The Best Virtual Worlds for "Hanging Out"

post by Raemon · 2020-04-27T21:54:46.400Z · LW · GW · 25 comments

Contents

      UPDATES Sept 5 2020
  The Problem With Zoom™
    Considerations
      Accessibility, vs features
      Proximity Chat
      VR
      Intuitiveness / Smoothness
  The Apps in Detail
    
    Town
    Hubs
    
      The Pro, and Con: VR
  Go Forth and Hang Out
None
25 comments

UPDATES Sept 5 2020

 

Related:

The Problem With Zoom™

In the wake of coronavirus, many people have turned to Zoom, Skype, or Jitsi to maintain social ties. But I personally find it a bit awkward to do a video call when I don't have anything in particular to talk about. In real life, lulls in conversation could be filled with eating, or talking a walk and appreciating the scenery. In a videocall, there's either awkward silence, or I start using facebook or something and then get distracted.

Zoom calls also work less well for large parties. If you want the feeling of wandering through a house, listening in on various conversations and joining in, or spontaneously playing a simple game, I've found video calls a poor substitute. Zoom works best for smaller conversations with clear goals, or very structured conversations. (Seder worked well [LW · GW] because it was "turn based")

What works much better IMO is some kind of low-key game going on in the background – something just complicated enough to let me fidget with it, without becoming the Main Activity which distracts from actually talking to friends.

There are various low-key games that may work for people. But there's a particular quality of Minecraft, and similar world-sims, that feel less like we're playing a game, and more like we're just hanging out in a world. 

What are the best tools for that?

This post began as a response to "What are the Best Online Tools For Meetups and Meetings". It turned out to be pretty extensive, and I thought I'd make it a full post. It currently compares four apps. I may update it as I try more.

This post currently compares four apps: Minecraft, Mozilla Hubs, AltspaceVR, and Online Town. I may update it as I try more.

Each app has some different strengths, and costs. In a nutshell:

I think there are many other video games that work similarly to Minecraft (for instance, Animal Crossing has been getting some press as a "coronavirus virtual refuge"), but I'm not as familiar with them. This post is essentially comparing the first three options vs "Minecraft and other similar video games."

Key Considerations

Accessibility, vs features

Some apps just require a url, and immediately drop you into a party. Others make you create an account, or sign in, which creates awkward friction. If you want to host a large online party, it matters a lot that you can invite friends and that they can invite friends organically. If those friends have to stop to download a new app... they probably won't. A url they can just click on is much better.

On the flipside, downloadable apps offer more power and flexibility. It may be worth getting all your friends to invest in an app, if the result is better than free, accessible websites. But, you can only get all your friends to download apps so many times. 

Online Town is extremely accessible. Mozilla Hubs is a close second – the only problem is that it runs sluggishly on some computers. 

AltSpaceVR is free but requires a VR headset which most people don't have.

Minecraft is $30 and requires creating an account, which I think is generally worth it but only if it's actually the most appropriate tool for the job.

Proximity Chat

Some apps make people louder if they are closer to you. This gives you sort of the organic conversation feeling that parties have – you can wander around a virtual room, briefly listening in and chatting with people until you find a conversation you're excited by. 

Proximity chat is most important if you're aiming for a largish party.

Hubs, Altspace and Online Town all feature this out-of-the-box.

Minecraft does not have proximity chat. There is a mod you can download that provides it, but the Minecraft Mod Scene is a wild west of hacky downloads that I think only make sense to inflict on your friends if they're a particular kind of nerd who's excited by that. (Normal minecraft is "pretty accessible, apart from costing money", but I think modded Minecraft is basically a dealbreaker for inviting newcomers)

I found some videogames that had proximity chat built in, but they were more expensive (more like $60). That's a bigger ask than I'd make of people I invited to a party. Since the whole point of proximity chat is to enable large freeform parties here, I didn't investigate them further.

VR

Altspace and Mozilla Hubs both allow you to go for "full immersion" if you own a VR headset. The Oculus Quest is around $400 and in my opinion quite worth the price... but unfortunately seems to be sold out and I'm not sure when you can next get one. If coronavirus had struck 1-2 years later I think it might have been a valid option for tons of remote people to hang out in VR. Alas, the timing is slightly off.

I personally find VR gives me a bit of a headache and sometimes nausea, which limits my time to around an hour. I also expect this to improve a bit in another couple years. My current sense is that it's more like a fun novel experience to try than a serious contender for frequent-virtual-hangout space.

Intuitiveness / Smoothness

Creating good controls for a virtual world is tricky. I found Online Town by far the most intuitive. Altspace, Hubs and Minecraft are each differently unintuitive.

The Apps in Detail

Minecraft

This was my first experience with a virtual, telepresent world. Seven years ago, when my girlfriend and I were long-distance, we would stay connected via Minecraft dates.

The distinguishing feature of Minecraft is that it is not a game, and it is not a videochatting app. It is a world. You can plant trees, grow crops, invent tools, build a house, found a civilization. 

It drops you off in the world with no context and few instructions. Some people find that confusing and bounce off of it. The trick is that Minecraft is like real life – it has meaning insofar as you invest meaning into it, and in my experience it's easier to create meaning together than by yourself. My girlfriend and I built a house together, which we decorated and treated as a shared home.

Minecraft is an infinite canvas, but like the real world, you have to work to accomplish things. There is risk and danger and cost. You can build a statue of gold, but only if you go dig up that gold. This gives things a sense of "weight" that they don't have in worlds where you can place any object you want immediately.

For Valentines Day, I built my girlfriend a treehouse on a hill. There was a place nearby where the sun set each day, but there was a large mountain partially blocking the view. I spent a week digging up the mountain and replacing it with a giant glass heart. 

My interest in Minecraft has waxed and waned over the years. I generally find that I care about Minecraft in proportion to how much other people I'm close with are invested in the same world. It's a valid avenue for social reality, which has strength depending on how many people believe in it.

So, before coronavirus came, I already had a clear sense of what a virtual world that felt "lived in" could look like, and how to use that to connect with people who were far away. I find Minecraft a good place to "hang out" with friends, and go on little virtual hikes.

A big question (which I'm not yet certain of) is is how Minecraft compares more directly to other apps that aren't trying to be a living, breathing world. If you want a world, Minecraft provides, but what if you want a temporary, ephemeral party?

I've had some good experience with Minecraft Hikes. Last weekend, I invited friends to download WesterosCraft, a modded version of Minecraft (easier to install than most mods), which features the entire western continent from Game of Thrones. We hiked from Winterfell Castle to the large wall in the north. It made for a nice hour-long activity, during which we chatted and organically started playing the sorts of games we might play on a hike (things like "20 questions").

Online Town

Online Town is a video chat, where you get a little pixel avatar who can walk around a 2D virtual world. You can videochat with other people who are nearby, and can't see or hear people who are further away. It looks like this:

The app is only a month old, and has very few features, and lags when large numbers of people are in a room. But, it's a very elegant concept that I think is simple for people to understand. It runs in a browser, and doesn't require a download or account. 

I think Online Town is the best option for most casual "parties" – creating an online gathering with around 15-30 people who can wander around into different conversations in a fairly organic way. It is both helpful for spontaneous conversation forming, and for giving a little feeling of "physical interaction."

The developers are still adding new features, and I'm hoping that over time this gets fleshed out. I think the biggest obstacle right now is that it lags when too many people join, which directly undermines the core use-case. Optimization is hard and I'm not expecting that to change very soon. But in general, they've continued adding features since I first checked it out a couple weeks ago.

Longterm I think it'd be delightful if it gave people more opportunity to create their own pixel art to populate the world with, to capture some of the "actual virtual world" that Minecraft offers while maintaining Online Town's simplicity and elegance.

