“I’ve met a lot more horse girls than horse boys…” (Source)
Time for some delving into our decision making paradigm here as I address what is sure to be a question we get a lot, and while I’ve touched on it, I really want to talk about it in-depth. Why did we decide that the player character in Mystic Riders had to be female?
I’ll get the mechanical aspect out of the way: yes, it is easier when you are going as highly-customizable as we are to only do one physical sex. Especially because we are doing three different body types, and lots of different hair styles and options for personalization and style choices (even if we are limiting how many are available at release and adding to them as the year goes on). By eliminating having the option to play as a boy, we’ll be able to make the player characters that more variable with the same amount of time and resources that normally go into supporting both physical sexes.
Since you can easily twist the mechanics into an argument for why we should do a male option, let me go into the marketing side of it. Our age demographic is 10+ girls, ideally 12-16. Those girls are going to want to play as themselves, to be as much like they either are or want to be. Our job as game developers is to cater to that market. Particularly because it is wildly under-represented. There are very few, high quality games with a female only protagonist that can be customized beyond using your own name. About the only two games I can think of that fairly let you play as male or female for that age group are Pokémon and Wizards 101, and they have to limit how much customizing you can do because of the engine’s ability to handle it all.
I use the word fairly in two senses: one, there are (roughly) the same number of options for both the male and female players, and both are presented in the same way. Counting the number of hair styles is easy, it’s the second that trips developers up. The female character has to have to have the same variety of options as the men–this means that they can’t be designed to only appeal to the male gaze. (I have heard the arguments that the overly buff men are supposed to be for the female gaze, I am here to tell you it’s garbage. It’s a masculine fantasy all around, folks.)
One common complaint you’ll see, even in female-forward games like Overwatch, is that the faces all look the same for a female character, despite different nationalities and body types, but the men have at least a nod towards diversity. By focusing all of our efforts into female characters, we can avoid those types of slips and actually bring true variety and diversity to the options for characters and for NPCs. We can also feature interesting fashions without presenting teenage characters as a lot older than they are and creating unrealistic expectations.
Which leads to the moral and emotional reasons why we want to focus on a female character. I grew up with Zelda and Mario, both rescuing princesses. Pokémon: Crystal and Final Fantasy X, my first games with female protagonists (or close to it), didn’t come out until I was already ten or eleven, and I’m younger than Ginny! And while games have worked to include female options for characters, there still aren’t very many that focus entirely on a female protagonist, even as other games such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 focus on male protagonists entirely. (I’m still annoyed we haven’t had a playable Zelda yet when she is the name of the franchise.)
Girls have just as much right to be the focus of a prophecy or the hero of a story. But they don’t get that opportunity unless it is alongside a male option. We want to create a game where the focus is devoted to showing that a game like this is possible, rather than feeding into the loop that girls won’t play games even if you create a game for them. It’s the same study they tried to feed us about female super heroes, and Wonder Woman blew them out of the water, and Carol Danvers is showing signs that she might do the same if given a fair chance.
That’s all Ginny and I want to do, really. Offer a fair chance for girls to be the heroes of their own stories, offer the type of games that we all enjoy without fighting through pop-up ads and bad graphics. By proving them wrong once, we give a foothold for others to try, and for us to keep trying and pushing for more. Because if all of us succeed, the ones who really benefit are the girls out there who start to believe that they can do what they dream.
“… It’s such a tough time of life for girls being a tween. They suffer from a lot of difficulties. One of the patterns we saw over and over was a sense of social inevitability about what happened to them that you have to work to get over as a young girl. We learned a lot of things about social status and play patterns and things and it then became more my mission to create emotional rehearsal space for a lot of different types of girls to get over that hump of being a kid and being a teenager. And we were really interested in recognizing and representing the diversity of the girls that we interviewed.”
