital Extremes explained to me. “We’ve done a lot of things early on that we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were like, ‘This is how our game should work, right?’ and our customers and player base were like, ‘This is terrible and you should change this’ so we just listened.”

Ollivierrewas in San Francisco recently with fellow Digital Extremes employeeDoug Perryand Adam Creighton of developer Panic Button. In a hip office space in SOMA, the trio was showing off the upcoming Switch build of Warframe, which is now in its fifth year on the market. It had a rocky start. No publisher wanted any part of it. The company had to lay people off to pay for it. And early reviews weren’t exactly kind (we scored the Xbox One port of Warframe a 6.0).

But the fans didn’t abandon the game when it didn’t meet their standards right out of the gate, and they were vocal about what they wanted from it. As evident nearly every day in this industry, every developer or publisher has their share of vocal fans, but not every company, like Digital Extremes, put all their eggs in a single basket. While many companies say they listen to fans, the team at DE made player input a priority, and it’s a decision that has allowed the game to grow into a title with more than 38 million registered users.

“It’s definitely been that relationship, that direct line of communication we have with our players, that’s allowed us to iterate and refine systems,” Ollivierre said, “and the entire game as a whole to ensure we’re providing something that is satisfying to them. First and foremost, we want to make sure they are happy; they’re pumped with what we’re doing. It’s a reciprocal relationship. When we do something they like, they support us and it just feeds that machine.”

A good relationship with fans is something developer Panic Button is familiar with. Since last year, the 40-person team has made a name for itself with Switch gamers, providing excellent ports of Bethesda titles Doom and Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, as well as Rocket League and the upcoming Doom Eternal and maybe Wolfenstein: Youngblood(“We have a great relationship with Bethesda,” Creighton said when I pressed him on the latter title.). Creighton, general manager of Panic Button, says fans have been greatly appreciative of the work the developer has done in expanding the selection of games for Nintendo hardware.

“We got a great letter a few months ago where somebody sent us a thank you note,” he said. “It said, ‘Hey, I just want to say thank you because I am a person who can only afford one console and I’ve always been a Nintendo person, but now I’m able to play Rocket League and all my friends who are gamers play it on other consoles, so now we’re able to talk about the same games. You’ve actually enhanced our social circles.’ I actually expect that to happen with Warframe in a big way because, 38 million registered users, I think there is going to be a lot of communicable and social ecosystem growth once this thing hits the hardware and it hits at a great time.”

Warframe releases for Nintendo Switch on November 20. A subscription to Nintendo Switch Online will not be necessary to play the game, as is standard with F2P titles on the system. Warframewill have its own chat channel in the game, so players won’t have to bother with the Switch smartphone app. There will be multiple controller options, including motion controls for both the Joy-Con and Pro controllers. And, it brings with it nearly five years of content, everything up to theMask of the Revenantupdate from over the summer.

The game’s most recent update, the open-world Fortuna expansion that launched on PC earlier this month, is currently scheduled to arrive on Switch next year and the two companies are expecting parity between the console versions later in 2019 (just don’t expect cross-play any time soon). It’s a lot of content, and with Panic Button’s resources split between projects, a lot of work as well. However, Creighton made it clear that challenges like porting Warframe to Switch are what his company thrives on.

“On both sides,” he explained, “between Digital Extremes and Panic Button, we both like to take on challenging projects and we just want to make something special and make a good product for the hardware. I’m a really big fan of the Nintendo Switch and it’s such a purpose-driven piece of hardware. It is made to be on the TV and on the go and we’ve been able to create a really fun, fluid cooperative experience for four players on it.”

The term, “fun, fluid cooperative experience for four players,” is said multiple times throughout the interview by all three parties, as though it’s a talking point they all memorized for the day of the interview. It’s also an incredibly accurate description of Warframe running on Switch. Four Switch consoles were on hand for the showcase and I was given a 20 minute or so crash-course on what the game had become over the past half-decade. 20 minutes isn’t nearly enough to wrap one’s head around the combat, let alone the how the game is played, but it did give me a good enough look at how the game runs.

