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Why is VRChat so popular, and what’s it mean for the future of virtual reality?

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There are precisely three things to do in the social VR app called VRChat. You can build a room. You can create an avatar to exist within that room and those created by others. Finally, you can take on the persona of this character and talk to other avatars. Apart from a few minigames, there are no points or goals. It’s simply a virtual chatroom, and not terribly dissimilar from what we’ve seen in pre-VR 3D chat applications such as Second Life.

And yet, it’s become one of the fastest-growing apps on Steam, the online game platform. According to VRChat, the number of concurrent users has peaked at around 20,000, which, in the VR space, is nothing to sniff at. That number has dropped recently, and it’s still nowhere near the peak concurrent users of Second Life (roughly 55,000, even after all these years). Regardless, it’s blowing away the competition among VR apps, and everyone working on VR projects should take notice. Why is VRChat so popular, and what lessons can VR developers, including those working on non-gaming applications, glean from its success?

Ultimate Creative Freedom

VRChat contains design tools that allow players to craft remarkably detailed avatars and rooms. With access to an SDK and easy Unity integration, some players create scale likenesses of characters like Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson or literally anything else. Other users create rooms that appear as surreal technicolor dreamscapes. In other words, users have ultimate freedom to create and be whatever and wherever they wish.

Alex Coulombe, creative director at Agile Lens Immersive Design, believes that VRChat has beaten the competition because it’s just more fun.

VRChat is the closest metaverse we currently have to the OASIS described in Ready Player One. It’s intuitive, customizable, and allows for the kinds of crazy mashups of characters and environments from different fictional universes that let fantasies run wild. Compared to the alternatives, VRChat is simply way more fun.

The downside of this freedom plagues every virtual space: griefing, or it has come to be known, trolling. VRChat is rather anarchic, and it is still working on developing good tools for users to block those who just want to annoy or harass. According to Wagner James Au, author of “The Making of Second Life” and the social VR news site New Word Notes, Linden Labs (the developer of Second Life) is still, all these years later, dealing with trolls. But he explains that this openness has been a blessing and a curse.

It’s one reason why Second Life has maintained a pretty large active user base of long-term users, while it’s also failed to gain and keep many new ones… On the plus side, VRChat definitely has much of the same freeform anarchy that made Second Life so exciting 10-12 years ago—the feeling that you’d log in and were sure to encounter some crazy burst of mad user-generated creativity. Even much of SL’s early griefing was entertaining and inventive (if you weren’t a target).

The trick, it seems, is to provide smart moderation tools that allow for some amount of mischief without letting the anarchy turn VRChat into a miserable experience for those who wish to use it in good faith.

According to Au, the ease of use of these tools also presents a barrier to mass adoption. “The Sims franchise and Minecraft show that there is a pretty large, pretty mainstream audience for user creativity, but that depends on making the creative tools fairly easy to use,” he says. “If VRChat can follow their lead—using the VRChat SDK is pretty daunting to most users—they could enjoy similar success.”

Coloumbe argues that a mix of both (simple interfaces and deeper complex ones) is ideal.

Devs need to open up their platforms more to super-users. Yes, to a newbie it can be overwhelming to have too many choices and customizability, so there should always be a “basic” curated experience. But I remember the first time I realized while playing The Sims back in 2000 that you could dig into the game files to change characters, skins, and even add your own furniture. Since then, anything that allows for more of a creative, “sandbox” quality has always trumped more restrictive but supposedly “polished” experiences.

Wide Accessibility

As VR apps go, VRChat is extremely approachable. You don’t even have to own a VR headset to have fun with the app, which has opened the game up to millions of folks who can’t or don’t wish to shell out the roughly $400-$600 to buy a decent headset. Offering a portion of users a fun but suboptimal immersion experience has allowed for explosive growth, and provides an incentive to those users to upgrade to full VR in order to achieve the best experience the technology provides. Apps which bring non-VR users into the fold are more likely to provide a bridge to ubiquitous VR by giving people a glimpse of something better.

Next Level Immersion

The avatars that populate VRChat allow for immersive elements such as eye tracking and lip syncing. This isn’t new technology, but players accustomed to virtual environments like Second Life or World of Warcraft are often surprised when they interact with characters who can blink and dance and move their lips with a range of motion. This makes for surprisingly lifelike, often humorous interactions.

Empowered Content Creators

One of the reasons why VRChat became so popular so quickly is because users began to post videos of their experiences on YouTube and streamed them live on Twitch. This opened up the app to a massive audience of passive viewers, many of which went on to download the app to play for themselves. This phenomenon, which happened organically, provides an interesting case study for VR developers. The barriers to entry with VR are high, and the expense of buying into VR is going to be a hurdle for developers for the foreseeable future. But as we see in this case, the developers benefited from the self-promotional efforts of their users. Developers should ask themselves how they can bake in elements that users might want to share online.

Going even further, they can provide recording and broadcast tools that simplify this process. Video game developers have been making strides toward this end for several years. For example, Microsoft’s Xbox allows players to record and share game content within the Xbox community, and it’s not terribly difficult to export that content to various online platforms. “Deep integration of Twitch and YouTube would be a great idea—even to the point of going meta where users are able to stream their social VR antics back into the virtual space, for the enjoyment of the community,” says Au.

It’s too early to say if VRChat is going to be the tipping point which ushers in a new era of VR, or if it will even have the staying power of Second Life, which is coming up on its 15-year anniversary this summer. According to Au, the difficult work ahead will be to foster a community that wants to keep coming back. “It’s not enough to be temporarily hot with YouTube and Twitch gamers. They need to build and foster a community that’s not based on griefing—and add integrated, architected systems which encourage [users] to keep coming back and contributing to the virtual world, month after month.”

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