“Working on a horse game nobody cared about was soul crushing” — The Unenthusiastic Making Of Riding Star 2
In the middle of the 2000’s, the horse game genre was blooming and booming. Where American and British horse gamers had the Barbie Horse Adventure games and the Gallop Racer series, the German-speaking horse game market was dominated by frequent releases of locally developed games.
The genre of “PC Edutainment Games for Kids” saw horse game releases aplenty for a few years, as a quick glance at the list of top sellers in the genre from 2005 shows.
I remember buying one game called Riding Star on a whim, several years after it was actually released, in the faint hope that it would be anywhere near as good as my ever beloved Mein Pferdehof.
I don’t remember all that much of the gameplay, but I do recall that I got bored of it within perhaps two or three hours of playing. What I did not think about at the time were the circumstances under which a game like Riding Star was being made, or why I grew bored with it so quickly.
When I started studying Game Design a few years later, I learned about the difference between making a game because you want to make it, and making a game because you can get paid to make it. Looking back, it wasn’t hard to guess that Riding Star was not a passion project.
As such, it came as no big surprise that upon asking him what it was like to work on Riding Star 2, my twitter acquaintance Jörg Reisig replied:
“At the time, I really hated it.”
The closer I look into horse games the messier it gets to keep individual game titles apart. In researching the Riding Star series for example, I found out that a very similar or even identical game was published in different countries using different equestrians’ names for branding. The copy I own is branded simply as Riding Star, but the same game was apparently also published as Ulrich Kirchhoff’s Riding Star in Germany, Lussan' Nathhorst Presenterar Riding Star in Sweden, Alexandra Ledermann: Equitation Passion in France and Mary King’s Riding Star in English-speaking countries, at least according to this Mobygames entry.
The game Jörg Reisig worked on, Riding Star 2, was a sequel to the aforementioned Riding Star.
“I remember that the publisher wanted to make a sequel to Riding Star 1, but this time in proper 3D”, he says. The first Riding Star had an isometric top-down view of riding competitions.
Riding Star 2 was at least somewhat typical in its mechanics among its genre-cousins, Jörg tells me: There was a stable mode where the player could feed, water and clean their horses. The player could choose their gender and customize their avatar to a degree, but any mechanic beyond these basics was related to the horses: The player had to pick their hooves, sponge, brush and pet them, could pick out decorated saddles for them and put ribbons in their manes and tails.
Beyond the horse care mechanics, the riding part of the game was divided into show jumping and dressage.
“Riding Star 2 was conceived as a sports game for the more grown up audience,” Jörg remembers, “it should require a certain level of skill and still have all the horse care gameplay that was the core of most of these horse themed games.”
He adds: “It was a time were horse related PC games were quite lucrative: Young girls in Germany now had access to PCs, and many publishers spammed the market with low quality games to cash into that new audience.”
This assessment lines up with a couple of suspicions I’ve had about horse game development during that time for a while: “Horse girls” were seen as an audience with few demands, so publishers didn’t bother to deliver more than the basics.
Jörg remembers the core team being small: Two programmers, one or two artists and a producer. Animators, UI designers and network programmers joined the team for for a short time when their skills were required. Riding Star 2’s total development time was six months.
This one and several other “C budget animal themed games”, as Jörg calls them, were developed in parallel to the studio’s main project: A role-playing game called Drakensang.
Jörg, like others in the team, wanted to work on the main project but was employed for the contract work needed to finance the RPG.
“I just came from a bone-crushing intern job in southern Germany and was excited to go back to Berlin. I joined RadonLabs, because I knew their Nebula engine quite well and I really wanted to work on a role-playing game,” Jörg explains. “The fact that I had to spend 6 months on a C budget horse game nobody particularly cared about — and without a guarantee that I could work on the RPG afterwards — was soul crushing.”
“Some of the team just saw it as their job, but many of the young developers really did not like to work on an ‘uncool’ horse game. For me personally, the problem was not that we had to make a game aimed at young girls or that I had not connection to the theme at all, but that nobody in management really cared about the game’s quality. It only had to be functional and finished in time, had to include the promised features so the company would get paid and could move on to the next soulless contract work title.”
“I saw a grim future before me and thought my entire career in game development will be programming pony games for the rest of my life,” Jörg remembers, “The atmosphere in the studio was always a bit depressing.”
Jörg’s role in the Riding Star 2 team was that of a gameplay programmer.
“The lead programmer already created the movement scheme and the jumping parts when I joined the project. Apart from interface programming and bug fixing, I was primarily in charge of creating the dressage mode.”
“The movement had a lot of inertia, which made the horses not fun to navigate. The horse had no AI behavior system so it just stopped when running against an obstacle. It felt lifeless, more like a car with animal animations rather than a living thing. It was not fun.”
During the entire development time of Riding Star 2, RadonLabs did not employ any game designers.
“There was just a very high level description of the planned features and the programmers had to figure this out on their own,” Jörg remembers.
