Interview: Digital Extremes Creative Director Steve Sinclair on Why You'll Want to Suit Up in 'Warframe'

The Darkness II was one of the most visually interesting and engagingly scripted shooters in recent memory. Can Digital Extremes work that same kind of magic with a PvP online shooter? That was one of the questions that I had for Warframe Creative Director Steve Sinclair, who walked me through the game's complicated development history (it's been around in some form or another since 2003), how Digital Extremes plans to stand out from the rest of the free-to-play pack, and precisely why gamers will be excited for the weaponized power suits that give Warframe its title.

MTV Multiplayer: So why did Digital Extremes decide to get into the F2P shooter arena?

Steve Sinclair: Warframe is an idea we kept coming back to - we actually used it as the basis for a tech demo back in 2004. CNN carried the story on TV and I remember laughing manically at the banner they put below the footage: "Game of the Future?" It was an exciting time but we slammed into a wall. Publishers wanted contemporary war games. They said Sci-Fi wasn't popular enough to invest in. We had to shelve it.

Fast forward to now. Digital Extremes is still independent. We've got amazing console projects here that are massive and awesome. But this F2P market has begun to flourish and we understand why. Our company history started in shareware back in the mid-90’s. Similar to shareware, F2P gives us a chance to do something directly with an audience. It's not winner-takes-all stakes with one shot or bargain bin death. I see bitching and moaning about how F2P is bad for gaming but if y'all just want more sequels then maybe you'll take a pass on this. If you want to be a Space Ninja with a Machine gun, sign up!

Multiplayer: How does Digital Extremes feel like Warframe can differentiate itself from the crop of arena-based shooters?

Sinclair: Well the arenas we have are way better. Vast, prismatic laser grids that orbit... oh wait, cancel that. No arenas in Warframe! We're a shooter, but Warframe is more like Diablo than Quake. Squads of players run raids together. They board ships that are procedurally configured. You're always seeing something new, very much the opposite of arenas. You have to think on your feet because the patterns are changing. Sure, you're shooting tons, but you're always blasting with your chosen Warframe's powers, slicing heads off with your swords and collecting mad loot. You're leveling up and hunting for ultra rare artifacts. You're not running patterns waiting on pickup respawns.

Multiplayer: How long has Warframe been in development?

Sinclair: A complex question given its history--I have word docs for the fiction going back to 2003. The shiny new F2P reboot has been in development for a year. We're a small team within Digital Extremes, but we all have that crazed glint in our eyes that I haven't seen in a long time.

Admittedly, most of the time has been spent designing genetic algorithms for making 'War' prefixed game names. We are hoping to license this technology to the rest of the world.

Multiplayer: Tell us a little about the combat structure in the game--what kind of missions will there be for players to participate in?

Sinclair: The hub of the game is your ship. It is from here you access the network of missions available and check out what your squad has been up to. Missions are in the style of what you'd expect from ninjas... Assassination, Sabotage, Espionage. They are arranged progressively, in a network, starting from the center and emanating outward to reveal the crazier harder stuff. Your squad boards the mission ship and goes to work. After fifteen minutes or so of mayhem and blood, you return with the spoils of victory and see the network open up more.

Multiplayer: Could you tell us a little about the Warframes themselves and how they're used in combat?

Sinclair: Play-test story: we were playing on this one ship and it was on emergency power. Red pulsing lights, flickering service lights, real James Cameron vibe. We gathered on the lift and as we're going down we're thinking the code that procedurally brings enemies in is totally broken. It's too quiet. Bottom of the lift, doors open - a dozen pair of glowing eyes in the dark. Machine guns blast but we're trapped in the elevator. We're all killed in seconds. We decide to give it another shot...

When you retry a procedural mission, you get a lower rating but the layout stays the same. Determined to rock this, we get to the bottom of the lift again and damn, there's even more! But this time we're frosty. Dave (Producer) is using the "Rhino" Warframe. He activates his Uber which is a crazy stasis-field stomp... a wave of energy washes over all the enemies as they all go into stasis. At the same time Geoff (Animator) has activated Push - all the slo-mo'd baddies get blasted backward and we clear the elevator and that's when the bullets and blades start to fly.

Multiplayer: How did the suits come to be the centerpiece of the game? Creatively, how was it attractive from a world-building and design perspective?

Sinclair: They are the "characters" of the game. They are the Roman Gods, the comic book heroes. They are technology artifacts from a lost era of technology and warfare. They are the reason we've made this FPS-y feeling game use a 3rd person camera. We're trying to build a game that is 'player story' at its heart so the fiction must have its seed in what the players do and how they impact the world.

Multiplayer: What are the weapons like? What was the vision for how players will be able to mess up their opponents?

Sinclair: Swords and guns. The vision is to take the original, almost tongue-in-cheek, concept of "Space Ninja" and build the game from that. The weapons are practical, ballistic based, to balance out how far out the WARFRAME technology is. The swords are there because a ninja must have a sword. There is a history and grace when you have a sword. They are absolutely devastating for close-quarters attacks.

Multiplayer: What kinds of hooks have you put in place for social elements and getting players to interact?

Sinclair: We have contact lists, messaging, gifting, join-in-progress type features. Squads ("Guilds") are another system that is huge for us. But you're dead if you don't do this stuff anyway. The most exciting we're working on right now (literally on my other monitor) is pushing the 'co-op' from the combat and putting it in the global mission structure. Given the entire player base a shared story and shared sense of goals and accomplishments. Co-op from the root to branch.

Multiplayer: I tend to associate your games with a strong storytelling component or at least these very fleshed out worlds worth exploring. To what extent has Warframe allowed your team to continue in that vein?

Sinclair: This is where the troubled past of the game turns into an advantage. We have a history and depth to the fiction that players can seek out if they're interested. From there the players will create their own stories of what happened during their missions. About something they saw that surprised them. About a snippet of history that made them see the game in a new light. Typing this, I realized this fiction is going to be even better now because, unlike our past concept, players will pull it from the world. We probably would have stuffed it down their throats last time.

Multiplayer: When can we expect to start playing Warframe?

Sinclair: Closed beta starts end of Summer! Sign up now or burn with envy at www.playwarframe.com!

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