The VRChat social platform launched on Steam on February 1. Leading up to the launch, the developers at VR Chat Inc. invited us to take a look at what the platform had to offer. Not knowing what to expect, Tom's Hardware writer Derek Forrest and I accepted the invite and prepared for a typical briefing, which usually ranges from 10 minutes to half an hour. We couldn’t have been less prepared for what was about to transpire.
VRChat might seem similar to AltspaceVR: Both are public virtual reality (VR) spaces that allow you to participate in a variety of different activities and otherwise interact with people in virtual reality, but they're dramatically different platforms. AltspaceVR is focused on providing a schedule of compelling activities, such as live performances from musicians and comedians like Reggie Watts and Justin Roiland; licensed tabletop games, such as Dungeons and Dragons; and contracts with news organizations, such as NBC’s VR election coverage. VRChat is more interested in creating a customizable environment that you can tune to your liking.
Learning The Ropes
Our briefing began in “The Hub,” which is the main landing area for everyone who logs into VR Chat. From here you can meet up with friends and random people for a casual conversation, or you can make your way to one of the myriad environments in which you can interact with others.
Our guide, a VR Chat developer who goes by "VRPill," explained the controls and how to interact in VRChat. The client supports motion controls so you can make gestures to other people. The developers also programmed a selection of hand gestures, which you can access by resting your thumb on the trackpad of your Vive controller. (If you have a Rift with Touch controllers, the finger gestures work naturally.)
VR Chat offers several locomotion options, too, which allows you to customize the experience for your desired comfort level. You can choose between Third Person and Classic locomotion, and you can toggle between comfort rotation and smooth rotation. Third Person mode is similar to the Blink teleport mechanic, but instead of a teleport, you trace the path that your avatar will run, and an animation plays out in front of you. Classic locomotion allows you to move around with the touchpad on the Vive controllers or thumbstick on your Touch controllers. Comfort rotation spins you in set intervals of 30 degrees, whereas you can rotate freely when comfort mode is off. VRChat also supports gamepad input if you don’t have motion controllers.
VRChat offers a variety of avatars to choose from, whereas AltspaceVR has but a few choices. The game includes avatars of regular people, zombies, robots, and even an orc. I didn’t count the number of choices, but suffice to say there’s something for most people. However, if you find yourself wanting something you don’t see on the list, you can import your own avatar models. VRChat offers a video tutorial that explains how to go about making your own custom character models or importing an existing model:
Buckle Up! The Tour Is About To Start
Once we were somewhat familiar with the controls and were settled on avatar choices, VRPill opened a portal and asked us to step through. Our guide proceeded to take us from room to room, showcasing VRChat’s versatility and variety. We played a round of "CTF," which puts two opposing factions against each other in a classic capture the flag team-deathmatch game. Later, we played a round of "Steel and Gold," another team-based shooter, in which you play as a sheriff out to get the bandits or a bandit trying to steel gold.
Of course, there’s much more to do in VRChat than play first person shooter games. VRPill also took us to a bowling alley. Later, we tossed a light disc at each other in a Tron-like disc battle, and then we explored a vast map of the surface of the moon (we were told it would take 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other). Finally, I followed VRPill to a presentation space that had a giant whiteboard and four colored markers to draw with.
In the presentation room, VRPill showed us an experimental tool that only select people have access to. The developer spawned a Polaroid-like camera and proceeded to snap a few pictures of the group. The images printed out of the camera, and we were able to pick them up, look at them, and pass them around as if they were physical pictures. The camera, and several other unannounced tools, are experiments for future developments that only developers and contributors can pull out.
By this point, our meeting had extended well beyond the briefing time I had budgeted for, but I had the feeling there was much more to explore. I left the group with the intent to return after the official VRChat launch so that I could see what it's like to spend time with a larger group of people within VRChat.
After I left, Derek continued the tour with VRPill and company. They stopped at an upscale condo in a high-rise building and took a trip to the surface of Mars. Like the Moon surface experience, the Mars surface room is a vast expanse that would take you several minutes to traverse from one end to the other. And its actually Mars that you get to see, not an artist rendition of the red planet. The map is built from NASA’s topographical data of the planet’s surface.
A History Lesson
The day after VRChat launched on Steam, Derek and I returned to The Hub. To our surprise, we found VRPill hanging out, talking to a few other people. VRPill summoned Ron Millar, VRChat’s creative director, to answer any further questions for us. It was late at night when we joined, so Millar wasn’t really in a work kind of mood, but he was happy to have a conversation with us and show us the ropes.
Millar started the night off by telling us about his career in the video game business. He has 28 years of game development under his belt. He started off creating art for Gameboy games in the 80s. He’s also an old friend of Blizzard Entertainment co-founder Mike Morhaime and was the fifth employee hired at the company where he helped bring Diablo and Warcraft to life. He also helped Peter Molyneux create Black & White.
Millar was also one of the first people to work with an Oculus Rift dev kit. Before the kits started to ship, Millar had a Rift DK1 that he had to put together himself. He also mentioned that he was one of the first developers to get Touch controllers. Oculus used Millar’s skills as a sound engineer at Oculus Story Studio, where he invented new audio techniques for Oculus' short film Lost.
You can hear it all from the man himself, though; below is a recording of his conversation, taped from within VRChat.
Following our discussion with Millar, he proceeded to play tour guide and showed us some of the rooms that aren’t usually open to the public. We were shown a haunted house that they used for a Halloween event, in which players would be abducted by aliens. Millar then showed us to the alien spacecraft that those players were taken to.
At one point during the tour, we found ourselves on the deck of the Titanic. Then, Millar switched from the orc figure to a custom Mr. Meseeks (Rick & Morty) avatar, which completely derailed the conversation.
Millar wasn’t the only one playing around with custom avatars on the Titanic. Another developer switched to a highly detailed Predator avatar, and someone else switched to a gigantic Ultraman avatar. The best part about the Ultraman avatar is that it made the world appear tiny to that player. Unfortunately, that won’t be an option for regular users--it's just an experiment for developers.
We spent more than two hours following Millar and his cohorts around from room to room, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s available to explore in VRChat. Millar told me there are “hundreds” of rooms to visit, and the community is always adding more content.
If you’re looking for a fun social VR experience, don’t skip VRChat. It’s a great way to kill spare time. And if you happen to see Pumcy (me) wandering about, don’t be shy.