I was sitting backstage at a VR rave, holding a cocktail that radiated sparkles, surrounded by anime characters, and Ron Millar, VRChat CCO, leans to me and asks in a hushed voice, “Do you want to join a musical cat band?”
Obviously the answers is yes. He opens up a portal to another world that’s full of bright and bold colors, like something out of a children’s cartoon. I walk through it and am suddenly in a strange new environment that feels like it could exist in Candyland. Next to me are several pedestals with cat avatars and each of them has a musical instrument. I walk over and select the best instrument: the triangle. Now I’m a cat.
A group of us form a parade line and teleport to a quaint campfire world. One of the cat people played a high-pitch tune that we all marched to (just like in the video below), resulting in giggles from passersby and eventually an extended line of people marching along behind us. It was completely silly, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
It’s been a while now since Ugandan Knuckles ravaged the digital halls of VRChat, a social VR app that lets users meet up, hang out, and play games together inside digital virtual environments. Earlier this week we published an interview with Millar, about the company’s endeavors to combat the issues with trolls and harassment inside the platform and the impact that massive influx of traffic had on the small startup.
Now with all of that fading away into the rear-view mirror, the company looks forward to how they can become more than just a meme.
“If you’ve seen videos of Knuckles it’s easy to assume that this is just Memeland,” said Millar during the same interview. “That’s the common media representation of what VRChat is, but that’s not it at all. There is actually a large, dedicated community that really loves spending time in here, but then there is also the new desktop user that sees a PewDiePie video, grabs a Knuckles character model, and runs around being annoying.”
The backlash was strong, but always felt a bit unwarranted. VRChat is a very small team that’s trying to juggle a lot of moving parts and is dedicated to making its platform more inclusive and safe. The reason why you don’t see any other apps out there that let desktop users and VR users interact in real-time in massive, sprawling digital words that are custom built by users is because it’s not simple to make this kind of stuff. For all intents and purposes, it’s one of the very first VR MMOs, like a Second Life 2.0.
One of the growing pains with a platform like this as it gains popularity is that it will attract the full weight of the internet, which means internet trolls. The developers have included new measures such as an option to auto-mute all players and even a brand new home location that’s private and lets you enter other worlds without the distraction of others.
So if VRChat isn’t “Memeland” as Millar put it, what is it exactly? Well, the answer to that question is different for everyone. For some people it’s a musical cat band, as seen above.
But for other people it could just be a place to hang out or play games. Millar took me on a whirlwind tour of many of VRChat’s top spots.
Our first stop was a Western-themed competitive team-based first-person shooter game that the platform’s developers made. One team is full of Sheriffs and the other is full of Robbers trying to steal gold. He explained that this was one of the most popular games and they’re planning to soon release tools to help content creators make their own games like this.
After that, Millar opened up a portal just like Rick from Rick and Morty and we walked through it to a totally different world. This time we were standing on the moon (pictured below) looking out at the stars. The change in scenery was sudden and startling.
Landscapes like the moon are vast and impressive. With full-body IK animation I’m able to freely walk around and see my companions also animated. Using smooth locomotion it feels like I’m taking a tour across the surface of the moon.
After that Millar opens another portal. This time it’s to a quaint flower world (shown below) full of anime characters. Its name mentions popular Japanese action game NieR:Automata and the style felt extremely similar.
From there we went to a tavern and sat down at the bar having beers and burgers. One player stood behind the bar and served us drinks, roleplaying in the moment. Patrons walked through the door and shouted out greetings making it feel almost like an episode of Cheers in action. It was just a gathering spot for friends to catch up and chat.
“We come here a lot after work,” said Millar. “Sometimes I have a real beer next to me that I can drink while holding the VR beer.”
It’s worth noting that a big part of what makes VRChat so special isn’t just the custom, user-built worlds, but the fact that everyone can upload their own avatar. You can open up a 3D modeling program and make one yourself or find one online. You can even copy avatars from one world and wear it into other worlds. That completely freeing self-expression is liberating. You can be whoever and whatever you want.
The next world was one of my favorites. Pictured above, it’s a giant sci-fi city with skyscrapers and pulsating techno light shows. The whole thing was created by a user as his own custom world with custom characters. The screens down on the street level are huge, just like at Times Square in New York City, but they show anime clips instead of news events.
Just browsing around on Twitter you can find some amazing worlds people have made. This one has a hyper-realistic Japan theme. This one looks like something ripped out of a canceled Tron movie. This streamer even surprised his girlfriend with a rose and wrote her a song that he played for her inside VRChat (shown below).
You don’t see stuff like this in any other VR app on the market right now. Memes and trolls made the headlines and introduced VRChat to millions of new people, but its the sense of community, connection, and love that is sustaining its popularity. As someone that met his wife in an AOL Chatroom over a decade ago, this is the kind of stuff that I love to see in VR.
It still has a long road ahead of it to reach the point that it could be as widespread as Second Life eventually was, but it certainly has the potential.
If you use VRChat, share with us some of your favorite moments and stories down below!