Warframe isn’t the type of video game to dominate the news. In fact, even some gamers might not have heard of it.
But the online multiplayer action game made by Digital Extremes, headquartered in London, Ont., has been soldiering along for 10 years now, buoyed by a dedicated fan base from around the world.
“It’s not mainstream, even though it’s older and it’s outlived many games that have had way more buzz,” said creative director Rebecca Ford. “I think it’s due to our [aversion] to the spotlight that we continue to live in this little cohort of the gaming industry.”
Warframe‘s sustained popularity is a rarity in an industry where many online games can fizzle within a year or less. It’s rarer still for a mid-sized company based somewhere in Canada other than Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, where most large gaming studios have set up shop.
Roughly 2,000 fans packed the RBC Place in downtown London last week for TennoCon, the game’s annual fan convention — this one marking its 10th anniversary. It’s the first in-person TennoCon in three years, after going virtual in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The event — and the fan base themselves — is named after the Tenno, the heavily armed and mobile warriors that players control in Warframe. Think of them as sci-fi ninjas that wield guns, swords and magical abilities.
“Warframe is one of those games that’s as deep as an ocean. Even when it’s starting out, there’s just a lot going on,” said Cass Marshall, a reporter for the gaming website Polygon.
“It has a sort of Dune, Warhammer 40K post-sci-fi vibe where it’s less speculative and more just a far-future, pulpy sort of setting.”
Digital Extremes doesn’t disclose how many people play Warframe on a regular basis, but in 2021 it reported having 70 million registered players.
According to Steam Charts, a site that analyzes public player data, there are an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 concurrent Warframe players on PC at any given time. That doesn’t include players on consoles like Xbox, PlayStation or the Nintendo Switch.
Marshall credits the game’s popularity and longevity in part to its storytelling and steady stream of new and surprising expansions.
“Digital Extremes take these really big swings that I love. I think they do a lot of ambitious stuff,” they said.
John Petersons of Kitchener, Ont., attended TennoCon with his friends. He credits his continued interest in the game to the welcoming community of players and developers.
“If you’re a new player, it wouldn’t be that uncommon for someone to just give you something that would actually cost the premium currency because they’re like, ‘Hey, glad to have you here,'” said Petersons, who claims to have logged over 3,000 hours in the game.
Local London talent
Digital Extremes was founded in 1993. Its early claim to fame was co-creating titles like Epic Pinball and Unreal Tournament with U.S.-based Epic Games, the makers of Fortnite.
Ford, an Ontario native and graduate of Western University in London, estimates that about half of the studio’s approximately 500 employees are based in London; the rest work remotely out of the U.S. and further abroad.
“We have a lot of local talent. A lot of people, you know, London proud, born and raised here or [an] even smaller city nearby,” she said.
Nearby universities and colleges have co-op programs that serve as a direct pipeline for students interested in game design to apply to work at Digital Extremes, she added.
“We take it very seriously that there are people locally that want to work for us.”
Since December 2020, Digital Extremes has been wholly owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent.
“Everyone that I’ve talked to that’s worked [at Tencent] understands what we’re doing and, you know, why we take certain creative choices,” said Ford.
If anything, Digital Extremes’ output is set to increase. At TennoCon they debuted new preview footage of Soulframe, a fantasy game counterpart to Warframe. And it’s set to publish Wayfinder, a new online multiplayer game they’ve created in partnership with Texas-based studio Airship Syndicate.
Strong community bonds
Community director Megan Everett was born in London and studied marketing at Fanshawe College in the same city. She didn’t know the Digital Extremes studio existed until she met Ford about 10 years ago; she’s been working there ever since.
“I think I was of that classic mindset of like, you can’t make money playing video games. That’s what my parents told me growing up, [when I was] playing Zelda in my basement,” she said.
Today, she leads the studio’s community outreach, which includes hosting regular livestream chats that connect the design team with players.
That openness has long been credited as a major strength in maintaining the game’s fan base — and occasionally placating players if they have a complaint.
At TennoCon, the audience gasped and cheered during the main-event panel, which included announcements of minor updates to half-hour-long demonstrations of upcoming Warframe content and the as-yet unreleased Soulframe.
“I always tell people it is the most rewarding day of my entire career, and we get to do it every single year. And now that it’s back in person, [it] is even more rewarding,” said Everett.