The Best Virtual Worlds for “Hanging Out”
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.
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.
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 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.
Each app has some different strengths, and costs. In a nutshell:
Online Town is my favorite for casual online “parties”, where you want to feel like you’re in a house wandering into different rooms, chatting spontaneously with people and forming impromptu conversations. It’s a 2d pixel world you can walk around in, videochatting with people nearby. It lives in a browser that doesn’t require a download or login.
Mozilla Hubs is similar to Online Town, but in 3d. It has many more features, but it’s also a bit more complex, and people who aren’t familiar with 3D video games may find it harder to use. It can be used via desktop browser, or via VR headset.
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).
Minecraft is a fully featured virtual world. It costs $30 (the other three apps are free). It doesn’t come with its own audio chat (but can easily be combined with other voice chat services). You get a fully featured world where you can build a house together, explore cool environments, interact with plants and animals, etc. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.