This is the story of how the Swedish horse game Star Stable Online became a global phenomenon and changed the gaming world.
Against the odds
Before Star Stable Online arrived in 2011, there was little that foreshadowed it would anchor a powerful multimedia platform for girl gamers and women game developers.
The story starts with a gang of developers, storytellers and investors stubbornly clinging to their dream of launching an MMO (massively multiplayer online game) with horses. They represent the industry go-getters that made Sweden a global force in games: ambitious guys with an interest in digital technology and fantastic games who dreamed of becoming successful entrepreneurs.
The hugely successful game World of Warcraft was their model and, had it not been for the legal rights issue, Star Stable Online could have become World of Horsecraft (the idea of building MMOs in magical worlds was that tantalizing).
The game they dreamed of producing would have been a creative and technical challenge that reinvented the horse game in an exciting new way. It would also have been hugely expensive, demanding a budget on a par with Hollywood movies, as well as an army of developers.
Additionally, the winds of change were blowing in the games industry. The launch of Apple's iPhone in 2007 created a new, fast-growing digital platform: mobile gaming. This gave rise to global superhits like Angry Birds and opened the eyes of the industry to a faster and easier way to reach more players than ever.
A traditional computer-based MMO for girls was not a hot prospect. In fact, it went against everything the industry believed.
Marcus Thorell, one of the founding team members, experienced this first-hand at an event for game developers in San Francisco: “I was sitting there in the audience listening to them very clearly saying, ‘If you make a game, never make an MMO game. Never.’ I thought, check, we’re doing that. ‘And if you’re crazy enough to make an MMO game,’ they said, ‘don’t do a subscription-based product.’ Check, that’s what we’re planning. ‘And don’t make the MMO for girls because there are no girl gamers.’ Okay, check. ‘And whatever you do, don’t do kid’s games.’ Check!”
As is often the case with successful brands, the founders listened to prevailing opinion - and then did the opposite.
Players take the reins
Despite all the well-meaning but discouraging advice, the team held onto their dream of a full-scale MMO for adventure-loving, horse-mad girls, taking courage from a discovery that almost all the seasoned experts had missed.
Before Star Stable Online, they’d created a handful of horse-themed games. One of these was a four-episode series called Starshine Legacy. It had been developed at the behest of a book club that wanted to offer subscribers something a little different. That was all there was to it. It was supposed to be a fun little distraction that mixed things up for their customers. But that game, and the four stand-alone Star Rider titles that followed, had an unexpected effect on players.
Players loved the games and an online community grew up around them. Johan Edfeldt, one of the founders and Star Stable Online Entertainment first CEO, describes being overwhelmed.
“Video after video appeared on YouTube. All were recorded by girls with in-game cameras. They filmed themselves riding around and putting it to music. The number grew and grew, and soon there were millions of videos with millions of views. It was completely crazy. And we had not done anything. It just happened!”
This confirmed for the team that there was a huge appetite amongst girls for exciting, quest-filled, adventure-packed games in narrative-driven game worlds.
“We realized that we had found something that everyone else had missed,” Star Stable Entertainment’s current CEO Johan Sjöberg explains. “There was a large group of girls and young women who longed for full-scale online gaming. The gaming world had ignored them. From then on, it was the players and their needs and dreams that decided what we’d do."
A unique offer
The firm belief that there was a large, unmet appetite for ambitious games aimed at girls was proven beyond doubt when Star Stable Online premiered in 2011. Despite a low-key release (by industry standards at the time), the game grew rapidly, exceeding the optimistic expectations the team had set out.
After just over two years, the game surpassed 100,000 players, and the interest was global. And it just kept growing.
Pretty quickly, it became clear to everyone that horses and immersive adventure were only one of the reasons players flocked to Jovik, the game’s magical island setting. Star Stable Online quickly earned its position as an important meeting place for players, both in-game and via social media.
"I am so incredibly thankful to have been a part of this adventure from the start,” says Taina Malén, who established the company’s marketing and customer service teams in 2014. “I joined the company when there were fewer than 30 employees. I got to support and witness this unique community grow and quickly take over as the driving force in the game’s development. Our fans help us stay on our toes. It’s also how I stay relevant with my own daughter!”
From games player to games professional
Star Stable Online grew so fast that the company suffered growing pains. Like many others, Star Stable Entertainment - the company behind the game - had a hard time finding the talent it needed to keep pace with the voracious appetite players had for immersive adventure.
