A trip to TennoCon

TennoCon – the official convention dedicated to Warframe and its fandom – recently concluded its second annual event in London, Ontario, drawing more than 2,000 attendees. How could a relatively obscure shooter draw an audience like this? Until recently, I’ve had trouble explaining why even I have so much affection for the game. While I’m not sure TennoCon completely explains this pseudo-exclusive fascination, it did give me some ideas.

Superficially, Warframe should be like any and every other multiplayer shooter, with micro-transactions and cosmetic hooks, out there soaking the market today. It doesn’t have the Disney-like brand appeal of Blizzard’s Overwatch, or quite the same level of brute force good looks as Epic Games’s Paragon. It doesn’t even get that much media coverage or advertising, outside of its seriously dedicated fan base.

Warframe‘s gameplay has changed dramatically since launch.

Yet that fan base is huge. Check out “What’s Being Played” under Steam’s free-to-play section, and you’ll almost certainly see Warframe in the top 10 — where it’s remained steadily for years. It just recently topped both 30 million registered users and set a new record for most concurrent players, nearly five years after its launch. Hell, I’ve personally got more than 720 hours played, according to Steam. And that’s just on the PC version.

More than almost any game I’ve ever played, Warframe is a completely different beast now than when it was at launch.

Warframe is a game that’s very easy to talk about with anyone who knows, well, about the game. And it’s damn near impossible to completely describe to anyone that doesn’t. More than almost any game I’ve ever played, Warframe is a completely different beast now than it was at launch. Development studio Digital Extremes has torn out and reworked nearly every bit of the game’s UI. The team’s added space and underwater combat to the otherwise land-based action game. While Warframe was once almost devoid of story, it now sports a sweeping tale with full dialogue and cutscenes.

For those who came along for that ride — for hundreds, if not thousands of hours played — it created a shared tapestry of experiences. You can refer back to when the sci-fi shooter’s star map looked a certain way. Fellow players won’t just know what you’re talking about — they’ll have a rough idea about when you’re talking about. It’s like the “Darmok” episode on Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the aliens who only speak in metaphors, but somehow even nerdier.

(I don’t know what’s glowing in that display case but I want it. -ed)

And just like fans have built communities and conventions around repeatedly viewing a TV show, the repetitious, yet ever-evolving Warframe is a perfect vector for shared language among strangers. As might be expected out of an online videogame community, a lot of what they talk about is displeasure. When that seeps into the real world, like it does at TennoCon, it can get a little surreal.

One undeniably memorable moment at TennoCon came at the keynote panel, in which a player decided used the chance to propose to their partner live on-stage. A touching moment! But almost as soon as they heard “yes,” the newly-engaged player then turned to the developer panel and asked if there were any plans to nerf Warframe‘s strongest support character.

This airing of grievances and demands had almost become a running joke up till that point. With so many esoteric features bolted on all over Warframe, there are plenty of rough edges to inquire about — even as the quality of its core running, jumping, and high-speed combat caulks the cracks a bit. Digital Extremes doesn’t just field the inquiries with good humor and good taste, though. The company actively encourages them.

Full body cosplay in July is not to be taken lightly.

Full body cosplay in July requires some serious commitment.

Being there in person, then, was sort of like completing a circuit. To gripe about character stats immediately after proposing marriage, even as a joke, shows the depth to which Warframe’s most devoted players care about the game. When the developers answered those complaints directly, and called for more during the day’s many panels, you could tell they cared about the kinds of questions their decisions cause players to ask.

That’s almost certainly not unique to TennoCon. I shudder to think how many complaints Blizzard must field at Blizzcon every year. But seeing that direct, personal flow between the game, its community, and its makers was still novel to me. That’s especially true since, until last year, Warframe was never the kind of game I expected to justify its own convention in the first place.

That feedback loop between developer and player didn’t end at conversation, either. TennoCon 2017 had a kind of running, physical theme. There was an archery range, for one: a nod to some of the game’s most popular weapons. The range was even laid out with targets modeled after in-game enemies. Attendees had four-or-so minutes to sprint between marked zones and topple them with limited ammo.

It wasn’t fancy, but it was strange. In my 700-ish hours of game time, I’ve shot a lot of digital arrows into Warframe‘s collection of baddies. Replicating that motion in real-life, even against paper targets and blunt arrows in some dark corner of a convention center, was like low-fi mixed reality. Whereas other games have adopted virtual “experiences” to give more immersive glimpses of their digital worlds (at least in theory), TennoCon brought actual reality gimmicks. And they kind of worked, in that they married physical sensations to the in-game actions players have performed again, and again, and again in the never-ending world of Warframe.

The scavenger hunt area making best use of equipment hardcases and army surplus.

30 second scavenger hunts in meatspace? Inspired.

Besides the archery range, there was also a scavenger hunt for “Syndicate Medallions” (above) — another in-game activity reproduced in reality. And while it was booked solid before I could sign up, TennoCon’s Warframe escape room sounded awfully similar to the “rats in a maze” vibe one gets from the game’s level design. Digital Extremes director Steve Sinclair even described the design as such more than once during the show.

Seeing that direct, personal flow between the game, its community, and its makers was still novel to me.

What’s interesting about all of these activities is that they actually took advantage of TennoCon’s nature as… well, a convention. Things like the Plains of Eidolon reveal would have hit me just as hard on a livestream (give or take the infectious energy of the fans who lost it when the big update finally revealed its new, open-air gameplay). Those crossed wires between physical and digital actions, however, could only occur if you were physically there in London, Ontario.

Hundreds of hours of repetition and attention show that I’m pretty invested in Warframe. Using a physical convention, perhaps as a status symbol, to tie real-world memories and in-game actions just makes that investment feel more tangible. Now, if TennoCon reflected back on the players in more ways than just having DE answer questions — maybe with in-game rewards or developments based on con activities — that circuit between the physical and the virtual really would feel complete.

One of Warframe‘s more controversial features are its in-game shoutouts to other game news sites. (Nice.)

The fact that I’m even thinking about this as hard as I am, though, just reinforces what I already knew: it’s extremely easy to get sucked into the shared space of Warframe. Whether that’s thanks to the weight of time and shared experiences, the familiarity of repetition, raw quality of gameplay, or (most likely) a mix of all three, it still strikes me as odd that a game about shooting robots and space clones can get its hooks in so deep.

The game’s sophomore convention may not have provided me with a total understanding of why I and so many people care about the game so intensely, but it did show me a more personal look at that intensity firsthand — both among other players and myself. It will be interesting to see where TennoCon, and Warframe itself, goes from here.

All photos provided by the author.

UPDATE (1:41 PM): We’ve edited the first paragraph to include the official stated attendance numbers.