Digital Extremes has been reaping the rewards of self-belief for over a decade. Thanks to Warframe, the company managed to establish itself as a major player in the difficult and tumultuous live-service market, and ten years and 54 Warframes later, they are still going strong. What originally started as a risky play to seek crowdfunding after investors gave them the cold shoulder has turned into a beloved game with a player base in the millions that shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
For those not in the know, the game centers around the titular Warframes, advanced weapons systems that carry all manner of incredibly powerful weapons and harness space magic to murder their way across the galaxy. Veteran players might shudder at such a description, but it is honestly hard to get into any of the details without dropping a spoiler for something lore-related. They represent the player’s central experience in the game, acting as a nexus point between the highly enjoyable and fluid combat mechanics and deep lore that keeps the faithful coming back again and again.
With the next Warframe, Dagath, arriving in the game on October 18 as part of the Abyss of Dagath update, I got to chat with Megan Everett, Digital Extremes’ Live Operations and Community Director, about what it takes to get an idea from out of the designer’s heads and into the game.
Dagath, like many other Warframes, began in the mind of Keith Thompson. Thompson is a freelance designer who has worked with Digital Extremes since the earliest days of Warframe, and his influence and inspiration are all over the game.
“I mean, for Dagath specifically, their concept is a classic Keith Thompson concept. I think we have a nice little backlog of Keith Thompson Warframe concepts that he just keeps turning out, and we save them, and we look at them when we’re looking ahead at the year,” says Everett. Dagath actually started life as a Warframe codenamed Ichabod, where one of the thematic roots was the idea of expressing regret for departed glory. This tied into the somewhat forsaken and macabre themes of Halloween, so it just made sense to the team to work on Dagath and get her release-ready for the spooky season.
Dagath is an instance of the right Warframe matching up with the right time, coming from a source that has influenced many Warframe designs. While it will often make sense to tie specific Warframe releases to certain updates, it’s not always like that, however.
“If we have the concept art that’s already created and it fits the theme of the update that we’re doing, we’ll play with that and move forward with it. But there’s also the other route where we have a lot of people here at Digital Extremes who are very creative. That’s how Gauss came about. One of our designers was like, ‘I would love to see a motorcycle Warframe,’ and actually went from the angle of the abilities first. How it would be really cool if they went Redline and, you know, their bodies changed, and everything about them changed.”
One of the most important aspects of working on the new Warframes is knowing when the time is right to release them. Some updates are much bigger than others, introducing multiple new mechanics or areas, and a new Warframe might end up lost in the mix if the theme doesn’t match up well. As such, there is a constant flow of Warframes in production, with dozens of potential ideas floating around to pick from. “We have already started working on, I think at this point, we have the next two war frames figured out,” says Everett. “They’re already in the process of being sculpted, thinking about their abilities based on when they’re going to be coming out. So we know at least the next two.”
There are actually so many potential Warframe designs floating around that not even Everett herself has seen them all, and she can be surprised by some of the designs she comes across when planning for future releases is underway. “I had to go through all of the Keith Thompson concepts for my art panel at TennoCon, and I sent one to Reb that I was like, have you ever seen this concept before?” The Reb in question is Rebecca Ford, Creative Director of Warframe, lovingly referred to as Space Mom by the playerbase due to her voice work as the Lotus, a central figure in Warframe’s ever-expanding story. For those curious, she had never seen the design either. So, if you are worried that the team at Digital Extremes might someday run out of ideas for new and interesting Warframe designs, you can put that particular worry to bed.
Getting Warframes from their original concept to a finished product is not always a smooth process, and sometimes, the design team needs to be willing to kill their darlings in order to arrive at something that will work. For the new Dagath Warframe, that meant giving up on one particular cool-sounding idea that just never got off the ground: the idea of a spectral face.
“Originally for Dagath, we wanted to do for her non-face to, at moments, almost have like a spectral face kind of appear. There’s definitely ideas that we have that were, ‘oh, that could be cool,’ but it just doesn’t really pan out.”
Over the course of a Warframe’s lifetime, things get even more complicated. All Warframes will end up getting a Prime version, often gilded with golden trim and just a little bit more powerful than the standard version. According to Everett, there is little consideration during the initial design process about what a Prime version might look like, and instead, the team will sometimes use the opportunity afforded by the Prime design process to subtly alter a Warframe’s look.
“If you look at Grendel Prime right now, like Grendel himself is like a big boy who likes to eat. People wrote meatball jokes! But his Prime, it’s got four tusks, like it’s very animalistic now. So I feel like we’ve kind of gone in a different direction over the years of making the Primes a really cool version of that Warframe, but also maybe taking it in a little bit of a different direction than it has been initially. So, yeah, the Warframes get created, and then once we start thinking about Primes, it’s like, ok, do we want to really amplify what it already has, or do we want to really kind of go left field with it?”
For ideas that might just stray too far from the base theme and look of a Warframe, there are always the hugely popular Deluxe skins, a range of skins that can often bring in guest designers to formulate something completely new for a Warframe. These can be incredibly important for some of the game’s older Warframes, as with designs more than a decade old, they can be a bit visually simple compared to newer, more ornate releases.
“Look at, you know, Excalibur and Nyx. They’re essentially copies of each other but with a few differences on them, and it’s like that’s kind of what we had to work with. Now it’s just like you could almost look at a Prime and not know what it’s of if you didn’t know the name of who the original Warframe was.”
All these factors have led to more than fifty Warframes that will appeal to a wide variety of players, and nearly everyone will have their favorite, even the developers.
“I know I go through phases personally,” says Everett when asked why her favorite Warframe is. “I think if I had to pick a favorite, my biased mind, heart, and soul would say Valkyr. I just adore her. Not because I voice her or anything, but I think she was just, I remember when we were creating her and when we wanted to go about the kind of just hysteria behind her and just pure malice and, you know, her story with Alad V, which is very tragic but fuels the way she is. I was really drawn to that.”
Ultimately, the process of designing a Warframe is long, complex, and quite delicate. Almost every team in Digital Extremes will touch upon a new Warframe, and they’ll contain a little part of everyone involved by the time they make it into the game. With luck and a lot of hard work, they will be embraced by the community and become a new favorite, offering a fun new style of play and more deep lore for us all to enjoy.
The Abyss of Dagath update for Warframe is out now on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch.