A Gay and Magnificent Revel: Postmortem

Last September I decided that I wanted to learn how to build a VRChat world.  I had never made a VR project before, but I’ve been working in and around interactive entertainment since before the turn of the millennium, so I have Opinions, and plenty of them.

I wasn’t sure what sort of world I wanted to build; I have notes and outlines for various ideas I’ve had over time, but none of them seemed quite right.  And then, by happenstance, I reread The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe, in particular his description of the prince’s imperial suite.  The image of that series of color-themed rooms, lit by giant braziers, was arresting to me. 

Also, at this particular moment in history, what could be a more appropriate inspiration for a VR world than a story about locking yourself up to hide from a plague and then throwing a big party with all your friends?

So I made a world. And having made one, I have some thoughts about what I tried to do, what went well, what did not go well, and what I regret. I thought I’d share them.

Aesthetic Principles

There were four primary things that I wanted to accomplish with my design:

  • First, I wanted to create a social space suitable for a party, with interesting places to hang out, and a mix of large spaces for the main party with smaller spaces for more private conversation. 
  • Second, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, I believe in the power of size in VR, and I wanted to use scale as a tool to create a certain gravity. 
  • Third, I wanted to employ the principle I identified in my favorite 3DOF experiences that there should be nowhere wrong to look
  • And fourth, I wanted to build it out of free assets, which was partly about an affection for free culture and partly about me being a cheapskate.

Things That Went Well

To begin with, I finished it, and it works, neither of which was a given.  It is sort of stunning looking back just how little I knew about anything.  I’d done some Unity tutorials, but I’d never shipped anything real.  I’m proud of myself for sticking with it through … a variety of setbacks.  About which more anon.

I also think overall, Revel is a pretty neat world.  There are lots of spaces to explore, lots of places to hang out with friends, and lots of odd things to look at.  (I want to take a moment to note that the Inexorable Orb *predates* the “orb contemplation” meme.  I got there first, damn it.)

I think I had some successes with scale.  The frescoes on the ceilings of the imperial suite are really cool, and the aforementioned Inexorable Orb works pretty well.  And I think I achieved some good effects with various objects that are a little uncanny on account of being unduly large.

I succeeded in using only free assets, which was at times an interesting challenge.  I had to search in all sorts of places to find things I wanted, which was an adventure in and of itself.

Things That Went Less Well

My biggest misstep was that I had not fully internalized the difference between assets that are designed for standalone PC games, and assets that are optimized for VR.  As a result, a lot of the assets I picked turned out to be enormous, and I wound up having to pare a lot of things back to get the world size down to something manageable.  My initial build was two and a half times as big as the final version is, and the final version is still larger than I would like it to be.

For this reason, I basically failed in my goal to fill the visual field with interesting things; I just didn’t have the polygon budget for it.  (It was also a challenge finding enough free and interesting assets to fill the space to the extent that I did.)  However, on reflection, I think filling the visual field is a less meaningful aesthetic principle in a six-degrees-of-freedom setting.  In a 360-degree film, things are happening on a fixed timeline; every moment the audience is looking at something uninteresting is a wasted moment.  But a VRChat world has as much time as the audience is willing to give it; as long as there’s enough interesting stuff in the space to keep people looking around, it’s OK if there are some relatively blank spaces.  (This may be less true of VRChat experiences on rails, like Magic Heist.)

Relatively sparsely filled areas were helpful in another respect, namely my objective of creating spaces for private conversations.  I had not realized in advance that VRChat does not have audio occlusion, and so being on the other side of a wall from someone makes absolutely no difference in terms of being able to hear their conversation.  However, the abbey is large enough that the storerooms are sufficiently far from the rooms of the imperial suite that normal falloff will actually give you some privacy.

Although I had some successes with scale, it was much harder than I anticipated, for a couple of reasons.  First, scale turns out to be very hard to judge in the Unity editor.  Things regularly seem much larger or smaller in VR than they looked in the editor window.  I had to do a fairly significant rebuild when I realized I had made scale decisions that looked completely ridiculous in headset. (Another lesson: test in headset early and often.)  Second, my commitment to free assets (and my limited ability to create assets from scratch) made some scale efforts difficult; scaling objects up from what they were supposed to be sometimes works really well, but sometimes it just looks weird.

Regrets…I’ve Had A Few

A principle I believe is very useful in almost all parts of life is “Begin with the end in mind.”  I…did not employ that here.  I did a lot by the seat of my pants, in ways that were often ill-planned, and that caused me a lot of extra work.  (If we ever happen to be in the same room after I’ve had a few, ask me about the floors, and why I am a dumbass.)

I also did not think through some of the implications of my own ideas, and so despite my belief in the power of sound, I searched for music late in the process.  I wish I had started that early and allowed my soundtrack to inform more of my decisions along the way.

That said, both of these issues stem from the fact that I just did not know what I was doing, and was not in a position to solve problems before I knew I had them.  So I feel OK about it.  But I’ll do it differently next time.

