In-Depth Proposal: Fixing Warframe’s New Player Experience

(Note: featured image reused from my fan warframe concept because it was handy (write up on it here for the curious))

Warframe is an exceptional game. Since the release of Plains of Eidolon it continues to offer a wealth of content options to keep players engaged in the game. But an old issue remains that has even veteran players breaking up their play, and is a complete turn off for many newer players: reliance on wikis for information and direction.

It’s unrealistic to incorporate all possible information in-game without bogging down the play experience and development time. But many even basic things get so little in-game coverage that new players do not even know it’s something to search for. I’m proposing an expandable framework for a solution to this with the following directives:

  • Introduce players to essential aspects of the game, and their practical use
  • Minimize development time required to implement, both as an initial investment, and ongoing updates
  • Maximize ease of use for target audience while minimizing intrusiveness for players that do not want it

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Nature of the Problem

Fundamentally this is about a lack of information in game, or its lack of convenience. Some players are comfortable with playing games with a wiki open. But many are not. Even popular public proponents have stated that the difficulty of learning and understanding Warframe is one of his few major critiques.

Fundamental information must be clear for new players. Some of it is already in game, but not presented clearly and practically. It’s even more critical when an entire concept is covered this way. A new player can’t search for a concept they’re not even aware of.

While the Warframe wiki manages this well, it doesn’t help that a new player might stumble upon spoilers while poking around online. Even if they see the warning, many might ignore it, unaware from the intro that Warframe has something as moving, and potentially personal as the Second Dream quest line.

A reliance on outside resources also hurts the play experience for veteran players. In a game where flow (a la Csikszentmihalyi) is so central, frequent alt-tabbing degrades the experience. I imagine it’s even more problematic on console where you’ve got to contend with your phone’s auto-correct when searching for Twin Grakata (Clem!).

Again, it’s unrealistic to incorporate everything on the wiki into the game. But I’ve examined what’s missing from the game, or currently going underused and filtered it down. The focus is on helping new players understand the core game. Quality of life tools for veteran players remain secondary, but are often easily accommodated with the same solutions.

The missing information can be summarized by 3 key questions:

  • What?
    • What is this?
    • What do I do?
  • How?
    • How do I do that?
    • How does that work?
  • Where?
    • Where do I go?
    • Where do I find more?

These focus on providing direction. Warframe’s core loop sells itself. Where some people get lost is grounding that in mid to long term goals.

We can understand our goals here better by associating each key question with an action that will help players:

  • What? -> Inform
  • How? -> Teach
  • Where? -> Direct

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Tools for the Solution

Wherever possible existing systems will be leveraged. Development time is expensive, limited, and no Warframe beta veteran wants the focus of a content patch to be on something they don’t need.

In some cases the UI can redirect to the Codex. The Codex is an excellent when it serves as an encyclopedia. It’s at its best when listing weapons, enemies, and warframes. However much of the other information already in the Codex is hampered by a lack of context. For example: mods are partially explained, but this information is hidden through multiple layers of menus. It’s far removed from the area players actually interact with mods. The inability to cross reference what it’s describing with a player’s own mods make it very easy to forget or not internalize.

There are also fantastic resources in the Warframe community, Guides of the Lotus, and DE’s own in-game reps. These will be easier to leverage. They can help direct attention, and aggregate feedback on the new systems.

And new systems will be necessary. Again, the Codex is held back by a need to navigate to, and through it, separate from whatever mechanic, or environment a player needs help understanding. The Codex has fundamental limitations to its practical use.

The main focus of new systems will be on minimal, textual UI elements like tooltips that answer players’ immediate questions in the same context those questions occur. The current tutorial is excellent at what it does, and builds great immersion. But its reliance on voice assets make it much harder to expand upon, or update with future changes. Keeping the assets to text data minimizes new quest creation and testing, and should make it trivial to add to, and edit.

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Solution

Preface:

I don’t know DE’s code, business priorities, or what they already have planned for the future. So this proposal is intended to be open to adaption to development realities.


What Works

So it’s exceptionally important to first identify what -not- to change. We avoid fixing what’s not broken. And better yet we get to see some strengths to build towards, and practical solutions to imitate.

The Fantasy

Warframe immediately immerses you in the core fantasy, and aesthetic of its mechanics: you are an action movie star. Games often struggle to find the balance between offering context and instruction, and letting the player experience what is great about the game. Not just gameplay, but that feeling you associate with your favourite game. In Warframe it is speed, power, and smoothness. Within minutes of starting the game, a new player gets to experience these. She understands what the game is; what it has to offer.