Another friend of mine would like a version of Online Town where instead of a teeny pixel avatar, your avatar is your videochat stream, so that you can immediately recognize people, and not have to shift attention back and forth between the pixel world and video streams below. I think this is also a pretty valid choice that I'd be excited to see the Online Town folk (or someone else) try.

Mozilla Hubs

Hubs is a virtual space where you can walk around in 3D, speaking and hearing the people near you. You can create "windows" that have youtube videos playing, or place 3D objects around that other people can wiggle around or resize. You can include a video stream of yourself, so people can see both your "virtual self" (which appears as a robot) while also looking at your face.

Hubs gets a lot of basic things right – it's web based, so it works across many platforms, including VR. It has all the features I expect/hope for Online Town to have eventually.

But the result is... just a bit too janky, occasionally laggy, and confusing in order for me to be deeply excited about it. I think this is an Uncanny Valley thing: Online Town is a teeny pixelated world that I find janky-but-cute. My personal experience of Mozilla Hubs was that it was trying to create an immersive 3D world, but the seams were too visible and it was harder to get into. 

It does basically works just fine, and has more features than Town, so may be a better fit for some people's needs.

Mozilla Hubs takes place in "rooms", pre-built 3D environments you get to choose. Different rooms range widely in how graphics-intensive they are, so if you are finding the experience sluggish, you can switch to a different, simpler room. 

One great thing for Mozilla hubs is that it comes with a level-editor called Spoke, which you can use to create whatever type of room you want, or edit existing rooms if they're Not Quite Right. The LessWrong team used it to create Our April Fools Prank Room (optimized for being computationally simply), and more recently I used it to create an alternate version of the existing Foggy Lake room, removing some restrictions on player movement that the original version had come with.

Rooms can hold up to 25 people, but I found them to get laggy once they got more than 15 or so. 

AltspaceVR

AltspaceVR is an obvious evolution of Mozilla Hubs (I've actually heard that Mozilla Hubs was founded by former Altspace employees). It takes place in VR, although there's a Windows app you can download. 

It generally works more smoothly than Hubs. The world is slightly prettier and more cohesive. You can see people's mouth move when they talk. It prominently features Events where people meet to talk about particular things, or watch videos together, or play games. 

One of my favorite bits about Altspace is that you can create your own world. And whereas Mozilla Hub's Spoke editor feels like a complicated, professional editing software, Altspace's world editor feels fun and (mostly) intuitive. Selecting objects and moving them around made feel like Tony Stark in Iron Man.

It felt like this.

The most interesting experience I had was "making a friend." 

I traveled to a world with a cabin by a lake, where a few other players were hanging out. I listened in on their conversation a bit. At the time, I felt a bit nervous and didn't want to speak up. 

I explored the nearby woods a bit, eventually finding a large animated stag. While I was staring at it, another player appeared. He said "man, that's a cool stag", and I said "yeah", and then we chatted a bit. Eventually he said "Hey man, wanna come to the game room?" and opened up a portal.

I followed him through the portal to a gaming lounge, which featured a large chess board. There were no special rules governing the board – I could just pick up pieces, and put them down, basically like real life. He and I started a game. We were both pretty bad at chess, and I focused more on taking pieces than winning. But we had a fun time, and afterwards he said "Hey man, wanna friend each other and hang out again sometime? I'd love a rematch." I said "sure!"

And... well, okay and then I ended up deciding I didn't want to spend much more time in Altspace because Minecraft was overall better. But, there was something good and pure about that interaction. It gave me a sense that I could actually just make friends in an organic fashion.

The Pro, and Con: VR

I think, 2 years from now, enough people with have VR headsets, and VR will have improved enough, that something like Altspace would be a great tool for quarantine socialization. As is, I think it doesn't quite feel good enough to really be better than simpler options like Online Town or richer options like Minecraft.

