“At the very least it will be a very good corporate event for Digital Extremes,” joked Meridith Braun, VP of Publishing at Digital Extremes, when she told me about their backup plans for the party they were throwing. “We …[knew] our fans …[were] really excited and loyal …[to] the game. We just weren’t sure if they were willing to come [from] far and wide to London, Ontario. We debated if we should do Toronto or something in the states with a denser population. Now seeing that they really are willing to come this far, I think that we’ll only make it bigger next year.”
She’s talking about TennoCon 2016, a celebration of Digital Extremes’ free-to-play cooperative third-person shooter Warframe. For those not familiar with their work, Digital Extremes, a London, Ontario based developer, is still remembered for collaborating with Epic Games (the Gears of War developers) to make the Unreal franchise in the late 90s/early 2000s. More recently, they have developed, or been involved in developing, several well-known titles, including Darksector, The Darkness 2, Bioshock (the PS3 version), Bioshock 2 (its multiplayer aspect), and the 2013 Star Trek game based on the rebooted movie franchise.
In 2013 they also released Warframe to mildly critical reviews, but three years later the in-game financial transactions are still funding monthly updates from the studio. It’s been so successful that the game now boasts 22 million registered accounts, and during this year’s TennoCon roughly 1,200 excited Tenno (Warframe community members, in the game’s parlance) descended on the London Convention Center to celebrate that success. Some of the Tenno weren’t even sporting Ontario identification cards, according to Meridith Braun: “I met somebody from the Netherlands, and he came just for the weekend. Someone else told me that there are people here from Korea and Japan.”
In terms of content, the convention itself wasn’t anything to really write home about. There was a large stage and seating for a schedule of Q&A panels, a table in the middle to meet famous YouTubers, a merchandise booth full of Warframe swag, and plenty of consoles to play the game on. Actually, the really impressive part of this pop-culture event was the speed with which the attendees bonded. Complete strangers who ordinarily might flip each other off on the highway or avoid each other’s gaze on the subway were instantly starting conversations amongst themselves, secure in the knowledge that they had something in common. It’s true that this attitude is very common at something like the Penny Arcade Expo, but don’t forget that PAX started in August of 2004, whereas this was the first ever TennoCon. Clearly the community is already a tight one.
Steve Sinclair, the Creative Director of Warframe, attributes the success of the game, the community, and TennoCon 2016 to the dialogue Digital Extremes has fostered with the Tenno, “We don’t have a big marketing budget. It’s people who love the game spreading the game, and when I talked to them today and asked ‘why are you still playing?’, the answers were ‘the game is still alive, you keep updating it, it is constantly evolving, you guys are open to us, and you guys tell us what you are doing. And it becomes sort of like a relationship.’”
As an impartial observer, I found it a surreal relationship to behold. Men and women from all areas of Digital Extremes were pressed to answer questions or give comments on a wide variety of subjects. Some of these conversations were so esoteric that I didn’t have the background to follow along. Requests for autographs and pictures flooded in like a raging river after a major storm. Anyone identified as a person working on the game was treated with such a rock star reverence that it must have been hard for them to return to relative anonymity the next day. That said, it became very clear in London that the admiration expressed at TennoCon was never one sided.
“Looking around at the faces here, I recognize writers, level designers, artists, sound designers who want to come and talk to players,” explained Steve. “And that was never the thing before. They read [comments] and at all levels of the company, hey Steve we did this and it was a big mistake. That never happened before. [Before] they just did their job, they put their energy in, they didn’t phone in, but now they want to be part of that community and affect change like players do.”
In that sense, TennoCon is more than just a celebration of Warframe. It is also a step into the future of developing, marketing, and selling games. “The industry changed so much to focus so much on retail,” Meridith Braun told me. “The publisher put that middle man between us and our gamers, and the barrier to those gamers got bigger and bigger over the years because games became more expensive. And deliver to the customer because there was only retail at that time, so now with that advent of digital distribution we finally realized we can take that all back again.”