This is the greatest strength of Warframe’s new player experience. So it’s critical that this opening sequence be touched as little as possible. We also want to follow its example and encourage players to experience the best parts of the game first, and most often.

Immersion

Warframe’s interface uniquely integrates into the game world. Everything from the logic screen, to menus are designed to create a seamless experience. The opening tutorial carries this on well by placing instructions physically into the world, or figuratively through Lotus’ direction. All of this keeps the player’s mind in the game. In other games the tools used break more directly from the game world. In those games, it destroys the illusion of the game’s fantasy by reminding you that you’re actually doing something mundane that was specifically designed to be easy. By finding a way around this Warframe strengthens its core fantasy.

We’ll carry this on by trying to keep more traditional interface elements minimal. They’ll be contextual, and we’ll avoid adding UI elements to places where they do not already exist at all costs.

Flow

Similarly, Warframe’s tutorial sequence tries to place as little between its fantasy and the player. New mechanics with a ton of depth to them get introduced, but players are specifically sheltered from that depth. They don’t need to know everything about crafting now, even if it’s important to start planting seeds about where crafting is done since it’s important. Warframe limits information on several new systems, letting the player hurry back to combat, the exciting part. This technique keeps players in a nice flow of play. There’s nothing extra that gets in the way.

Building off the previous lesson, we want to control the flow of information. Warframe is an overwhelmingly massive game. We can give new players a taste of the massive, but want to avoid the overwhelming side. Avoid detail when possible. Where it’s needed, we’ll let the player choose how deep she wants to go.

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Systems

This is where we get into specific applications for specific topics.  We’ll start by looking at some key systems, and example applications, and then quickly go over a variety of areas they can be easily applied to.

Help Interface + Tooltips

Players will read text, but generally only reactively. A context that sparks their interest, or topic they don’t understand needs to be presented before many people will devote real attention to instructions. So it’s vital that we include more contextual tooltips for key game systems. Some of it exists now, but burried in the Codex. Players in the Codex are not interested in and won’t retain info about how to use mods, and players trying to learn how to mod are on the modding screen, not the Codex. We need to bridge these disconnects of information, and use.

This is the rare case I’ll propose a new mechanic. But it provides tremendous value in addressing these problems, and is aimed at minimizing development time, and maximizing easy expandability for the future. We can create a generalized help interface for contextual tooltips that can be applied to any screen, once implemented. We define hotspots on a given screen, and associate a series of tooltips and/or pop-up menu options with them. Hotspots as regions allow added flexibility. It enables things like holding a button to enable this Help Interface and selecting an entire part of the screen, not just a menu option. Ex: on the modding screen a player could select the entire area representing equipped mods, and it would explain in text that ‘All mods in this area are currently equipped on your weapon and contributing their stats. In special cases where order matters, they’re read left to right, top to bottom.’

On PC this is easy enough. Mouse-over and right-click contextual menus, and potentially a key held to highlight and/or enable the hotspots of the Help Interface.

But menus with many options have long been an issue for console interface design. I’ve prototyped a new scrolling interface method to address this. On console a button would be pressed to activate the Help Interface, highlighting hotspots on the screen. If there is a large list of options to go through, treat it as a list menu where scrolling is controlled by ratcheting the left joystick clockwise and counterclockwise. The movement matches the use of a dial, and interacts with the menu accordingly. This intuitive control allows for easy rapid scrolling seamlessly transitioning to precision selection of the desired option as it’s reached. Scrolling long lists quickly can be enhanced further in the future (this is not included in the prototype) by speeding the scroll sensitivity dynamically with speed, repetition-detecting algorithm, or simply a button to be held to speed it up.

Link to playable prototype (Requires a dual-stick controller, only currently tested on Xbox 360 controller): www.shalune.com/games/wf_demo/index.html

This system also allows for a range of user comfort through variation in how it’s used. It takes a new relative starting direction each time you move the joystick from the resting position. This means players can scroll just as well by using a rowing motion, or little flicks, rather than a continuous circular crank if they prefer.

Where there are only a few, especially large screen regions, the left joystick can also be used as though pointing an arrow in the corresponding direction from the middle of the screen (not literally depicted in interface) to radially select an option. These features are not represented in the prototype.

