Star Stable Online — Much Variety, Little Depth

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Star Stable Online is a horse-focused massively multiplayer online role playing game, or MMORPG. It is arguably the biggest and most successful game in the genre of horse games at the moment — if not ever. Originally launched in October 2011, Star Stable has recently turned 7 years old — no small feat for any MMO, let alone one with the supposedly niche target audience of “young girls who are into horses and play online PC games”.

SSO is impossible to avoid when one starts looking into the horse game genre and its current state, so naturally, I had to give it a try. This article is not so much a conclusive review of the whole game, as it is a summary of my first impressions after a few hours of playing. As of the time of writing, I have only played the game’s free version without accessing any of its premium features.  

Screenshot from the opening crawl of SSO

Screenshot from the opening crawl of SSO

The Basics

In Star Stable, you and your horse are newly arrived visitors to the island of Jorvik. The story trailer and opening lore crawl speak of a prophecy according to which a girl on horseback will appear “to bring light and hope to those who believe that all is lost” and asks “Are you that girl?”.

Unlike many other horse games, SSO does not let you choose the gender of your player character. A section on the game’s help page addresses this choice by stating “Star Stable is a game with a focus on female heroines, but that doesn't mean that boys can't play Star Stable. There are lots of games where you can only choose male characters and we want to show that girls can also be heroes.”

After a few introductory quests, you can roam freely around the central Moorland Stables and surrounding fields, with the whole island opening up to you over time as you unlock new areas. The map is quite sizeable, and after a few hours of playing I have only explored a tiny part of it.

You learn how to take care of your horse, how to participate in races around the stables and how to earn Jorvik Shillings, the free in-game currency.

It was nighttime in Jorvik during my first few hours of playing for some reason, which wasn’t good for the readability of my gameplay recordings.

It was nighttime in Jorvik during my first few hours of playing for some reason, which wasn’t good for the readability of my gameplay recordings.

The Jorvik Map. I’ve only really visited the Moorland and Fort Pinta areas around the center of the map so far.

The Jorvik Map. I’ve only really visited the Moorland and Fort Pinta areas around the center of the map so far.

Genre Trappings

I have to admit that I am not at all well versed in MMORPGs. I never played genre staple World of Warcraft, not any of its many clones or competitors. I’ve mentioned in other reviews that I hardly play online games at all, and my MMO roleplay experience boils down to roughly 5 hours of Guild Wars 2, if I recall correctly.

Even so, I’m familiar to a degree with some of the genre’s typical issues, one of which shows up very prominently in Star Stable Online: The cookie cutter quest mechanics. In one advertisement for the Star Rider subscription, SSO boasts of having “over 10 000 quest lines”. While the quantity does count for something — you’ll feel like you’re playing ‘new’ content for a long time, no doubt — the quality is very basic, assuming one can judge by the quests that are made available for free.

Delivering a quest that consisted of running around the mall area and picking up dirty dishes while being limited by two frustratingly slow escalators.

Delivering a quest that consisted of running around the mall area and picking up dirty dishes while being limited by two frustratingly slow escalators.

The writing is nothing special, but mostly cute: your are helping with repairs around the stable, setting up obstacles for upcoming races, helping a family bury their internal feuding, and of course saving the stable from becoming a construction site because of a greedy businessman.

The quality problem lies in the mechanics, and as far as I know this is a common issue in MMORPGs: from what I’ve seen, your actual tasks boil down to “go to destination X” and “pick up five of item Y”.

These simple walk-and-fetch quests are short enough not to become grindy and tedious, but they are also rarely interesting and don’t offer any challenge.     

Being the grumpy offline player that I am, I also don’t really see any advantage in there being other people in the game. Apart from the possibility to join groups of riders, there seems to be no interaction between players. What you do get is other players and their horses popping in and out of the environment without colliding with you or each other, which I personally just don’t see a lot of value in.

I guess one could say that getting a glimpse at the variety of available horses is an advantage, but then there’s… this:

Online multiplayer games. Yay.

