‘The Mane Quest’s Alice Ruppert on ‘Horse Tales’ and How Making Indie Games Is a Canter, Not a Gallop
Sorry babe, I can't make it, I have to tend to my virtual horses.
I’ve had the privilege of talking to some truly fantastic people through my work, and I’ve gone into every interview with the same sense of curiosity and genuine interest that I think every person is due. But I gotta admit, this was the first interview where I felt genuinely starstruck.
Having niche interests often means you end up running into the same sort of people (socially or para-socially), and the combination of loving horses and loving games eventually led me to “The Mane Quest.” TMQ is a blog run by Alice Ruppert, a game dev who also loves horses and games, and whose mission with the blog is to point out a few crucial things: 1) Why horse games are valuable, 2) Why most of them end up being trash, and 3) How we can make them better.
I’ve followed this blog fairly closely over the years and have delighted in seeing our girl appear on the likes of Polygon and even in some Reddit gaming threads—which is still astonishing to me, considering how weird Reddit can be about games. Even more astonishing was when the PR threads of fate came together and I had an opportunity to talk to Alice myself.
Talking with Alice was an enlightening experience, the sort that helps elevate my understanding of the industry as a whole—not just horse games. And I think that information will be helpful to many fans of the genre because hoo-boy, the frustration is at an all-time high.
Appreciating Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch
Alice has worked on games before, but this was her first major project with a larger company; she was hired as a creative producer while the game was already in development. Aesir Interactive is a German company that’s dabbled in horse titles in the past (such as Windstorm), and Horse Tales was their attempt to further breach the genre and bring it some much-needed ingenuity. And since Alice has referenced them in the past, she was an ideal addition to the team.
But what she found once she got there was a classic indie gaming debacle: Things that might seem like obvious additions to a game simply couldn’t be implemented, and the scope would inevitably be unable to meet the high expectations players were already placing on the game. For instance, depending on how many barns you can build, you can have a metric ton of horses on your various island properties, but you’ll never see any of them in any of the pastures you build, nor in any of the recreational facilities you provide for them. Your horses are literally pieces of code that you can pull out of the barn only when you want to ride them. (Alice’s response: “What do you mean, we don’t have that???”) In the end, there were too many performance issues with the horse rendering that would have made the game practically unplayable.
To compensate, the devs cleverly decided to pool their resources into one big aspect that players have been asking for, which is realistic horse breeding. Two breeds were specifically implemented into the game—Selle Françaises and Irish Cobs—because they have some of the highest coloration variety of any breeds out there. This allowed the devs, with Alice at the helm, to create a breeding system that reflects realistic breeding. And it’s honestly such a goddamn fun mechanic, especially if you do your research on horse genetics.
You can actually bring your horse to a veterinarian who will give you a basic rundown of their genetic coding. The devs really didn’t skimp out on variety—I was shocked to see the terms “Amber Dun” and “Gold Cream” in a video game. And regardless of how knowledgable you are about horse genetics, you can really have a blast putting your best and/or prettiest horses together and seeing what kind of foal they produce. I was so impressed with the realism when a mare with cream dominance bred with a dun stallion, and the two created a buckskin foal. If that all sounds like gobbledygook to you, trust me: That’s horse genes, baby! It’s something that Alice was really excited about; horse games are often tailored to children, and aspects like these, she says, “offer enough depth that they would be interesting to adults.” Some people are so satisfied, they’re even doing “long-term breeding projects” to get the horse of their dreams.
While that’s the main draw of the game, there are other things to celebrate, too. The animations are absolutely gorgeous for an indie game, and, as someone who’s partial to cel-shading, I personally loved the world’s aesthetics. There’s also racing, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a game mechanic, but which I’ve always enjoyed. The way I play this game is, I log in and hop on the last cool horse I bred, then give it a spin in the overworld, galloping from zone to zone and competing in races along the way. It’s incredibly relaxing, making Horse Tales the perfect game for me to unwind with at the end of the day.
However, the bugs … there are many of them. The devs are actively working on solving numerous issues that Alice says “several QA teams [couldn’t find] after months of testing”—which, unfortunately, is just the nature of these things. In Horse Tales, you might build something cool on your property overnight, then log in the next day to find that building reduced to rubble. Sometimes the game will tell you that your horse’s particular phobia has been cured, but what’s really happened is the horse is softlocked into never overcoming that phobia. What you end up with is a horse that—no matter how much effort you put into helping it—will just never be able to ride through a cave without freaking out.
