Mucking Out The Stables of Horse Games
A friend, who was an enthusiast of a little known genre of niche games known as horse games, told me how she used to play these all the time as a child. What’s more, as she divulged, is that there’s a thriving community dedicated to this genre too—such as a website dedicated solely to horse games known as The Mane Quest, run by game designer Alice Ruppert.
In particular, The Mane Quest was the result of Ruppert frequently pointing out incorrect depictions of video game horses on Twitter. One of the most common responses she received was, “I thought I was the only one who cared about this!” To investigate this, Ruppert has conducted extensive reports on the subject, including interviewing horse games developers.
But what are horse games, exactly? Are these just games featuring horses, or is it more than just that one-dimensional definition? The distinction is important for Ruppert and the community; a horse game is one that’s primarily focused on horses. Take My Riding Stables: Life With Horses as a recent example of the genre: it’s about restoring a past-its-prime stud stable back to its former glory. Or, that’s what it’s supposed to be: the truth is you’ll spend most of your time doing repetitive and deeply boring horse care mechanics, like cleaning the hooves of horses for no particular benefit. Or you can go for a ride, but horse-riding is set to a fixed path that barely requires any player input beyond speed and the occasional jump.
Conversely, AAA games like The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are games with horses, rather than horse games. While these titles may feature horses prominently, they serve as little more than transportation in those games. The exception is Red Dead Redemption 2, which is one AAA game that’s well-regarded among horse game fans for depicting close bonds with their horses, as you can brush, feed, and spend time with them.
While Ruppert is delighted that these games are introducing horses to a bigger crowd, she finds that they don’t offer enough variety in horses, interactions, and horse-focused gameplay. What she and the community crave for is a true, high-quality horse game where they’re more than just modes of transport—and where they can build relationships with accurately-depicted horses and capture the thrill of riding in a virtual space. But that’s still a long way from happening.
The history of horse games
The horse game boom began in the early and mid-2000’s, with the genre exploding in popularity across Europe. Horse games then come in a variety of entries that run the gamut, including riding simulators (Let’s Ride! The Rosemond Hill Collection), stable management and horse breeding simulators (Let’s Ride! Championship Dreams), and even detective games about horse-riding teens (Die Pferdebande und der falsche Ritter). The period saw many smaller publishers try their hands at their own horse-themed edutainment titles, but with mostly disappointing results; many horse games ranged from flawed but loveable to practically unplayable. I’ve seen issues ranging from overly simplistic and boring horse care mechanics in Mary King’s Riding Star, to a game so choppy that it’s more like watching a slideshow than an interactive experience in My Riding Stables: Your Horse World. But for horse game fans, these inspired a lifetime dedication, despite these being mostly poorly-made shovelware.
Right now, the heaviest hitter making waves among the horse game community is Equestrian: The Game, a mobile game which claims to be a detailed horse game featuring riding, stable management, various care activities, and more. Kavalri Games, the studio behind Equestrian, has boasted of the game’s realism in horse varieties and activities like dressage, breeding, and competitions.
This looks like a promising start for horse game fans, but Ruppert is still somewhat apprehensive about Equestrian. Aside from its stiff horse animations, she’s concerned it might not be as successful as horse fans want it to be. In other words, they’re hoping that Equestrian can set a high bar for future horse games: they want Equestrian to be so well-received, that it will inspire more developers to create more thoughtful and elaborate horse games.
A new wave of horse games
That said, what’s heartening is that Equestrian is made by a team that’s clearly invested in making a solid one, which is admittedly a rarity in this industry. Talking to a developer who worked on the poorly-received 2006 release Riding Star 2, who described the experience of working on a “C-budget horse game nobody particularly cared about” as “soul crushing”, Ruppert discovered there were no dedicated game designers assigned to the project within the studio, but only programmers who had to figure out how to make the game based on a list of planned features. These typically come with vague descriptions like “maybe something with mouse gestures or so” for a dressage mode.
It’s an unthinkable concept for most AAA and indie games perhaps, but such an approach was not uncommon during the earlier boom of horse games, which explained their subpar quality. These were mostly made on the cheap, as publishers saw these as an opportunity to make a quick buck out of selling horse games to kids—one that’s mostly made up of young girls who are perceived as not knowing what makes a good game, and would probably be satisfied with just any titles that heavily features horses. In that regard, Kavalri Games’ sincerity to make a realistic horse game with Equestrian is a refreshing display of authenticity.
Advocating for better horse games
While their favourite games are nowhere near as popular as mainstream fare, it’s clear that horse game fans are no less passionate. But the perception that horse games are only for young girls is such a frustrating and shortsighted concept, driven by an undercurrent of sexism, that has led to some truly awful horse games being developed. Not only does this limit the design and marketing of horse games, it may have also alienated more video game fans from a fascinating genre—and potentially some of their favourite games. Marketing exclusively to young girls might have been the conventional wisdom back in the day, but perhaps it’s time to try something more inclusive.
That is why Ruppert has set up The Mane Quest: to advocate for better horse games, and help non-fans understand the community around these games. Today, the website has become the internet’s primary source of horse game discussion, with a Discord server for people to talk about their hobby. A few projects have even sprung from The Mane’s Quest’s Discord community, such as a wiki that lets people rediscover the horse games they played in their youth.
“I wish more people who make, manage, and fund these projects would take a moment to see the absolute enthusiasm with which this community embraces new promising projects. I wish anyone who animates a horse would look at reference footage and understand how horses’ joints and weight-bearing legs work. I wish we had a mainstream game industry with some willingness to explore these underserved niches, and I wish more indie dev teams were aware of this market gap,” concludes Ruppert.