Appreciated Details

Spirit as he appears in SSO. In accordance with the character of the TV series, in-game Spirit cannot be saddled or bridled, but he can be ridden if you complete a bunch of quests that make him trust you.

Spirit as he appears in SSO. In accordance with the character of the TV series, in-game Spirit cannot be saddled or bridled, but he can be ridden if you complete a bunch of quests that make him trust you.

Speaking of horse variety: A lot of the models and coat colors are cute as hell. A tour around Jorvik Island quickly exposes you to ponies and horses in all sorts of shapes and colors, all three-dimensional and in many cases individually animated.

There is even a quest line where you can get Spirit, from Netflix and DreamWorks’ animated series Spirit - Riding Free (which of course is nowhere near as good as the 2002 movie, but hey at least you can get a buckskin mustang in this game so who am I to complain).

Instead of the horse game genre staple “hoof picking mini game”, Star Stable Online keeps its daily horse care mechanics to an absolute minimum with the interaction itself boiling down to clicking and dragging the relevant item (food, water, brush or hoof pick) onto your horse and the game taking care of the rest. While this keeps the horse care from becoming tedious — the game expects players to perform these tasks once per real life day — it also further simplifies something that may have been turned into an interesting mechanic.

If you return to the game every day and perform four of these daily grooming tasks, your horse will be happier and perform better. You can also pay Star Coins to have the game do them for you.

If you return to the game every day and perform four of these daily grooming tasks, your horse will be happier and perform better. You can also pay Star Coins to have the game do them for you.

One thing I do want to praise is that your character can do barn chores (feeding or watering the stables’ other horses, mucking out) to earn a bit of money. This is not only realistic (I used to go muck out the stable in exchange for a lower riding lesson price for years), it’s also kind of fun when you feel like you are doing these chores for a direct reward. Unfortunately however, the non-premium currency that you get by doing this is not particularly valuable in the game, with practically everything nice (equipment, horses, character appearance changes) costing un-earnable Star Coins.

Generally, I would say that Star Stable Online’s prime feature and quality is its width and variety. There are a lot of things in this game: A lot of horses, a lot of NPCs, a lot of quests and a lot of locations. Unfortunately, it’s the depth of all of these that is lacking.  

Odd Choices and Priorities

One of the first things that I actually wanted to complain about has been fixed in the time between me first trying the game and me actually writing all this down: The default horse used to look hella silly. The Jorvik Warmblood’s original googly eyes made me laugh out loud the first time I saw it, but it feels petty to make fun of it now when the horse’s model and animation have been reworked entirely last November.

The old Jorvik Warmblood had slightly wonky legs, but it was the forward-facing eyes that really made me laugh.

The old Jorvik Warmblood had slightly wonky legs, but it was the forward-facing eyes that really made me laugh.

The new model and texture looks smoother and fits in better with the rest of the game’s horses. Most importantly, its eyes are facing appropriately sideways.

The new model and texture looks smoother and fits in better with the rest of the game’s horses. Most importantly, its eyes are facing appropriately sideways.

(Un)fortunately, there are still plenty of odd choices left to complain about:

The controls for the player character feel tanky and slow both when on foot and when mounted. While it makes sense for a cantering or galloping horse to have a certain turn radius, SSO’s horse controls manage to feel like a lot more work than turning an actual real life horse around. There is something of a mismatch between how fast you are actually going and the horse’s gait, with movement animations often looking like they’re running in slow motion.

The horse riding could (should?) be the very core of making this game satisfying to play, but it feels tedious and clunky, both as a means of navigation and when participating in horse races across the game’s map. Once again, this is sadly kind of standard for many of the horse games I played.

Another aspect of the game I cannot entirely get behind is its art style. I love the 2D concept and promotional art as seen on the game’s website, which manages a pretty blend of relatively realistic looking horses and Disney-like female characters.

