There have been very few instances in my life where an experience has corrupted my spirit to the point where I’ve felt gullibly desecrated. I’ve been screamed at by crying high school girls post-graduating, watched my friend’s slow descent into a pathologically naive hermit, and sat through the entirety of Cloud Atlas, none of which I would describe as enjoyable or satisfying. Now, after sinking ~60 hours into it, I can add my experience of trying to play Warframe to this harrowing list.
My experience with Warframe, much like the other contenders, started off harmlessly enough. Those high school girls weren’t originally crazy, Cloud Atlas had gotten some good reviews, and Warframe was free. I couldn’t afford anything better anyway, so I decided to give it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised given that most of the reviews I’d read touted it as less than average. The controls were still pretty clunky, the free-running mechanic was obviously broken, and the melee system was still underdeveloped, but what was I expecting from a game still technically in beta? I looked past the glaring flaws and assumed that it would get better with time. This was my first mistake.
As a free to play title, Warframe had to convince me that it was a worthy investment, not in money, but in time. It did this through the tried and true method of levelling up. Just about everything you acquired could be levelled: warframes, weapons, mods, your account, even missions could be levelled up to give you bigger rewards. The old WoW power leveller inside of me could taste the potential, that rich aroma of exploitable systems, and this was the perfect place to feed it amongst space ninja caviar of wasted time. I could just as easily spend a couple bucks to buy better equipment or xp boosters (we’ll get to that soon…), but I was above that. I didn’t want to temporally skimp on the game’s progression, I wanted to earn my new unlocks. This was my second mistake.
As it turns out, the game is designed to be played in squads. You grab three friends, do a few missions, and then progress at a snail’s pace. Together. As friends. No way in hell that was ever going to work; my friends were about as enthusiastic to play Warframe as I was about contracting genital thrombosis. Thankfully, the game had an online matchmaking system that would group players of similar levels… And yet, conveniently changed whatever mission I needed to do to conform with whoever was hosting the group. Accepting that I was never going to progress with a group, I decided to try going solo as much as possible.
For the most part, it went pretty well. I was enjoying slicing and dicing enemies, even if it did feel completely broken mechanically. My friends would occasionally humour my fleeting attempts to drag them into my stupefying grind, and we would laugh at how ridiculous we all looked. When they left, I would keep going, making sure I never became addicted from level-lust. The game would occasionally reward my login frequency by offering a 40% off coupon for the store, which fed my stubbornness to progress without resorting to the filthy payment tactics of mere casuals.
At around the 40 hour mark, I started peaking. The group design became evident: missions were becoming near impossible to complete, and certain defence missions were beyond me without waiting for infestation to change the mission type. It was around here where I thought it would be a good idea to start up a clan, primarily due to my inability to progress, but also to build stuff from what I had on hand (In Cloud? On server? Locality is weird in virtual space). I would be it’s only active member, but hey, it wasn’t like I hadn’t made it this far alone anyway. Besides, I totally needed a ninja bow to match my real-life air of mystique.
This was when everything started falling apart.
When you create a clan, all of your operations are done through the clan dojo. The key material to building a successful dojo is forma, used to make research labs, grand hallways, and other badass rooms. Naturally, forma is a high-tier material, unlocked by combining the rarest of end-game materials together or completing the highest-tier missions. As a solo player, I couldn’t get to the missions with those materials – let alone beat them – because… I was a solo player. I scratched my head over this dilemma until I found out that forma could also be obtained through login rewards. An idea conjured itself into my desperate brain. As long as I logged in every day, I didn’t even need to bother playing the game; I could just log in and quickly exit each day until I got what I needed.
Suddenly, I wasn’t watching The Matrix, these girls weren’t making a joke, and Warframe had turned against me. I couldn’t progress any further without forma, and without it my investment was for naught. I didn’t want to bother playing a game to get pointless rewards, but I couldn’t just drop it either. I wanted to get further, no matter what it took. Of course, the game wasn’t just going to give me the rarest and most valuable material in the game… Unless I spent money for it, that is.
The game had a very passive-aggressive stance when it came to buying things. On the one hand, it very rarely bugged me to purchase new weapons or items from the in-game store. It was a painstakingly long, monotonous, and repetitive grind though, a natural deterrent from going through the game without cracking your duct tape wallet open. Boy, wouldn’t it be nice to spice things up with a new weapon or a better warframe for $2.99 from the store? Huh, forma is on sale today. Too bad that would be compromising my principles.
My stubbornness took an awkward turn. I could just as easily have paid the couple of dollars it would take to get some forma, or just stop playing the game entirely, but I was ‘above’ that. I wasn’t employing the well thought out argument of not feeling comfortable paying money for the incomplete, clunky game I was playing (in the loosest sense); I had entered the mindset of an irrational, obtuse completionist. I was going to get that forma for free, and I was going to build that !#$%ing dojo if it killed me, and so help me, I would do it for free.
I kept coming back every day for the sole purpose of logging in and logging out, vainly waiting for the forma I was entitled to. It turned into a game of login rewards, and I was losing. After long enough, I forgot why I had started playing the game at all, but that didn’t stop me logging in and out, sighing every time I got Sentinal xp for that Sentinal I couldn’t get.
This went on for a few weeks.
Then I missed a day due to my adorably forgetful nature. I was filled with the hellfury of Angron, The Easily Angered But Surprisingly Charming. How could I be so idiotic as to forget this, this stable source of whatever the hell I was getting for a game I’d forgotten the meaning of. I was inwardly outraged, self-loathingly gutted, spectacularly confused, and even a little hurt at what had happened. Well… A lot of hurt. Like, I was three steps away from becoming a hitman to bring others the same suffering that had been inflicted unto me by a free to play video game. It sounds ridiculous when I write it out, but at the time I wasn’t laughing.
I looked at myself after a few minutes of dealing with what just happened (read as ‘flipping every desk conceived by carpentry’) and realised that this wasn’t right. People can invest certain amounts into games while others can invest a whole lot more. For some, that investment is time, effort, and dedication, while others just spend a couple (thousand) bucks to save themselves the pain. Apparently, I had invested too much, becoming too connected with the monotonous grind to really see how it had affected me. I thought typing a 12-letter password into a small box before clicking 3 boxes constituted an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.
So, I stepped away. I wasn’t going to spend money on it and I couldn’t get any further without a dedicated cohort, so frak it. I definitely enjoyed the game, but now looking at it freaks me the hell out. I sunk so much into it and my reaction to something so trivial as not acquiring an imaginary material made me feel uncomfortable with having this weirdly volatile blob of water filled membrane in my skull. The worst part is, I still feel like playing it. Whether this counts as addiction or not is up to a medically trained psychiatrist, but I know for certain that I’m never going to get that attached to a grind ever again.
As for the game itself, it sits in my Steam library as a constant reminder that the things you love doing can destroy you from within… And no, that wasn’t a reference to my hermit friend. Although it does explain a lot…