You don’t really quit Warframe. When Hades, Baldur’s Gate 3, and a slew of other Extremely Me Games came out last month, I knew I’d be taking a hiatus from the cyber ninja space opera that’d taken over my life, but I also knew I’d be back. Last week, I returned after more than a month away to find things mostly as I left them, save for one little problem: My dog hated me.
Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I am about to make a mountain out of a molehill. Warframe remains the most generous free-to-play game I’ve ever laid digits on, but that means openly manipulative elements like the one I’m about to describe stand out all the more. Here’s how it works: In Warframe, you can obtain a dog-like pet called a Kubrow. The first time you get one, there’s a whole quest where you obtain a Kubrow egg by collapsing a bunch of Kubrow nests, effectively killing your future pet’s family, and it’s kinda messed up. But then you incubate the egg aboard your ship, and the resulting puppy is yours.
From there, you can grow your Kubrow big, fluffy, and strong, and then have it accompany you on missions. Kubrows are dumb as shit and get themselves killed a lot, so I generally leave mine on my ship, but I still love my braindead oaf of an outer space egg dog. His name is Laddie Boy (after President Warren G. Harding’s terrier, who was significantly more popular than he was), and he wanders around my ship. It’s nice to have a companion while floating aimlessly through the vastness of the cosmos. Sometimes Laddie Boy lies down on the ground and takes a nap, and his little legs kick while he dreams. It’s the single best animation in all of video games, and you can’t convince me otherwise.
When I recently returned to Warframe after my time away, the first thing I did was run over to Laddie Boy’s incubator. I was devastated to find that meters indicating his DNA integrity and loyalty were depleted, which severely dropped his attack power. This caused him to, according to in-game text, “growl and snap” at me. A couple good petting sessions brought the loyalty meter up a little, but he still “cowered” at my character’s approach—which actually felt worse than growling and snapping! Unfortunately, after petting him three times, the loyalty-imparting power apparently contained within my hands dissipated, and I was informed that I’d have to wait a day before I could generate more.
This system does not make sense on a number of levels, foremost among them the fact that my character spent literally the entire time I was away aboard my ship. You’d figure that he probably chilled with his dog for some or maybe all of that time. It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which this results in the dog forgetting who he is entirely, unless Laddie Boy is even stupider than I originally thought.
But clearly, it serves a purpose, which is to guilt the player into regularly logging in. Warframe has other systems that more prominently incentivize frequent logins, but they’re also kinder. For example, each time you log in, you’re granted a small reward or two—usually resources for crafting weapons and Warframes, in-game currency, or boosts that temporarily increase the amount of currency you can earn. Within this system are milestones, which grant additional rewards if you’ve logged in a certain number of times. Other free-to-play games relegate this kind of reward to a streak; if you miss a day, say goodbye to your streak and, therefore, your fanciest rewards. Warframe doesn’t do this. There’s just an overall counter, and you eventually receive nice stuff no matter what.
That’s cool. I like that. I do not like feeling guilty about my dog.
Even so, it’s relatively minor. Laddie Boy does not act any differently when wandering around the ship, and he gratefully accepts any pets I give him even though he is, according to the game, terrified of me. I think I’d be more upset if I regularly took him into battle and his stats were temporarily ruined, but I do not. Still, this system feels emotionally manipulative in a way that makes me uncomfortable when paired with daily login systems that ultimately exist to increase the likelihood that players will spend real money.
Is this anywhere near as egregious as the gambling-like character “pull” system/resin endgame combo in Genshin Impact—or other gacha games, which are far more shameless? Definitely not. But it still feels insidious to me. I know a lot of people care deeply about acquiring the ultimate team of five-star anime teens. I do not. I care about dogs. It might seem silly, but having my virtual dog be afraid of me makes me feel legitimately sad. Whether or not they’ll admit it, I think a lot of people feel this way. Guilt is a powerful motivator, and for someone like me, on whom standard gambling tricks don’t usually work, it’s a viable alternative. Make that guilt animal-based in this era of gamers being obsessed with petting the dog, and you’ve got yourself yet another quietly jagged hook in a monetization toolbelt already brimming with them.
In light of both Warframe and Genshin Impact, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the idea of generosity in games. Both games give an incredible amount upfront and ask for nothing in return. Both give enough that anything they ultimately take feels, to many players, justified. Earned. That on its own is not a bad thing; games cost money, and developers deserve to make money. But this perceived generosity also camouflages the ways in which these games—the Good Ones, compared to all the others—do still manipulate players, and the resulting community goodwill can inoculate games against justified criticism. Sure, the edges are rounder, but that doesn’t mean they’re not edges. They still pave the way for all sorts of player behaviors, up to and including spending thousands of dollars.
I love Warframe. I like Genshin Impact. But never underestimate the power of a manipulative system, especially as companies continue to optimize games for long-term retention while casting off more brazen, unpopular money sinks. The most dangerous hooks don’t stick out. They’re savvily embedded, hidden from view until you’ve already bitten too hard to let go.