“It’s a dream come true” — Nika Bender talks about her work on Star Stable Online
Star Stable Online is a massively multiplayer online role playing game or MMORPG that has been out for almost 8 years. Despite the often underestimated target audience of teenage female PC players, the game is a huge success and continues to grow and improve.
You can find my own first impressions of the game here. At some point I want to revisit the game to check out the recent updates as well as to try the paid version. In the meantime, The Mane Quest spoke to SSO Product Owner Nika Bender about the work she and her team do behind the scenes of what is probably the most successful horse game of all time.
A Dream Come True
Our interview partner Nika joined the Star Stable team in 2015 to work as a CRM Manager, working on email campaigns and other marketing communication. She was looking to get back into the gaming industry at the time after working for various startups. “One day I received a phone call from a recruiter asking me if I’ve heard about Star Stable,” Nika tells me. A question which she answered with a “very enthusiastic YES!!!!!”.
“Last year, I moved to a new role in the company: that of Product Owner, as part of the game’s production.”
Similar but not quite identical to a Project Manager, a Product Owner takes the responsibility of managing the development team’s backlog and prioritising work for production, keeping track of its tasks and eliminating sources of delay or uncertainty wherever possible.
Nika herself has always loved horses, she says. “As a kid, I was dreaming of becoming a horse whisperer.” She never had a chance to take riding lessons, let alone own a horse of her own. Starting work on Star Stable was a fantastic option for her: “I’m so happy I got the opportunity to learn so much about horses. It’s a dream come true!”
Asked about her favorite horse games, Nika’s answer is hardly a surprise: “I’ve tried several of them, but Star Stable is still my favourite.” She’s also looking forward to giving Red Dead Redemption 2 a try.
The Star Stable franchise started out in 2005, with a series of PC games called Starshine Legacy.
“Even years after its release people were still buzzing about it on social media, and the creators decided to try and make an online game,” says Nika. That game became Star Stable Online.
“It was started by a small gaming studio called Pixel Tales.” The Stockholm based team had not only made the original Starshine Legacy games, but also produced a Barbie Horse Adventures with the title Riding Camp”, as well as several horse themed PC games under the “Springdale” label.
“Star Stable Online was first released in Sweden in 2011 and a global release followed a few months later,” Nika tells me. “Since then it continued growing rapidly. Through all these years we’ve been releasing a new update every week.”
Later in the game’s development, Pixel Tales merged with what was then its publisher: the company Star Stable Entertainment, which has produced and continued to publish the game since.
“I joined when we were already one company,” says Nika. “We were around 40 people and had customer support and localisation in-house.”
“Today, we’re a team of 100 and something people and slightly over 50% of them are women,” Nika reveals. As with Tivola, I am not surprised that a game so unapologetically feminine has greater success in hiring and keeping female game developers so far above the average industry ratio of less than 25%.
Enthusiastic Devs and Players
To ensure accuracy in horse portrayals wherever possible, the SSO team has an internal Horse Committee.
“They’re an advisory board of experts on horse related topics,” explains Nika. “As a Product Owner that works with horse releases, I consult them on a regular basis. Also, several people in our company have their own horses or are taking care of horses.”
Nowadays, Star Stable Online boasts over 500 000 monthly active users (MAU). Although it is hard to find reliable data for the actual MAU of other MMORPGs, half a million is an impressive number. Estimates for the genre giants World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV are all in the vicinity of 1-2 million monthly active users. That a game aimed at young girls, which many gamers will never even have heard of, plays in roughly the same league as genre hits like RuneScape (also around 500 000 MAU) and Eve Online (200 000 - 300 000 MAU) will likely come as a surprise to many gamers and industry people alike.
Unlike many games in the MMORPG genre, Star Stable Online is unambiguously and unapologetically feminine. It’s clear from the promotional material that girls are the heroes on Jorvik. The game’s player base is 95% female.
“We are proud to offer a female main character,” Nika says. “But we welcome both girls and boys to Star Stable. Although most of our players are girls, we want to make sure we are inclusive and diverse, so there is a wide range of personalities and character traits within our game.”
“Most of our players are between 8 and 18 years old,” Nika reveals. “The exact average age differs from country to country.”
Nika says she definitely sees unexplored territory in that target audience: “There are not a lot of games for horse enthusiast gamers, and there is untapped potential there. Additionally, there is a lack of diverse non-violent games for tween and teen girls.”
Star Stable Online’s success was not without growing pains, Nika tells me: “We grew very quickly in a short period of time. The game keeps growing bigger and bigger, with new content coming up every week. Recently our biggest challenge is to align the quality of the game across the whole game while still releasing new things.”
This challenge with consistency in the game’s quality is something I noticed in the game itself, and something that was a point of criticism in my review. It’s also an aspect that makes me look forward to giving SSO another try: the sentiment of an inconsistent art style may well turn into appreciation for a completely redesigned game in the near future.
“Last year we did a complete revamp of the starter horse – the horse that's part of the character creation,” says Nika. We also revamped the starter area, which is the oldest area in the game. This year we're continuing with revamping the rest of the world.”
“Updating the player character is in our line of sight,” Nika adds, “but we are not able to give out any other information at this point. It’s a much bigger project than the redesigns of horse and world, and we need time to understand what our new character model will be.”
The tools and resources for quality character creation and animation will no doubt have improved in the years since SSO’s initial launch, but Nika believes that the artists interest in the subject also plays its part: “The quality of our horses keeps improving, especially after we got two horse 3D artists that are also ‘horse people’.”
Even with big parts of the redesigns already concluded, the Star Stable team has no intention of slowing down:
“We’re finally closing the first chapter of the main story and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can further advance the Soul Rider adventure,” says Nika. “We’re continuing to update the older parts of the game: that includes both horses and the world. Players’ feedback on what they would like to see next is very valuable to us and helps us in deciding what to tackle next.”
Future Plans and Dreams
Bigger changes and expansions may be on the horizon at some point: “There are some talks about new area, but no promises there,” Nika teases.
As a fan of farming games from FarmVille to Stardew Valley, Nika’s personal dream would be adding some domestic aspects to Star Stable: “I would love to have my own farm next to my stable and paddock where my horses can run around outside.”
But even in such a successful project with a large team and passionate user base, there are limits to what is possible. “There will always be things you really want to do, but they sometimes just don’t get prioritised because of various reasons.”
Nika remains grateful for the engagement the team gets from its fans: “It has been a long journey for Star Stable and we’re immensely thankful to everyone who has been following and supporting us thus far. Star Stable wouldn’t be the game it is without the amazing Star Stable community. I’m hoping we’ll continue developing an even better game with each passing year!”
Star Stable Online may not be the horse game for everyone – I personally am just not much of an online player – but I can see clearly that the development team makes a genuine effort to improve the game. I look forward to keeping an eye on Star Stable’s further developments and to returning to the world as a Star Rider sometime soon.