– Brenda Laurel, GDC Girl Games of the 1990s: A Retrospective October 2, 2018
With so many games out there from so many studios on mobile, PC, and consoles, it can be really tough knowing what games are suitable for your children, especially if you haven’t played them for yourself. We, the devs, of Mystic Riders want to be transparent about who our game is for and that we’re doing everything we can to both provide a great game experience while protecting the children and young adults who play the game.
First, age. We are specifically writing for the twelve and up set in terms of content. From issues they face to the genre tropes they adore, we are writing with them in mind and what they will enjoy, though some of us also indulge our inner twelve-year-old a lot, so it balances out (Becca has a habit of binge watching PreCure. It’s bad). That all being said, we are also keeping common fears and phobias out of the game such as spiders, darkness, etc., and there will be censoring (and moderators watching for back door maneuvers) of any swearing or inappropriate subject matter, so younger children may be inclined to play.
Safety is our highest priority.
We definitely want you, the parents to be aware of this age-bracket, and we want to have a solid relationship with you. That’s why we have taken a lot of care with figuring out our parental controls. But we are hoping for some consideration in return. While we won’t be any worse than the old Sailor Moon dubs that many of us grew up with, we still aren’t responsible if the subject matter isn’t what you want your child to be learning, and in fact we will be quite vocal about our game aiming for 10+ children at minimum. Some of the mini-game mechanics and plot points might be of higher difficulty than a younger player can play through on their own, so if parents of younger children let them play, they need to be aware that their child might need help for them to advance the game.
So besides age, who else are we targeting? We are aiming for girl players, thus why the Player Character is a female-only option. There is a distinct lack of games that target girl gamers, even now, for a real gaming experience. Most games fall under boy-centric or gender neutral in terms of tone. What few girl games there are tend to fall into gendered “safe” types, so basically makeovers, fashion, and playing house like cooking and home decorating. There isn’t much investment in other types of games because girl gamers are seen as a group who don’t spend money, which creates a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Girls don’t spend money on games because there aren’t any good games for them, so no one makes a good game deliberately for girls.
As for the other two types, well. Some of the male games are tolerable, but if you try and play them, you run into toxic communities that can drive a girl away from gaming for life. Gender neutral games are puzzles or some adventure games, with a few specific genres that are trying to branch away from their original male demographic, but even some of those that tout having female players are designed almost purely for the male gaze aesthetically. We want visuals that are appropriate for pre-teen and early teens without sexualizing their avatars (and therefore adding a certain unwelcome element of online gaming). We are hoping to create a safe environment that encourages them to enjoy video games and the type of community an MMORPG can create.
Finally, what type of gamer are we looking for and is that your child? We want explorers, creators, and any who would appreciate a good story. Mystic Riders was approached from a unique standpoint in the gaming industry—it was built narrative first! (Okay, loosely, and then we figured out what all we wanted in there and the branding. We still aren’t building levels before we know what is even happening in those levels.) There is an emphasis on customizing, exploring a large, open world, and allowing different levels of cooperation based on personal comfort. Some people aren’t happy unless their riding club has over a thousand members, some people don’t want anything to do with clubs, thank you. We try to appeal to both.
Where cooperation really isn’t optional is with the horses. Our type of player loves horses and wants to interact with them in several different ways and with their favorite breeds. We want to meet that need…as much as is reasonable. We understand that your wallet isn’t always open. We need money to sustain and expand the game. At the same time, if the game price is too high then it drives the exact players we want away from playing. That’s why we have set limits on number of horses and the prices of (very limited) micro-transactions. (We’d love to do away with them entirely but aren’t sure if we can or not.)
We have even made it a priority in our game that everything that the player needs to have an enjoyable experience can be earned in the game through quests. (Yes, there are quests the player can play once to earn the type of credits needed to purchase one draft horse and one pony, if maybe not the specific breed or color that they desire.) On top of that, we have limited the number of breeds of horses in our games.
