What can the current VR market teach us about design?

In this post:

 

Introduction

I figured I would write this post now, since it is rapidly becoming outdated. For a while now, I’ve been following the popularity of various virtual reality (VR) games. Specifically, I’m interested in the real player engagement generated by these games, for the purpose of creating a rough qualitative model which can predict a given game’s success.

What are the stakes here? Assume we want to make a profitable VR game on a (relatively lean) budget of $500,000. In order to break even, you need to sell 25,000 copies at a $30 price point. In reality, your price point is probably lower ($20 or $25), and you’ll be selling a large number of copies at a discounted price point in Steam sales. Your budget may also be higher (think 1-2 million dollars). However, we can also assume your sales figures will be roughly doubled if you release the game on PSVR, and maybe tripled if you release on Oculus Quest (big assumptions, but these are all ballpark numbers anyways).

More than 1,000 games with VR support were released on Steam in 2018. Even assuming that 80% of those are hot garbage, you need to beat about 165 other games in order to reach that 25,000 sale mark. That’s right: by the time you get to the 35th best-selling game in 2018, you are looking at games that only sold around 25,000 copies.

I will delve a little more into the specifics later, but the crux is that, in 2018, there is heavy correlation between sales and active playerbase. That is, the games that people keep playing tend to get the most sales. Therefore the pertinent question is: what can we glean from the top-played games, so that we can more reliably develop profitable VR games?

More explanation can be found at the end of this post. But, a caveat: here I’m mainly looking at Steam and assuming it is a representative sample of the market at large. Ok, let’s jump right into it.

 

What are consumers choosing?

If we take a gander at what games people are playing on Steam in a given day, you’ll find a list that looks like this:

  • Beat Saber
  • Pavlov VR
  • B&S (full title: Blade and Sorcery)
  • Rec Room
  • H3VR (full title: Hot Dogs, Horseshoes, and Hand Grenades)
  • Skyrim
  • Arizona Sunshine
  • Job Simulator
  • SUPERHOT VR
  • Onward
  • Fallout
  • GORN
  • Elven Assassin
  • The Lab
  • Zero Caliber VR
  • Space Pirate Trainer
  • STAND OUT

This is roughly ordered by player count. Beat Saber usually has between 1000 and 1500 players, Pavlov usually has about half that; Rec Room, B&S, and H3VR have a few hundred players, and the others have between 120 and 20 players.

(Rec Room and The Lab are free, so we will ignore those henceforth)

Most of these have between 200,000 and 500,000 owners on Steam. Some are lower; B&S, Elven Assassin, STAND OUT, and Zero Caliber have 40,000 – 100,000 owners. Note that you can’t multiply the owner count by the sale price to get the gross revenue, because owners include people who got it for free or at a heavy discount. However, high owner count usually means high revenue.

All of these “top-played” games landed on the top 20 best-selling list of games for 2018. Despite the low ratio of active players to total owners, the top-played list is remarkably stable. All this suggests that it isn’t freak chance that these games are on top.

There are only a few games from the top 20 best-sellers in 2018 that aren’t on this “active playerbase” list:

  • Orbus VR
  • DOOM VFR
  • Raw Data
  • Rick and Morty
  • I Expect You To Die
  • Budget Cuts
  • Sairento VR
  • Sprint Vector

These all have ownership numbers between 20,000 and 100,000 on steam, but normally 10 or fewer active players at a given time.

The ones in bold are linear singleplayer games — i.e. you play them once and you’ve gotten everything out of them — so it isn’t surprising they don’t have an active playerbase. Three of the others, OrbusVR, Raw Data, and Sairento VR, benefit from a first-movers advantage. OrbusVR is the first “VR MMO”, while Raw Data and Sairento were some of the first games with significant amounts of content and “good graphics”. This has placed them as well-known titles in the VR market, and continues to drive consumer interest despite the fact that they clearly can’t sustain player interest. I would argue that Sprint Vector also benefits from a sort of second-hand first-movers advantage, being developed by Survios, the same company behind Raw Data (and thus benefitting from higher consumer awareness).

Many of the top-played games also benefit from a first-movers advantage. Some happened to be high-quality games in a very early market: Space Pirate Trainer, Arizona Sunshine, Job Simulator, SUPERHOT. Some happened to hit a particular niche, maybe without being high-quality: STAND OUT, H3VR.

But, are there features intrinsic to these games that we can learn lessons from?

