For years, we’ve heard dueling predictions about the ultimate fate of high-end virtual reality for consumers. Will the technology revolutionize gaming and computer interaction? Will it quickly become a fashion flop? Or are we looking at something in between?
It will probably take years to fully answer those questions. But a month after the launch of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, software sales estimates from Ars Technica’s Steam Gauge project can at least give us an idea of how quickly a branch of PC-based virtual reality is taking off. The answer, it seems, is a small, slow and steady start for an HTC Vive market that’s still quite limited by a lack of hardware in players’ homes.
We note right away that Steam Gauge does not provide precise sales or gameplay data for Steam games. Instead, it generates estimates for gameplay and ownership based on random samples of public data from Steam’s own API. While there may be a small margin of error from actual sales figures, this data should be accurate enough to provide an overall picture of the market. More details about the Steam Gauge methodology and its limitations can be found in our first article.
For this analysis, we focused on games designed for the HTC Vive and the hand-tracking Lighthouse controllers. Games designed to be played exclusively with a standard controller or mouse/keyboard were omitted, as Oculus Rift owners playing through Steam could skew the data for these titles, creating an apples-and-oranges comparison with Vive-exclusive games arose. In any event, our records of such Rift games are incomplete without information from the competing Oculus Store. However, some games that support both Lighthouse controllers and standard controls were included.
All estimates in this piece were accurate as of May 6. The aggregated data used to generate the charts below is available on the next page.
How much hardware?
Steam Gauge can’t tell us directly how many HTC Vive units have been shipped to users so far, but it can give us a rough idea. That’s because every Vive headset currently comes with free download codes for three titles: Job simulator, Fantastic thingand Tilt brush.
However, the Steam Gauge data is a bit confusing at this point. While both Tilt brush and Fantastic thing hovering around 40,000 estimated registered users to date, Job simulator is much less popular, with only about 24,000 users in Steam Gauge’s count (Fig. 1). This could be an artifact of our system’s sampling, or it could suggest that users are simply less eager to download Job simulator after they set up their VR rooms.
Stranger still, there are a few HTC Vive titles that seem to be Lake more popular than the hardware’s free pack-in games. Mainly, The lab and Surgeon Simulator VR have more downloads than all of the time-limited free games packaged with the hardware, with over 81,000 and 73,000 estimated owners to date, respectively.
There is some evidence online that some Oculus Rift users are downloading these free, Steam-exclusive titles and hacking a control solution by using Razer’s Hydra motion-sensing controllers to act as stand-ins for the Vive’s Lighthouse controllers. The lab and Operation Simulator also have an unusually high number of owners who have yet to play the games, suggesting that many people are simply downloading the free-to-play titles even though they don’t own their own VR headsets yet.
With all those caveats, our best guess right now is that there are somewhere between 45,000 and 60,000 HTC Vive units out in the wild right now (give or take). That’s not a bad start for a completely new technology that has seen its fair share of manufacturing and shipping delays. Still, it’s a fairly small initial market for software makers to capitalize on. In contrast, both the Xbox One and PS4 sold one million units worldwide on their first weekend day of retail availability. Non-VR games on Steam launch with potential audiences running into the tens of millions. VR developers will have to wait a long time before seeing something like that audience.
[Update: Triangular Pixels’ Kate Goode points out that HTC Vive developer units came with a key that unlocked a wide variety of HTC Vive software for free. This list includes Tilt Brush and Fantastic Contraption, but not Job Simulator, which would account for the significant discrepancy between those games in our data.
Based on this new information, our best guess is that about 25,000 to 30,000 HTC Vive units have been sent to consumers, while about 10,000 to 15,000 dev kits are floating around as well. This has a significant impact on the revenue data discussed below, and means that “player” data might be more reliable than “owner” data in determining what games are actually popular thus far.]
Despite the low hardware ceiling, a few VR games have already managed to make a small splash in the VR marketplace. Audio shield and Space Pirate Trainer seem to be the most popular paid games on the HTC Vive to date, with positive press coverage and easy-to-understand gameplay reaching over 25,000 sales each in their first month (Water bears VRthe low number of players and the daily sales pattern suggest that the “sales” were skewed by a free giveaway). A few cheap or free non-gaming experiences are also quite popular on the headset, including the exploratory one Life on the Heavenly IslandIkea’s “experience” building rooms and the Minecraftinspired realities.
However, these aren’t necessarily the most popular SteamVR experiences to date. If you look at the number of actual players (owners who have logged more than zero hours in the game), titles like Wind countries and Move Junkers are starting to look much more successful than their relatively low sales would suggest (fig. 2).
Wind countries seems to especially enthrall players with an average of 3.89 hours spent per owner and more than 56,000 hours in total (Figs 3 and 4), by far the largest of any HTC Vive game we’ve looked at (although people who playing the game in its non-VR mode may skew that number). Cyber Pong VR also seems to be an addictive hit, with an average play time of 2.6 hours per owner, despite only being available for a week during our sample (although a relatively small sample of actual players may skew That number).
On the one hand, this kind of player engagement pales in comparison to the most popular traditional Steam games, which can average dozens or even hundreds of hours of playtime per owner. On the other hand, Vive titles have only had a month to accumulate those hours of play so far. It’ll be interesting to see which VR titles players keep coming back to month after month and which lose their luster after some initial early adopter experimentation.
Steam Gauge can also give us an idea of the total sales that HTC Vive games have made to date (Fig. 5) (see major update above). While we’ve tried to account for temporary sale prices in this calculation, the vagaries of Steam Gauge’s daily sampling mean that revenue estimates can be a little less accurate than owner and player stats.
Still, we can generally make a first-order estimate that Vive developers have brought in around $5 to $6 million in revenue to date (not including in-game purchases for free-to-play titles). That’s obviously a drop in the ocean for a Steam marketplace that sells hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of software each month, but it’s not bad for an audience consisting of tens of thousands of headset owners.
Looking at VR game prices, $20 seems to be the sweet spot for the best-performing paid Vive titles in terms of total revenue. Most VR games that sell for much cheaper have so far struggled to make up for the lower cost in much higher sales units. In the meantime, Move Junkers managed to rake in a decent amount of revenue even at the highest price in its class of $35.
You can view the almost raw data for the HTC Vive titles in our Steam Gauge database on the next page. Overall, though, our data shows that it may take some time for the initial VR gold rush to really pay off (if it ever does), and that early HTC Vive developers will have to wait patiently for the market to develop.