The Power of Sound in VR

I just reread McLuhan’s observation in Understanding Media that “in the arts the particular mix of our senses in the medium employed is all-important,” and it got me thinking about @McPhersonsound ‘s TLX talk about sound design, and the discussion we’ve been having about muted audiences.

In most of the VR experiences I’ve had, sound is the only sensory information that is being delivered at close to normal fidelity. Visual information is generally stylized, and often requires a fair amount of mental interpretation. People do sometimes experience tactile sensation, but (barring haptics) that’s happening on the brain side, and not really reliably within a creator’s control. And of course, there’s no smell or taste information at all.

We tend to focus on the visual, because a) that’s what humans generally do, and b) that’s where we’re doing the most brain work, but the audio channel is really where we may have the most bandwidth to communicate to users.

Adapted from a Twitter thread

Presentations in VR

I gave a lecture at Prefabs TLX in VRChat in December 2020, and I made some observations about presenting in VR.

The audience was muted during my talk, which absolutely makes sense. However, it meant that I got, relative to a meatspace presentation, almost no realtime feedback. It *felt* like I was absolutely bombing. At one point I made a small joking aside, and (obviously) absolute crickets. I was briefly alarmed until I remembered that if people laughed I wouldn’t be able to hear them.

I was also acutely aware of the fact that body language in VR, even with full-body tracking, does not translate one-to-one from real life. I think I wound up using a lot more illustrative hand movements up in front of my chest, because that way I could see what I was doing. When I had my hands down, there was always a vague unease that I just did not know how I was physically presenting.

That effect, I note, may be particular to my ratio of experience presenting and performing in my physical body to experience presenting in VR. I am very comfortable in my understanding of what my body is doing in meatspace, and much less so in VR. Someone with hundreds of hours of socializing in VR but minimal experience as a public speaker might have a very different experience.

Another issue that came up for some speakers is that slide decks can be really hard to read in VR because VRChat is not great handling big slabs of text. My deck seemed to go all right because I generally draft decks as outlines rather than substantive text, so my fonts are big. But the affordances of slides are definitely not the same in VR as they are in physical environments.

Relatedly, it occurred to me days later that probably much less of the audience than I’m used to was taking notes.

Adapted from a Twitter thread

Ham and Potato Chowder

Every year around this time I spend an afternoon hunting for my chowder recipe so that I can use up our Christmas leftovers, because I am bad at organizing information consistently. So I’m going to share it here because I probably won’t forget I did that.

I don’t remember where this recipe came from, but it’s really good for a winter evening — rich and warming and luscious.

4 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 medium carrots, sliced into quarter-inch rounds
3 tbsp flour
3 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups water
2 tsp bouillon paste
3 medium russet potatoes, diced
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 cups diced ham
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Add the bacon to a cold Dutch oven or heavy pot and cook over medium heat; remove the bacon when crispy.

Cook the onion and carrots in the bacon drippings over medium heat until softened. Add 3 tablespoons of flour and stir to coat the vegetables, then cook for about 1 minute.

Slowly add milk and water, stirring. Add the bouillon paste, potatoes, pepper and garlic powder. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 15-20 minutes. Add ham and cheddar, and stir until the ham is warmed through and the cheese melts. Serve sprinkled with reserved bacon.

The Implicit Empire

There are a lot of essays I want to write within the field of How D&D Is And Why, but before I even begin, framing it that way has some problems.  The concepts and patterns of thought I want to talk about aren’t limited to D&D; they appear throughout tabletop RPG, and even out into books, digital games, movies, and beyond.  At the same time, you can play D&D without most of these elements, and many people do.  It’s tricky to clearly articulate the idea space.

The reason for this, I think, is because while D&D is theoretically setting-agnostic, from its earliest editions it has incorporated a lot of very particular, and often sort of weird, assumptions about how the game setting works.  These assumptions range from the mechanical — e.g., memorized spells forgotten upon use — to the cosmological — e.g., the Inner and Outer Planes.  All of those assumptions are technically optional, but they’re incorporated by reference throughout the rest of the game.  Abandoning them requires a certain amount of work to follow out all the chains of influence.  [This makes those elements a fairly powerful default; people will change elements that are important to the game they want to play, but leave alone elements they just feel neutral about.]

This makes D&D in many ways an inelegant design, but I think that baroqueness was actually an important element of D&D’s success.  More cleanly generic RPGs have sometimes struggled to gain traction, because it’s hard to provide a hook for players’ imaginations to grab on to.  D&D’s idiosyncrasies are a sort of canonical adventure of setting, a baseline understanding of what RPG worlds look like to fall back on.  (In 4th grade, I was accosted by a new classmate who was affronted that the cover of the book I was reading featured a spellcaster wielding a sword.  We became best friends.)

For this reason, I think it’s meaningful to talk about a default D&D setting, even though you can’t go buy a boxed set for it.  There is an ur-setting that lies behind and ties together all the tens of thousands of campaigns that implement D&D’s setting assumptions, and the scope of its influence makes it useful to talk about.  I call it the Implicit Empire.