Only 40% of the top-played games have a multiplayer mode, and you would expect games with active playerbases to have multiplayer support. When you consider all the top 35 best-selling games (which, remember, you need to be in to turn a profit) only 25% have multiplayer. I used to think that a VR game needed multiplayer support, even if people didn’t tend to use it, because it added significant perceived value to the consumer. This is clearly not the case. From a numbers perspective, adding multiplayer support is currently not worth it.

I suspect that having a game with an active playerbase is healthy for sales, since it places you on the front page of the “What’s Being Experienced” chart in the Steam store. It looks like this:

As a player, this list is very appealing. It shows what games people have found to be continually fun; if I buy a game from this list, I have a higher chance of maximizing the bang for my buck.

So while VR games can and have been successful with low replayability (Moss and I Expect You To Die come to mind), creating a game that players can return to night after night significantly increases the chances of making a profit. A game that people can keep playing is also a game that people will keep talking about both online and in real life, and word-of-mouth is not to be underestimated as a force for generating sales in the VR market.

However, it is incredibly difficult to provide the sort of value that keeps a player entertained for months, especially since every player wants something different. This is where user-created content and mods are invaluable. It is no accident that the games with the biggest active playerbases are also well-known for their user-generated content and mod support: VR chat, Rec Room, Beat Saber, Pavlov VR, B&S, and Skyrim. In fact, it could be said the mods for these games are more popular than the games themselves.

If someone says “I couldn’t imagine playing this game without mods,” as is often said of those games mentioned above, it isn’t a sign of failure on the developer’s part. It is a sign that they have provided a platform that will continue to excite people and generate sales, even without further effort from the developers. It is the holy grail of VR game development: maximum engagement at minimum cost.

Thus, we have a basic template for thinking about a VR game with a chance of profitability: a mod-friendly singleplayer game that a player can jump into night after night and that makes them want to talk about their experiences.

 
 

Three Design Pillars

What keeps players coming back? What keeps them in the headset when they could be doing other things? In my estimation, all the top-played games succeed in one or more of three design categories, or pillars:

  • Kinesthetically satisfying core loop
  • Colorful and compelling atmosphere or character (henceforth “compelling character”)
  • Fantasy fulfillment

 

A kinesthetically satisfying core loop is a basic gameplay loop that, absent all else, makes you move your body in a way that feels good. The best of these have the player doing things you can imagine a kid doing by himself on a playground just because it’s fun to do. Beat Saber, B&S, GORN, Space Pirate Trainer, and SUPERHOT all get you moving in satisfying ways. There isn’t a lot of standing still, trying to point your controller at something, or fumbling with menus, or fiddling with two small objects. They have sweeping motions and encourage you to sway your body smoothly and sinuously. When describing the game to your friends, you can move your body and make sounds with your mouth to convey the experience.

Compelling character is when a character in the game, or simply the attitude of the game itself, makes you want to stay in it. Arizona Sunshine has a fun self-narrator that lends life to a game that otherwise would become a drag after half an hour. Job Simulator is silly and absurd. GORN is a masterful blending of comical and gory action that sucks players right into the universe with minimal friction.

Finally, fantasy fulfillment is the thing most players actively look for in a VR game. They want to be a Jedi, a gladiator, a marine, a wizard, a survivor of the zombie apocalypse. Whether through the story, the action, or the environment, a game with fantasy fulfillment transports the player to a different time, place, and role. Their return to the real world after a play session is a shock, and it creates a yearning to return to that place where they were something different than they are in real life.

Some VR games ride solely on their fantasy fulfillment. People harp on Skyrim VR for being a bad VR port, but it hits the top-played list because it has such rich, immersive environments. H3VR is a gun simulator with some game modes tacked on. Most successful VR games have at least partial elements of fantasy fulfillment. Even Beat Saber, a game that isn’t really *about* anything, still generates fawning comments about how it really feels like you are wielding a lightsaber.

Obviously, each of these pillars are highly personal. Different people like different characters, have different fantasies, and enjoy different motions. For example, I can’t stand the bow-and-arrow motion in VR, but I know a lot of people enjoy it — hell, the only VR “genre” more prevalent than bow-and-arrow games are shooters.

It is thus a developer’s goal to execute on a concept that squarely hits all three pillars for their target audience while still doing the other things a game needs to do to succeed, like providing a unique value proposition to the player and being easy to market. These three design pillars are necessary, but not sufficient, for success.

Does this describe your VR game?

A single-player game that fulfills a fantasy for players. Once in the headset, it immediately captures players with a kinesthetically fun core loop, and keeps them playing for its compelling character. Players want to talk about their experience in the game and play it again, exploring user-generated content and mods to play exactly what they want and how they want.

