As Social VR Grows, Users Are the Ones Building Its Worlds
When Rec Room launched in the summer of 2016, it didn't feel like a platform for social virtual reality as much as it did a collection of mini-games. You could change the clothes your avatar was wearing, sure, and you could talk to folks you met in the game's gym-like central hub. You could even play dodgeball or paintball against them. But despite its fun, cartoonish aesthetic and its up-with-people vibe, it was very much a work in progress.
But that was three very long years ago. Now, Rec Room is not only a vibrant social world, but through a series of ambitious updates it's become a nexus for expression as well. Armed with a suite of creative tools, users have built custom environments that re-enact everything from Pixar movies to Beatles album covers. There are mega-scale playable Monopoly boards and explorable dungeons; creators market their live DJ sets and comedy shows on Instagram. At this point, two-thirds of all time spent inside Rec Room happens inside user-generated rooms, some of which have attracted more than 500,000 visitors. And as one of two social titles available at launch for the standalone Oculus Quest—and with an iOS version opening for beta signup—it's poised to keep growing."We've done about five percent of what we want to do so far," says Nick Fajt, CEO of Against Gravity, the Seattle studio behind Rec Room. "We feel like VR and AR are inevitable. I don't know if that's two years from now or 10 years from now, but there's a ton of things that we can do in the interim that takes our platform and our toolset a little bit closer."I should point out that Fajt says this to me during a wide-ranging discussion inside Rec Room, where he and head of community Shawn Whiting are touring me through some of their favorite user-generated spaces. There's a verdant Shire-like environment called "Hobbits," where nighttime brings fireworks shows. There's seaside village Valley of the Dark, where we took a selfie with Rec Room's in-game camera. There's even a reconstruction of the platform where Luke and Darth Vader faced off in The Empire Strikes Back, complete with R2-D2, a wieldable lightsaber, and the ability to fall through Cloud City's endless ventilation shaft. (Which, reader, I did.)Admittedly, now seems to be a time of reckoning for social VR. Earlier this month, High Fidelity, an ambitious platform from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, laid off a quarter of its 80-person staff and pivoted toward enterprise communication. "If you had asked me when we started the company in 2014, I'd have said that by now there would be several million people using [head-mounted displays] daily, and we'd be competing with both big and small companies to provide the best platform—but I was wrong," Rosedale wrote in a blog post. "Daily headset use is only in the tens of thousands, almost all for entertainment and media consumption, with very little in the way of general communication, work, or education."Yet, more accessible platforms continue to thrive. After an enormous spike last year—due largely to the infamous, more-than-a-little-racist Ugandan Kuckles meme—VR Chat has settled into slow, steady growth. Altspace, which Microsoft rescued from closure in 2017, is moving to the Quest later this year. While both grant users plenty of customization options, though, Rec Room has made user creation its mission in a way that harkens back to other watershed creative games. "I frequently hear players say, 'I used to play a lot of Minecraft or LittleBigPlanet 2,'" says Whiting. "They're titles that attracted that same sort of creative audience."The past year or so has seen a series of updates that have made those comparisons even more fitting. Circuit tools allow users to create complex interactive simulations, like that playable Monopoly board. With "Holotars," creators can make recordings of themselves, then place those recordings in a room to act as a guide or AI companion for visitors. "We've been impressed every time we roll out a new set of tools," Fajt says. "When we released new lights, people had made working lightsabers within an hour."As it does for so many other forms of VR, the newly released standalone Oculus Quest represents potential for a significant influx of new users, especially those who got introduced to Rec Room via 2-D "Screen Mode" on PC or the platform's PlayStation 4 iteration. (Since Rec Room is fully cross-play enabled, PSVR or Vive headset owners can interact with 2-D users.) While the Quest version doesn't yet feature resource-intensive experiences like Rec Room's popular battle royale game or co-op adventure quests, Against Gravity intends to reach feature parity with every other version of the platform, and it already supports the vast majority of the platform's user-generated content—meaning those lightsabers and fireworks shows are well within reach.And for those who aren't quite ready for a headset, the forthcoming iOS version will allow for a taste of what users might want to enjoy—or just build themselves. "We're not trying to bring developers to Rec Room," Fajt says. "We're trying to empower people who otherwise wouldn't be able to create content."
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