But Altspace did very much feel like The Future. If you read Snow Crash and thought "man, I want that", well, you can have it now. 

Go Forth and Hang Out

This is all I got for now. Hopefully you have some new interesting ideas for ways to host online gatherings, or maintain relationships in a Socially Distant world.

Any other tools you've tried? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

25 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2020-04-28T14:25:37.393Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here are a few more online worlds that people use for social purposes.

Second Life is about 15 years old, and I've been there about 10. There's a bit of a learning curve to get started, but it runs on both Mac and PC, and can be used for free. You can also have a paid account that lets you own* land and gives a few other benefits, but it's usable without that. It has proximity chat by text or by voice, friend lists, private messages, and if you have your own* land you can build your own* house, or anything else. It's a single world: here is the world map. Most of the content in Second Life is created by the members. Anyone can create a special interest group, with its own group chat and group announcements. It does not support VR headsets, and I doubt if that is on the roadmap. As with all these virtual worlds, it gets laggy when too many avatars are in one place, but it can handle a gathering of 40 easily.

People almost invariably do not use their real names there or make avatars that resemble themselves. As the name suggests, it's positioned as being a second life, rather than, like Facebook, just another part of one's everyday life. But you can use it as you wish. People do sometimes share real life information and meet up in meatspace.

[*] "Own" in the context of MMOs means, of course, "having a licence to use certain game assets in certain ways in accordance with the terms of service of the platform." Everyone knows this; a newbie pointing it out as if it was a piercing insight will be met with eye-rolling.

Sansar was created by the same company that makes Second Life, but it was recently hived off to another company. Unlike Second Life, it's not a unified single world. There is no world map, only a directory. Each user can create their own region and they don't join up, but you can visit anyone else's. It runs only on PC. It supports VR (Rift and Vive only) but does not require it. It may require a beefier graphics card than Second Life, even without VR. I'm in Sansar, but I haven't been very active there, so I can't say much about it beyond the technical aspects I described. Accounts are free. A paid account lets you create more worlds.

I recently came across Virbela, which is directed towards business uses. I've only made a free account there and explored a demo region. There is a large real estate company that conducts all its internal meetings there, and which I think provided the original funding to create Virbela to use for itself, but it's open to everyone either for free, or by paying for more features. It's suited more for meetings than informal social activity. Avatars are cartoony humans with only a few variations of appearance to choose from.

There is also ActiveWorlds. This has been around since 1995, and I remember having an account there back in the late 90s. But I haven't been there since and I don't know how active it is, or really, how it manages to keep going at all. It's the same sort of thing as Second Life, a single large world in which you can own a plot of land and mix with the other residents. But I don't know how (or whether) it's developed in the last 20 years.

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-28T20:31:13.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! 

I had tried Second Life while investigating things this month. I sort of bounced off, because getting started seemed like a big enough annoyance that I wouldn't be able to onboard all my friends into it. It also had an overall vibe that felt offputting to me (the whole thing felt sort of scammy, in a way that felt designed to appeal to people who weren't averse to scamminess?)

I didn't know it had proximity chat, which might make it worth another look.

Doublechecking: Sansar is not available on Mac, correct?

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2020-04-28T21:25:24.907Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, Sansar is PC only, and there are no plans to change that.

BTW, I assume that by "proximity chat" you mean that when you speak, everyone within some distance around you can hear (or "speak" and "hear" for text chat). That is what SL and Sansar have, for both text and voice. They also have private text messaging, and I believe SL has some sort of voice conferencing (i.e. only the people in the conference hear the others), but I've never been in one of those.

