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Warframe dev on working from home, Necramechs and the wild new Helminth system

"Sometimes you gotta try these things."

A world inhabited by infested creatures, an abundance of insects, and a daily power struggle between two opposing sides? No, it's not the British summertime in 2020, it's the new Warframe expansion Heart of Deimos, which has just been unveiled as part of this year's all-digital TennoCon presentation.

The update brings a raft of goodies - including a fleshy open world, K-Drive combat, mechs and warring giant wyrms - all of which should keep players occupied as they search for the origins of the Infested faction. Oh, and there's also a little thing called the Helminth Chrysalis System, which allows players to transfer an ability to another Warframe (something that should create some truly wacky combinations).

But given this year has been so disruptive for many studios thanks to the impact of COVID-19, I was curious to know how Digital Extremes had shifted its content plans and managed the workload for Warframe: particularly given the game normally receives a fairly consistent flow of updates and content. After watching a press deimos-tration, I had a chat with Warframe COO and dev team member Sheldon Carter, who was able to tell me more about the challenges of working during lockdown, how the Necramechs work... and what the hell is going on with that Helminth.

So first of all, how are you doing? How's it been working through the COVID-19 lockdown?

Sheldon Carter: Oh, yeah, it's been a challenge. You know, it's been a challenge for us to get something like this event and this type of content together over COVID. But after the first month of it, I think we started hitting our stride and figuring out what we wanted to do, and how to work towards it. I may have gotten a little bit of pinkeye from stress in the last little bit, but otherwise, I think we're good.

How did you adapt your plans for the year ahead? Obviously the Duviri Paradox was delayed, but what restrictions did lockdown place on what you could do working from home?

Sheldon Carter: It did, I mean, we were really lucky that the way we work is we have some of our teams doing advanced work on future stuff. When we looked at Duviri and even some of the stuff we were looking towards such as New War, versus the team that had already started out on Deimos, we actually felt like Deimos had a better chance of getting to TennoCon with the type of content we wanted to. So we just did a pivot, it was one of those ones where it wasn't what we were expecting to do. If you would have asked me in March, what TennoCon was, I would not have said this. But it was a great set of content and features for us to work in multiple different groups. So we had the Helminth system being worked on by a group, we had the landscape people, and that's a huge part of our team. And then even for the Warframes and some of the systems we were able to portion it out a little bit better... the cinematic group was also able to take small sections. So yeah, it just really, really worked well for us from a compartmentalisation standpoint to go with Deimos.

More broadly, how have you balanced the need to keep Warframe updated as a live service game with making sure that devs are coping with the difficulties of working from home?

Sheldon Carter: We definitely recognised it was not gonna be the same [level of] productivity as we have had. Outside of that, however... our team, once they get a hold of something, they really impress me. Thinking about what we were going to do versus what we have for TennoCon... you know, it's a testament to those guys, they really worked their butts off.

Heart of Deimos is the first simultaneous launch of a Warframe update on all platforms, is that something you hope to continue in future?

Sheldon Carter: This is one of those ones where the stars align... we were gonna try it, and obviously what we've always wanted is for everybody to be able to experience the content at the same time. We wanted those console players to feel like, 'hey, it's not something that I'm getting a couple weeks later'. So we've been tightening and tightening, and we're going to try it with this. Hopefully it all goes well, and it will be something we continue to look at as we go forward. But yeah, it'd be great - even if it was for major updates, I'd be happy with that.

Why did you want to focus on the Infested for this update?

Sheldon Carter: If you look at the other two landscapes, Fortuna and the Orb Vallis are Corpus-focused, Plains of Eidolon is Grineer-focused. So [the Infested] is the last faction in the game, right? I think it provided us with an interesting story angle, and I think that's what we're most interested in, generally-speaking, from our open worlds as well. To be like... 'how can we set something up with a story that's going to give us new information about a faction, that can really build up the lore'.

On the topic of the previous two open world updates, what kind of design decisions did you make to put a twist on this open world and make it different?

Sheldon Carter: Quite a few! It's funny, you're used to hearing in games that 'this the biggest open world we've ever done yet again', right? And this isn't the biggest one. This is actually probably our smallest one in terms of size, but the depth we put into it is definitely much more. So there's way more systems to understand and learn. There's these beautiful grottos you get to go into and explore, there's the Necramechs, which is a totally different thing that we have never had in Warframe. We have, you know, conservation pets you can ride. I think the Helminth system is another good example. So we really wanted to take the types of ideas that players are expecting from Warframe's open worlds, but we wanted to twist them. And that's how we did it with certain things like that.

