Star Stable Online is a fast-growing multiplayer game that caters to an often overlooked demographic: girls. The average age of its core audience is about nine- to fourteen-years-old, but players include older teens. Many parents encourage their kids to play because they learn to read through the game. They may also find the games freemium model appealing, where the first five levels are free and then players have the option to purchase either a monthly or one-time “lifetime” subscription. Regardless of the reason, the game’s user base is expanding by 400,000 new users each month, despite how it’s a PC-only game.
Taina Malén, global chief marketing officer at Star Stable Entertainment, describes Star Stable simply as “the world’s most fun game for girls,” and fans are getting a special visitor thanks to a partnership with DreamWorks Animation. Spirit, the mustang from the 2002 Oscar-nominated film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, will be making his way into the game as a horse players can meet and befriend. This partnership coincides with the launch of the animated show, Spirit Riding Free, on Netflix.
Malén sat down with AListDaily to talk about bringing Spirit into Star Stable and how girls just want to have fun.
What is Star Stable Online about?
It’s an MMORPG game built on a story about girls, with four heroic Soul Riders on the island of Jorvik. It’s an adventure game where you ride on a horse to complete quests and challenges for gear while helping your friends survive—using the powers of the island to keep the bad people who want to come in and drill for oil out.
What led to the development of an online game that appeals mainly to girls?
Marcus Thorell, the game creator and head of the studio, came together with a couple of other programmers. They had produced CD ROM games way back with some other developers built on the same IP. One day, they were surfing the internet and found out that there was still a lot of movement around this IP. There were groups of people building communities, and they started to think about bringing it into an online game.
So, they went to one of the big conferences in San Francisco or LA and participated in a presentation where someone said, “You cannot make games for girls. You cannot make games that are not on mobile.” That’s when they decided that that was exactly what they were going to do.
Are girls an overlooked market when it comes to video games?
Historically, yes. I helped found a company in esports before Star Stable, and what was surprising to me was that there were a lot of girls in gaming and esports, but you didn’t really see them. I feel that, generally, there have been a lot of games for the male audience and we see that males have been visualized in the industry. The industry leans heavily toward male-oriented games with boy characters. But I think that’s changing with mobile games. These days, it’s a natural thing for girls to play games.
What is the key to reaching the girl gamer demographic as Star Stable grows in the US?
Our game has been built by our community, which was there before we were. We helped them to help us build our game. The US is one of our biggest markets, and it has one of our biggest communities. I would also say that it’s one of our most active communities. The game and community drive so much interest and traffic, and the better the game is, the more we grow, no matter what market we talk about.
The US is a busier market, perhaps more so than some of the European countries. There are a lot of entertainment, lots of TV channels, and a lot of other things. Some European countries don’t have half that entertainment.
How does a PC MMORPG built for girls stand out in that kind of crowded market?
I think we stand out using our core business, which is producing a really good MMORPG for this target audience. We’ve stuck to our core and what we know how to do. Obviously, time will be competition for all of us in this market, and any market that has to do with entertainment. We believe that as long as we do what we passionately think is the most fun for this this audience, we will have them. We’ve also produced apps—there’s a Star Stable companion app right now, along with a foal app, where you can raise your own horse that can be moved into the game.
How does the audience discover Star Stable?
We have a lot of organic growth. It’s all about word-of-mouth—things you see on YouTube—especially with a tween audience. We have about 1.2 million pieces of content on YouTube produced by our fans. That sort of thing is very shareable, and the do so between each other. That’s typically how our audience grows. They talk to each other and invite each other to play.
We’ve also done some general advertising online, and we’ve done some TV campaigns. We’ve worked a lot with Nickelodeon throughout both the US and Europe along with Disney.
How did the partnership with DreamWorks come together?
We were approached by DreamWorks through our licensing department. They were looking for opportunities in the gaming environment and we looked like the perfect partner to collaborate with. We looked at different ways of collaborating, and discussions eventually grew to including Spirit in our game. We were reluctant to have other IPs in our game. Although we’ve done a few equestrian campaigns with different celebrities who have appeared as in-game characters, this is the furthest we’ve gone in collaborating with another IP.
How is Spirit presented in the game?
Spirit appears in different places, so players see him as a teaser at first. Our players are fans, so they know what’s happening every second. If a player spots Spirit, that will be the news of the day on social media. Then, slowly but surely, we’ll move him into the game so that you can make friends with him if you complete certain quests. You’ll never be able to buy him, but you can get him a gift so that he becomes your friend and part of your stable. He differs from all the other horses because he is a free horse. You won’t be able ride on him with a saddle, but you’ll have a blanket. It will be very clear what Spirit is about so that we keep true to the nature of that IP and story.
Will there be cross-promotion between the game and the Netflix show?
We’re not doing a promotion with Netflix, but we will be promoting the show. For example, we’ll be promoting the Spirit horse on our YouTube channel, and in doing so, mention the Netflix series.
Why use a freemium model for Star Stable?
The freemium model is just one of those things that has been there since day one. We launched that way, it worked very well, and we never had reason to reevaluate it. We’re trying out different models in different countries, but we don’t see a reason to change something that works well. When we first decided on this business model, we wanted it to be something that people could feel secure about. You’re not playing for free while getting all different offers to buy this and that. You have to buy things to survive in the game, but you get a weekly allowance and you know what you get when you pay the fee.
What is the strategy for engaging with an audience that may outgrow the game one day?
First of all, our lifetime players are very dedicated. About 80 percent of our users have been playing for more than three years. I wanted to mention that because it’s very unique. These players need to have logged into the game within the past two months to count.
We keep players engaged with the game with weekly updates, which gives them new content, quests and things to do. It’s also very important for us to be very engaged on social media, community channels and customer service. We want our players engaged with us, our content, our personalities, our YouTube videos and so on. It’s like a boy band, in a way. We want to keep that dialogue going, and a lot of passion goes into the work.
Most of all, you have to continue producing a fantastic product for a unique and loving audience. Don’t lose track and keep up the passion. Our culture is very important, as a startup growing into a mid-size company, and we try to keep that spirit up and focus on producing the best game that we can while keeping up the community engagement. Listen to the community and let them be them. You also need to be modern and be aware of how the community behaves.