Warframe is a video game. Specifically, it’s a free-to-play looter-shooter.
For most of my readership, the second sentence needs a bit more elaboration. A “free-to-play” game is one that isn’t a transactional purchase, but instead costs nothing to play, but has an in-game economy where players can purchase items for actual-dollars as they progress, though an actual financial outlay is not required. Basically every game you’ve ever played on your phone that has had some sort of in-game currency is an example of this model.
A looter-shooter is a game that tends to focus more on a gameplay loop where one, as satirical reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw summarized it, “Go to the place and shoot the lads”. Essentially, one goes to a place, shoots a bunch of lads who apparently deserve to be shot (and who generally also believe that you deserve to be shot), and looks for new weapons and armor and upgrades to those things so that the next time you have to go to a place and shoot lads, you are more effective in doing so. Rinse and repeat for the duration of the game.
My good friend Andrew had recommended I try Warframe. It always bothered me when games have me make a bunch of decisions at the beginning, but I did that thing – I picked my class and my initial powers, and my preferred rifle and sword thing…and I set out to go to a place and shoot some lads.
I’m about 14 hours into the game now. I’ve shot many, many, many lads. Nameless faces, themselves looking to provide me with a complimentary lead transfusion or relieve me of my appendages through a short surgical procedure. I’ve visited a dozen maps and tried multiple mission types…and it has failed to engage me. Fourteen hours in, and I feel like zero progress has been made. I’m some sort of guardian that came back from the dead…I think…but that was addressed in a cutscene early in the game that was incredibly muddy in its exposition. “This was a thriving colony…until the Greneer came” is pretty much all of the backstory I got when I landed on my first planet to shoot lads. Who are the Greneer, why did they come to the colony, who did they subjugate, what have they gained by taking it over? I haven’t met a citizen of that planet so I have no personal investment that I’m aware of; why am I piling up dead Greneer for them? Maybe I’d feel I was on the wrong side of this if I heard what started this conflict, but the gameplay so far doesn’t give me any sense of why I’m justified in emptying ammo clips into fellow soldiers.
So, story isn’t its strong suit…fine. Story isn’t always necessary for a fun video game. I am sure nobody who has ever played Tetris has wondered where these boxes are coming from, why they are falling, or where the boxes go when they disappear. It’s a bit of a juxtaposition to be emptying ammo clips into Greneer without cause and calling it ‘just a gameplay loop like Tetris’, but let’s go down that road for a second…
The game’s loot mechanics have yet to pay off – I’m still using my initial weapon set. I haven’t come across a single weapon or armor pickup. There’s a crafting system, but every single ‘blueprint’ I could use requires resources I haven’t come across yet. I came across my first in-game merchant on my last play-through, but he didn’t have any weapons for sale. The second merchant sold fishing gear. I’ve gotten a few upgrades to my existing weapons, but I still haven’t gotten my first sniper rifle, and short of buying one, I see no way to get one. Fourteen hours in, and I’m sitting on a pile of resources that can’t be used because I don’t have enough other resources to make even low-end equipment. I’m shooting the same lads for the same nonsensical reasons with the same guns and I’m wearing the same armor. The Warframe Wiki has 6,354 articles as of this writing…and I’ve come across reasons for maybe a few dozen. There is indeed an encyclopedia’s worth of terms, but none of them have seemed to have any bearing on my ability to get new gear. This loop is broken.
Now, you might be thinking, “well duh, Joey, the reason for this is that you’ll pony up for the weapons you want! That’s the schtick of free-to-play games, right? Why are you surprised?” I’m surprised because there’s another free-to-play game that got me to compromise my principles and pay for in-game items…and the $100 in total I spent in it is more than I’ve paid for any other video game I’ve ever owned. I was constantly playing that game, to the point where I was rude to a friend and playing it while we were out getting sushi and I had to apologize to him because it was borderline addictive behavior. That game is Star Trek: Timelines.
Timelines is basically a computerized card game; its gameplay loop reminds me a lot of the Star Wars CCG that I played in my adolescence. One acquires different Star Trek characters, then upgrades them by acquiring items, which is done by going on missions. The missions involve picking a group of characters to do different tasks, assigning them to those tasks, a dice roll, and a pass/fail each task. Do a god enough job, you get a bunch of loot at the end, as well as experience points to level up your characters. It’s really easy to pick up and figure out. There are a few different in-game currencies, resource management is inherent throughout the game, and the game kept me coming back – and spending money on four different occasions – because I actually had fun doing it.
