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Why I lost $42,500 making a VR game (gamasutra.com)
71 points by Impossible 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

Check out the reviews of the game.


There are three reviews and they are all negative. Maybe the only reason he didn't make money is it's just not a good game.

Even the movie that plays on Steam game page tells you this game sucks in first 20 seconds! :

'not glamorous, tiring, Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over, and it will suck'

Wow, you weren't exaggerating. I can't imagine a worse possible voice-over for the trailer.

It's a narrative game at that. They're incredibly niche even when they're not VR games.

No offense, but "it's a narrative game" seems to have become the new excuse for games that lack any interesting gameplay or actual content and thus have to play up the "artistic angle" by pretending to tell some amazing story.

Looking at the Steam page for this its genre is listed as a clicker, a review points out there's literally no progression for the clicker gameplay part, that's a bad clicker right there because those are usually all about the progression.

You can't make an oversight like that up with narrative, if the gameplay is driving away the player then you can have the most amazing narrative in the world, most people still won't experience it because they won't get past the bad gameplay.

There are a lot of great narrative games:

- Firewatch

- Life is Strange

- Tacoma

- Gone Home

- Oxenfree

- What Remains of Edith Finch

It's probably my favorite indie genre and when done well it's a lot different than anything else out there.

For anyone who cares about this genre, I'll throw in strong recommendations for

- The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

- Virginia

- SOMA with the monster interactions turned off (they don't bother me, but with interactions it's not strictly a narrative game)

and moderate recommendations for

- Dear Esther

- Ether One

- Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

"The beginners guide" is another good one.

Books are entertaining. Books in visual form are entertaining. Interactive books can be entertaining too, and that's what narrative games purport to be.

The tricky part is that they must make up for the absence of other game mechanics.

Myst, in a sense, is a narrative game with puzzles. Strip the puzzles away and it wouldn't be so hot. It's a risk to reduce a game to its story, as that story must hold on its own.

But books are not dragged down by bad gameplay mechanics, the closest equivalent to that would be printing a book on stinging nettle.

Sure, there could be a really amazing story inside that book, but who wants to go through the pain of constantly being stung to read it?

The point here not being that "narrative games are bad by nature" but rather that a lot of them sabotage themselves by using the "narrative game" excuse to keep off-putting/shallow gameplay mechanics in the game and then expect the players to "soldier through them" for the supposedly amazing narrative that's waiting along that way.

I disagree about the book mechanics dragging down ‘gameplay’. I can reread Tolkien ad nauseaum, but I still can’t get more than a quarter through any George Martin book.

What you described is just symptoms of bad design.

This x 100. There have been enough Steam data leaks to calculate that as a genre narrative games are extremely niche compared to the wider market. Then combine that with a VR market of 1% of gamers and good luck making any money at all.

I was about to express surprise at this, but then it occurs to me: are you using 'narrative game' in a different sense, to mean specifically a game where there is a voiced narration, like The Stanley Parable or Oxenfree?

That would be a narrated game. ;)

Narrative games are an old genre with its roots in text adventures that focuses on telling a story almost to the exclusion of other gameplay elements. If they do include other elements it will most likely come in the form of an environment puzzle, I find.

Ah, so you are using 'narrative game' as I would use 'adventure game': one where the gameplay content is puzzles rather than combat or strategy? Okay, then I agree, that is quite niche these days.

If the reviews were positive, would it have made a difference? You may think so due to word of mouth. However the Steam store has hundreds of games with high reviews that still have no players. Discoverability goes beyond making a good game.

I try a lot of games with both good and bad reviews. I am more likely to try a game with good reviews.

If you read the reviews for this specific game you will notice that they all point to very similar game breaking bugs which would make me even less likely to try the game. Why would I want to try a game that doesn't allow me to save more than once ever?

I have 500+ games on steam, I buy games I never play and this game is giving me every signal not to buy it.

... yes?

A user perchance manages to discover this game's Steam Store page and sees that its reviews are Bad; I would certainly expect that they would remain incredulous to the prospect of playing. Whereas if the reviews were Very Good or better...

Moreover, it's in Steam's interest to keep bad games from being discovered. They don't profit more by exposing their customers to a deluge of poor product. Reviews ought to influence discoverability.

At present the game hasn't even received enough reviews to have an official review score.

This is pretty poor analysis on his part about why the game wasn't successful and what it means for the state of the VR market. From a talk at the Game Developer's Conference last March it was shown that the average Steam game makes about $30k in it's first year. That's non-VR.

According to the Steam hardware survey, about 1% of users own a VR headset. This paints a pretty grim picture about what an average VR game can expect to make on Steam.

However that's what you could expect an average game to make. You make exponentially more money the more standard deviations you are from the average.

