This past weekend Tennocon, Warframe developer Digital Extremes’ enormous annual event, moved online for the first time. It’s normally a huge in-person jamboree, with over 2,000 of the game’s fans – aka Framers or Tenno – attending last year’s event in London, Ontario, where Digital Extremes is based.
It’s the highlight of the Warframe calendar, packed with epic reveals about forthcoming game content, loads of fan service, and events throughout the day that make some of us a little over-giddy. Warframe’s community consists of not only ardent gamers, but engaged cosplayers, fan fiction writers, poets, artists, and there’s even a whole substrata of Hentai featuring the game’s heroes getting it on. Suffice it to say, the community that Digital Extremes has served over the years is engaged and effusive.
That’s quite tough to replicate online, especially when thousands look forward to the physical event as a way to share and commune with their fellow space ninjas. So I had no idea what was about to happen…
I sign in to the stream as my wife, looking over my shoulder, says, ‘this looks good’. Now, my wife isn’t a ‘Framer’ – she’s not even a gamer, yet she often endures my monologues about my adventures as a space ninja, or my lengthy treatises about how the front-facing representation at Digital Extremes is a key factor in why its community is so welcoming and open. She long ago learned how to shift her focus to a to-do list, or internally ponder a piece of Tudor history, as I talk over her glazed expression.
This time, Warframe has her attention, and we sit and watch the day unfold with art showcases, sound workshops with the designers, and even a quiz. Delightful. We then get to TennoconLIVE 2020, and to bring people to the yard, the devs offer lots of free goodies which you can only acquire by going to the Tennocon relay in-game.
For those not familiar with the space opera that is Warframe, it’s a free-to-play loot shooter that released over a year before Destiny thrust the genre into gaming's mainstream. You’re a ninja in space, taking on thousands of hours of content within an entirely unique mythology formed by smooshing together everything from feudal Japan and classic sci-fi horror movies to moral tales on slavery and a genuinely sensitive representation of Autism in one of its finest quests.
So I log in. A 50% voucher on premium currency greets me, but I won’t be using it – the only times I spend real-world money in Warframe is to support the developers after getting hundreds of hours of joy for nuppence.
I bust some emotes with my fellow Tenno in the relay as the stream unfolds and after the meme-ending Hydroid Prime trailer, the updates flow. We’ve got some new Warframes to enjoy and thanks to Rebecca (live operations and community director at Digital Extremes) highlighting one of the most important changes, we discovered that we now have the ability to customise our Warframes in a kind of evolved ‘legacy’ system, in which we’ll feed old frames to the Helminth that has been lurking in the bowels of our ships. By this point I’m already unnecessarily over-excited, thinking about the ability fusions and new builds coming down the line.
It’s time for the Heart of Deimos gameplay reveal, and game director Steve Sinclair explains that we’re about to see actual in-game footage that will be playable on August 25, going as far as saying: ‘We’ve focused on making things we are more confident in shipping’.
With each reveal we are 'raptured' away to different rooms in-game, each showcasing a new horror - it's an incredible, immersive experience
That’s a nod to the previous major update, Empyrean, which was an ambitious vision that unfortunately didn’t entirely come off. Bugs ran throughout the updates, half-formed systems were implemented and tested by a community that, by the time the bugs were fixed, were largely sick of seeing another Kuva Lich careen through space in the Railjack we’d farmed out. It was a rare moment in community history where fans’ positivity and support turned vitriolic, and a tough time, no doubt on a personal level, for the developers.
The reveal begins and the familiar launching sites and ship internals give way to an entirely new open world. It looks incredible, and intricately realised – it’s infected with just the right amount of tentacles and mutated monstrosities, tons of action, and characters that make you go ‘Whaaaaaa?’ I’m excited to see Warframe return to its historic strengths of rich worlds full of plenty to see and do, all wrapped in bonkers, rich lore.
And then, people in my game begin to disappear.
My screen blanks out and when it comes back, I’m in a chamber with other players and one of the characters from the reveal stream we’ve just met, a ‘definitely-not’ Claptrap. I’ve been kidnapped in-game.
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My mind whirrs, almost in sync with the chat feed, with equal doses of bewilderment and excitement. I respawn at the relay, the Digital Extremes gang nattering away on my laptop, and at each big reveal of Deimos and its story, we are ‘raptured’ away to different rooms, each showcasing the Eldritch horrors awaiting us in August.
It’s incredible, an entirely immersive experience. Even though we get to pilot our own undead mechs – which is almost worthy of its own update – and there’s a horrifying woman who’s been half eaten by a worm, which raises all sorts of questions whether we would wish it to or not, the extra mile that Digital Extremes went to make Tennocon 2020 as ‘live’ as possible has to be commended.
I’m looking forward to August 25th . Digital Extremes has been ambitious before and not entirely succeeded, but it seems the majority of the new content is playing to the strengths the studio has been cultivating for almost a decade, and with the assurance that what we saw is ready to ship? Well, I wonder how long I’ve still got left on that discount voucher…