The other night, I played Warframe with some of my actual, flesh-and-blood friends for the first time. I was worried; after all, my friends have been playing the space ninja MMO for hundreds of hours. I, with a paltry 45 hours, am a scrub by comparison. I worried that our hangout would be a waste of their precious game time. But Warframe, it turns out, is constructed to cleverly sidestep that issue.
My concern was well-founded. This year alone, I’ve played both WoW Classic and Final Fantasy XIV with a different friend group, and we encountered the same issue in both games: If we weren’t leveling in lockstep, it was inconvenient to play together. WoW Classic, of course, purposefully emulates a pretty archaic version of the MMO grind, so this is to be expected. FFXIV, on the other hand, provides multiple avenues for high-level players to group up with low-level players. You can run level-scaled dungeons together. Players can begin leveling new classes, which essentially starts their progression back at square one. But there are still bumps in that road—prerequisites that need to be met, story missions that force players to go it alone. On some occasions, I felt guilty, like I was holding my friends back or, once we moved on to FFXIV, like I was preventing my high-level friends from spending time the way they’d normally spend it.
Warframe approaches this issue from a different angle. This is not news to longtime Warframe players, but it was a happy discovery for me: The game’s resource system scales with less friction than a traditional MMO leveling system. Basically, in Warframe, weapons and frames (that is, the various cybernetic flesh suits that you build and equip) level up with usage, but this generally doesn’t take very long. If you play your cards right, you can max out a new weapon in a single play session. But even players who’ve mapped out Warframe’s entire galaxy by visiting every level on every planet are still incentivized to run and re-run missions for resources.
Resources, which drop from enemies, item containers, and some mission goals, are what you use to construct new weapons and frames. Building new stuff is the core of Warframe’s actual progression system, which centers around a “Mastery Rank” that you increase over time in order to be able to construct even better weapons and frames. But really, the joy of it lies in obtaining and tinkering with the aforementioned weapons and frames, which vary so much as to be entirely different gameplay experiences unto themselves. A less elegantly designed game would confine resources needed for high-end gear to the kinds of missions that push even grizzled veterans of countless space wars to the absolute limit, but Warframe spreads them out. Basically, even when you’ve been playing for eons, you’ll still have some usage for more basic resources, which you can acquire from early missions. That’s to say nothing of the game’s reputation system nor a system that allows you to improve max-level weapons, both of which you can grind in a variety of places.
So basically, if your fresh-faced scrub buddy comes along and says he wants to squad up, you—a gleaming god who’s been to the edge of the universe so many times that you’ve invested in a reasonably priced timeshare out there—can actually accomplish something. Many things, in fact!
It’s funny to me, because if you’re not a Warframe player, I’m sure you read my description of the above systems and thought “Wow, that’s a lot.” But these elements of the game actually interlock pretty naturally and, despite their seeming complexity, turn a longstanding MMO problem into a non-factor and make it look easy.
It’s clear that Warframe’s developers want to maintain this galaxy-spanning throughline, because upcoming expansion Heart of Deimos will add another system that encourages high-level players to dive back into earlier missions: A giant pustule mouth wall that devours frames and vomits their abilities onto other frames. It’s an extremely Warframe customization feature that gives everybody a reason to farm for frames they might have previously collected or outgrown.
When I DMed him to ask what he got out of running missions with me, he said, “I got the parts for the frame we were farming for you, so now I can FEED IT TO THE WALL. It feels like every time I load up that game, they’ve added something that incentivizes going back to the old stuff, which is awesome.”