London, Ontario isn’t the first place I’d think to travel to for a convention. Local affairs are common, but they’re rarely worthy of bringing in international traffic. It’s also strange to have a convention for one single video game, least of all a free-to-play shooter where the individual mission time averages five minutes. And yet TennoCon, the convention for fans and members of the Warframe community, does just that. Warframe has you play as the Tenno, far-future space ninjas who awaken into a post-human solar system.
The interior convention hall at TennoCon 2017 greets us with the haunting, drum-heavy music the game is known for, and the outer halls are decked out with banners depicted the titular Warframes. The inner rooms are dimly lit, walls lined in blue with orange lighting, and the screens of several standing tables with Warframe games for the visitors to play. Beanbag chairs lay scattered in front of a massive display where streamers play. The main room, with three screens and a main stage, is not quite filled, but the enthusiasm in the room is palpable. Cheers at the concept art of the new Operator gear, drawn by artist Keith Thompson, fill the room during the Art panel. The atmosphere is relaxed with spikes of enthusiasm at every reveal.
“Despite all the hate we see on the Internet, when you get to see them in it shows people that behind the keyboard we’re all human beings,” says Rob from A Gay Guy Plays, a YouTube personality who makes videos analyzing and reviewing Warframe‘s content.,
Rob was featured on a panel of YouTube personalities discussing the Warframe community and their involvement. Among those was Mogamu, one of the early streamers who was also at the previous year’s TennoCon (also the first). “It’s amazing,” he said, about the current convention. “The best con in 2017.”
The Plains of Eidolon announcement arouses cheers from the crowd as the Orokin tower is revealed—people are excited about the new direction Warframe is taking. The shooter has mostly been corridor-driven dungeon crawls up until now, and having spent four years with the same formula this new plan answers the question, “Where the game will go from here?”
“I wake up in terror at the thought that has become stagnant,” says Steve Sinclair, Creative Director. Warframe‘s been around for four years at this point, with most of the new content being new weapons and levels, the latter being largely the same format of winding narrow and modular pathways. (Sinclair mentions, “Earth is pretty much green corridors”). While Warframe is not losing those roots, games, even online ones, tend to show their age after a few years. Sinclair says that they went into 2017 looking to challenge that.
“At the beginning of the year, we really felt like we needed to get out of our comfort zone. It’s all new rendering tech, its visibility distances that are three or four times what we’re used to. It’s been a mad rush this year to say ‘let’s break our technology to create a more natural feel to the world of Warframe.’” This includes the game’s Evolution engine, used as far back as Dark Sector, the single-player spiritual antecedent of Warframe. “Even in Warframe‘s era, we’ve done great upgrades to the engine. We said, ‘let’s not rest on our laurels, let’s break and rebuild it.’ Plains of Eidolon is the extreme of this.”
He refers to the ultimate example of this being the Eidolons themselves—the remains of ancient robotic juggernauts that were destroyed at the foot of the golden tower, who rise at night to wreak havoc on all they see. Unlike the other foes in Warframe, which swarm against your lone space ninja, the Eidolons are the size of buildings and require all one’s skills and weapons to defeat. “We’ve never built a creature of that size before,” Sinclair says.
Warframe is certainly an eye-catching game, both in terms of graphics and the strange nature of the world and humanity in this distant future. The Orokin Towers—structures from an ancient era of even higher technology—reveal bleeding, oozing blubber beneath their white-and-gold exterior. Sinclair likens the Ostrong people who scavenge them to whalers. But it’s not only the towers that the Plains of Eidolon explore—it’s finally showing the civilians of the Warframe universe in more detail.
Warframe has always relied on a minimalist storytelling, with many details kept hidden—the history and setting, for one, but also the world beyond the military factions and your martial characters. “Usually in Warframe we have the Lotus (your guide in Warframe) chatting with us, and it’s very quick and engaging, but people keep asking ‘who are we protecting, who are we saving?’” Sinclair hopes that the settlement of Cetus will expand on that further, as some of the previous stories have.
“We started out with ‘we’re gonna make ninjas and put them in space, and people won’t care,’” Sinclair says. “But at Tennocon, we’re talking with players with Keith Power, our composer, and they said ‘the Second Dream quest just blew my mind; they said it’s such an important part of my life, and that’s a story.’” The quest was the first to introduce players to their characters’ true origins and nature, and revealed much about whom they are playing as. The storytelling is going deeper, talking more about the people of Warframe, their motivations, and their interactions.
“I wanted to make it weird,” Sinclair says, “We’re trying to get off the beaten path. With Chains of Harrow we told a story of a child with Aspergers. We want to tell human stories, we want to really get out of the comfort zone, and we don’t want to just be James Cameron and Lucas ripoffs. Sci-fi really has a lot of that—we want to be weird.” He also mentions another story, Octavia’s Anthem, which deals with an artificial intelligence suffering from memory issues that he likens to Alzheimer’s.
“We’re trying to bring humanity into our wacky space sci-fi.”
TennoCon shows that Warframe has already taken hold of people’s hearts, with players cheering wildly at the promise of new expansions and directions. It’s popular and it’s well done, and the 2017 event shows that Digital Extremes plans to keep adding to it and take it in new directions, rather than just let it dwindle. Sinclair credits the fans as the key motivator to the developers’ enthusiasm.
“The people at TennoCon, they’ve been very kind and considerate, but I feel like they’re looking for a change.”