The world of gaming is a $300 billion dollar global juggernaut. If you’re not a “gamer,” chances are you know someone who is. It might be your kid, grandkid, or your bestie, but whomever he/she/they are, no doubt they spend large quantities of indoor time playing games on their Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5.
Once dismissed as the chosen pastime of nerds, games have gotten so sophisticated with their complex and elevated characters and storylines that several have been turned into blockbuster feature films such as Tomb Raider and Mortal Combat.
For gamers who love horses there is no shortage of equines in games like Red Dead Redemption or the Zelda series. But there is a corner of the gaming world where real-life horse people gather to play games that feature and/or focus on the horses as characters, or that simulate the experience of owning and competing in equine sports.
We spoke with Alice Ruppert, a Zurich-based gamer and video game developer, who launched The Mane Quest, a site devoted to horses in video games and video games about horses.
HORSE CANADA: Are you a rider or horse owner IRL?
ALICE RUPPERT: I’ve been riding horses for most of my life, but have never owned my own. I started taking weekly riding lessons at eight and kept that up at the same barn for just about 20 years. I recently started riding at a new barn, where I take lessons and go on hacks.
HC: How did you get into the gaming world? And how would you describe your job to non-gamers?
AR: I’ve always played video games, and unlike some of my childhood friends I never felt any need to “grow out of it.” Instead, my gaming tastes evolved, and I started looking at games as a serious medium much like movies, TV and books. When researching universities, I realized that the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHDK) offered a Bachelor’s Program in Game Design: I realized this video game education would combine lots of things I loved, from writing and narrative to art to computer science and logic and of course gaming. [My current job] as a creative producer my job includes project management and organization, communication between team and stakeholders, exploring and defining priorities for the game’s development and keeping track of everyday progress as well as the overall vision. That also includes playtesting the work-in-progress game and providing feedback to artists, coders and designers for what to improve and when to call it done.
HC: How did your gaming work evolve into horse focused games?
AR: I played horse games as a kid (Mein Pferdehof being a favourite) and always looked closely at the horses in games like Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption or The Witcher 3. Sometime in 2018, I started commenting on these things on Twitter and realized people were interested; some of my game developer friends were fascinated by how much there was to say about video game horses and all the ways they were often “done wrong.” And I started meeting people online whose reaction was “finally someone cares about horses in games as much as I do.” [This] casual commentary turned into launching The Mane Quest, a website dedicated to horses in video games. I did TMQ as a hobby for three years, and then when I quit my job last year, what came up next were several interesting horse game-related opportunities, including my current job at Aesir Interactive.
HC: What is the most difficult thing about creating horses in video games?
AR: I think their movement is just very special. Those who love horses know exactly how it has to look, but anyone who hasn’t paid close attention to horse motion before will be happy with much less accuracy. Video games are a lot more careful about how humans look, because everyone will spot if that’s wrong. When it comes to adding horses to video games, I think most errors just happen out of a combination of ignorance and budget limitation: game creators are not aware which details make sense to include in their games without a ton of extra cost (some examples here), and animators either don’t have the time or resources to properly seek and use quality reference footage. It may sound simple; you look at a video of how a horse moves and then you animate it accordingly. But in reality, animators constantly have to simplify and compromise, and animators without an eye for horse locomotion end up stylizing in ways that look off to horse enthusiasts.
HC: How would you describe The Mane Quest site and its role in the gaming world?
AR: The Mane Quest and my efforts to take these types of games seriously are definitely having an effect in the horse game niche: I know from the creators of My Riding Stables and Horse Club Adventures that my reviews are seriously being taken into account when planning upcoming games. These niche games often don’t get press attention at all, so my posts on them end up getting the most visibility, which in turn means that games as flawed as the My Riding Stables series have to deal with potential business partners learning of said flaws. I know that some of my articles ‒ like the one about how to get horse care mechanics right ‒ were actively discussed and considered during the development of several of these games.
HC: Tell us about your latest horse-themed game Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch
AR: Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is an open world exploration, buildup, and adventure game. The player is tasked with bringing their rundown family estate back to its former glory and he or she do that by exploring the world for resources and blueprints, building up their home base with stables, pastures, washing stations and more, and breeding and training ever better horses to participate in races across the open world. What’s groundbreaking about Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is that the game was made with the equestrian audience in mind from the start, instead of only aiming at children. This has let the team add game systems like the building management, and horse breeding that’s closely inspired by real-life genetics. The game will raise the bar for what this niche can offer, and I hope that will inspire other publishers and developers to invest more into this often-underserved genre.
HC: If one is new to gaming, what horse themed game is the best one to start with?
AR: I have to say Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch of course, if you can wait until November! But beyond that, it always depends what the player is looking for and what has kept them from gaming so far. Star Stable Online, Rival Stars Horse Racing, Wildshade or Equestrian the Game all offer quite suitable entry points, as does Aesir’s own Windstorm: Ari’s Arrival. I recommend a look at my Best Horse Games list if you’re trying to get started on PC or console!