While it’s beyond the scope of what I’m proposing here, this system could be expanded in the future to include an in-mission interface that reacts to the game world. It would just need flagging associated with 3D objects that inform an overlay interface and/or shader. For example: a player might bring it up while confused on mobile defense, and it could highlight the objective console with a tooltip telling the player to bring the data to it. Again this would require a lot more time for implementation, and thought to make sure it didn’t encourage flow-breaking over-use. So it is only considered as an example of this system’s possible flexibility.

UI Highlights

Some mechanics in game are fairly straight forward, and can easily be taught without needing a screen of instruction. Where a system is already straight forward or even intuitive, but not highlighted well we can accomplish this with adding simple UI icons and animations. These will be small enough to require minimal time to develop the assets.

Bonus Objectives

Mission bonus objectives are a great way to enforce combat mechanics that might slip a player’s mind. It is a poor place to introduce something new, but nudges players to practice what they just learned. We can add a simple system to bias how these bonus objectives are selected. Instead of being purely random, more can be added and set to appear after learning milestones.

Quests Interface

Quests are harder to use because they have an implicit narrative element, and should encompass much larger concepts than bonus objectives. That said they are very useful for creating a persistent reminder to complete specific actions. They should be used sparingly, and reserved for critical learning elements.

Loading Screen Tips

Loading tips are a great way to dispense trivia. But more thought should go to their relevance. Because they appear for such a short time they’re less likely to stick with players. This is compounded because of their random selection. Right now too many of them are extremely specific, and unlikely to be applicable shortly after the loading screen.

  • “When Using the Penta, aim high! Triggering grenades as they drop can score you headshots!”
  • “You can trade twice per day at Mastery Rank 2. One additional trade is acquired for every increase in Mastery Rank. Need more trades? Rank up your Mastery”

These will likely be forgotten immediately because there’s nothing to associate them with, or reinforce them. Much better examples are

  • “Can’t beat a mission solo? Find a squad in the Recruiting Channel or switch your Matchmaking to Public for help!”
  • “Bows and Thrown weapons have an arc in their trajectory, making them ideal for enemies ducking behind crates!”

This may be directly relevant to a player on a loading screen, and is not specific to a loadout or task they’re about to do.

Loading tips should have an implicit call to action. “Hey, try X” or “Hey, if Y try X”. It loses most of its effectiveness if the action X we’re suggesting isn’t likely something a player could try soon after. In addition to specific applications below, we should also prune the loading screen tips with this in mind.

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Applications

I’ll be going over a pretty exhaustive list of topics, and how to apply the above tools to them. Let’s dive in!


Progression

Warframe has an issue with communicating progression to new players. After the excellent intro quests players have a good taste of the core gameplay. They know how to play, but there’s little to tell them why. For pure enjoyment sure, but today’s gaming audience expects more. We expect goals. Especially in such a large game like Warframe it helps to give nudges of direction to avoid overwhelming freedom.

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Star Map

The star map’s closely tied to literal direction and progression.

  • Animations

Animate the paths towards uncompleted mission nodes that can eventually connect to another planet. Something like shifting arrows/chevrons, or even just a moving energy pulse will draw attention to where the player should be going. We’ll limit it to nodes progressing to new planets because some side nodes like dark sectors are out of place in difficulty and purpose.

  • Cetus

This has been raised many times before, and I strongly agree that placing Cetus along the required progression path is confusing and should be moved so it’s a dead end side node on Earth. There’s no intuitive endpoint after we’ve taught players that you only ever move past a mission area once all of it is completed. Cetus being accessible early is still desirable so that new players can quickly join veteran friends that may want to share this amazing zone, so we shouldn’t add any barriers to access.

  • Icons

Like we have great icons to show where special mission nodes are, we should create a system of icons to communicate what mission type a node is. The extra click is an inconvenience, and really adds up if you’re searching a planet for a specific mission type. We don’t need to display names since this interferes with the star map’s aesthetic, and communicates less-often useful information. Icons can be effective while still small, not fundamentally changing the appearance of the star map.

  • Second Dream and Main Story Quests

Some combination of animations, icons, and/or text messaging should be used to strongly push players towards core story quests harder. The Second Dream is a transcendant piece of narrative game design. But it raised the bar so much higher that no new player even knows that there’s something that special to look forward to unless a friend hints at it. Other quests in Warframe give a poor sense of what to expect from -all- quests in Warframe. More needs to be done to highlight this incredible strength of Warframe. Like the opening of the game, we need to encourage players to experience the best Warframe has to offer.

