In his latest column, Richard Hayden saddles up to go in search of what makes a good game horse
I grew up in a forest. Wait, I don’t mean I’m like Hansel or some sort of wolfboy. I mean I lived in a rural village that lay within a forest. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that like many kids growing up in that sort of environment, I’m familiar with horses. I can, in a very basic sense, ride. So, it is with interest that I watch how developers work to make the horse into a viable mechanic in games. Of course, you don’t need to be a jockey to know that they are not always successful.
Earlier this week, Warhorse Studios released a video showing the horse mechanics for its upcoming medieval sandbox RPG Kingdom Come: Deliverance. They look hugely impressive. The animations are interesting and the actual movement of the horses is lifelike.
When the dev turned his horse, it looked especially good. From a stationary start, the horse dipped its head as the rider tugged the reins to the right. As the head turned so the body moved to follow. It was an elegant reversal of direction that took place in a very small area. This is the action so many game horses bungle: a turn is, in practice, two movements, not one – head, then body. Some games make a mess of this, placing a single pivot point through the center of the horse, like a carousel, and then giving it a massive turning circle as if it were some equine oil tanker.
Skyrim is a particular failure when it comes to horse movement. I still shudder at the recollection of those times when, halfway up a mountain pass, a nearby quest or onrushing powerful monster would require me to turn around. There soon followed the farcical sight of my horse turning in a wide circle, climbing the steep walls of the ravine as though he were a wall-of-death motorcyclist.
It was, in short, a mess. And Bethesda knew it, cheekily explaining away the poor mechanics with a tiny piece of lore that pointed out that the horses of Skyrim were of sturdy farmstock given to neither charging into battle nor nimble negotiations of the high passes – Shires horses, not destriers. Okay, Bethesda, we’ll let you have that one but, next time, proper horses, please.
And proper horses is what Warhorse is aiming for. The developer feels strongly enough about the mechanics to give them their own subheading on the game’s Kickstarter page, saying, “Horses are your primary means of transportation in our sprawling world, but you can fight from horseback, as well. War horses can be used as living weapons with special moves and attacks (strafing, running backwards, several different kicks, etc).”
That last line hints at exciting ideas; a horse that is more than an easy means of getting somewhere more quickly than walking; rather, a living independent member of the party, capable of taking part in the combat.
Of course, this isn’t to say that horses have never been done well in games. There are, in fact, some excellent horse mechanics out there that, making allowances for contemporary technology, can be a lot of fun. Mostly they appear in action or RPG titles such as Darksiders, Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of the Colossus and various Legend of Zelda games.
But the current champion of horse play is Red Dead Redemption. Like Kingdom Come, the sandbox Wild West title got the minutiae of movements correct. The animations of the rider and the beast looked authentic and gave the horses in the game deserved grace.
And it’s not just in the animations that RDR scores highly, it also delivers well on horse AI. Horses are independently aware of danger and will automatically jump when directed towards low obstacles. However, the former dominates the latter so there is little hope of getting your mount to jump off a cliff overlooking the railroad. Although, if you are determined, you can manage to kill your horse by taking it too fast down steep slopes, which, I suppose, is a feature in keeping with sandbox freedom.
However, before Kingdom Come: Deliverance can challenge RDR’s excellent horsemanship, first it has to get made. It’s had a tricky path despite being supported by a private backer, who has put in $1.5m to get the project to this stage. The team had hoped to get a publisher onboard but, when none was forthcoming, the backer made another promise. He vowed to support the project entirely if the dev could demonstrate consumer demand was there. So, they turned to Kickstarter to judge anticipation. The dev and backer determined that £300,000 (approx $500,000) would show good demand and sat back to see what happened.
With eight days still to run, the campaign has smashed its target, more than doubling the pledged amounts. At the time of writing, 22,684 backers have jumped onboard, raising £712,198 with stretch goals anticipating a potential £1m total.
Here’s hoping they make it down the home stretch.