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‘Soulframe’ is the ‘Warframe’ creators’ follow-up to their decade-spanning hit

The newly-revealed title will be the ‘mirror universe version’ of ‘Warframe’ both in terms of setting and gameplay

(Washington Post illustration; iStock; Digital Extremes)
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Ever since its signature game released in 2013, Digital Extremes has been known largely as the “Warframe” studio. Today, that changes.

The developer describes its new game, “Soulframe,” as less of a sequel and more of a sister to “Warframe,” the online space ninja opus that’s come to span countless genres over a decade’s worth of updates. Steve Sinclair, who is stepping down from his decade-long tenure as “Warframe” director to help lead the new project, told The Washington Post the game will share “Warframe’s” focus on cooperative player-vs-environment combat and procedurally generated environments, but it will be “the mirror universe version of ‘Warframe.’ ”

This applies to setting: “Warframe” is a unique, flesh-mech-powered spin on the sci-fi genre; “Soulframe” will be a suitably strange take on fantasy. It’ll also apply to gameplay.

“Where ‘Warframe’ is focused on shooting, this one’s focused on melee,” Sinclair said. “Where ‘Warframe’ is super fast and crazy high-speed, this one’s going to be a lot more slow and heavy. But it still has a lot of similarities to the genre that we have experience in.”

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Even in the era of endlessly updated live service games, “Warframe” is a unique success story. Launched in 2013 to little fanfare and middling critical reception, the game nonetheless found an audience after Digital Extremes stitched numerous ambitious updates into it, creating the Frankenstein’s monster of the online gaming world. Slowly but surely, a humble cooperative shooter gained an emotional storyline, complex character progression systems, first-person murder mysteries, enormous spaceships you can pilot with friends, catchy musical numbers about labor rights, open-world planets, hoverboarding (with tricks), pets and fishing.

Fans have been able to witness and help shape the creation of many of these systems via development streams on Twitch that have also run since 2013. The result is a live service game guided by the whims of developers and players alike, with the question, “What’s the coolest possible thing we could do here?” at the heart of countless decisions.

But no game is limitless. Eventually, developers need a blank slate. For Sinclair and company, “Soulframe” represents an opportunity to go out on a familiar yet fresh limb and see where it takes them.

“Soulframe’s” world, as proposed, might be its most interesting character. The game will focus on themes of nature, restoration and adventure as inspired by works like “Princess Mononoke” and “The NeverEnding Story” — specifically, the collision between industry and nature. In service of that, the world will show its displeasure toward players who occupy it.

“The conceit [in ‘Soulframe’] is that the world itself is a little angry about what’s been done to it, and the grounds underneath tend to shift throughout the day,” said creative director Geoff Crookes. “So there’s going to be proceduralism within the cave networks and crevasses and so on underneath the world.”

The hub world, meanwhile, will be open, more akin to “Warframe’s” recently added open-world planets than its early foundation of corridors and space stations. Crookes wants “Soulframe” to have a focus on exploration that “Warframe” never had — for it to feel more alive to players on a moment-to-moment basis.

“I’m chasing that 'short session but high immersion’ thing where you sign in and you come out of your yurt and you are where you last signed off,” he said, “but the world feels like it’s been going on without you.”

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While combat will be slowly paced and melee-focused — and the game is literally called “Soulframe” — Sinclair and Crookes emphasized that they’re not trying to make a game in the vein of From Software’s genre-pioneering Souls series, which includes 2022 megahit “Elden Ring.” Or rather, they didn’t go into the project with that in mind.

“I think it certainly isn’t an inspiration for the initial ideas or what we wanted to do,” Sinclair said. “Ironically, other titles that were maybe borrowing from ‘Warframe’ might have been some sort of reverse influence. But ‘Elden Ring’ has absolutely been a subject of some conversation — maybe to do with camera, maybe to do with how excellent their combat pacing is. And you know, screw those guys, because damn, ['Elden Ring'] was absolutely fantastic.”

Sinclair and Crookes weren’t ready to discuss the exact details that set “Soulframe’s” melee combat apart from Souls games, and there’s a good reason for that: “Soulframe” is still extremely early in development. Basic concepts for the game began floating around at Digital Extremes back in 2019, but only a very small team — largely artists — had been dedicated to working on it until this February.

So why announce it now, when there’s hardly anything of the game to show? Sinclair acknowledged that it’s become a “meme” when companies reveal games with vague CG trailers and few concrete details, but above all else he wants to be upfront with players.

“Our work has been extremely community driven,” Sinclair said. “It feels disingenuous not to tell [players] about changes and who’s leading ‘Warframe.’ It’s way too early to announce ‘Soulframe,’ actually! But in terms of transparency and making sure they understand how we think, we tend to be a lot more open … than most studios.”

But Sinclair and Crookes don’t plan to announce “Soulframe” and then recede into a hush-hush development lab that’s all metal bars and tinted windows. After finding success with regular “Warframe” behind-the-scenes Twitch streams, they plan to give fans a look behind the curtain of “Soulframe” as early as possible. Ideally, that process will begin ASAP, and Digital Extremes die-hards will get to play a version of “Soulframe” within a year.

“The thing we want to try is to do similar to ‘Warframe,’ which is, ‘Hey, watch us make the game and get your hands on the rough bits and tell us how you feel,’ ” Sinclair said.

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This strategy might sound inadvisable at such an early stage, but Sinclair believes it’s not that far afield from what Digital Extremes did with “Warframe,” a game that’s now completely unrecognizable compared to its launch edition.

“Making it is kind of discovering it at the same time,” Sinclair said. “In my mind it’s like, well, if it doesn’t work, you just keep going until you’re dead or it does. There’s lots of things in ‘Warframe’ that were just, like, abject failures from a design perspective. And we just said, ‘OK, well, we’re not going to do that anymore. Just repair it and remake it.’

“It is exhausting and difficult. You get the thing where somebody’s made a spreadsheet of promises that you’ve broken. But I think with ‘Warframe,’ we were able to turn some people into champions [of the game] by speaking to them in a less guarded, less polished way.”

Sinclair also picked this moment to announce “Soulframe” because “Warframe” is about to receive a new open-world expansion, “The Duviri Paradox,” and he wants to demonstrate that the game’s being left in good hands.

“A decade on ‘Warframe,’ all of the people in leadership positions having been there for 10 years, there were not a lot of opportunities for other people to take leadership roles,” he said. “I wanted to move out of the way a bit and get some fresh ideas — have a chance for the next generation of our great team to kind of flex.”

That said, after so many years spent on the project, it has not been easy for Sinclair and Crookes to let go.

“It feels like when you leave home for the first time. It’s exciting, but it’s also kind of bittersweet,” Crookes said. “Even though we’re leaving, I can’t see us completely ignoring ‘Warframe.’ ”

“We’ve already had our hands slapped a few times,” Sinclair said with a laugh. “I have not been able to help myself in interfering, and it’s created some conflict.”

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