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VRChat is a bizarre phenomenon that has Twitch and YouTube obsessed

Think Habbo Hotel or Second Life, but in VR

VRChat VRChat Inc./Medium

New game obsessions are commonplace, but phenomena that can only be described as platform- or industry-changing are rare occurrences; VRChat is shaping up to be one of those rarities.

Developed by Graham Gaylor and Jesse Joudrey, VRChat is an amalgamation of social community video games. There are wisps of Habbo Hotel and Second Life at the core of VRChat, but enhanced by virtual reality immersion. As with Habbo Hotel and Second Life, the reason virtual reality aficionados and players looking for an ever-expanding, engaging world flocked to VRChat was because of the opportunities to transform it into something more.

VRChat launched on Steam in February 2017 as part of the platform’s early-access program. When it was first available for download, the developers defined the project by two assets: its catalog of mini-games and its social capabilities. The developer touted traditional game activities like “Capture the Flag, rob a bank in Steel ’n’ Gold, [and] lob digital discs at each other in a match of Battle Discs.”

Games were just one component of VRChat. Working with Ron Millar, best known for his work on Warcraft at Blizzard, Gaylor and Joudrey wanted VRChat to become the first real virtual reality hangout. Players would be able to customize their own worlds (like rooms in Habbo Hotel), drink with friends, host dance parties and even date. The platform that VRChat Inc. was working on seemed to hit all the right notes for virtual reality fans who had dreamt of this type of interactive, immersive world.

They weren’t alone. By September, VRChat Inc. had secured $4 million in investment funding. On Sept. 21, VRChat launched on Viveport, alongside its presence on the Oculus Rift. In the eight months between VRChat launching on Steam in early access and being ported to the Viveport, the community had turned its universe into a vibrant, inhabited world.

There were pubs that hosted weekly karaoke nights or performances from bands formed in VRChat. A weekly newspaper detailing what was happening in the world of VRChat sprung to life in the main community forum as a way of keeping people informed. Late night talk shows and a network of podcasts dedicated to talking about VRChat started to spring up. By giving players access to an SDK and easy Unity integration, VRChat became a customizable experience that allowed people to create the virtual world they wanted to live in.

Characters you know and love

Watch any VRChat video and there’s one thing that sticks out: It’s chockfull of characters that you already know. There are strange versions of Spongebob Squarepants, Pickle Rick from Rick and Morty, an assortment of Pokémon and too many anime characters to name.

This is one of VRChat’s biggest draws. Using a combination of character models, VRChat Inc.’s software development kit and Unity, players can create their own (unauthorized) avatars based on other popular figures from games, television, anime and movies.

In the video below, multiple characters from popular culture, including Hank Hill from King of the Hill and Pikachu from Pokémon, can be seen interacting with one another. Players are able to pet Pikachu and Pokémon trainers can be seen in the distance. Much of the game’s appeal comes from players recklessly mixing and matching characters from various franchises and assuming their persona, virtually. Think cosplaying but without the expensive costume and in the comfort of your own home.

Dating is okay, but a line is drawn

As more people started to pour into VRChat, the community began to work on integrating safety features as a way to protect those from harm. Unwanted communication, leering and touching isn’t a new problem to virtual reality. VRChat isn’t immune to these types of occurrences, but the community has developed a service, PING, which tries to prevent these types of situations from happening, even if they’re not successful all the time.

VRChat allows its users to consensually date and romance each other, much like Habbo Hotel and Second Life did. Players have requested that VRChat implement age restrictions for certain content, but currently one of the only option for players in a public setting who don’t want to deal with vulgar comments is to mute individual players.

On Dec. 14, VRChat Inc. released a new patch that addressed how lewd and unwanted behavior would be addressed in the game. The developer introduced a “Public Ban” that would stop certain players from being allowed to participate in public forums. If the act was described as harassing or viewed as severe, a full ban would be issued to the offending player.

We’ve added a new moderation feature we are calling “The Public Ban”. We feel that some behavior, while not appropriate for Public or Friends+ instances, doesn’t always warrant a timed or permanent ban. This will allow us to remove users from Public or Friends+ instances temporarily but still allow them to remain in VRChat and use Friends & Invite only instances.

Further bad behavior will result in a review including a full ban. Those that are public banned will be taken to a public ban world to watch a video and learn more about what a public ban means. From there they can still connect with friends until the public ban period has expired.

The influence of Twitch and YouTube

Considering that VRChat is only available on Vive and Oculus Rift, the player base is still limited. The reason VRChat has skyrocketed in popularity is because of YouTubers and Twitch streamers who have brought attention to the game. One YouTuber in particular, Nagzz21, uploads near daily videos with his time in VRChat. These include weird dating scenarios, oblong takes on popular gaming avatars, drama happening between players and groups in VRChat, and exploring all the different realms.

His videos have become so popular that VRChat Inc. has subscribed to him and promoted a view of his videos.

Nagzz21 has just under 100,000 subscribers, but his videos routinely pull in more views than that as people try and keep track of what’s happening in VRChat. Pokelawls is another streamer who’s bringing attention to VRChat. He regularly streams content from the game, focusing on some of the wildest moments VRChat has to offer, and has developed a reputation for his keen eye on the game’s ongoings.

Other popular streamers, like JP, have noted a resurgence of VR streams on Twitch because of VRChat. JP said on Twitter that playing VRChat has given him countless ideas for future streams, delving into the different areas, games and social environments VRChat gives players.

It’s easy to understand why VRChat would appeal to streamers. It’s a strange, intoxicating world that seems remarkable in even the shortest of clips. Take this example, tweeted by Kotaku’s Chris Person, below.

VRChat is still in early access, but it’s available to those with HTC Vive or Oculus Rift systems for free. Players are encouraged to develop their own additions to the game using Unity and the SDK provided. Polygon has reached out to VRChat Inc. for more information on what’s next for the company and game.