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Warframe developer on avoiding crunch: "it's not a sprint, it's a marathon"

"If we were a different game we'd be on Warframe 3 or 4 already."

Warframe has a seriously impressive update schedule. In the past year alone, Digital Extremes has put out an enormous open world expansion (and updated it), several remasters, a new limited-time event and, of course, new Warframes: all while simultaneously working on at least two upcoming expansions and a multitude of other projects.

It's an extraordinary output, particularly for a six-year-old game - and this continuous maintenance has almost certainly played a role in turning the title into a Steam powerhouse. But in light of recent reports covering unpaid overtime in the games industry - and perhaps in awe of the work done by Digital Extremes - players have raised concerns about Warframe's development, with one popular poster urging devs not to crunch earning nearly 6k upvotes on Reddit in November.

At this year's TennoCon, I sat down with Digital Extremes chief operating officer Sheldon Carter to discuss the ongoing development of Warframe's Empyrean expansion (and all its newly-revealed features), along with topics such as how the studio is avoiding crunch, Digital Extremes' future plans, and whether there will ever be a Warframe 2.

We've just watched this year's Empyrean demo, which showed the new squad link feature - I have to say, it instantly reminded me of Star Wars...

Sheldon Carter: Yeah, it definitely conjures that feeling, which is kind of what we want to capture - it's one of those holy grails of sci-fi fantasy.

How much of a feature will that be in Warframe, how much of an impact will it make?

Sheldon Carter: I think in the end it'll be the signature feature of Empyrean, being able to squad link with other people. I think that seeing a space battle and being a part of a giant battle - in space - is obviously amazing. Empyrean's one of those things where it's an idea we've had for 13 or 14 years: if you look at the first trailer of Dark Sector, it's a guy who looks like a Tenno raiding a ship and taking it. And that was about 15 years ago. So the idea has been with us forever - it's funny, it's like - how many different things will be the signature? Squad link is really cool, going and stealing a ship is really cool, but for us, I think what makes Warframe so great is the cooperative experience - as four players working in tandem. And when we can do that without it being 'oh we're gonna go to eight players playing in tandem, or 16 players playing in tandem' - instead, we've got these two really tight four-people squads that are working on their own objectives, that are helping each other for the greater good.

Sheldon Carter, COO.

How is development for Empyrean going, when can we expect to see the expansion?

Sheldon Carter: We only have one date in our calendar that's immovable at Digital Extremes, that's today [TennoCon], every other thing can shift around as need be. So we tend to take the approach of - it's a cliché to say -"we'll ship it when it's ready", but also we'll ship it as fast as we can, because we want the feedback to make it as good as we can be. The game is what it is because so many times we've put stuff out - we have this great relationship with the community - they give us feedback, we change it and then it becomes something great. By the time everyone experiences it, they're like "oh this thing's awesome", and then there's veterans from five years ago going "well you don't know what it was like when we first released it". But the fact that they stick with us, and they let us do those iteration cycles, gives us the feeling that we need to get it in their hands as quick as possible, so we can make it as good as it can be.

I think Rebecca [Ford, live operations and community director] said it was taking a while to develop this expansion as it's "big picture": are there specific things you've found difficult during development?

Sheldon Carter: The hardest thing about this is we have a team who - for seven years - has made a third-person, over-the-shoulder action game, and now we're making a space game. It's very very different, and it's hard to wrap your head around how that game is going to work like Warframe. For our staff who work so hard on this stuff, it's really a challenge to get everyone on board with the same creative vision for it - so Steve [Sinclair, director] has done an amazing job of communicating that, and that's why things like TennoCon are so good, because they're a forcing function for us to be like 'no we need to solve this', we need to make sure everybody understands what they're doing towards this goal. I'd say that was the biggest challenge, just shifting. So much of the gameplay inside Empyrean is still about four players using Warframe powers and using your Warframe, because you're going into these ships that are populated before you steal them, or you're down on the surface doing the core Warframe loop. But making sure that the space combat loop feels good, that is the hardest part.

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Something that's obviously a topic of discussion in the industry at the moment is crunch, particularly for service games that require regular updates. What is Digital Extremes doing to prevent crunch from happening, what's your perspective on it?

Sheldon Carter: Our perspective is we're very blessed to have a situation where we only have one immovable date every year, and that's TennoCon, so we just want to make sure we have something that we can deliver for our fans so we know where we're going with the game. Every other day other than that is fluid. Warframe is a game that's been around for seven years and the reason why we've been around for so long is that our development team - generally speaking - take the idea that it's a marathon, not a sprint. If we sprint, it's not going to work, it's not even a comment on crunch or the industry, it's literally for our business model to work, we have to treat it like a marathon. If we did treat it like a sprint, we'd be dead. If we start losing our key developers because it's too hard to work on this game, we wouldn't.

Would you say being transparent with the community and keeping them informed of progress plays a big part in helping prevent crunch?

Sheldon Carter: Oh yeah - sometimes they get hungry, or they get upset sometimes because they want new content and they want it, but I think the relationship we have with them allows us to say - "oh sorry, this isn't going to come". We have dev streams with them every two weeks where we update them on things, and all the time it's like "I'm sorry, it's not going to come right away" - but we're still going to try to give you new stuff that's interesting and cool, it just might not be that crazy update you wanted.