I don't know what the onboarding experience for Second Life is like these days. In the past there have been some quite large efforts by existing residents, not officially sponsored by Linden Lab, to assist new users, but I'm not in touch with that. If you can get past whatever it is like, there are serious philosophical discussion groups, book clubs, a great deal of art, music performances, wonderful landscapes to roam through, and more. There is also a lot of sexual stuff, although that's mostly confined to its own continent.

comment by ideepakmathur · 2020-04-28T21:16:31.178Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've tried Second Life and yes it's something really addictive, therefore uninstalled it.

comment by Raemon · 2020-09-06T02:30:16.687Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

UPDATES Sept 5 2020

  • Online Town is now Gather Town. They have continued to ship new features and improve their service in the past few months. (note that while https://theonline.town/ still exists as a separate url for some reason, it's a much worse product. The free Gather Town is better. Use that)
  • There are several apps similar to Gather Town now. My favorite is Topia. It is less stable / performant than Gather Town, but also much prettier and easier to build maps on. Other options include here.fm and cozyroom.xyz, and highfidelity.com. Each have different strengths and weaknesses. I hope to do another article comparing them someday.
  • I've found Minecraft worked fine as a social activity, but surprisingly didn't hold my interest as a world – ironically every time I went to a shared Minecraft world I just... sortof "played Minecraft" rather than actually hanging out the way I'd envisioned. I have done a few specific "Minecraft hikes" which went well as a one-off thing though.
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-04-28T00:30:37.439Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just want to put in a small plug for Planetside 2. It's (the world's only?) MMO shooter game; the map is big enough that you can easily wander around for hours in friendly territory and never see an enemy, or you can go to one of many battles on the ever-shifting front lines. Think of it like Minecraft, except 1. it's free, 2. it comes with proximity chat, and 3. it has a war/shooter/sci-fi flavor to it instead of cute blocky wilderness. You can even build structures in it, though that might require either spending a lot of time gaining xp or spending money.

I still think Minecraft would be better for most friend groups (because flavor) but for some planetside 2 would be better.

comment by maximkazhenkov · 2020-04-29T03:37:56.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Planetside 2 is fascinating to me. It's one of a kind, not just in the sense of being a MMO shooter, but also giving the player a sense of being part of something big and magnificent, collaborating with not only your small circle of friends, but also with hundreds of other people towards a common goal. This sort of exciting experience is only found in real world projects otherwise (EVE online and browser games notwithstanding; those are more spreadsheets than games to me), and I'm really starting to think this is a hugely neglected opportunity for the gaming industry. Who knows, maybe it will be the next big trend after Battle Royale? Although shooter games with their chaotic and computationally expensive nature is not the best fit for it - perhaps turn-based strategy games instead?

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-04-29T10:52:26.609Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I share your fascination with it. I've long since decided that my tastes in video games are not representative, alas -- if they are, then there are hundreds of million-dollar bills lying around on the game industry floor. I used to passionately write up lists of ideas for how to modify existing games (or make new ones) that would be SO AWESOME. I'd even have sub-lists of ideas that could be implemented in, like, a day. Now I usually don't bother.

(That said, sometimes my ideas do get implemented, and players do like it, so... (In PS2 in particular, I had been hoping for sky carriers, alerts, and construction before they happened. One thing I'd been hoping for that hasn't happened, alas, is two-way battles. Like what they did with Server Smash, only more regular and official. Well, I guess when they did Server Smash that was another instance of my wishes being fulfilled.)

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-28T00:48:55.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think that was one of the ones I saw that I considered, I felt somewhat averse to it because the flavor (AFAICT) didn't at all feel like "friends hanging out". But I agree it may be an interesting and good choice for people that like the flavor.

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-28T01:06:58.750Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think Rust was another option, which is actually particularly Minecraft-like, but which I also haven't played. When I looked into it the last thing I heard was that it was laggy on Mac. 

