It took Warframe developer Digital Extremes just three months to get its free online shooter running on PS4. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with the team about the flexibility of Sony’s next-gen console.
Developed by Digital Extremes, Warframe is a free-to-play co-op shooter out now on PC. You can play it here.
The game is in development for PS4’s November launch, and will include cross-play with the PC version.
It took the studio just three months to get Warframe working on PS4 in time for E3 in June, thanks to the console’s PC-like architecture.
When asked to pitch Warframe to newcomers, Digital Extremes always tells people they can play as ‘Space Ninjas’. To be fair, it’s a strong pitch.
Plenty has been written about Sony’s aggressive approach to courting indie developers since PS4 was unveiled in February. It’s a transparent strategy, yet questions remain.
The company’s promise of self-publishing, Unity support and a step away from unreasonable submission fees almost sound too good to be true, sparking belief that there must be some kind of hideous catch lurking beneath the perfect smiles of Sony’s executive elite.
So when the opportunity to interview Warframe developer Digital Extremes arose, I asked if I could focus solely on the studio’s dealings with Sony, and made clear my desire to talk about the game’s porting from PC to PS4. The team was more than happy to oblige.
“They approached us actually,” creative director Steve Sinclair recalled of Sony’s interest in Warframe. “I guess it’s coming up to about four months ago. We were in our open beta and rocking the Steam charts there, and Sony got in contact with James, who’s the owner of the company and said, ‘Hey what would you think about bringing Warframe over to our next gen console?
“We had, probably, a 30-second conversation about if we should do it,” Sinclair added, and then, “[Sony] squeezed themselves to send us as many dev kits as possible and three months later we were on the [E3] show floor at PlayStation 4 showing Warframe playable.”
By its very nature, Warframe is the kind of release that would be unthinkable on PS3 or Xbox 360 – say – around the start of the current hardware cycle. Around 2005, free and online titles were strictly viewed as products of the home computer arena, but in 2013 however, the story is quite different.
With both PS4 and Xbox One architectures falling in line with what developers have come to expect when making games like Warframe for PC, there is no reason that free, online and monetised MMOs can’t exist in abundance in the console market.
Sony’s approaching of Digital Extremes shows that it’s keen to deliver new experiences on PS4, and to make clear that it’s not afraid of independently-developed, free releases. It’s also well aware of what MMO developers need in terms of updates, patching and monetisation support, something Sinclair was more than happy to divulge.
He explained, “It seems that Sony, at least with PlayStation 4 … I mean you can see Dust 514 there as well, so they’re obviously open to experimentation even on PS3, but it sounds with PS4 they were willing to give it a shot with a developer like us who doesn’t have a publisher. That was a big surprise, and an awesome one.”
”I was every surprised how fast we got up and running – I think Sony was as well. When we went to [E3] people said, ‘Holy smokes this is on PlayStation 4? It looks amazing.’”
“Historically it’s been a little easier with Sony,” said Sinclair of the company’s patching and update model,” and to be honest, so is the back and forth with Sony on how we’re going to update and make sure we’re handling the currency aspects of free-to-play. All of that stuff is a little bit of a ‘work-in-progress’, so I can’t give you 100% answers on some stuff.
“But from the sounds of it, that was the first big reluctance we had, which was, ‘Well does that mean we’re going to be treating the game like DLC?’ and ‘is the PS4 version going to fracture off from the main game because it’s only going to be updated every three months? When I talked to Sony at E3 they said, ‘No go for it, write down what you want.'”
Sinclair told Sony at the show that he wanted Warframe to be updated every week or two weeks, and that players would be able to team up with PC users using cross-platform. They agreed no questions asked. It surprised Sinclair as he initially feared there would be many political hurdles blocking his team’s ambition, particularly when cross-play was concerned. It was a non-issue for Sony.
While the age-old complaint of mouse and keyboard players being much faster than their joypad-wielding counterparts is reasonable whenever cross-play is mentioned, Sinclair advised me that PS4 does support both devices, but couldn’t say if Warframe would follow suit. However, he stressed that Warframe’s co-op focus should leave all players on an even keel regardless of input.
