Digital Extremes’ Warframe has been growing in popularity in recent months as many of its live-service competitors like Destiny 2 have struggled. So, how is the sci-fi action game defying the trend of struggling live services?
Warframe has been around forever. The first time I played it was at the launch of the PS4 back in 2013. It was a fun little action game to mess around in as you waited for the console’s library to fill out. It was also free-to-play, which was an oddity back in those days for a game on a console. This was a full four years before Fortnite Battle Royale changed everything, and at the time, the model was mostly reserved for mobile games.
That’s why it’s fascinating to see the game enjoying a renaissance eleven years after its initial release. According to Steam Charts, the game has been on an impressive rise every month since August, with the game enjoying its highest average concurrent players ever in the last 30 days (64k), at least on that platform.
We’re living in a time of great uneasiness around live service games though. Staples like Destiny 2 and Apex Legends have struggled with dwindling numbers. Sony has reportedly moved away from developing live service games at all. We’ve seen massive lay-offs at live-service powerhouses like Activision Blizzard, Riot, and Epic Games. Hell, even news came last week that the live service game Warhaven was closing down just four months after it launched in early access. Right now, is not a good time to be making live service games for the most part.
So why is Warframe’s fortunes suddenly trending completely against the grain of the industry? Well, that backward-moving trend may actually be the game’s biggest strength.
Out of service
Perhaps the biggest boon for Warframe is the fact that many of its competitors have dropped the ball so stupendously in the past year. Most notably, Destiny 2.
While quite different to play, the two titles have always had an orbital relationship with one another. They are both sci-fi action games where you take control of a superpowered magical protector, mowing through alien nasties, while playing with friends and traveling to far-off planets and systems. Often, if you wanted to try something like Destiny 2 that wasn’t Destiny 2, Warframe was always the fascinating but less popular alternative.
For the first time, though, things have finally fallen in the favour of Warframe. While Destiny 2: Lightfall’s launch hit all-time concurrent peaks, the game has since dropped off to its lowest average concurrent players ever on Steam.
This is for a lot of reasons – perhaps the most obvious being the disappointment of Lightfall. The expansion was meant to be a big step forward for Destiny 2, finally giving players some big answers to questions, and setting things up for this year’s conclusionary The Final Shape expansion. However, Bungie instead served up the most disappointing expansion campaign ever, a story that mostly spun its wheels, not only not answering any player questions, but leaving a lot more confusion than before.
Not helping this situation is that Destiny 2’s seasonal model is very tired. When this cadence of weekly storytelling first landed in Season of the Undying in 2019, it was fresh. Destiny’s story which had always been obtuse and stagnant was finally moving forward at a pace. That was even further revolutionized with the introduction of the HELM in Season of the Chosen.
However, that was back in 2019. It’s 2024 now that this model has worn out its welcome. Destiny 2 figured out how to bring constant forward momentum with its story, but it came at the cost of repetitive systems and predictable structure. In essence, you could finally see all the gears working. It was good for a time, but the game has lost its mystique, and with it, a chunk of its playerbase.
Warframe and fortune
In October, Warframe overtook Destiny 2’s concurrent players on Steam (according to Steam Chart) and has held on to that favor ever since. Of course, this might not bear out when you consider all consoles, but the trend points to one game in its decline and another in its ascendency.
Its onboarding is a little nightmarish, as the game doesn’t do an excellent job of explaining some key mechanics, nor the lore of its world. Importantly, though, it’s fun enough to push through until it does begin to make sense, and you can fill in the gap either with a knowledgeable friend or by interacting with the game’s YouTube community.
However, even when it’s still confusing, it’s a hyper-active game with a sense of progression and scale. Even when just starting out, you can tell there’s a lot to get lost in here. Importantly, the game’s missions and campaigns remain largely intact. Even 30 or 40 hours in, you’ll still be discovering crazy new mechanics like traversing open worlds on hoverboards, interacting with factions and clans, and wait – does this game have Guitar Hero in it?!
Whether you’re someone from Destiny 2, Diablo 4, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 14, or some other live service game you’ve become a little bored with – Warframe is easy to get lost in. It offers tens, if not hundreds, of hours out of the gate for free, and all of it feels put together with such care and regard for the player’s experience.
The rarest quality
Now, Warframe can be a slog. You’ll slowly grind through similar-looking spaceships to open up various nodes on planets for a long time to start. It can be mindless to the point of monotony in really long bursts, but here’s what Warframe does better than most live service games – it respects your time.
You can jump in and out of the game for months or years at a time and come back and feel like you have a ton of story content and features to engage with. You may be behind, but the path to catching up is clear, and it will always be there. Warframe works for you when you want to play it.
I don’t know if Warframe will maintain this upward trajectory forever. If other games begin to recover, the Warframe audience could be eaten into. If Destiny 2’s The Final Shape lands and is a complete revelation completely revitalizing that playerbase, it could hurt the game. However, the best thing about that is Warframe will be ready for you when you do find time for it again, and likely with a ton more to do while fixing the things you had problems with.
That’s not the case for most live-service games that want a constant monopoly of your time – and that attitude is perhaps why Digital Extremes finds itself on the receiving end of a lot of goodwill right now.