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Indie developers are trying to make horse games that don’t suck. It’s not easy

Video game horses tend to play a fairly uncomplicated role, at least in mainstream titles. Like semi-sentient meat bicycles, they often exist as little more than a way to make the player travel faster, jump farther or occasionally defy the laws of physics. With the exception of Red Dead Redemption 2, an outlier beloved for its equine verisimilitude and breadth of riding-related activities, horses in video games are generally emotionless props, notorious for janky animations and unnatural anatomy.

That’s fine for most players’ needs, but for those who are drawn to certain games in part because they have horses, there’s a lot to be desired. Especially since the alternatives — dedicated horse games — haven’t proven to be much better. The genre is plagued with shoddy graphics, unoriginal storylines and drawn-out, repetitive caretaking tasks like hoof-picking. While horse games of the aughts, like the Barbie Horse Adventures series, sparked a lasting interest in the niche for a lot of young gamers, we’ve yet to really see what their maturation can look like for the now-adults still chasing that high.

The biggest actual horse game today, the decade-old MMORPG Star Stable Online, is distinctly tween-girl-coded. Suffice it to say, there’s a hole in the market as big as a Clydesdale. But some extremely passionate developers are trying to change that.

Alice Ruppert, who runs The Mane Quest — the go-to blog for all things relating to horse games — has cultivated a community of “horse-interested gamers and game-interested equestrians” over the last five years by churning out news, reviews, analyses and wishful editorials covering the latest developments in the genre. As a lifelong equestrian who also has a professional background in game design, she’s become an authoritative voice at the intersection of these two worlds.

The way Ruppert sees it, dedicated horse games have long been stuck in place. Budgets for new titles over the years were kept tiny based on the assumption that these games would only land with a very small niche of gamers, namely young girls. Limited resources resulted in the creation of subpar games, with “basic mistakes of game design and usability,” causing those games to be poorly received. Bad sales and negative reviews ensured future projects wouldn’t be given bigger budgets, and the cycle repeats.

There’s been a shift more recently, she says, “as the game development space is getting democratized and more people start trying to make games.” That has introduced a host of new issues, like “very amateur teams launching really big projects… and not being able to deliver,” Ruppert said, but she thinks that’s “a better problem to have than just nobody making any games at all.”

After Ruppert panned Aesir Interactive’s Windstorm: Start of a Great Friendship (Ostwind in its original German, based on a movie), the studio got in touch and later brought her on as a consultant and eventually creative producer for its 2022 title, Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch. The game is far from perfect, Ruppert admits, but despite joining the project at a pretty late stage, she says she was able to make some contributions toward creating an experience that could be appreciated by people who actually know and love horses.

Aesir Interactive

That included helping to correct funky details that might not have registered to a non-equestrian but would stick out like a sore thumb to anyone in that world — like a bizarre transition when changing a horse’s leading leg in a canter. “Whenever I spotted something that was wrong, I was like, okay no, we need to fix this because the horse game crowd is going to care,” she says.

Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is an open world adventure game where players can explore on horseback, tame wild horses, breed and train horses, and maintain their own ranch. It takes a realistic approach to breeding and genetics, and the horses each have unique personality traits. The team crowdsourced horse names, too, so the game’s automatic name generator spits out the names of community members’ real horses.

Still, the game drew some harsh criticism after its release, and the reviews overall have been mixed, with common complaints of game-crashing bugs and a world that feels empty. (The team released a final patch for the game in April devoted entirely to bug fixes.) It has its fans, though, and if there’s one thing players seem to agree on, it’s that the horses and the riding mechanics look great.

Aesir also announced last month that it’s releasing a remastered version of Windstorm: Start of a Great Friendship. The revamped game includes improvements like “replacing those horse animations that I’ve been complaining about for the past five years,” wrote Ruppert — who has separated from the studio — in a blog post. It’s slated for release in June.

As more and more efforts from the horse games community pop up, “The really promising developments are going to come when either those amateur projects learn and grow into something better, or when more experienced indie devs start picking [them] up,” Ruppert says.

One such example she points to is The Ranch of Rivershine, a horse game developed and published by Canadian studio Cozy Bee Games that’s currently in Early Access. The studio, founded by developer Éloïse Laroche, focuses on cozy games (think Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing), as the name would suggest, and already had a handful of highly rated titles under its belt before putting out The Ranch of Rivershine. That includes Capybara Spa and the baking sim Lemon Cake.

While it may not be “the horse game to end all horse games,” Ruppert says, “I do think it does a lot of things really well.” The Ranch of Rivershine takes a format Cozy Bee Games has shown it excels in, and applied horses. It isn’t groundbreaking — players are tasked with building up their own ranch, where they can breed, take care of and train horses — but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. There are trail rides, cross country competitions, villagers to interact with, auctions and lots of pretty horses. Unlike many of its peers, The Ranch of Rivershine has mostly positive reviews.

Arthur Morgan rides a brown paint horse through a shallow body of water

Rockstar Games

To this day, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands widely accepted as the best horse game out there despite it not technically being a horse game. Red Dead Online has drawn hordes of equestrian-minded players over the last few years for organized in-game meetups, trail rides, horse shows and other horse-centered activities. The horses themselves, though they’re not without flaws, are far more lifelike than others heretofore have achieved. And the game places importance on actually bonding with them.

