“I’ve met a lot more horse girls than horse boys…” (Source)
“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 main 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 main 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 tend to run two ways, what looks cool to their aesthetic, or creating a virtual version of 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.
As part of me taking a course on game design taught by Brenda Romero on Lynda.Com, we are working to make sure that even though we are approaching the game our own way, we have an understanding of what developers and the gaming industry at large looks for in a game proposal. Ginny posted a work-in-progress of our thought processes to piecing out the core and pillars from our (massive) design documents, and now that we’ve had a chance to talk about the differences (and the similarities), I am going to explain the “official” core and pillars…at least for now. While the core of our game isn’t going to change, the pillars may need adjustment as we continue development.
If you look at the work in progress documents, you’ll see that for the core, Ginny and I had different approaches to roughly the same idea. For me, I was focused on this being an MMORPG game. The point of any MMORPG is character development, gaining levels and gear to fit your style of play and advancing the story. It’s how you go about it and what your story is that separates them. Ginny, however, came from a more narrative, and therefore a more specific direction, and used growing up as her core. While still about character development, it is more about how as a player character, you are making decisions on how this specific character, a young teen girl, is going to grow up, both on micro and macro levels. It also gives the first nod in the direction of our narrative, which is important since we’re starting there rather than with systems.
Neither of “cores” is necessarily wrong, but due to Ginny’s being more specific and in-line with the narrative of the game, I definitely thing it is the stronger of the two. So Mystic Rider MMO’s core is growing up.
Now, what about pillars? These are sort of supporting structures to the core—important statements or concepts in their own right that need to be just as prevalent as the core itself. This is where we had some very similar concepts and some differing opinions. Admittedly, I applied some limitations to us to try and you know…keep us from having twenty, but I honestly think that helped more than hindered us because it made us prioritize what we found important.
For example, both of us want the game to be driven by narrative. We’re writers, we come for the pretty, we stay for the story. Not only that, but from what we are finding, most female gamers feel the same way. There’s also a lack of games that let you focus on exploring, crafting, and racing without making it a money grab between players or involving combat…or making it where you have to babysit the game. Ginny has the collection of posts about people wanting something else, I’ll let her share those images on her own time. I worry that despite our ideas and focus being more likely to bring in female devs, we’ll end up with some guy who goes off the deep end and forgets our game is for girls, and I really want us to keep that a question in everything we do. Ginny has spent a lot of time investigating what sort of graphics and mini-games we can include, specifically ones that often get made into flash games that so many of us love to play, but are buggy or limited as all get out, so we can bring them into the fold.
So where does that leave us in terms of pillars? For Mystic Riders MMO, our pillars are to be (1) Narrative Driven in a world that at times challenges to be (2) Unconventional Fantasy, to have (3) Exploration, Crafting, and Racing that is easy but dependent on practice and skill, utilizing (4) Platformer and Mini-Game Mechanics to (5) Customize the Player Experience for (6) Female Gamers.
It’s a lot to live up to, especially for our first major project. I’ve done smaller games, though without any formal training. But I think together, we have the knowledge on what we want and how to implement it in a plan. Now we just need to start getting the resources together!
“Girls don’t want boys. Girls want single-player story-drive RPG’s witn in-depth character creators and romance options.” – @kurtzperson on twitter
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 Main 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 main characters (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 gamer 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 is being approached from a unique standpoint in the gaming industry—it is 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, farming, puzzle, and racing game. We’re aiming for girl players, thus why the Main 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.
Mystic Riders is designed to be enjoyable for the person who loves horses no matter what their age. We want this game to be enjoyable and relatable for tweens, teenagers, and young adults to the older adults who are young at heart by providing an enjoyable story with challenging puzzles and things for players to do simply to relax.
We are you. We love Miraculous Ladybug (at least the first season), Love Live, Sailor Moon, and PreCure. We adore Ever After High and Monster High. We get tempted by the Bayer horses every year until we remember cats will destroy them. (Ginny at least played with Barbies the way they are supposed to be played with, and wishes they’d go back to some of the older style merchandising. Becca collected the horses more than the dolls.) We play horse games and farming sims and get lost in a good story about teens in impossible love. (Give us all the fanfic! Give. Give now!) We have a weakness for sparkly and pretty things. And to us, pink is just another color in a huge rainbow of colors. (Bring back Lisa Frank!)
We’ve created this game for people no matter their gender or age who love exploring, story based play and have a spirit of competition. If you like games like Barbie Horse Adventures and Star Stable Online, we hope that you’ll like our game—a game where your main character (MC) can ride and take care of a horse in a huge open-world-style map that includes mini-games like Disney Princess games, platforming elements like Sly Cooper and Okami, farming and building elements, dress-up, and as much customization as we can stuff into a game.
Customization is important. Your MC is a girl. There is no one type of girl. There is no one right way to be a girl and we want to provide enough options that everyone has a way to show who they are and be represented in the game! (Even if some of it may have to wait for expansions. Fingers crossed.) Representing the incredible rainbow of who we are as people is important to us. Prep. Goth. Boho. Retro. Punk. Hip Hop. Country. We’ve got you covered.
There’s a lot more to Mystic Riders than caring for and racing horses. There are friendships to be made, a world to save, and a huge mystery to solve. Do things have to be the way they are? Can everyone get along? Who is Rose Neptuna really? And why does Bence have to be so cute anyways? Questions like ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I going to be when I grow up?’ are balanced with silliness and fun. (Who knew that goats love pajamas?) And let’s be honest, sometimes those questions don’t go away even when you’re an adult. (Ginny can attest to this.)
There’s so much more to the story that it can’t all be contained in the game. There’s more to Mystic Riders (or what we want of Mystic Riders) to be more than just a game. We want books and webisodes and merchandise. Not to say that the story in the game won’t be complete, but who are Vesper Leilament, Charlotte Mistwaltz, and the other mentors? How did they come to Astranar? What are they up to behind the scenes?
And who doesn’t want a bit of their game to sit on their shelf? Dolls and horse figurines, outfits, make-up, and notebooks can mean that every player can have a little bit of Astranar and Mystic Riders in their day to day life. And given that Ginny is a fashion designer, well, maybe, if we’re lucky, there will be clothes from the game in stores with pockets (because clothes should be both pretty and functional). (Ginny and Becca are both serious about this pocket thing.)
Mystic Riders is a game created by those who love horses and are young at heart for those who love horses and are young at heart.