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Sandbox VR is here to proclaim that virtual reality, the kind you play with your friends in malls and other physical venues, isn’t dead. In fact, Sandbox VR’s Deadwood Valley game has generated $23 million in the last 12 months at just 30 locations.
Sandbox VR now has 43 locations and it expects Deadwood Valley to generate over $100 million in lifetime ticket sales, said Steve Zhao, CEO of Sandbox VR, in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat.
Ever since people started coming back to physical venues in the post-pandemic world, business has been booming for VR experiences. Sandbox VR is opening a second Las Vegas experience and the company is aiming at having 50 venues by the end of the year, Zhao said.
To further scale growth, the company is planning to open their platform to third party publishing in early 2024. And the company has opened a second triple-A gaming studio in Vancouver to scale content development. The company has close to 800 people, including its retail employees.
“Deadwood Valley is the most cinematic that we have, as you travel to different worlds and it feels like you’re inside a movie,” Zhao said. “During the pandemic, you know, we spent a lot of time building this game. So the production quality and design was very unique. And also, this is the first game where we sort of have like multiple endings, depending on how well you play and who you save.”
The game is a sequel to another popular title, Deadwood Mansion, released in 2017. Deadwood Valley took about four years to make.
The company has a total of seven VR experiences at its venues now, all of them created by Sandbox VR’s game developers. They include:
- Seekers of the Shard: Dragonfire — A fantasy experience released in May 2022.
- Deadwood Valley – A zombie game released in June 2022.
- Deadwood Mansion – The original zombie experience released in June 2017.
- Curse of Davy Jones – A pirate experience released in December 2020.
- Amber Sky 2088 – You battle as an android with futuristic weapons. It was released in December 2018.
- Star Trek: Discovery – A Star Trek: Discovery away mission released in October 2019. I had a lot of fun doing this with some friends.
- UFL: Unbound Fighting League – A gladiator experience released in August 2019.
This state of affairs is far better than it was three years ago in the midst of the pandemic. The company had to shut down during the pandemic and go through a painful rebirth. A skeleton crew of 20 kept working. As people started going out again, Sandbox VR thrived. And in November 2021, the company raised $37 million to open lots more locations.
While Sandbox VR survived, many rivals went out of business as VR itself didn’t hit the over-enthusiastic expectations. But Zhao thinks his own company’s experiences are better because they have custom sensors and haptics on your body that make the VR experience better than what you can do at home.
Groups of up to six friends freely roam the VR space together, exploring exclusive virtual worlds and relying on each other to succeed in games specifically designed to be social experiences. When you play, you feel like you’ve been transported into your own action movie. Sandbox VR is targeted for outings with family and friends, including birthday parties and group events.
Sandbox VR is headquartered in San Francisco, with an office in Hong Kong and another in Vancouver. Sandbox VR’s investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Gobi Partners, and Craft. Individual investors include Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Kevin Durant and Will Smith.
This is the first time that the company has revealed revenue numbers for the public.
“If you compare this to the average box office for a movie, it’s far above the $14 million to $20 million generated by films and it’s also better than VR games for the Meta Quest,” Zhao said.
Each 30-minute experience costs about $50.
As the company tries to scale to hundreds of stores, then the revenue potential can be much higher, Zhao said.
Keeping the experience to about 30 minutes helps the company control the scope more and keep the audience entertained. Zhao believes it’s important to control the scope of the experience.
“Even during the pandemic, we were able to keep the core content team. They build a lot of knowledge and experience and were able to see what worked and what didn’t work before. Just taking those lessons forward has made us pretty different,” he said. “We’re pretty much the only location-based company that has its own internal studio. We learn and adapt and grow from it.”
Location, location, location
The company almost went out of business during the pandemic, as it had to shut down all of its stores and let go its retail staff. It operated on a skeleton crew. When the pandemic conditions changed, the stores reopened, the company hired again, and people showed that they wanted social experiences again.
One rival, The Void, shut down its locations and Sandbox VR was able to take over the location at The Venetian in Las Vegas. Now the company has opened another Las Vegas location at the Miracle Mile. There are four locations in the greater Bay Area.
About 80% of customers book reservations ahead of time. Word of mouth is how people learn about The Sandbox VR experience, as customers post a lot of their own videos.
Most locations are in urban markets and in mixed use places where people work, play and live. Millennials and GenZ customers are the biggest fans.
Sandbox VR is also collaborating with Netflix to create a fully immersive Squid Game virtual reality experience.
Launched in September 2021, Squid Game was an instant hit on Netflix as a gritty survival horror series where hundreds of game show contestants had to battle each other in games where the losers die. Millions of Squid Game fans have viewed over 1.65 billion hours of the show, making it Netflix’s most-watched show of all time. It truly creeped me out, and Squid Game seems perfect for social VR.
The Sandbox VR x Squid Game virtual reality experience is set to open late 2023.
Now that Deadwood Valley has done so well, the company wants to scale even further and open up its locations to third-party experiences from external developers as well as intellectual property owners.
The company builds its experiences on Unity, and it has its own software development kit (SDK). Zhao expects the company will keep working on Deadwood games.
The company will look into the Apple Vision Pro as potential hardware that it could use in its locations. Zhao definitely hopes Apple will bring more people into the industry and the experiences.
The company has motion-tracking across your full body, and it wants to make its experiences better and better.
“I believe anything Apple does will definitely get a lot of folks just wanting to build for it,” Zhao said.
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