Cancelled Warframe-inspired RPG highlights the destructive toxicity of online fandom
“This is a demonstration of a vocal minority of angry trolls getting what they wanted.”
Indie designer Spencer Campbell launched the Kickstarter campaign for Frame, a tabletop RPG “love letter” to Warframe on March 13th. Within hours, he had cancelled the project in the midst of a panic attack before locking down his social media. What happened in those few hours, and the response from two different communities reveals a contrasting understanding of IP law and creating art as a conversation.
“I'm a huge fan of the looter shooter genre, which means I'm also a huge fan of Warframe,” Campbell told Dicebreaker. The term “looter shooter” refers to a style of video game focused on group engagement, repeatable missions and an enjoyable loop that rewards incremental gear.
Destiny, developed by Bungie, is the most notable example of a looter shooter, but Digital Extreme’s Warframe has remained an extremely popular title with a dedicated community. In it, players are members of the Tenno race, who use full-body Frame weapons and wage war to protect a far-future Earth. It’s fast, frenetic, full of particle effects and reportedly takes its worldbuilding deadly seriously.
Campbell previously created a Destiny-inspired tabletop RPG called Light and then planned to use those foundational mechanics to produce something similar for Warframe. Initially written “in a 48 hour fever dream”, he gradually expanded on the idea, bringing on an editor, artist and layout specialist to help realise the idea.
“The game would be better served with a stellar team behind it rather than me trying to take on all of this on my own,” Campbell said. “Once I realised that I realised, okay, I need some funds to pull this off. I'll have to do a Kickstarter for it.”
To be clear, this project wasn't cancelled due to copyright issues. This project was cancelled because of a campaign of harassment.
In the game, players would have chosen from a variety of Frames that function much like classes, completing missions such as defending critical resources or eliminating enemy threats as a team. Each Frame would have boasted only three stats - Force, Flow and Focus - which affected a unique set of abilities and the d6 dice pool used to determine all outcomes. Campbell wanted it to feel like a conversation between the Frames and the GM, leaning into the power fantasy without getting bogged down in measuring distance or half-cover.
Campbell went into the Kickstarter campaign excited. He had planned to recoup the cost of contracting those who helped Frame become more than hastily scribbled notes, while hoping for enough excitement from both indie tabletop fans and Warframe players to apply a final layer of polish and increase the pay rate of his collaborators. Wrapped up in the impending launch, Campbell said he barely thought about an incident in January, when he teased the project to the Warframe Reddit community.
“The thread started off very positive and then eventually became this thing of like, ‘You're stealing’, ‘You’re fucked’, essentially. ‘You're gonna be in trouble for this’.” Campbell said he assumed this was “Reddit being Reddit” and never worried about courting the litigious eye of Digital Extreme.
Frame’s Kickstarter launched to immediate enthusiasm within the indie tabletop space, but that energy curdled once it reached other online ecosystems. “It unraveled in posts on Kickstarter, but mostly in messages sent to me through Twitter or Reddit,” Campbell said. “They started entering my Discord server and making demands like ‘You need to shut this down’. A lot of folks were immediately tagging Digital Extremes on stuff saying, ‘This dude is stealing your shit. What are you gonna do about it?’”
I couldn't do three weeks of this because I was only two hours into it and felt like dying.
It was too much for Campbell to handle. Panic set in as a vocal minority of the Warframe community seemed upset he would profit from what they saw as bald-faced IP theft. In a screenshot from a now-deleted post to the Warframe subreddit, one user addressed Campbell directly: “Fan projects are one thing, what you’re doing is stealing all of Warframe’s lore, modifying assets, and slapping a new label on it to turn a quick profit. You’ll quickly find that this community isn’t one to support blatant plagiarism, and I doubt DE is either.”
Campbell admitted that a rational part of his mind knew what the dissidents were saying held no water - Digital Extremes’s content policy covers explicit use of Warframe materials, but derivative work is largely protected under current American IP law. However, another part had entered a full fight-or-flight response.
Alright, unlocked, opening things up a bit.— Spencer Campbell (@GilaRPGs) March 15, 2021
Had the day to process.
