How Star Stable Defied Critics and Made an MMORPG for Girls

Credit: Star Stable Entertainment via Nerd Reactor

Star Stable is the #1 ranked and fastest growing horse game where users can customize their characters and horses while going on adventures and doing missions in the big world of Jorvik. The MMORPG empowers young girls and young women in a flourishing online community with millions of players around the world. The game started as a CD-Rom game, and it has spawned a music label, original book series, animations, comics and mobile apps. 2021 marks the 10th year anniversary of Star Stable, and Nerd Reactor had the chance to chat with Star Stable Entertainment CEO Johan Sjöberg about the game’s genesis, its current growth, the community, and its future.

Things weren’t always peaceful in the land of Jorvik. There were those who didn’t believe that Star Stable Online wouldn’t be successful since it launched back in 2011. The founders wanted to make a game focusing on powerful girls, and it has attracted girl gamers from all over.

Star Stable teamed up with The Insights Family to see how the game has inspired girls and young women compared to girls playing other games in the U.S. Check out the stats below:

  • Star Stable players are best at staying connected with friends. 85 percent of Star Stable players said that games helped them stay connected to friends (versus 55 percent of other girl gamers).
  • Games are an important part of children’s social lives. 72 percent of Star Stable players said playing games helped them make new friends in real life (versus 49 percent of other girl gamers), while 80 percent of Star Stable players said playing games helped them make new friends online (versus 58 percent other girl gamers).
  • Star Stable players are twice as likely to report feeling more self-confidence compared to girls who play other games (61 percent compared to 29 percent).
  • Today’s parents overwhelmingly support their child gaming (85% of gamer parents), while it’s nearly unanimous for Star Stable parents (98%).

Star Stable Entertainment debuted in 2021 Star Stable: Mistfall, an animated series that reached 12 million views on its YouTube channel. In 2020, Star Stable launched a new book trilogy, Soul Riders, with the third and final book available in April 2021. It has its own independent record label with over 40 singles, which has over 10 million listens across platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.

Check out “Fire” by Nomi, a song from Star Stable: Mistfall.

Nerd Reactor: What was the beginning like for Star Stable Entertainment?

Johan Sjöberg: The story of Star Stable Entertainment is, in many ways, both a fantastic ride and of serendipity. If we go really back to the roots of it all, it started with a few people back in Sweden running a couple of development studios that collaborated on their games. We had been approached by something as exotic as a Norwegian book club, which made books about ponies and horses. They had a significant churn problem in their book club because apparently, at this point in time 15 years ago, the kids had stopped reading books. And in order for them to persuade the kids not to turn from their book club, we persuaded them or pitched the idea of, “Why don’t you give them video games for free?” They thought that that was a terrific idea.

What we wanted to do at the time was the horse game genre for girls had largely focused on games that were reasonably realistic renditions of life at the stables or a mild nurture fantasy. We wanted to instead capture the imagination of the horse audience with something that also adds the flavor of what we knew was popular among girls and young women at a time, which was fantasy fiction and urban fantasy. What we say on a high pitch level is Black Beauty with Harry Potter and a concept called Starshine Legacy, which was important. So we made four of those games.

As we continued to develop the horseback riding genre for the games that we made for the book club, we moved in from level-based, story-based games to open-world games where you could go anywhere. We applied the RPG structure similar to a single-player, massively multiplayer online role-playing game, if you will. And at that point, the YouTube era was kicking in, and all of a sudden, the internet started to explode with user-generated videos where our players had captured imagery from the games and then overlaid that with their favorite songs or soundtracks. Gradually, millions of these videos started to pop up, and we realized that we were on to something. So the question for us naturally was, “How do we take it from here? What’s the next step?”

Marcus, who was our creative director at the time, was playing an unhealthy amount of World of Warcraft. I’d also realized that in his guilds and around the players that he was with, there was actually a large portion of women that really enjoyed some of the core mechanics or World of Warcraft, but felt that there were things in there that could be stripped away. So we just say, “Alright, let’s just make an MMORPG. How hard can it be?” We’re at GDC one year and we went to a panel. Mark was on the creative team, and they were listening to this person who was talking about how you break into the games industry and what you should focus on if you want to make a career for yourself or build a successful studio.

Credit: Star Stable via Nerd Reactor

And the first lesson learned was like, “Don’t make games for kids. There’s no future in making games for kids. And secondly, if you do decide to make games for kids, absolutely do not make games for girls, because girls don’t play games. And if you build games at all, if there’s one genre you shouldn’t tackle, because you’ll need $50 million, it’s the MMORPG genre. And if you choose to tackle the MMORPG genre – if you fell on your head, then you’re told that you needed to do this, absolutely, in no way no shape build a subscription-based product, because free to play is all that matters now.” And the team looked at each other and was like, “But that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re making a subscription-based MMORPG for girls that love horses, magic and adventure. We might be onto something here.”