A few things that push you in the direction of success: an obvious and interesting hook, a compelling trailer, some basic marketing, and quite obviously fun mechanics. I have not played his game, but I can tell from a glance that it is missing the majority of those requirements.

It may be survivorship bias, but I can back this up with experience. I made a good-but-not-great VR game that hit all those major success points, and combined the PC and PS4 have grossed us mid-six figures.

I'd add community growth, integrity (i.e. players first profits second - even at a tertiary level), and mod support, as integral pieces of many successful indie games that are often left out completely by first time developers of any type of product.

> and combined the PC and PS4 have grossed us mid-six figures.

Which platform brought in more sales?

Can't share exact numbers due to NDAs, but it's pretty even.

The story is informative -- VR games don't sell well, except if you can time to new hardware -- but the math behind the $42.5k number is dubious.

Can I value all my hobby projects at $60/hour too? Over a million USD accumulated losses during my adult life so far...

> The story is informative -- VR games don't sell well, except if you can time to new hardware

I disagree - the story doesn't really tell you that. All the story tells you is that OP didn't really do any research (see "As far as I’m aware, Fruit for the Village is the first VR clicker game to exist as a published title." - maybe there's a reason), didn't publicise his game ("I really only showed it off in the 6–8 weeks before it launched"), and made a pretty crappy game (see steam links - 3 reviews, all bad, one was even free. Game breaking bugs not resolved 6 months later). Any one of those things should be enough to sink a game in the current market, but all 3, and you're just asking for failure

Today I learned I lost at least $60,000 playing Sid Meier’s Civilization...

It's taking "opportunity cost" too literally.

Sure does make for a nice click bait title though.

You can, and if you are self employed you can capitalize those losses under various circumstances. If you have even the slightest inclination to create something you think might sell one day, you probably should, if only for the purposes of establishing a tax basis for what you create. (This was a lesson learned somewhat expensively for me.)

I'd be happy with $60/hr for my day job.

Currently making $17/hr pre-tax and it is liveable in my suburban area. With overtime which is generously available at 1.5x pay, I could afford to raise a family even, and this job feels much more stable than other tech industry jobs I've had in the past.

I currently work for Star Gas, which is a northeastern USA based company that delivers heating oil to over 600,000 customers with revenue of about 1B per year (but razor thin profit margins of about 55m per year).

What is the cost of living? That seems rough almost anywhere to support a family. What do you do?

I started out in customer service making that rate, and I've also done sales and billing adjustments at the company for the same rate of pay. Those roles are more like "internally advertised", whereas customer service is externally advertised because of the high need for these roles and the relatively high turn-over rate in the position because of the type of work (shouting customers who are angry about price or tardiness of service lol).

My half of the rent and utilities is currently $1000 a month. A car payment, phone payment, insurances of various kinds and some food and entertainment spending cap out at about another grand per month, so $2000 total. With no overtime and after taxes, you start out at about $2200 a month in post tax, very reliable income. If you are willing to do 10-12 hour days, you can pull in about $4000 a month with no college degree and, to my experience, no crazy office politics or externalities.

It might not be enough to support a stay at home spouse, 2 kids, 2 range rovers, a large mortgage, vacations and shopping, and a robust family medical insurance plan, but it is definitely enough for a normal apartment in a normal suburb, driving an older vehicle and enjoying some westernized habits like eating at a restaurant or doing lots of christmas shopping :)

Thanks for asking, because I actually left tech sales completely for this field instead and I am pretty happy with the forced change of industry so far (oracle laid me off!!!)

Thank you for sharing these details! I value the insight into how diverse the "making ends meet" dimension can be, even among people connected to tech in some way.

Thanks for asking, it was a pleasure :)

I've lived off of less than $300 in Thailand and Chile before, but that's basically enough to afford only food and a room... and in my case in Chile, food and a tent in the mountains!!

> That seems rough almost anywhere to support a family

Plenty of families in the UK survive off much less than that. Median income in the UK is less than it...

Especially post-tax.

What hourly rate would you have charged someone else to build those hobby projects for them as a contractor?

If you actually try to sell it as he did, yes.

I'm not sure if a clicker game is a good choice for VR. Playing VR takes a fair bit more effort than "open the game" and is hence better suited for deeply engaged titles (something that you are concentrating on and plan to play for more than a few minutes). Clicker games are time-wasters (you're waiting for the compiler or similar and have a few minutes). They are disengaged titles.

This was my thought as well. I usually buy games from HN to support people trying things, but the idea of spending uncomfortable time in the headset for an idle game just puts me off. If I'm going to play an idle game, it'll be while the tv is on and I'm in comfy clothes or in bed.

I lost $10 reading this post.

Earned $5 laughing at this comment.