Here it may be important to point out that there are plenty of programmers who are also game designers. A game designer defines and balances mechanics, a programmer makes the computer execute said mechanics according to the game designer’s instruction. And although those two things are sometimes done by the same person, they are two different skill sets. A good producer or manager knows this and provides the required guidance to design the game’s mechanics in hiring or at least consulting the relevant talent. If individual systems are developed entirely independent of each other, it’s easy for a game to start feeling very disjointed and scrambled together.
Jörg tells me that the design plans for Riding Star 2’s dressage mode were no more explicit than “maybe something with mouse gestures or so,” much to his annoyance.
“I was in constant fights with my producer about this, because it was not my job to come up with fun dressage gameplay and to implement it.”
Having the game controlled by mouse input was one of the few fixed demands from the publisher. Jörg says he vividly remembers one particular conversation this lack of design definition led to, because of how bizarre it was:
“My producer came to me one day after weeks of me complaining that I did not have any direction on the dressage mode. He was very happy to have found the solution for my problems: He gave me an official book about the German dressage tournament rules. That was it.”
Looking at real life dressage rules in order to develop an engaging game mechanic from them is surely not a bad start. But this approach of simply throwing a rule book at a programmer once again proves a lack of interest in the final game’s quality. Good mechanics, especially if they are entirely new, require prototyping and testing at the very least. Good mechanics are usually a team effort, a process of iteration even in small projects with limited work time.
In addition, dressage may not be the most easily understandable sport for an outside observer. A dressage rule book may include judging criteria such as whether or not the horse is on the bit, whether the horse has good posture and is well collected, but to someone with no further knowledge of horse riding, this gives little indication of what some of the actual challenges in riding dressage might be.
This is particularly ironic in a game supposedly focused on a “more realistic” representation of horse sports.
“In the end I just implemented ‘something with mouse gestures’,” Jörg says. “And honestly it was not really fun to play.”
Jörg does not know whether Riding Star 2 ended up being a financial success.
With 5 employees over 6 months, an educated guess puts the production cost at somewhere around 120’000-180’000 USD, which of course does not yet include marketing and publishing expenses. But since the series got another sequel in 2007, one can guess the investment must have been worth it.
After finishing his work on Riding Star 2, Jörg Reisig did go on to work on Drakensang, the Role-Playing Game he joined RadonLabs for. He left the company again shortly after the game’s release in 2008. Neither Jörg nor RadonLabs were involved in the development of Riding Star 3.
Jörg has remained in the gaming industry afterwards, and went on to work on the critically much acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line, a surreal military shooter, as an AI programmer. He looks back differently upon his work on Riding Star 2:
“Nowadays, I would say there are worse fates then programming cute horse games for a grateful audience,” Jörg says. “I know a lot of people spending their career with creating slot machines that are barely disguised as games and hating that. I would rather be a pony programmer.”
In more recent years, he names the horses of Red Dead Redemption and Breath of the Wild among his favorites. His current project The Fermi Paradox, which he describes as a “philosophical science fiction simulation game”, includes a race of vaguely horse-like aliens that he’s very fond of.
If he had to work on another horse game, Jörg tells me:
“I would do a road trip game where it is as important to navigate with your horse from A to B, where the player fosters a friendship with the horse. I could imagine time pressure scenarios were you have to choose between comforting the horse and quickly making it do things.”
He believes that a handful of design decisions in his career have been influenced by his mixed feelings about working on Riding Star 2:
“We had a really cool zombie mule in Drakensang that came from the love/hate relationship with the horse games the artist formerly worked on,” he says. “Also did I mention the horse aliens? I love the horse aliens.”
A Brighter Future?
We know Game Development isn’t always the dream job it is sometimes made out to be. It is unrealistic to expect every game to be a passion project, and there is nothing inherently wrong or inferior about contract work and making games according to publishers’ demands rather than one’s own heart’s desire.
But when I heard Jörg’s story of how the people working on Riding Star 2 at the time hated their work, I couldn’t suppress a certain sentiment of “Aha, I knew it!”
At the time, I may not have played this exact game, but it feels like I played plenty just like it. And none of them felt like they were made by people who had any sort of understanding of what made people play horse games in the first place. The vast majority of horse games I’ve seen, tried or heard of assume their audience to have few demands and to be happy with whatever buggy messes they get as long as there are horses in it.
This audience, people who play horse games regardless of quality because there are no alternatives, does exist — But just how much bigger could the audience be if the actual games themselves were also worth playing?
I’m sure a handful of TMQ’s readers played and enjoyed the Riding Star games at the time. I probably would have, had I discovered the series a few years sooner. But while we as players have grown since, the genre of horse video games has not. And as long as nobody bothers to make a genuinely good horse game, no one except for the most enthusiastic equestrians will put up with the genre.
On the bright side of this situation, many horse game fans are a very grateful audience. I can’t wait for today’s indie developers to use that fact to everyone’s advantage.
Some of the Riding Star 2 screenshots in this article have been captured from this Let’s Play video by tom.io.