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Modding, MR, and Leveling

Aside from acquiring new toys, Warframe’s main long term goals of improved modding and MR are poorly communicated to new players. This can be especially disorienting because most gamers learn that ‘levels’ like Warframe has on weapons, frames, and MR are either purely cosmetic, or the primary focus of power level. Warframe lies somewhere in between. A player making either assumption will be missing some information.

Improving MR and mods is the main extrinsic motivator to grind for its own sake. In gaming many have been trained to stop playing a thing, even if they love the act of playing it, if they lack an explicit goal to progress. We need to make sure players are aware of these systems.

  • Quests

These systems are vital to understand, and critical to motivation for some. Engaging with them on some level must be mandatory. We can create simple, unvoiced quests that offer goals that are trivial, but span many game sessions. Their appearance in the mission and quest interface will serve as a reminder to engage with these systems, and that it is something to work towards. By their completion the player will have enough good habits of the kind of things to work towards that this level of guidance is no longer required. Quests could include the following. Or all could be combined into 1 if having them separate would make the mission interface too busy.

  • MR
    • Unlock MR 2 by leveling up weapons and frames, and completing Lotus’ challenge.
  • level
    • Level a warframe, and a primary, secondary and melee weapon to 30.
  • potatos
    • Apply an orokin catalyst or reactor to double the mod capacity of a weapon or warframe.
  • mods
    • Apply mods to a weapon or warframe whose cost totals 50 or more.
  • forma
    • Apply a forma to a weapon or warframe to add a polarity slot and reset its level.
  • Loading Screen Tips

his is a good place to reinforce some of these things. They’re broadly important concepts, and things worth reminding the player of. While they may not always be something players can act on immediately, the information is always relevant. Ex: a player might not have an orokin catalyst right now, but being told of their function may think “Oh man, I would love that on my Boar. I should look for those.” Similarly this would be a great place to explain that orokin blueprints are usually from special alerts. It assures the player not to worry about not finding them, but also enforces the importance of watching alerts.

  • (Optional/Future)Text Tutorial

An extremely brief, possibly single message box, tutorial that informs the player that Warframe’s main power progression is from modding. It’s unclear without testing if this would be necessary after implementing the above quests. Players may pick it up intuitively. But it’s an extremely important point to communicate in some form given player preconceptions about power levels in action/RPG games and where they come from.

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Movement

The intro is fantastic as a primer, but Warframe’s combat goes much deeper. I was surprised to learn about the Codex’s advanced movement tutorial after hundreds of hours of playing the game. It’s great, but burried away. We need to highlight this, and the full range of Warframe’s combat controls.

  • Quest

Require players to complete the advanced movement tutorial. This is a core piece of gameplay that will not be learned by many players organically. For UI economy it could be another stage, or element on the suggested quest on progression.

  • Bonus Objectives

Remind, and reinforce this learning with players by creating new objectives for performing various moves in-game. If at all possible, the objective itself should include a reminder of the controls to execute it.

Ex: Perform 10 bullet jumps (ctrl + space).

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Abilities

The intro doesn’t go far enough in teaching and emphasizing how your abilities work. Things like your energy bar, and orbs are intuitive for many gamers from an RPG setting. But I’ve watched streamers on their first play through need their chat to explain what those colorful orbs were on the ground after more than half an hour in-game.

  • Help Interface

This is a tough one to solve without dev time on expanding the tutorial. The best, fast solution I have is to add the Help Interface or expand existing UI on Arsenal and in-game screens where you view your abilities. These should explain the basics of energy, and include a small picture of an orb.

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Missions

The issue here is how to play different mission types. Many are intuitive, but there are nuances and variations. My friend and I (both hundreds of hours played) played Luna rescue for the first time when it came up on sortie. By luck it came up 2 times within a week. And hoo-boy. Between those days, and multiple failed attempts on each, we had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. Even after reading the wiki it took trial and error while on voice to figure it out.

  • Loading Tips

The perfect place for this, particularly if we can tie it to player account flags for how many times they’ve played a mode before. If that’s not easy on the loading screen itself, a brief pop up or overlay in-mission when first loading in would also work great. Include an option in the menu to turn off the tips early.

  • Icons

Simple quality of life inmprovement: differentiate nodes for different mission types with small icons to remove that extra clicking around to find a Defense on the current planet, etc.

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Crafting, Economy and Resources

Warframe’s economy is not well explained in-game despite being one of the game’s great strengths. We need to do a better job of showing players where and how to get the cool things they want. This can encourage engagement with clearer paths to goals, and maybe plat purchases.