Some breeds are so similar to others, or effectively are the same breed outside of some specific color patterns, that they aren’t going to have separate listings. (Becca has a story about a horse whose grandfather was a leopard Appaloosa, father was an American Paint/Thoroughbred, and then the poor stallion couldn’t get registered as anything but a Thoroughbred.) But if you want an American Paint horse, you can certainly get an American Quarter Horse and customize the coat!
Becca and Ginny are also putting their foot down as far as some elements of horsemanship are concerned. Not to be mean or to make their job easier, but because they require years of experience to do properly and, more importantly, safely. The player character is set up by the story to be only a few steps above novice in knowledge and skills with horses. We’re too honest.
If you or your child don’t exactly fit this target market, does that mean you won’t enjoy the game? Considering Becca and Ginny both have whined about wanting to play the game rather than just make it, it’s pretty safe to assume no. But like with book genres, by knowing who a game was intended for, you can go in with a clear understanding of expectations and not be disappointed.
The target audience of Mystic Riders is a female games ages 12 to 16 with the optimum target market going as low as 10 to as old as 25. The content and story of the game is geared towards teens. From issues they face to the genre tropes they adore, we’re writing with them in mind and what they enjoy. Mystic Riders was approached from a unique standpoint in the gaming industry—it was built narrative first! It’s meant to be a ‘safe’ game and steer away from excess skin, common fears and phobias, politics, religion, and sex. (While all sexualities and skin tones should and will be represented in the game, the story doesn’t hinge upon the player being a lesbian for example.)
In basic mechanics, Mystic Riders is a standard MMO and racing game. We’re aiming for girl players, thus why the Player Character is a female-only option. There is a distinct lack of games that target girl gamers, even now, for a real gaming experience. Most games fall under boy-centric or gender neutral in terms of tone. What few girl games there are tend to fall into gendered “safe” types, so basically makeovers, fashion, and playing house like cooking and home decorating. There isn’t much investment in other types of games because girl gamers are seen as a group who don’t spend money, which creates a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Girls don’t spend money on games because there aren’t any good games for them, so no one makes a good game deliberately for girls.
If boys want a horse game, they have Red Dead Redemption (2). It’s past time that girls got something with that amount of investment and care put into it.
This means that Mystic Riders needs to take the next step forward in MMO gaming by focusing the mechanics on games that girls like to play that are catered to mostly by the mobile market. This means featuring mini-games seamlessly into game play (instead of making them different screens). Mini-games like trace the pattern, clean the screen, falling objects, follow the keyboard pattern, red light green light, bubble shooters and matching color patterns, etc. are a very large part of Mystic Riders along with actual jigsaw style puzzles and environment puzzles that involve magic or using pets.
Mystic Riders is an MMO Racing Game that is stepping towards platformer gaming style mechanics. Whether it is having the player change size, or jump from “platform” to “platform.” Mystic Riders is set up to be a multi-level map with places that are exclusive to certain “class” types. At the same time, it is also a horse competition game, and the mechanics of the races are geared towards the players using skill to hit the buttons at the right time and using the correct speed to make it over obstacles or do the right steps.
There is even a choose-your-own-adventure feel to the game as the story is set up for the player to be able to choose sides at several points in the game. As a result, there are 8 different ways the story can play out. We want the player to be able to play past story lines, and have extra character slots in order to be able to play the game all 8 ways if they choose.
Because Mystic Riders is aiming for an older audience, at least in terms of where normally girl-exclusive games stop, the graphics are chosen to appeal to that older player by being more realistic. We desire the graphics to be in the vein of Black Desert Online, Moonlight Blade, or Guild Wars 2. This will make the game stand out from competitors like any Barbie horse game or Star Stable Online. The level of graphics in Ostwind are about par for what we are looking for.
Being just a game in today’s 24/7 social media atmosphere isn’t possible. That’s why Mystic Riders is geared towards being highly merchandisable from dolls, make-up, clothing, to notebooks and calendars, to novels, comics, and webisodes. We understand that to survive in an over-saturated market, you have to be a brand.
Mystic Riders is a brand created by female story driven gamers for female story driven gamers. That is the market we desire to tap.