The fact that, um, players start literally naked may be a dealbreaker for some, although maybe fine for, um, certain types of parties?

comment by Dibalo · 2020-11-02T09:46:39.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Work Adventure is a nice project that we're trying out right now: 
 

https://workadventu.re

It's open source and based on jitsi, so secure.

comment by Raemon · 2020-11-03T02:49:13.526Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, neat. Are you a developer or a user?

comment by Rumbletron · 2020-06-26T23:09:50.557Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you so much for writing up this detailed article! I've been exploring the same concerns and your analysis is very helpful!

comment by emanuele ascani (emanuele-ascani) · 2020-04-30T12:16:30.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

VRChat?

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-30T17:10:22.157Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you used it, and have experiences to report?

comment by emanuele ascani (emanuele-ascani) · 2020-05-01T08:24:03.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, my experience is the gameplays I have seen. From what I've seen it seems very easy to communicate (via voice chat) and interact with environments, which are also very customizable. I don't know anything beyond this.

comment by FactorialCode · 2020-04-27T22:41:52.384Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unlike the previous options it doesn't have "proximity chat". It works better if you're interacting with a smallish group of people, who can all hear each other and participate in a single conversation.

Fortunately, Minecraft also has an excellent modding community:

Proximal chat: https://github.com/magneticflux-/fabric-mumblelink-mod

VR Support: http://www.vivecraft.org/

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-27T22:46:06.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yup, noted later on:

Minecraft does not have proximity chat. There is a mod you can download that provides it, but the Minecraft Mod Scene is a wild west of hacky downloads that I think only make sense to inflict on your friends if they're a particular kind of nerd who's excited by that. (Normal minecraft is "pretty accessible, apart from costing money", but I think modded Minecraft is basically a dealbreaker for inviting newcomers)

I found some videogames that had proximity chat built in, but they were more expensive (more like $60). That's a bigger ask than I'd make of people I invited to a party. Since the whole point of proximity chat is to enable large freeform parties here, I didn't investigate them further.

The problem is that proximity chat is most useful for parties of 30ish people, and I think it's a much harder sell to get friends to A) download minecraft, B) get a mod installed. (I finally got into modded Minecraft last week to test out this sort of thing, and while it was worth it for me, I wouldn't recommend it for people that aren't already into Minecraft for it's own sake)

That said, if you know of a simple one-click-install launcher that bundles minecraft with Mumble, I'd be into that. (It felt more reasonable of me to ask friends to download WesterosCraft, which had a simple installer, than to get some of the other mods I've used)

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-27T23:11:39.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a good reminder that I should just check out ViveCraft.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-09-06T02:18:07.535Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm I think online town is now https://gather.town/ . I wonder why they yielded the old domain. I hope they realize that they never had to pay a registrar's renewal fee, as they can always transfer the domain to another registrar that has a different fee.

comment by DanielFilan · 2020-09-06T02:26:24.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nah, online town still has the URL theonline.town, gather.town is just their upscale version.

comment by Raemon · 2020-09-06T02:34:06.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

theonline.town is a very weird trap and I don't understand why it still exists instead of just redirecting to Gather Town. (it's, like, way worse than gather.town's free version)

comment by cata · 2020-04-27T23:31:31.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Small correction -- AltspaceVR can be used without a VR headset using normal FPS controls, just like Hubs.

comment by Raemon · 2020-04-27T23:42:09.944Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nod. I intended to note that here:

AltspaceVR is similar to Mozilla Hubs, but a) requires an app download, and b) basically requires a VR headset (it also has a Windows app, but I would only recommend it for people who have VR headsets and want an immersive VR experience).

To be fair, "basically" is doing some work in this sentence. I think a lot of the UI in Altspace is really bad if you don't have a headset, in a way that hubs is not. It also doesn't work on Mac.

comment by ericjwilson · 2020-04-29T18:10:10.767Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for highlighting these options. The biggest thing I've been missing during our isolation (and online generally for a while) is the opportunity to have serendipitous meetings or collisions with individuals of similar interest groups.

Curious to get recommendations on how to discover worthwhile communities within these platforms that aren't seeded with people I already know offline.