By far the most common questions I see get asked of the DE rep in chat is where/how to get an item. We can preempt most of this with a more convenient solution.

  • Help Interface

Allow the Help Interface to be used on any screen that uses the UI elements for selecting weapons or frames. It will inform players of all options for obtaining the thing:

  • Plat
    • Direct purchase
    • Gained by trading
      • Explain trading, both mechanically and how in practice this means farming prime pieces. (possibly via a Codex page that Help Interface links to)
        • Explain prime pieces, and void missions. (possibly via a linked Codex page)
  • Crafted
    • Direct to where to find the blueprint (possibly via linked Codex page)
    • Direct to where parts are obtained, or link to Codex if that information needs to be gained from scanning.

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Drops

It’s easy to take this for granted, but Warframe never really teaches you what drops look like. As is you just eventually learn from experience, and realizing that the pickup feed at the bottom exists. A rare downside of Warframe’s beautifully minimal UI is elements can be easy to overlook in the flurry of combat.

  • Help Interface

On the mission summary screen enable the help interface. We already have a list of almost everything that drops in-game here. Let players click on it for a brief explanation of what it is, and an image of its model.  This can also enable an option to view models for common drops (orbs, and mission objectives).

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Buffs and Debuffs (deferred)

There is no good way to tackle this with the current tools. So I’m marking it for later revisiting. For example, I had an early idea to have the game snapshot buffs/debuffs when opening the in-game menu, and let you select each buff/debuff icon to see information about it. But this encourages stop and go habits for new players who will be naturally curious to learn what these are. This seems like an unacceptable solution given how much of Warframe’s core is about speed, flow, and immersion.

Possible Future Solution

Over the course of a mission log a list of all buffs and debuffs the player had on their warframe. After returning to the orbiter they would be able to see the list and select buff/debuff icons for more info. Even if this is a good solution I’m still excluding this section as “deferred” as I assume this could require a lot more dev time. Especially if it needs to get or verify information server-side it could require a lot of testing, and optimization.

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Rollout

This part is largely dependent on knowledge of DE’s infrastructure that I don’t have. That said, DE has an excellent resource for testing these systems in their Guides of the Lotus. Getting feedback from new players is difficult specifically because they’re not engaged with the game or its communication channels. Particularly those that leave, or are about to. But DE already has this network of helpers specificalyl for new players. We can use them as a way to specifically inform, and gather feedback to improve.

DE reps in public channels can help on the informing end. But it’s a poor avenue for feedback with how fast, and public it is.

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Some Context / About Me

Gonna quickly answer some questions to explain where I’m coming from (by all means skip if you don’t care).

Why am I doing this?

Well I love Warframe. I love DE’s approach to development. But I’ve seen people bounce off the game, not getting it, or intimidated by its scale. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Why listen to me?

I have a weirdly broad perspective on this.

I’m versed in game design, dev, UI + UX design, and I spent 6 years learning all about how players engage with games as a Blizzard Game Master.

This is why I’m focusing on tooltips. The simple truth is that nobody that needs to read something is going to read it. It doesn’t matter where you put it, or how. 1st-time questions on how to find this information won’t go away for the best UI in the world. But if it’s nearby, unintrusive, and clear we can vastly reduce follow up requests. In the case of DE reps, and Lotus’ Guides this will free up more of their time away from human-search-engine to the more personable interactions they’re famous for. This personality in support is something DE and Blizzard have in common. It makes a world of difference, and is a source of unspoken, magical fascination for many players.

Speaking from my experience there, it’s important to keep in mind that both Reddit and the forums are a very small subset of the player base. The real scale, and severity of new players’ issues is generally not something you’ll find in either. The player that knows to go to an online forum is miles ahead in their ability to assist themselves than many new players. Maybe on jokes alone a lot of gamers are aware these people exist. What most don’t see is that as seemingly lost as these inexperienced players are, they can be just as dedicated, and passionate for a game.

I don’t want anyone to miss out on that experience because the game was too obtuse for them. I’ve introduced almost a dozen people to Warframe in my years playing since the founder packs, and seen them encounter these issues. And they’re all experienced gamers. I play in waves, have been playing shooters since Wolfenstein 3D, and I even run into some of these issues. I was hundreds of hours deep before I learned about mid-air rolling. There’s so much to this game, and we can do better to communicate that.

I just want as many people as possible to be able to share my love of Warframe.

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