Presumably, there are interesting skills and experiences obtained from this project which can be applied to future projects or leveraged for a better / higher-paid day job. If the time investment is being valued at $60/hr, it's only fair to perform a valuation on the incremental training as well. This seems like a case where the numbers are easily skewed in either direction to fit a desired narrative.

Still, I acknowledge that it's very hard to spend a year of your life on something and only end up with $700 in-pocket.

The biggest concern I have is that he justifies it based on the idea that “he was pushing boundaries”... but really, he wasn’t: just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it should (or would be interesting if it did), and at least from his description, it doesn’t seem like he made any real use of the vr medium. He just... wrote a pc game(?) and slapped a vr interface on top.

Vr chat pushes boundaries. It plays with the medium in a fashion that is only available to that medium. A VR computing environment would be pushing boundaries. A VR mirrors edge might be pushing boundaries (kinda; its more like mirrors edge was a game that imagined what vr would be like, and executed that vision under pc constraints. Now that vr is actually available, transferring over would be the obvious thing to do). A vr god game might push boundaries, if they do it right.

But cookie cutters and VN’s? I don’t see how you'd get anything out of vr in a straightforward port. By the time you actually got the medium doing something useful, it’d probably look nothing like an “incremental narrative game”

Seems like an article that was written to get purchases from people that like supporting this kind of indie development--pity sales. Which, honestly, I wouldn't mind, except that the article itself is pretty bare of any actual content. The cash figure is made up, the game itself is apparently awful, and the information in the article doesn't support the conclusion(s).

VR goggles are dead.[1] At least for this generation.

[1] https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/proof-vr-sales-numbe...

A buddy of mine sunk about ~$2,000 into VR just as a casual gamer and not is not including the cost of a PC. He bought Oculas at launch, bought the controllers at their launch and bought many other accessories for driving and flight VR games. I initially thought VR was a fad but was still skeptical of its success. At this point I believe my skepticism is over. He and my other friends that bought headsets never use them anymore, it's been a year since they have played. They still defend their purchases, to them they say they got their moneys worth out of playing.

EDIT: One other thing I forgot to mention. Having the space to play and dealing with the wires is a huge frustration I saw my friends deal with. Every time they wanted to play they had to spend over an hour setting it up to just play for an hour or 2. That is unless you had a dedicated space for it. I hope no one wants their living room cluttered with wires going across the floor and VR accessories laying around.

It's frustrating. The experience is fun for 20 minutes or so, but it's downhill from there. I've used both the HTC Vibe and the Microsoft HoloLens, and enjoyed them. I've tried VR headsets all the way back to Jaron Lainer's original prototype. But I wouldn't spend two hours wearing any of this stuff. This seems to be the general opinion of people who can tolerate the things.

About 25-40% of the population becomes nauseated [1], which is a problem for a consumer product. That's higher than roller coasters. VR is just not going to be the Next Big Thing. Simple overlays in AR, maybe.

[1] https://www.sciencenews.org/article/virtual-reality-has-moti...

I would definitely fall into that percentage. That mixed with myopia was a definite no-go for me, trying to wear the headset with glasses was too much of a hassle for me. If I didn't wear glasses the screen would be blurry and I would start to get a migraine after 30 minutes of playing. I am still interested in what AR has to offer.

The problem is the cheap ones are bad and the good ones are quite expensive. Cryptocurrency made it even more expensive, since the minimum graphics card is still several hundred dollars.

Even worse, once NVidia discovered that gamers would pay $1000 for a graphics card, they raised their prices. Their 1080 line, instead of becoming cheaper, has been discontinued. Their new 2080 line costs more and doesn't perform any better on existing games.

Honestly just sounds like a boring game. Wouldn't have been fun without VR, so immersion isn't going to be some kind of magic bullet. The steam page does it no favors; I couldn't find any examples of gameplay, and both videos show the same general content. I suspect no one bought it because, well, there was no reason to buy it.

Kind of pretty much clickbait, since no real money was expended across bank accounts between two or more separate parties.

The author expounds on an appraisal of hypothetical money, if one imagine's that he paid himself all labor costs to perform the work.

He spent several months working on a video game that didn't do well, and made zero dollars.

Did I lose $6,000 dollars on a hypothetical bitcoin I never paid for in August, when the value dropped last week?

No, I left the $10,000 dollars in my bank account, and I still have $10,000, and/or whatever real goods or services I purchased with said money.

Makes me vomit in my mouth when I read this sort of self-sufficient "I payed myself $60 / hour". You know what? An amount can only be quoted if you're PAYING someone else, it's only then when it stings.

These sort of entitled-clueless individuals wouldn't pay $6 / hour for an UpWork contractor to make a game 10x better than their crap.