Unfortunately, the game itself is more of a mixed bag. Some of the horse models (presumably the more recent additions) look very pretty, with a certain stylized cuteness to them but without sacrificing relatively realistic proportions.

Most of the environment looks dated .  These are the old starter horse animations which have been replaced since recording.

Most of the environment looks dated. These are the old starter horse animations which have been replaced since recording.

The character models vary from okay to mildly horrifying, and most of the world and environment is not stylized enough to not look dated. SSO is by no means alone in the horse game genre in its (in my opinion misguided) choice to go for pseudo-photorealistic textures on a budget instead of more cartoony looks.

At least, the recent rework of the starter horse leads me to believe that the SSO team is aware of some of these issues and is reworking other parts of the game’s assets as well. Generally, the developers are obviously actively engaged in adding new content to the game, with frequent seasonal updates and new horses, quests and characters.

Much of the promotional art looks beautiful in my opinion, and does a better job of balancing stylization and realism than the game itself.

Much of the promotional art looks beautiful in my opinion, and does a better job of balancing stylization and realism than the game itself.

Pricing and Monetization

I consider myself a generous player (and payer) when it comes to calculating a game’s monetary value. I understand that free content in a game has to be limited for a game to survive, that free to play games have to always walk a line between being fair to their players and being profitable businesses.  

I do not go into free to play games expecting to be able to get everything for free, and despite my lack of experience with MMOs, I have played a handful of freemium browser games and mobile games with both good and bad monetization models.

With all of that being said, I found Star Stable Online to be rather aggressively monetized. The game uses both a premium membership (“Star Rider”) as well as a premium currency (“Star Coins”).

Paying approximately 10 USD for the premium membership rewards a player with only 100 Star Coins per week, and there is no way of earning the premium Star Coins through gameplay.

New horses costing between 900 and 1000 Star Coins.

New horses costing between 900 and 1000 Star Coins.

The subscription tiers in my local currency.

The subscription tiers in my local currency.

Since new horses cost around 800-1000 Star Coins in the game, this puts the price of a new horse via the subscription alone to a steep 20-25 USD.

Star Coins can also be bought outside of the subscription in single-pay packages, which is a vastly more efficient for ingame-investments as big as new horses. Depending on coin package size, this lowers the cost of a single horse to around 5 USD, but of course doesn’t include any Star Rider membership.

The most cost-efficient way to get as much Star Stable content as possible though, is to purchase the “pay once” option for no less than 90$ and receive Star Rider membership and 100 weekly coins for life.

On the one hand, I really appreciate the game having this option. It gives one the opportunity to simply “buy the whole game” once, which many free to play titles do not allow. On the other hand, this offer means that for any player who considers spending a lot of time with the game, any smaller investments than the full price do not make sense.

As a result, this puts the price of playing Star Stable solidly at $90 for me - one and a half times the price of the average AAA title - and I could not justify that expense for my own gaming habits and interest.

Note: The prices in this paragraph have been converted to USD from my local CHF. Actual prices may vary depending on region.

Conclusion

For me personally, Star Stable Online is not deep enough, not pretty enough and not mechanically diverse enough to justify spending 90$ on. Or perhaps more accurately, Star Stable Online is not interesting enough for me to want to spend as much time with it that I’d get my money’s worth, if that makes sense.

Since giving it a try costs nothing however, I do recommend that those mildy intrigued by the concept go check it out. My takeaway from playing SSO and writing this review is that I am glad it exists, but I can definitely not consider it the answer to my everlasting question of “do good horse games exist and where?”
I plan to revisit Star Stable Online in its paid version however: The SSO team has been kind enough to provide me with a promotional code for Star Rider membership and a generous supply of Star Coins. Stay tuned for TMQ’s Star Stable Online Review Part II.

Star Stable Online can be downloaded for PC and Mac from the game’s website. You can create a character and choose a horse right in the browser before you download anything.

Capture from the gorgeous   Story of Jorvik  Trailer   .

Capture from the gorgeous Story of Jorvik Trailer.