In a new documentary about Warframe, the game’s developers discuss what they’ve learned about building a free-to-play multiplayer game over the years. It includes the story of how someone paying for a microtransaction 200 times helped them realize they’d accidentally created a slot machine.
In the most recent episode of Danny O’Dwyer’s Noclip documentary series on 2013’s third-person shooter Warframe, studio manager Sheldon Carter talks about designing the game’s economy. “The guiding tenant is try not to push them so that they’re going to grind their face off to get something but also give them enough variance so that getting those resources is interesting,” said Carter. In one of the more interesting examples of a studio being candid about when it does microtransactions wrong, picked up by PCGamesN, Carter mentioned the time a microtransaction had to be removed from the game because it was being used too much.
Back when Kubrows, virtual pets that help you on missions, were first introduced into Warframe, players could pay a premium currency called platinum to randomly generate a new fur pattern and different colors for it. The price was 10 platinum or about $0.67. “We had a lever, basically, for all intents and purposes,” Carter said in the interview. Players could pay the fee and then pull the lever to change their pet’s appearance. The idea was to offer players the option to pay for more customization options, and then also give them the ability to trade the prints they’d received for their pets with others. Customizing cosmetics was one alternative to simply going further down the pay-to-win route of having microtransactions help players grind faster or give them rare, more powerful items. Unfortunately, the randomness element had unintended consequences.
“And we saw, you know, a guy pull the lever like 200 times,” Carter said. “And it’s just like, ‘oh my dear god, what have we done? We’ve created a slot machine.’ And so you know, it was a couple days I think it took us to take it out—a day, day and a half. That one is a big regret.” He added that while the feature turned out to be extremely lucrative for the studio in this particular case, it completely went against what the intent of the Kubrows, and Warframe itself, was supposed to be.
While paying platinum to randomly scramble your pet’s appearance until you got something you liked was controversial among the more dedicated parts of the game’s fan base, it’s interesting to know that it was specifically whale behavior (a few players spending a lot of money on a game) that drove studio Digital Extremes to quickly rethink the feature and patch it out with Hotfix 14.0.5 in the summer of 2014, a year after the game’s official launch.
Mistakes like these and what the studio’s learned from them are at least partly responsible for why the game has one of the better free-to-play economies out there. You can grind for everything or spend a few dollars here or there to speed things up, but the variety of customization and possible items you can discover and craft helps keep it from feeling like a rat race to keep up with other players, something plenty of other games are still struggling with.