He also told me that the Digital Extremes team has been thoroughly impressed with the technical capabilities of PlayStation 4, and he was keen to stress just how the closely its architecture matched that of a PC. Without this common ground, Warframe might not have been playable on PS4 in time for E3.
“Warframe supported 64-bit and DirectX 11 for a long time,” Sinclair added, “and there’s a lot of commonality in that sort of architecture with what they’re doing on PS4. They’ve got a lot of cores on there, so, I was every surprised how fast we got up and running – I think Sony was as well. When we went to [E3] people said, ‘Holy smokes this is on PlayStation 4? It looks amazing.’
”Free-to-play has grown its acceptance in Western markets, and the company is radically different as a result. I think ‘free’ is going to continue to disrupt. It’s disrupted PC games and it will continue its way into the console space.”
“Maybe they were Warframe fans so they were just trying to appease us, but they said it was one of the best-looking games they saw at the show. In three months time; that’s a testament to how developer-friendly this version of PlayStation is. It’s absolutely awesome. What surprised me most is how kick-ass the GPU is – the graphics are super, super high-end.”
For all of the PlayStation 4’s technical grunt and the ease with which Sinclair’s team transferred the game to Sony’s platform, a troubling question remains.
How ready and willing is the console populace to accept free-to-play, monetised experiences that have largely existed on the PC format? He suggested that there may be some resistance, but that ultimately the scene will simply grow from here. “It’s hard to compete against ‘free’ for a lot of games,” Sinclair stated with a laugh.
“The reasons we did it were, we wanted to try something utterly independent without taking publisher money and do something where we controlled our own destiny. Maybe three or four years ago that would have meant taking a shot at an Xbox Live Arcade game, or a PSN game.
“But free-to-play has grown its acceptance in Western markets, and the company is radically different as a result. I think ‘free’ is going to continue to disrupt. It’s disrupted PC games and it will continue its way into the console space.”
Free-to-play on consoles is a relatively new notion, but I posed a potential concern to Sinclair; If this market does succeed on PS4, might it trigger a ‘gold rush’ similar to what we’ve seen in the PC space? Could this success inadvertently give rise to a slew of second-rate MMOs geared towards making a fast buck?
“I think we saw a gold rush on mobile, a free-to-play gold rush, a Facebook gold rush – all those sorts of things,” Sinclair replied. “Warframe comes at a time where now, the competition is heating up. We need to bring the graphical quality, we need to bring a richer experience.
“We can’t just slap a slot machine game mechanic on whatever and profit. So I agree, [free-to-play] is growing, it’s maturing, and it seems like ‘free’ for most games everywhere is kind of an inevitable thing.”
Interestingly – and I’m closing off this feature with something the fans might appreciate – the game’s concept started life as a sci-fi MMO called The Dark Sector. The Warframe of today casts players as the Tenno; an ancient race of space-faring warriors locked in a war against two human factions. You can watch Digital Extremes’ early concept trailer from 2000 here.
Those of you who played Digital Extreme’s 2008 blaster Dark Sector may have already recognised a link with its hero Hayden Tenno, but that’s just the surface of both games’ common threads. Sinclair explained that while developing The Dark Sector, the studio was repeatedly dissuaded by publishers to pursue the project as they felt it was too similar to Deus Ex.
In short, they wanted something like Call of Duty to distance the pitch from other space shooters like Halo. The end result – Dark Sector – was a militarised third-person shooter with a selection of watered-down sci-fi elements. It was fun enough but far removed from the studio’s original concept.
At the time Sinclair’s team found The Dark Sector to be a hard sell as an MMO back in 2000, but there we were, talking about the studio’s free online shooter gearing up as a launch title on PS4 this November without issue. The contrast in ideals and attitudes displayed by the industry in just over ten years shows how far market opinion has shifted.
As far as Sinclair is concerned, Warframe is the spiritual successor to Dark Sector, and it’s taken a lot of effort to see the vision come to life. Thanks to Sony’s willingness to accommodate the needs of Digital Extremes and the MMO archetype in general, PS4 is already looking like the format of choice for this new breed of online console experiences.
Warframe is out now on PC. You can play it here. It’s out on PS4 this November.