The fun I had playing Timelines was rooted in a sense of progress. I got to see characters level up, I got to complete missions with those leveled-up characters I couldn’t complete before. I got plenty of loot. Sometimes it was immediately useful, while other times it was enough to be indirectly useful and I was able to make progress in steps. For about six months I was playing daily; it straddled the line between ‘habit’ and ‘addiction’. It was my cruise to Bermuda in 2019 that broke the habit; with very limited internet I spent ten days not-playing it, which broke all my inertia-based streaks and made it far easier to not-return to it. I still drop in once every few months, play a round, and leave it…but the reality is that in that six month span, I spent money on that far-less-ambitious game.
So, what did Timelines do that Warframe doesn’t? Here it is…Timelines made the first hours rewarding. Its gameplay was obvious from the beginning, failing missions didn’t have a price tag, early character leveling was easy, basically every item drop had something useful, I started with a massive amount of the mission currency and early missions used very little of it. There were virtually no barriers to progress. When I failed my first mission, the way to advance my characters enough to solve it was obvious, and allowed me to do so without paying money. As I continued playing, I started wanting characters I didn’t have, sometimes for stats I needed to complete missions, and sometimes it was based on liking a particular character…and the store made sure I knew how to get them. The game has ways I can play with friends, or with strangers I meet in-game, but I can play all by myself if I want and never interact with another player.
Every single one of these attributes contrast with Warframe’s design for newcomers. I can’t build, the earned currency is useless, I can’t try different weapons, it seems to try and press me to play co-op missions and then simultaneously make me feel more ‘alone’ in-game when I do so. I might be more engaged with Warframe if I better understood the story, but I don’t. I might be more engaged with Warframe if I felt like the actions I took and the choices I made in the game impacted the game world, but they don’t. I might get some amount of enjoyment out of it if I was allowed to try any of the weapons beyond what I started with, but I’m not. There’s nothing for me there. I uninstalled it.
Here is where I finally compare it to faith: it is incredibly easy – and common – to have faith feel like Warframe if you’re new to considering eternity. This is doubly true if one has had a bad experience with faith in the past, or if one presently has a particular faith and is considering a different one. Christianity has a whole culture surrounding it, and it’s very, very easy for newcomers to be confused regarding what is directly Biblical and what is merely cultural. It’s easy, as seasoned Christians, to forget what it’s like to be in the “early levels”.
Even as Christians, it’s common to struggle with matters of the faith, the state of earth, and the omnipotence of God. It’s super common for me to look at a situation and be like, “uhm…God could totally solve this in, like, 20 minutes, and even that’s 19 minutes more than He would probably need, and it really wouldn’t be that much of an inconvenience for Him…yet this problem still exists, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”. One of the things that’s been a bumpy part of my faith is trusting that God is addressing the matter in some way or another, and that my perspective is limited and also is nowhere near understanding the nature of God’s ultimate desires and intents. It’s taken as long as it has to get here because it’s easy to use “He works in mysterious ways” as a hand-wave dismissal of the matter at hand, rather than see such situations as the sort of thing that requires a level of faith far higher than I presently have and trust in His perspective and goodness. If I, someone who has been a Christian for over 15 years (or 30, depending on how you count) can still have difficulties with the fundamentals, then it would be a pretty terrible thing for me to expect that from someone who is new to the faith, or who doesn’t ascribe to the faith at all.
I’m not saying that Star Trek: Timelines’ Skinner Box mechanics are the sorts of systems The Church should seek to implement. I’m also not saying that the primary reason anyone comes to Christ (or attends a particular church) is purely a function of the people, ignoring the role of God in both The Church and the life of the non-believer or new believer. What I am saying is that as long term Christians represent – or misrepresent – Christ in how we interact with those who don’t share our beliefs and/or our knowledge of what the Bible says. It is very easy for our representation of the Gospel to alter its perception, not because the Gospel has changed, but because we misrepresent it.
If we’re going be an encouragement to those around us to pick up their cross and follow Christ, we need to make sure that we aren’t treating them in a way that makes them feel like the way I did playing Warframe: lost, confused, alone, overwhelmed, powerless, and primarily concerned with parting me from my money. The Gospel is none of those things, but if we’re representing it as such with our lifestyles and our interactions, it will be of little wonder why we contribute to new believers deciding they are better off uninstalling.