The anti-crunch poster originally uploaded by user Spacesheepie.

Do you think this relationship with the community and the "marathon" approach to live service development is something others in the industry could learn from?

Sheldon Carter: I'm hesitant to say, because I think every game is different. I personally lived in the classic build-and-release cycle for a really long time, and I know that's incredibly hard to manage and to figure out and to meet deadlines, so I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for every developer that's in a different position than we are. We're in this great one, so I love it.

How long do you envision yourselves working on Warframe, do you think it will continue for a really long time, would there ever be a Warframe 2?

Sheldon Carter: Warframe 2's an interesting question. I think if we were a different game we'd be on Warframe 3 or 4 already, we would have re-released a few times with some of the crazy things we've done. I think as long as we're still interested, and things like Empyrean being what we've always wanted to do... it reinvigorates the whole team. Like I said, we had to get on board with the fact that we're making a game with spaceships and space shooting and it's going to be a core system - you're going to upgrade it, it's not just surface-level stuff: it's deep game systems. I think all of a sudden that changes us to be like... "ok, well I'm really interested in that". As a developer, now I can spend two years working on a space game, while maybe somebody else is working on the core Warframe stuff, or on Warframes... so I think it's cool because it's such a big game and there's so many areas that people can get invested in. It's a chicken and the egg situation, but if the game wasn't so big, we'd probably get sick of it sooner, but because it's so big, we keep being able to find new things for us to attach to it.

Is Digital Extremes working on anything else other than Warframe at the moment?

Sheldon Carter: Not internally.

Are there any plans to start new IP in the future or is all focus on Warframe for now?

Sheldon Carter: Anything's possible, but I can tell you that right now our entire development team is focused on Warframe.

There's been a lot of remastering work going on, what's next in the pipeline for that?

Sheldon Carter: One of the things we're showing tonight is the upgrade to the engine - so having that basically gives a weird remaster to the whole game without us even touching assets. That said, there is a team that's already working on a new remaster, we're not revealing that just yet.

What sort of changes are being made to improve the new player experience? (Aside from the new beginning cinematic to provide players with a clearer introduction.)

Sheldon Carter: So basically there's spillover from that - as soon as we release this new cinematic, people are going to see this story intro to the game, so now we have to take you back through that, we have to take you with that new frame that you get in that cinematic, you have to track it back - you have to say "ok, what was the village in Cetus and how can we use that to be the way to on-board you onto the systems"? Basically, it's a re-do. Maybe Captain Vor will still be a part of it, because he's such an iconic character in the game, but it can't be this kind of "oh, you found a Liset and we're gonna take off" - we're literally just going to re-do the whole thing to get people started again.

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Ford also said in an interview that Digital Extremes is open to putting Warframe on The Epic Games Store, if that were to happen could you guarantee it would function the same way it does on Steam, and that it wouldn't become an Epic exclusive?

Sheldon Carter: We could speculate right now - I think the game is what it is, if anything, any way that we're going to do something we're going to make sure that it works for everyone.

I suppose if it were to go onto the Epic Games Store right now, there wouldn't be support for some of the community features such as TennoGen, and the marketplace. Would that be a problem?

Sheldon Carter: To give you the totally honest answer, we just haven't even gotten close enough to consider. We'd have to be talking with them actively before I could tell you how we'd work those things out, we're just not there right now.

What are your views on Stadia - obviously Destiny 2's been announced for it, would you be open to joining Stadia, and has Google approached you with an offer?

Sheldon Carter: It's really cool tech, but we're not saying anything about Stadia just yet.

Could we hear anything more about it in future?

Sheldon Carter: I'd say that's possible... as anything is!

Digital Extremes, jack-of-all-trades.

A lot of people say Warframe's monetisation system feels really fair even as a free-to-play game - could you explain Digital Extremes' thinking in making sure it's not exploitative?

Sheldon Carter: It all goes part and parcel with the community interaction that we have... whenever we try something new, we see how our community reacts to it. I think in the end, Warframe has slowly turned into a game - at least that I feel like - our players pay because they love the game they're playing, not necessarily because they feel like they're in a compulsion loop where they have to pay. And so, our philosophy is - give opportunities for things, if people want to buy things and express themselves - but also give them the opportunity to get those things by putting in time and playing the game.

How's progress on cross-save going? I know that's something Digital Extremes wants to do.

Sheldon Carter: We definitely want to do something with cross-play, cross-save, cross-something - and we know our community and players really want it too, so we're just trying to wave the right magic wand to make it work for Warframe across all the different platforms we have, in a situation where everyone gets to keep what they have. So we'll tackle it soon, we just don't have it yet.

Finally, how's progress on the melee refresh, and what are the next steps for that?

Sheldon Carter: It's going really well, the things that's we've done so far we're really happy with - we kind of hit a road block with the last couple of miles of it, and I think that has more to do with how much we turned all of our focus to Empyrean and TennoCon. I think once we come back from that, and once we figure out a couple of really key elements of how some of the other weapons are going to work... it's close. Sorry for the vagueness, it's one of those ones where each try in the last while we've said no to. So it's just going to require the guys working on it to go back to the drawing board one more time, but I guess we're halfway through the 3.0, we're 2.9!

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