For accounting purposes he likely did actually pay himself the money, transferring it from the company to himself, and adding the perceived value of the game to tho company, which can write off the loss going forwards.

Where I live (EU), if I pay myself "for accounting purposes" $60 / hour, then I own the state $24 / hour in taxes. Did he actually pay =~ $20,000 in taxes? If so, respect, he did pay himself $60 / hour. But I bet a castle that he "payed himself" $60 / hour just like I pay myself a castle per hour when I do side work. (Which is also why I so nonchalantly can afford to bet one :P)

AIUI you can keep the wages in arrears, in UK tax is due when you actually receive the money.

This is sensible: otherwise you might owe taxes if your employer company collapsed and you weren't paid, but without having income to pay it.

He invested, on purpose and with the goal to make money, his time as a software engineer.

The amount of time is not nothing and his hourly rate is reasonable.

It is not wrong to say he lost it

In all likelyhood all he paid himself was the price of his game ($2.99) times the number of units sold (about 100). So about $0.375 / hour. Given the horrendous competitivity and sheer statistics his efforts at making a profit were a powerball gamble. No way he didn't bet $42,000 on it.

that's not $42,500, that's 820 hours

Another thing that's crazy is that writers, artists, 3d model animators, and voice actors[1] never make $60 an hour doing this kind of work, and yet he lumped those things under "developer time" high-level wages.

[1](Unless they're famous people for their particular talent category)

Union voice actors make hundreds of dollars per hour typically (a standard good but not-very-famous video game voice actor makes 2x scale).

Seriously if he didn't spend the time making this did he gain $42,500? No, he would have gained 820 hours.

I would spend well over $42,500 for an extra 820 hours.

Nothing really to do with VR itself. If anything VR is more favorable for an indie developer as there are less titles on the stores and a more fervent / willing base of users (for desktop VR users), and more room to be creative with interactions versus leaning on visuals.

But making money from indie games is tough in general, it takes a long time, execution is difficult, and marketing is needed. Can even apply to just general making money from app stores or software. Need to have a good idea, execute, market, and stand out from the rest. App stores though give you some boost in discoverability.

So he actually lost nothing, apart from a bunch of free time, making a shitty game that no one wants, then blames others for him not making money at the rate he thinks he deserves. I've seen better looking atmospheric games made in game jams...

"Platform holders need to make it easier for VR game developers to get their games onto their platforms and reach the people who want the game they’re making. This goes beyond just financial, this goes towards publicity, mentorship and more."

This point needs to be fleshed out more. What is say the Oculus App store not doing that the iOS app store is? As a user (not a developer) of both, I'm not seeing a difference.

It doersn't really - The poster made a crappy game, didn't market it, didn't test it, and seems to blame others.

There are 3 reviews, all negative, with show stopping bugs even 6 months after they first reviewed it. Poster says he didn't market it until 6 weeks before release. This is just shovelware, unfortunately

Yes, in this case there isn't much more platform holders can do, even if they feature his game on the front page indefinitely it will get flooded with negative reviews and sales will be low. You can't compare VR platforms with iOS especially, but even Steam or a console market, because the number of users is orders of magnitude smaller (250K-1 million VR users per platform). In this case the best a platform holder can do is fund development so he can potentially make a better game (hire a programmer and an artist for example), but it doesn't seem like a situation where the concept was amazing and he failed on execution.

> and seems to blame others.

Where do you get that from? He writes about his own faliures and even goes on about how he failed to play test sufficiently and did a poor job of marketing. How does that come off as blaming others to you?

Read the stories of also-rans from any medium and you'll find the same: lots of 'reasons'. We live in a winner-take-all world. Being truly innovative and enjoying the rewards that come along with it are exceptionally rare, and most certainly succeed by filling a need that isn't met. I haven't messed with VR since Oculus DK2's were brand new, but I'm certain the amount of vaporware. What I Need is an outsized, impossible experience that justifies the medium and my expensive purchase of tiny face monitors. The very idea of a clicker on a medium that involves physical pain if I play it too long sounds like the last thing I need. Kudos for trying though, its more than I have done.

He earned $60 per hour and billed (himself) 820 hours. Title should be changed to "How I earned $42,500 making a bad VR game". And he should tax it.

It cost 43,200 to make and it sold 42,500 net, that's ok if he did it himself, for a first effort, nicely done.

It didn’t sell 42,500 net. He writes that his net profit was -42,500. Note the minus in front. He sold ~100 copies.

I lost $50k making a VR game show. That was fun!

Notch was only in it for the money! Not!

phrasing it as losing money this way is dishonest attention seeking.

If a friend told me a group lost $10k making a game over the weekend, i'd freak out

It is a business loss. And if the business paid this though borrowed money it could end up going bankrupt, yet he’d still have the 42k$ that his company paid him.

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