Fortunately, Star Stable Entertainment had an advantage. They identified the superpower that everyone else in the gaming world had overlooked. There was great longing among girls and young women for games that took them seriously, but many also dreamed of a future in the gaming industry. However, they didn’t feel welcome in a world that was dominated by men, full of boyish jargon (or worse), and burdened with misogynic attitudes.
"For me, Star Stable became a game that opened doors that me and many other young women thought were closed," says Stacy Place, who started as a Community Manager at Star Stable Entertainment in 2015. Today, she is Star Stable Online's Co-Game Director, driving the long term vision for the game based on her deep understanding of its community.
Stacy continues: “The game has had enormous significance in my life and it's changed the game plan in the industry.”
That's certainly the case at Star Stable Entertainment, where 54% of a team of more than 200 employees are women. That's compared to an average of 22% in the rest of the industry. The unique opportunity to work with a game for girls by young women has attracted employees from all over the world to the company, which employs professionals from 25 different nationalities.
Early on, Star Stable Entertainment chose a clear focus on creating a gaming world made for and by girls. This meant that all the available avatars in the game were girls, which has aroused criticism over the years. But it’s a decision the company stood by, as Taina explains:
“The main storyline of Star Stable is about sisterhood and the unique, amazing stories that can be told from that perspective. There are so many cool games out there with male main characters for players to explore, so we're proud that our game is one with incredible female main characters that allow our players to discover relatable role models."
This unique position attracted millions of girls from all over the world to Star Stable Online. Together, they form one of the gaming world's strongest and most cohesive communities. The most engaged members of this community, many of whom are official ambassadors, attest to the importance of the game and the community in their lives.
Polish Star Stable Online ambassador Paulina Marulewska explains: "Feminism is important in my life. I live in a country that doesn’t respect women’s rights. There are many nations in the world where what women feel isn’t respected. And the games industry isn’t friendly to girls, either. Star Stable Online is so special because it empowers us. It’s the first game I’ve found that does that.”
Danielle Starstorm, an American ambassador, describes her experience: “I’ve met lifelong friends, and these friendships are about more than Star Stable Online. We met in the game, but we’ve taken the steps to grow real-life friendships. A lot of people have found lifelong best friends in the game. I’ve never found friends through other games, not like this. It’s changed my life in the best possible way. This community is super special to me.”
An expanding creative universe
In 2018, a completely new chapter opened for the company. That spring, Star Stable Entertainment launched the first book about the Soul Riders by author Helena Dahlgren in collaboration with the book publisher Bonnier Carlsen. The book went on to become an award-winning trilogy, selling around the world in 11 languages.
Star Stable Music launched the same year, signing artists who are now streaming on all leading platforms. These artists are linked to characters in the game, but the music is created and performed by real artists in diverse genres, like folk, pop, and punk. Star Stable Music has now debuted more than 40 singles and earned more than 10 million streams.
"Our goal is to build a broad platform for entertainment based on the interests and desires of our unique community," says Taina Malen, who is now responsible for expanding the brand in new arenas.
Earlier this year, the animated miniseries Mistfall launched voices known from both Jorvik and Hollywood. Written by Canadian Emmy-winning author Alice Prodanou, the series garnered 12 million views on Star Stable’s YouTube channel in a matter of months.
The next ten years
Star Stable Online began with a vision - a horse game about deep and magical power. It was an impossible dream that became a reality through stubbornness, hard work, and a firm belief that girls deserve great games.
It opened doors for girls in a male-dominated profession.
It built friendships and became the springboard for girls around the world to discover their talents and feel good about themselves.
And it created a deeply connected community of players bonded to a magical world that shapes their dreams and real lives.
If the first ten years were a success against all the odds, the goal for Star Stable Entertainment for the coming decade is to use creativity to foster inclusivity and nurture everyone’s ability to contribute to a world full of positivity, imagination, and adventure.
"I have no idea where we will be in ten years’ time,” Johan Sjöberg admits, “but some of those people who will decide have only just started playing Star Stable Online, discovered our music or opened our books. What I do know is that the journey will take place in close dialogue and cooperation with our large audience. It was by listening and being curious about them that we managed to find a unique position and, in the long run, change the gaming world. Our promise is that it will guide us into a magical future."
Star Stable Entertainment is a cross-channel entertainment company that makes games and stories where girls discover adventure, ignite creativity and build friendships.