Ultimately, I’m fairly accepting of these hiccups because I understand where this game is coming from. The horse game industry is barely a thing, and is really being carried on the backs of its few hardcore supporters, like Alice. Therefore, the fact that Horse Tales is as addicting and playable as it is—a horse game that doesn’t cater to young audiences and is playable for anyone—makes it one of my favorite games of the year. I’m excited to see where it goes and what happens with this team of devs.
But alas. I am just one in a sea of detractors.
The horse game “community”
I put “community” in quotes because I don’t really know what else to call it. If you look up the latest news about horse games, or if you’re just trying to find out which horses are best in Red Dead Redemption, you’ll inevitably run into the same pool of people—a large, age-diverse group of people, most of whom are similarly dedicated to these projects, yet whose expectations are so high, it’s almost inevitable that any project will disappoint them.
I truly had no idea people would be so turned off by the bugs in Horse Tales, so when I opened its Steam page, I was blown away by all the negative reviews. Some of them were fairly even-keeled and rational, stating that they didn’t want to pay $40 for an unpolished game with so little story content—understandable. Others, however, were needlessly critical of a game whose scope was never as large as the reviewer claimed it would be.
Alice struggled to maintain a sense of fairness when discussing this topic because, as a leader of the “horse game movement,” Alice in particular has been on the receiving end of blowback from disappointed fans. She wanted to validate their concerns while also admitting, wearily, that she wished players knew the differences in production between “indie early-access games, live service games—which Horse Tales is not—and traditionally published games.”
Apparently, in the community, players have been waiting for years to play what Alice calls “The Horse Game To End All Horse Games.” This theorized game would include similar mechanics to Horse Tales—breeding, racing, caretaking, and ranch-building—but it would also include the hallmarks of other popular lifestyle sims, such as in-depth story and worldbuilding mechanics, the buying and selling of animals, amassing wealth, a sprawling open world, dynamic weather, yada yada yada. These fans have been starved for years, and they are hungry for perfection. But my stance is that these expectations are entirely unfair and naive, considering how little funding indie studios get. Even most AAA games can’t meet such a tall order.
Where Alice is concerned is with the blowback even smaller dev teams will get when their own projects are released. These projects are always touted by the community as the “Horse Game To End All Horse Games,” yet they’re just passion projects created by a handful of people who couldn’t possibly “do it all.” I look at some of these games and—as someone who has yet to get lost in the community sauce—all I see are janky games that’ll do one or two things really well before they become boring. And that’s fine! Like Alice said, to get this whole operation off the ground, we need good examples of a lot of games doing a lot of different things well. But it’s pretty much a given that a group of starved fans are gonna write awful reviews for an indie game when it doesn’t live up to their massive expectations.
To that I say: You guys want this industry to take off, right? And you know you have to nurture these things in their infancy, right? Come on! You can get all riled up about plenty of stuff in your private life, but maybe don’t go blasting these indie projects on the internet, where investors can see the reviews. The games aren’t that bad. You wanna play a bad game, you can pay an equal amount of money for some X-rated shovelware drivel on Steam.
Should you play Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch?
From my perspective, Horse Tales is a decent game that I intend to keep playing. It’s got elements of My Time At Portia and the classic horse games of yore, all of which culminates in a truly relaxing and rewarding experience (provided you know its limitations). Yes, the story is shorter than I’d like it to be, and the lack of a fast-travel mechanic makes it tiring to play in long spurts, but at the end of the day, all I wanna do is fill my home with pretty ponies and ride ’em around a bit. And that’s what this game can do for me—and apparently many others because for as many detractors as there have been, Alice notes that the positive feedback is “very positive,” and those folks are also incredibly satisfied with the game.
Overall, I think Horse Tales bodes incredibly well for the future of this industry, and while $40 is a steep price for any game, I’m all for anyone giving it a shot. Whether these kinds of games are your bread and butter, or you’re just looking to try something new, you’d still be helping a talented and aspirational team move forward towards the next thing.
And personally, I’m quite excited for whatever that next thing might be.
(featured image: Aesir Interactive)
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]