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Why are people not playing VR games they bought?

June 17, 2016 | vr player engagement analysis data


I began sensing recently that, despite a lot of VR devices being shipped, not a lot of people seemed to be playing VR games, at least the ones I was playing. It was easy to place on high score lists without being good at the game, there wasn’t much continuing discussion on Steam forums dedicated to some VR titles, and those games where you have a general sense of how many other people are online because of social or multiplayer support felt a bit empty.

To see if I could find any general numbers, I turned to Steam DB. For ten popular VR games I had heard about in the press and online discussions that seemed to do well in Steam top seller lists, I took the 24-hour peak of active users and divided it by the estimated number of owners of the title. I excluded free and bundled games except for AltspaceVR and excluded Rift games aside from AltspaceVR only because Oculus has its own distribution platform that Steam DB does not cover. The results:

Player engagement peak rates for popular VR titles.

Even though at least 52,000 Vive units have shipped if we use Audioshield owners as a proxy, the VR player numbers seem low. For example, the most popular game in this table, Audioshield, only had 155 people playing at 24-hour peak. I was interested in that, Holopoint (50), Space Pirate Trainer (104), and Holoball (19) because they all to some extent have replay value. However, they actually fared worse or about the same as games you would expect to have less replay value like Vanishing Realms (90) and Call of the Starseed (24).

I included AltspaceVR just to determine if people were flocking to social VR experiences instead, but it only had 30 at 24-hour peak. Overall AltspaceVR numbers are likely a little higher than this since I believe Rift users can also launch AltspaceVR outside of Steam, but this discussion looks at AltspaceVR from the perspective of Steam participation given data availability. Pool Nation VR, which is partly social, had 71, though that is a very recent release.

Even though they are not on here because they were bundled or free and that would throw off the true ownership numbers, I took a look at Tilt Brush, The Lab, Fantastic Contraption, and Job Simulator and total 24-hour peak numbers ranged from 335 (The Lab) to 45 (Fantastic Contraption).

The really interesting thing is not the 24-hour peak numbers, however. It is the relationship of the peak numbers to the overall number of estimated owners. For example, Audioshield’s 24-hour peak of 155 to owners of 51,806 means that only 0.30% of owners were active at the 24-hour peak. All the other VR titles fall within a range of 0.09% (AltspaceVR, admittedly skewed because free) to 0.37% (Vanishing Realms) with the standout Pool Nation VR at 0.68%, likely due to it just being released.

That seems low, but how does it compare to non-VR titles? I sampled 10 non-VR games I had heard about in the press that seemed to be good sellers on Steam. The results:

Player engagement peak rates for popular non-VR titles.

You can see right away that the player engagement for non-VR titles is significantly different, even though many of these titles are years from release instead of a couple months or weeks from release. Aside from the ones I will talk about individually below, they all range from 1.03% (XCOM 2) to 2.21% (The Witcher 3).

This trend was so strong in the first non-VR games I picked that I intentionally started picking out older games to try to find depressed player engagement with older titles. Thus Civilization V (0.63%, released 2010) and Borderlands 2 (0.14%, released 2012), the latter of which did fall into player engagement numbers similar to the VR titles, but for a title that is 4 years old. Ironically, while I was puzzling over the numbers for the first time, a Steam buddy notification popped up indicating a person I know who has a Vive had started playing Civilization V.

I decided to include a current non-VR indie title with Factorio since all the VR titles are indies and most of the big name titles have very different marketing profiles and built up communities. I thought this might show a similar pattern to the VR games. Instead, it trended with the other non-VR games at 1.52%.

Thoughts & Questions

What to make of this? I'm not sure. My initial thoughts:

Perhaps the measurement methodology is off. My sampling could be biased. People may be launching VR games in a way that is not tracked by Steam and therefore Steam DB. However, the numbers align with my anecdotal experience. Also, while people could launch the first game in some other way, on any subsequent game there should be even better tracking since Steam is the in-VR method of launching games. Measurement issues are my favored explanation and would make the rest of this moot, but until someone demonstrates a problem with the measurement methodology, it seems reasonable to press ahead.

VR content is very early and many of the apps are very short or don’t have much in the way of replay value, so perhaps people have simply exhausted them. Except games like Audioshield, Space Pirate Trainer, Holopoint, and Holoball have at least some degree of replay value. Plus, Vanishing Realms actually did better than all of them. And games with maximum replay value from being social or multiplayer such as Hover Junkers, AltspaceVR, and Pool Nation VR did not rise above the general trend with the slight exception of Pool Nation VR, which is very new.

We could dismiss theBlu for being just an experience instead of a true game and reasonably conclude that people aren’t going to come back to VR experiences like they would to games. Unfortunately, theBlu is just one of ten and was actually in the middle of the pack in player engagement.

Maybe VR developers behave differently and this is adversely affecting player behavior. For example, releasing a buggy release and never responding to player concerns. However, reviews for the VR games are very positive, ranging from 77.64% positive (Hover Junkers) to 95.85% positive (Pool Nation VR). Also, VR developers have been especially active in listening to users, pushing out fixes, and adding features. If anything, VR developer behavior should skew VR player engagement above non-VR player engagement.

Perhaps everyone was playing some other hot VR game or free demo in the 24 hours before my sample (all data, both for VR and non-VR, was captured from Steam DB around 8:30PM GMT, Saturday, June 11). The problem with this theory is what would it be? The bundled games did not turn up the missing population and no other VR game was such a sensation that it would have drawn everyone away to the extent that people would play no other VR game over a 24-hour period. If was out there, why was no one talking about it on r/Vive and other technical sites?

It could be that people are generally using their VR hardware, but to play other games outside the ones I picked. For example, Vive users could be playing Revive games or non-VR games that have VR support, like Elite Dangerous and Project Cars. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a way to separate out how many people are using their Vives to play those games. However, it seems unlikely that large numbers of people are using Revive to play Rift games. Elite Dangerous and Project Cars would be a better explanation, but if that were true, it would open an interesting discussion about why people are using VR for those types of games rather than full VR games.

Perhaps there is just too much VR content out there so that the small VR population is split up among them. This is possible, but seems unlikely for two reasons. First, people had to pay for all the VR games included here except for AltspaceVR, which economically limits the content available to any one player. Also, it doesn’t seem like there is an overwhelming amount of content available, especially in comparison to non-VR games where there are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of games available, including many that are free to play.

This leads to some perplexing questions. Are people quietly returning to non-VR games? If so, why? Is it too much of a bother to get suited up with headset, headphones, and controllers to play a VR game? Is it too much physical effort to play active VR games compared to non-VR games? Do some people find non-VR games better overall experiences even though VR games are more immersive?

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