So then we went back and launched in 2011. We did a soft launch in Sweden, just in Swedish, with a game that had so little content that you’d play through within 24 hours. And that was kind of the birth of the weekly updates. So we’re like, “Okay, the players play through our game in 24 hours. If we want a subscription-based product, we need to give them a recent return. We shall release new content for them every single Wednesday, and we actually have since 2011. So we’re now up to closing in on 520 weekly releases. Sometimes they’ve been a little late, but they’ve always come out within the span of that week. And over the years, we’ve built the game from being this tiny, you can play through it in 24 hours, to be absolutely massive, have a core storyline of two to 300 hours of core gameplay, lots of sandbox gameplay, a cast of hundreds of characters, and of course, all of our fantastic players and our great community that show up every day, every week, week after week, month after month, year after year.

So that’s kind of the short and sweet of it. We’ve gone from an original team of 10 people that built an MMORPG with duct tape and straw, as I like to say, to a company of about 175 people. The game’s played in 180 countries, available in 14 languages.

What’s the community like from the beginning until now?

One of the key things that we’ve always done from the get-go is that we’ve established early on a very close relationship with the community. We could do that because we were very small, and we had a very dedicated audience. We’ve taken their feedback to heart so that when they have opinions, we do react. Naturally, we can’t do everything they asked us. The community has grown. The diversity of the requests have gone in numerous different directions, meaning it’s making it even harder to satisfy everyone all the time. But we’ve had a very friendly, loving community, I’d say, from the start.

I think one story from the years past that shows the spirit of the community was when we were still a very young business and we were going to run a database update. It turned out our database was corrupted, then it turned out that the backup to the database was also corrupted, which meant that the game was down. We had to bring in some quite sophisticated engineers from the outside to help us. For a total of 72 hours, if I recall correctly, we were offline. But instead of having a raging, super upset community that told us all kinds of weird things that they might consider doing to us, they showed up at the office with cinnamon buns. They said that they felt like, “You guys work so hard, so you need something to eat. Please bring the game back online.”

That doesn’t mean that it’s always frictionless with the community, right? Sometimes they don’t like what we do, or they have opinions, but we become better at being proactive as well and communicating. That’s also naturally something that’s part of the growing pain, right? You go from being a small business with a few thousand players, it’s easy to stay in constant touch with them and feel that you know exactly what they want, and then the business grows. The community grows, and you need to continue to grow and deepen that relationship with them. That’s something that I’m generally very, very happy about, the very positive, healthy, and fun interactions with the community.

Credit: Star Stable Entertainment via Nerd Reactor

With the younger audience, I’m pretty sure there were certain things you have to put in place to make a safe experience for younger players.

Absolutely. So we work extremely hard with, first of all, making sure that we comply with the regulations when it comes to compliance in regards to COPPA, etc. Then we work really hard with the moderation of our text-based chats. We work with a selection of AI plus human moderated content. And we also have game masters, ambassadors, and people that work on trying to foster a really good social interaction in the community. To us, that’s naturally something that’s super important; the security of the online platform and the security of our players, in particular, since many of us at Star Stable, like myself, have our kids play the game, right? And we want our kids to have a safe experience, and also an experience that’s free from bullying, or trolling, or whatever it might be that’s quite common in online games today.

In the future, like, where do you see the game going?

So for the next 10 years, we’ll be doubling down on continuing to improve the visual fidelity, to push for more potential for realism when it comes to the equestrian experience, taking the story and the characters even further, and to give even cooler, more magical moments to our players. But we also want to focus on social interaction. We’re making sure that there’s an opportunity for our players to craft their own experiences and choose their own way to play within the framework that we provide them with the tools that the systems have. That’s really where I want us to spend a little bit of time, to make sure that there is something where our players can experiment with how they want to experience the game. And we’ve got some really great examples of how that works, with game features that generate I’d say unexpected types of play.

For the community, we had requests for being able to take a picture of your horse, without yourself being in the frame. And since the character is always close to the horse, because you are the character, we had a member of the team who decided to, as a passion project, make a photo editor. And as a feature on that photo editor, you could select hide the player so that you only saw the horse. We were expecting that the players will use that just to capture nice images of their horses, but then that inspired them to, instead of just shooting nice photos of their horse, actually start to play as their horse. It then started to become referring to, “Do you want to W-H?” In Swedish, it’s V-H, which is wild horse. So then they play as wild horses, role play in the chat about what their characters are and which situation they are in now. That’s completely outside of the storyline of the game or the frames that we set up. And I think that’s also something that you need to realize when you deal with a young, smart creative audience. They will take the tools that you give them, and then they will do things that you didn’t think of with them in a really positive and inspiring way.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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