There was no processing done yesterday, only anxiety attacks and a whole lot of sobbing.
Here's what happened, and what's going to happen.
“It said, ‘You fucked up, you're making a lot of people mad right now, you need to shut this down and get away from all of this,’” Campbell said. “I couldn't do three weeks of this because I was only two hours into it and felt like dying.”
So, he pulled the plug. The Kickstarter campaign was cancelled - Campbell posted a short notice on Twitter and then exited all online spaces to tend to his emotional state.
“I was heartbroken when I heard and then later saw the dogpiling from members of the Warframe community,” said Will Jobst. Jobst edited Frame and was the first person Campbell contacted after he started receiving aggressive and threatening messages from Warframe players. They see this response as a community management issue and hold Digital Extremes responsible for letting “a campaign of targeted harassment” be carried out against Campbell.
Jobst tried to reassure him that Frame couldn’t be the target of any Cease & Desist letters because no part of it violated current IP laws. The artwork and flavour may have been heavily inspired by Warframe, but everything printed in the book would have been original creations by Campbell and his collaborators - nothing copied, stolen, traced or lifted.
My little $2,500 Kickstarter isn't even a blip of a blip on their radar.
“I am not an IP lawyer, but I'm pretty familiar with the norms of the tabletop industry, and what constitutes free use. The members of the Warframe community that dogpiled Spencer and this project know significantly less about IP law. To be clear, this project wasn't cancelled due to copyright issues. This project was cancelled because of a campaign of harassment,” Jobst said.
Jobst and others in the tabletop community who expressed support for Campbell point out a fundamental misunderstanding of what IP law is and how it's used to protect artistic creations. Video games have a storied history of fan projects quietly developing, being discovered and celebrated online, then being crushed under legal notices from companies with enough power and resources to bankrupt a group of individuals.
But in many of those cases, the projects use art assets, code, character models and 3D environments - things explicitly protected by copyright - that provide developers and publishers a clear case for issuing Cease & Desist letters. Translating the mechanical and emotional feel of a video game into a non-visual medium doesn’t exactly lay a solid foundation for proof of infringement.
Speaking to him days after the incident, Campbell is left wondering why the community chose to react in the way it did. Given every opportunity and method to raise concerns about the material presented in the Kickstarter, small but extremely loud and invasive parts of the online player base chose instead to threaten and intimidate him.
A lot of folks were immediately tagging Digital Extremes on stuff saying, ’This dude is stealing your shit. What are you gonna do about it?’
“If your concern was that the art is very similar, that's something you can bring up in a way that I could then look at it and go, ‘You know what? You're right - we're gonna take a different approach with the art so that it doesn't feel as similar to you anymore,’” he said. To that point, he confirmed that the illustrator created original pieces for the Frame RPG and said her being a Warframe fan artist might explain the similarities to the video game models - he hired her based on those exact skills.
Campbell can’t help but think the misunderstood IP law accusations are a flimsy excuse for something else - someone besides Digital Extremes making money off a game the community views as a home. He called it a “weird form of like white knighting” that tends to characterise extremely zealous fandom. (Designer Aevee Bee explains this unfortunately common reaction in a Medium post that always seems to target a supposed out-group individual creating outside the accepted “canon”.)
“I wish I could show them how much money I make on RPGs in a year. It's so inconsequential, especially when you put it up next to Digital Extremes as a $100 million company,” he said. “My little $2,500 Kickstarter isn't even a blip of a blip on their radar.”
Dicebreaker reached out to Digital Extremes for comment and to ask about its legal policy regarding fan games. The company has a recorded history of working with fans, and Campbell said he would be all too happy to collaborate if DE was interested. It did not respond by time of publication.
Campbell has decided to take Frame back to the drawing board, swapping the Warframe aesthetic for something related, but far beyond any half-baked criticism from would-be lawyers and corporate defenders. Talks with designer and friend Nevyn Holmes “fueled me up in a way that I didn't expect,” he said.
He has also washed his hands of appealing to a certain online space, perhaps forever: “I have no intention of ever going anywhere near the Warframe community, in the near future or ever again.”