What can the current VR market teach us about design?

In this post:



I figured I would write this post now, since it is rapidly becoming outdated.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
  • Onward
  • Fallout
  • GORN
  • Elven Assassin
  • The Lab
  • Zero Caliber VR
  • Space Pirate Trainer

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
  • 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.)


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

Zombies, Pixels, and Cubes (Oh my!)

It’s no secret that many games these days have incurred that oh-so virulent infection. Like the T-virus, it has spread to every sector of the market, turning developers in shambling shells of their former selves. I speak, of course, of zombies. Just last year we saw WarZ, ZombiU, BlOps 2, and Amy. The year before that saw Yakuza: Dead Souls, Rise of Nightmares, Dead Island, and the rather well-named Zombies. That list excludes low-profile games and those which aren’t, in my opinion, terrible. Is this trend developer laziness, or perhaps a corporate influence? I wouldn’t be surprised if teams were pushed towards zombie games because, statistically, they make more money.

While it is reasonable when large-budget games are zombie-based, the same rationality falls short of protecting indie games. Zombie games are a prop-up, a cop-out for a developer who can’t come up with a better framework. Sure, it saves you the effort of establishing a complete universe (which is extremely tricky). That effort can go back into making other parts of the game better. But is the tradeoff worth it? To me, zombies don’t allow for a lot of avenues in terms of creative gameplay and storytelling. Are zombies a fall-back for those who need an extra kick in their games? Just search “zombie” in the Steam Store and sort by release date. Decide for yourself.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I want to talk about retro graphics. Let’s take a stroll down the Steam Greenlight aisle, shall we? In the first few pages we see:

  • MANOS: The Hands of Fate
  • Dead Colony
  • Deprivation
  • Hammerwatch
  • Potatoman Seeks the Troof
  • Dungeonmans
  • Topia Online
  • 16 Bit Arena
  • Spuds Quest
  • Legend of Dungeon

Keep in mind, these are those that are easily distinguishable by their image tile – many more lurk out there behind well-illustrated thumbnails.

What is the cause of this tsunami in indie game market that is retro graphics? Pixel graphics have the added bonus of nostalgic appeal for a certain generation. Art assets may be cheaper to produce. But, at least to me, pixel graphics convey a sense of harsh, delineated gameplay, where fun is equated with difficulty. My mind drifts to games like Megaman, where the reward for beating one level is to play the same level over again, with a different color tileset. I think the benefits of pixel graphics fall by the wayside when the decision is made. Pixel graphics, like zombies, are a knee-jerk reflex for the mediocre game developer. Often these developers are different, but I guarantee that there is more than one pixellated zombie game out there produced in the last five years.

Which brings me to cubes. Thanks, Minecraft. I both enjoy and loathe your trend-setting magnificence. It’s time for another stroll through Greenlight. Bonus points for games that have the word “Cube” in them.

  • Block Story
  • Slip
  • Logicubiks
  • Cell Emergence
  • Brain Cube Reloaded
  • King Voxel
  • Cubes and Zombies
  • Ace of Spades
  • Cube Park
  • Cube World

Ugh. *shiver*. I should do another post on how to not make your game look totally unappealing on Steam Greenlight. You would think choosing a good name and thumbnail would be at the top of everybody’s list. Apparently not.

PlanetSide 2: First Impressions

I made a post a while ago about an MMOFPS/RTS. Turns out, this dream has come true, and it is PlanetSide 2 (it’s free-to-play. go download it right now!)

In the first two hours of play, I was zipping around in a dropship with a squad, capping points like crazy. I was rolling across vast plains in a tank convoy, or running along the ground with dozens of others as aircraft zipped overhead. I infiltrated an enemy compound and disabled a generator. I defended one of our larger complexes from a full-on siege. This game is amazing.

Actually a pretty typical thing to see.

It’s a little hard to get into, as you are just dropped into the action. You have to figure out what the vehicles do, the difference between classes, how the maps are laid out, what you are doing, etc. Basically, you have to figure out how the game works. But after you join an outfit (which are basically clans), the fun blossoms. You run and fight along side your teammates in giant, mile-wide maps. The 24/7 combat goes back and forth across a ravaged landscape. As you cower behind a rock and take potshots at the other factions, aircraft scream over head, blowing each other up. More than once I’ve had a smoking aircraft crash and break apart into a fireball meters from me.

The basic objective is to capture facilities, which are fairly far apart from each other. At the top-most level, the game is a back-and-forth struggle across a territory. The territory is broken in hex-shaped regions, which are linked to the nearest facility. Your platoon (under which there are squads) chooses where to focus their efforts, and then a blitzkrieg spearheads into fortified enemy territory and tears a hole in their defensive line. Overall, the best strategy is to keep a strong front line; if a facility gets isolated in otherwise enemy territory, it is usually much harder to defend.

Each facility has one or more capture points. In order to gain control of a facility, you need to hold all the capture points for a certain amount of time. One in control, facilities can have weapon-change stations, ground vehicle factories, or aircraft factories, depending on the size of the facility (larger facilities have more capture points). You get resources for kills (or assists) and captures. Resources allow you to buy equipment or vehicles. Different facilities give different resource bonuses to the owners.

The actual combat is OK. You can choose between a few classes: sniper, light assault (who gets a jetpack), medic (who can heal and revive people), engineer (who can build stuff) , and heavy assault (who gets a rocket launcher). At a equipment station, you can upgrade to mech-form, for a cost. Death bears little penalty, with only a short respawn and no deductions otherwise. In addition, medics can bring you back to life (for no cost). Each of the three factions gets different bonuses for each class, as well as different vehicles. The ground vehicles are a little annoying to control, and have a strange FOV. Aircraft are extremely hard to control, and I still haven’t figured out the best setup for them. But really the best part of the game is moving with a group of players; you feel like an insignificant part of the combat, not the star.

Really, that is the key part of this game. You understand that you are just one cog in the machine, that the battle doesn’t hinge on you. You also start to realize the scope of the battle raging around you. On the overhead map, you can see which territories are contested. You realize that at each one of those spots, there is a battle as massive and intense as the one you are in. Then you realize that there are two other maps on this server. At any point in time, someone is having a last-stand defense, someone is storming a citadel, someone is cruising over head in an aircraft and shelling ground forces, like an AC-130.

The only problem is that the game is fairly intensive graphically, and has some occasional issues with lag. Also, it is widely believed to have some sort of memory leak. But despite the shaky performance and occasionally flaky servers, this game is still a shining gem in today’s game industry.


The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

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