It’s so good, it’s become a pain point for projects that have emerged in its wake. AAA games like Red Dead Redemption 2 set a bar that is “almost impossible for an indie game studio to reach, which puts a lot of pressure on creators,” says Jonna Östergren, a 3D animator working with the Hungary-based developer Mindev Games on Unbridled: That Horse Game. Nevertheless, they’re aiming high.

Engadget caught up with the Mindev team recently over a Discord group chat. “I have loved horses for as long as I can remember,” Östergren says, they’ve “been a big part of my life.” So have video games, and in 2017, she started learning how to make them using tools like Unity and Blender. Östergren by chance connected with Jasmin Blazeuski, the founder of Mindev, years later while working on her own horse game that had hit a dead end. “I had big aspirations but I was alone and I was trying to learn all the things, from coding to animation. It was a lot,” Östergren said.

After talking with Blazeuski, “I offered to help them make some 3D models if they needed it. One thing led to another and I became a much bigger part of the team than I had first imagined.”

Unbridled’s creators envision the game as one that allows the player a lot of freedom. “You decide how you want to play and manage your stables,” Blazeuski said. “If you want to make money over competitions, breeding horses or farming — it is all up to you.” They’re striving for realism, in terms of the horses’ physical appearances but beyond that, too. “I have never had a horse game with a simple yet so cute detail such as horses looking outside the stable. Casual, real things horses do, we want them all in the game.”

The emotional elements are crucial. Even in games where horses are the main subject, they often “lack personality and liveliness,” Östergren said. “They are not really their own being with their own mind… That is something that I would love to change in our game. Not making the horse a nuisance that never does what you want it to do, but to make it so that your horse feels alive in the world that you are in as your character.”

The team, also including 3D artist and longtime equestrian, Sara Wermuth, points to childhood games like Horse Illustrated: Championship Season, Riding Champion: Legacy of Rosemond Hill, Pippa Funnell: Ranch Rescue, My Horse Friends, and Pony Girl (1 and 2) as sources of inspiration. Only Unbridled’s programmer, Amon Ahmad, comes from outside the world of horses and horse games, and had to watch “a lot of gameplays from different horse games” to get up to speed.

Between the old and new games, “I noticed that nothing has actually ever changed, apart from the graphics or the style,” Ahmad said. “New functions, new gameplays, new ideas in general are missing.” The team aims to avoid those trappings with Unbridled, which is being built meticulously using the Unreal Engine.

A rider and horse stand in a field under a full moon

Mindev Games

Horse games have a tendency toward tedious and repetitive tasks or mini-games, which can be detrimental “no matter how much detail and love was put into it,” Östergren said. They don’t want to go down that road. And Unbridled will have unique systems for dressage and jumping to give players a challenge, without predetermined points that will guarantee a well-executed jump, according to Ahmad. Instead, players will have to train their horses and develop a feel for the timing.

But making a game of this scope that is fun, engaging and realistic can be a slow process, not to mention an expensive one. The team’s recent Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its funding goal, and it’s relying on avenues like Patreon for financial support to see the project through. An update posted in February noted that half of the team has picked up part-time jobs to bring in additional income.

The animation alone is a huge undertaking. The complexity of horses’ bone structure, all the bending points, plus “getting the gaits right and all those little details of movement is very difficult [to do] by hand,” Blazeuski said. But, “we will take our time to perfect everything.”

Unbridled: That Horse Game has been in a closed beta since November, allowing the developers to get direct feedback from the community, but the team estimates it’ll be a few years yet before the full release.

Astride, another horse game being developed by a small team with big ambitions, is setting itself apart with its focus on Nordic horse breeds, like the Norwegian Fjord Horse and the Norwegian Dole, as well as gaited breeds like the Icelandic Horse. The studio behind it, Raidho Games, was formed in 2021 after Maja Nygjelten (CEO and concept artist) and Mathilde Kvernland (Community Manager and 3D artist) decided to get serious about their idea to create the horse game they’d always been in search of.

A rider and horse jump over a log in a field next to a training area

Raidho Games

They put word out on a Norwegian Facebook group for gamers and ultimately expanded the team to five people, including fellow equestrian Tirna Kristine Mellum, who joined as a 3D artist and Project Manager. Using their combined experience with horses in real life to guide the process, Mellum said, “We are hoping to have a horse game where the horses feel like horses.”

“We know what to look for in references” to provide their animator, Marius Mobæk Strømmevold, so the horses’ gaits and other movements look true to life, Nygjelten said. “I think that’s very important, to [not] take a random animation from YouTube” but instead provide him with references that they’re confident show the proper result.

The main focus of the game at launch, which is somewhat scaled down from the original vision, will be on breeding horses in the fictional Scandinavian town of Eldheim and training them to compete. “Most [horse games] have show jumping as the first feature, including us… [but] I think we will stand out a lot with the breeding and everything,” Nygjelten says. “We have very realistic horse genetics,” according to Mellum, and that will initially be what the game leans into most.

The early gameplay is centered around the stable and interactions in the Eldheim community rather than grand adventures. It’s being designed to be an online multiplayer game, so players will also be able to meet up with friends. Down the line, the plan is to implement more complex storylines and quests to keep building out the experience.

The project has had some successful funding efforts, including a Kickstarter campaign in spring 2022, but it’s also suffered delays. An Early Access version of the game was released behind schedule last June to very mixed reviews. But, the team emphasizes, it’s still a work in progress.

Astride still has some years left of development,” says Nygjelten, “The game will continue to grow every single day, and it will probably be very different in a year.”

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