 
 


(The rest of this post is data sources and housekeeping. Feel free to skip it.)
 

Appendix

I’ve been using data from a few sources:

https://vrlfg.net/ VR LFG provides live stats from Steam for VR games.
http://steamspy.com/ SteamSpy provides historical data and ownership numbers for Steam games.
https://vrscout.com/news/steam-leak-reveals-vr-player-count/ This was a player count leak in summer of 2018.
https://store.steampowered.com/sale/2018_top_vr/ This is a list of games by “top-selling in 2018”, measured by gross revenue, sorted into buckets or “tiers” (but not ordered within a given tier).
http://gamstat.com/games/ Not relevant to this post, since I focus only on Steam stats, but GamStat provides stats on Playstation games including PSVR, currently the largest virtual reality platform.

The numbers I used in this post are mostly from May 2019, but I don’t think moving that needle backwards or forwards by 6 months would change the conclusions of this post.

To put game owner counts in perspective, at the tail end of 2018 there were roughly 2.5 million Oculus Rift headsets sold, and 1.5 million Vive headsets. There were also around 4 million PSVR headsets (thus the comment about releasing for PSVR doubling sales numbers). These PCVR numbers from Statista are corroborated by a report by NVIDIA that there are about 4 million PC headsets total out there.

[1] PCVR headset sales from Statista
[2] NVIDIA PCVR headset count confirmation
[3] PSVR headset sales

There are two major storefronts on PC — Oculus and Steam. This hampers analysis a little, because numbers from Oculus are basically impossible to come by. However, based on some other data I’ve been privy to, sales numbers on the Oculus store may be about 50% of sales on Steam. I have no idea how reliable this number is, or what the variance is, but it at least provides a starting point for ballpark estimates.

Rough player counts are possible for Steam through Steamspy, and Playstation through Gamstat, but ultimately without access to the raw data behind each of these platforms, opportunities for quantitative analysis are limited (as are my skills in that regard). However, obviously some patterns have emerged.

It seems to me that this general alignment between what people are continuing to play and what is selling well is a sign that 2018 was the first year of stability in the VR market. Games can no longer benefit easily from a first mover’s advantage, where people will buy a game simply because it fills a gap in the market.

Below are the best-selling VR games in 2018, along with ownership numbers. The games were sorted into tiers based on the sales achieved in 2018, meaning some games in lower tiers have higher owner counts than games in higher tiers, due to release date or sales pattern differences.

Platinum (Tier 1)

Game Release User Score Owners
Beat Saber 2018 [EA] 97% 563,000
Pavlov VR 2017 [EA] 89% 370,000
H3 VR 2016 [EA] 97% 297,000
Job Simulator 2016 84% 280,000
SUPERHOT VR 2017 89% 262,000
Onward 2016 [EA] 91% 256,000
Arizona Sunshine 2016 86% 249,000
Skyrim VR 2018 82% 215,000
Fallout 4 VR 2017 71% 201,000
GORN 2017 [EA] 97% 195,000
OrbusVR 2017 [EA] 81% 29,000

Gold (Tier 2)

Game Release User Score Owners
Space Pirate Trainer 2017 [prev. EA] 95% 164,000
DOOM VFR 2017 59% 119,000
Raw Data 2017 [prev. EA] 87% 97,000
Rick and Morty 2017 74% 89,000
I Expect You To Die 2017 92% 68,000
Budget Cuts 2018 73% 49,000
STAND OUT 2017 [EA] 77% 44,000
Zero Caliber VR 2018 [EA] 73% 39,000
Sairento VR 2018 [prev. EA] 90% 38,000
Sprint Vector 2018 90% 28,000

Silver (Tier 3)

Game Release User Score Owners
Audioshield 2016 82% 126,000
Serious Sam: The Last Hope 2017 85% 79,000
Blade & Sorcery 2018 86% 74,000
Fruit Ninja VR 2016 85% 69,000
Dead Effect 2 VR 2017 83% 55,000
Richie’s Plank Experience 2017 83% 45,000
Moss 2018 91% 43,000
VTOL VR 2017 94% 37,000
In Death 2018 91% 29,000
Duck Season 2017 86% 28,000
Creed 2018 82% 27,000
Talos Principle VR 2017 87% 23,000
Box VR 2017 87% 22,000
Serious Sam 3 VR 2017 89% 19,000
LA Noire 2017 62% 18,000
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