Do you have any examples of what you can make with the new Helminth Chrysalis System: are you able to create any really weird or unique Warframe builds and or gameplay styles through that?

Sheldon Carter: So you can imagine the face on our QA leads when we said, 'okay, so we have this system, and you can take one power from a Warframe, and you could put it on your Warframe. Could you guys make sure all the combinations are good?' Do the maths, and it's... oh, god, there's a million combinations. It's exponential. So we've tried a number of different ones to see what works, and we're only allowing one power to come from each Warframe. So that kind of limits it a little bit. But it's insane, honestly, and I'm really excited to see what the community comes up with. And I say that, like, excited, because I'm sure there's gonna be stuff that's going to blow our minds. But I think at the same time, we stuck with abilities that players really wanted to see. It was kind of a power fantasy for some players to do this. So we wanted to make sure we gave them that ability without compromising what made the kit of a certain Warframe special.

So were certain limitations put in place to make sure that the Warframes were balanced?

Sheldon Carter: As balanced as it could be with that many combinations. I think one of the nice things about Warframe you know, from a development side, is there's a very small PvP element, but most of it is... you know, we are dealing with enemies and players getting to tear enemies apart. So if we can give them something that's powerful and they can find new powerful ways to do it, that's exciting to me. I mean, within reason.

How do you think the community will react to the idea of sacrificing a Warframe? I feel like normally a Warframe has almost been revered, and here we're feeding one to a fleshy blob.

Sheldon Carter: I think that's definitely the one that we don't know. Which makes it exciting! And sometimes that's what makes TennoCon exciting, right? Sometimes you gotta try these things. I'm crossing my fingers it's gonna go over well. You never know.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the Necramechs - such as how they unlock, and if you can customise them?

Sheldon Carter: We have a kind of a two-stage system with them right now. In the press demo, you would have seen Rebecca Ford [live operations and community director] use transference to rebuild a Necramech right in the environment. And that's open to any of the players (spoiler alert, there's operators in the game). But for players who have unlocked that and have gone through all that content, that's kind of a bonus for them, because if they find them in the environment, in the right situations, they can use transference. But to a new player, or even for those players, there's factions you can raise standing with, and you can learn about. And through those standings you can build your own.

Are the Necramechs going to stick to the Heart of Deimos area, or could we see them in other open world areas in future?

Sheldon Carter: I could definitely see them there. I think we're going to release with them in Deimos in their home environment, but I don't see any reason why they wouldn't expand out from there.

So Steel Path was introduced recently, I was wondering what sort of feedback you've received from the community on this and how well it's been recieved?

Sheldon Carter: It's done really well. I think it's one of those things Warframe players are always looking for... we were just talking about the insane combinations you might get with the Helminth. I think players are always trying to find a way to test their skills and their abilities with more and more difficult content. So this is one of our answers to that. I wish I had engagement numbers for you, but it was incredible to me how many players engaged with that system and have gone all the way up through it already. So from an engagement perspective: yeah, super great. I think there's still more work to be done there. But we're happy with the feature in general.

On that point, I think some in the community were wondering about maybe higher drop rates for rewards for Steel Path. Do you know if that's a possibility?

Sheldon Carter: Usually it's me who looks at the rewards, I definitely have heard that feedback. So we were looking at that stuff, for sure.

Is there any news on progress for the Command Intrinsic?

Sheldon Carter: Yeah, it's coming. That's about all I have right now. It's not forgotten, but we decided to go with this swath of content that's coming out. What's cool is that usually at TennoCon, we're showing you content and it comes out a year later. I mean, this is coming out weeks later. So hopefully you will be able to get right into that. And then we can focus on some of the other stuff that we've been working on for the other systems as well.

So we're obviously coming up to next-gen console time: I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about how Warframe will transfer over? Is it going to be fairly seamless, will there be any noticeable changes for players?

Sheldon Carter: I think at this point we haven't done anything officially to announce around next-gen and what we're doing, but we've been, you know, speaking with all of our partners, we're excited to see what's gonna happen with Sony with the PS5 and with the Xbox Series X as well. But yeah, we're really excited about the next gen and the hardware.

One final question, it's very important: are you able to catch the flying fish in the Heart of Deimos?

Sheldon Carter: Can you catch the flying fish? The answer to that is yes. Yes. You have to be able to fish, right?

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