In short, it runs fucking phenomenally. While I can’t guarantee it’ll play the same when servers go live on November 20, this hands-on was indeed fun and fluid. The build, which was not the retail build of the game, ran at a near consistent 30 frames-per-second — which is Panic Button’s goal — only dipping slightly in more open areas. In the heat of combat, it was steadier than a Navy SEAL’s trigger finger. Without having to worry about stuttering or dropped frames, I was able to focus on the action and just how damn beautiful this game is.

Warframe runs on Digital Extreme’s proprietary Evolution engine. Creighton told me getting it running on the Switch was a smooth experience — his team has been working on the game for less than a year — and getting it running as perfectly as it is has been a collaborative experience. Not just between Digital Extremes and Panic Button, but Nintendo as well.

“They’ve been extremely receptive to the product,” Ollivierre said, “and they’ve gone out of their way to make sure we’re not altering or removing anything from Warframe to make sure it fits on their system. They’re working on their policy and with their backend tech team to make sure Warframe is, in its entirety, represented on Switch.”

It’s stressed multiple times that Warframe on the Switch will have everything that is found on the other consoles, with the Fortuna expansion again coming at a later date. This includes the microtransactions. Warframe does not feature any loot boxes. Instead, Digital Extremes sells Premium Prime Access Packages that offer “pimped out” versions of the Warframes, with new packages arriving every three months or so for a limited time. There are also packages that are specific to PS4 and Xbox One players. While a Switch specific package won’t be available at launch, it is something both developers are looking to provide down the line.

“And all of that is based on the core philosophy that whatever you want,”Ollivierre explained, “you have a choice in Warframe. You can play everything for free, or you can buy if you don’t have as much time. So if you want to play through the whole game, spending every hour with it and you have the luxury to do that, you can. If you are someone like me who has a limited amount of time because you have kids, it’s like ‘Alright, maybe I’ll just purchase stuff and won’t farm for 20 hours to get it.’ The whole principle is being as fair as possible.”

Adding to that sense of fairness is a barter system in the game that allows players to trade resources between one another. It’s a system long-time players will no doubt have mastered by now, but for those like me who will be coming to Warframe for the first time on Switch – and make no mistake after previewing this game I am definitely downloading it for that long Thanksgiving weekend coming up – it may seem a little daunting. There’s fishing, mining crafting, story missions, different Warframes to collect; like many free-to-play titles, a lot of game is being thrown at players all at once. While both Digital Extremes and Panic Button are preparing to help players as much as they can with informational pages on their websites and Twitch streams that are Switch specific, the biggest aid to new players may come from that friendly, welcoming mass ofWarframe fanswho have been with the game since its inception.

As Ollivierre explained, “We actually have this new program called ‘The Guides of the Lotus’, which are players who are very high level, very experienced who can get in-game chat and cosmetics to show they’re a resource for players to talk to. So we’re going to be looking into.”

“It’s players taking care of players,” Creighton added.

For experienced Warframe PC players, you can migrate your account to the Nintendo Switch version at no extra cost. This will actually create a copy of your account, so you are free to continue to play on PC after you migrate. Just know that, like with the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s one-way migration only.

I’ve played a lot of free-to-play games over the past several years and I’ve tried my hand at those available on Switch, and I really haven’t experienced something like Warframe. Panic Button has really done the Switch community a service with how well it has ported over graphically intensive games without compromising on fun. Doom is fun on Switch, Rocket League is fun on Switch, and so is Warframe. I have no doubt Digital Extremes made the right choice when it contracted Panic Button to produce this port.

Adam Creighton told me he believes there is still a lot of room to get the most out of the Nintendo Switch and, honestly, my money is on Panic Button being the studio that pushes the hardware the furthest. If you want to know why it is I feel that way, download Warframe on November 20 and see for yourself.

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