Its broad familiarity — and frankly, its internal contradictions — makes it wildly generative.  Every weird quirk of how D&D does things is a site for exploration, elaboration, or subversion that will be legible to anyone who knows the game. At the same time, the fact that it emerged haphazardly from a gumbo of what a not especially diverse pool of contributors in the late 70s thought was cool means that a lot of those tropes and premises are often real problematic in real deep ways. There’s a lot going on in that tension that I want to explore.

August 2021 in Review

Lots more stuff this month than in July!

I posted some reflections on nerdish social dynamics, with Nitpicking and the fannish tithe, Fanboys and scientific realism, and Social Science and the Popular Kids.

I posted some thoughts about the theory of gameplay and game design with Aesthetics of Play: Masquerade, Deter behavior by making it unfun, and a couple of reflections on the experience of being a freelance game designer with Mmm…beef and Suggestions for the Beginning and Intermediate Freelancer.

There were some memories of my days as a bookseller with Friday night and patent leather Manolos, Stuff involving Me and Books, Another week in the Book Mines, and Equal Time

I wrote about 2000s politics in Consumption, Monopoly, and Protected Classes, Privatization woes, The Company You Keep, and OBAMA IZ A ISLAMOMUSLIM!!!!1!!!

And also about a moment in M.A.R. Barker’s The Man of Gold that I enjoyed.

July 2021 in Review

In July I posted nine pieces, mostly blog posts from my time as a bookseller and freelance game designer back during the Bush administration. Also a knights-and-knaves puzzle, because variety.

Reflecting on a log

Faulty Pattern-Matching

The fateful lightning of my terrible swift sword

System flexibility and the first generation of RPGs

Recall nonsense

Unfit for Command

Close Calls

Evading the gatekeepers, figuring out your own shit


June 2021 in Review

I posted 13 pieces in June.

Several of them looked at issues in game design, from my review of the Two Towers console game to my thoughts on stealing game dynamics from digital games for use in tabletop RPGs to some reflections on playtesting to my ideas on Negotiated Chess. I also posted two new entries in the Aesthetics of Play series: The Trouble with Taxonomy and Sports and Spectacles.

I posted Bounded in a Nutshell, Kings of Infinite Space, a capsule world about brains in jars with vast psychic powers, and Gods as Beings Outside Their Influence, a meditation on divine portfolios.

I also posted a pair of reflections on the long tail of Five Geek Social Fallacies: Fifteen Minutes and Counting, and Reflecting on a log. I also posted an unrelated reflection on nerd culture, Sometimes the mainstream is shallow.

Finally, I posted two more installments of my Holistic Technology column: Whaddya Mean I Hate My Computer and Myths of the Modern Age.

Aesthetics of Play: Sports and Spectacles

I recently re-read Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling,” in which he draws a distinction between a sport, which is an event based on the “demonstration of excellence,” and a spectacle, which is a ritualized narrative embodying a struggle of moral values.  He identifies professional wrestling, in which the show is compelling despite its outcome never being in doubt, as a spectacle.  Its counterpart, boxing, is a contest of strength and skill, and thus its outcome cannot be predetermined without obviating the whole point of the match.

I think this distinction illuminates a dyad of aesthetics of play: an RPG can be either sport or spectacle (or neither), and which it is to be has profound effects at every level from rules design to actual play.

The sportsman aesthetic perceives the realm of play as a field for achievement.  Players pit their characters against challenges, test their skills, and win victories (or suffer defeats).  This may be an adversarial competition between the players and the GM, or even between players, but it need not be: RPG as sport can equally easily be a contest of each player against themself.  In every case, however, the point is to play well: to build an optimally designed character, to plan the best heist, to select the best tactics.

Now consider, by comparison, games in which the player characters are never really in jeopardy, and their ultimate victory is never in doubt.  These games confuse and disgust the sportsman; one might wonder why they even bother to roll dice if it doesn’t actually matter.

To the lover of spectacle, however, the point is the experience.  The players come together not to test their skill, but to participate in a ritual narrative.  You don’t worry about whether Robin Hood is actually going to get captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham; Wile E. Coyote is not going to catch the Road Runner by optimizing his ACME purchases.  In this mode, randomizers aren’t a factor to struggle against, but an infusion of the unexpected which permits the players to be simultaneously actor and audience.  They know, more or less, what will happen, but they don’t know how.  The essence of spectacle is the satisfaction of seeing events unfold as you knew they would, leavened with the joy of surprise at exactly how they did.

Adapted from an essay originally published on LiveJournal

May 2021 in Review

In May I uploaded nine new pieces.

Most were vignettes from different periods of my life, from wrangling squirrels in Redwood City to the travails of women in Silicon Valley 7-Elevens to handling children who plead the insanity defense.

I also wrote Remembering A Mysterious Prince Among Dogs, about our dog Finn, who passed away this month.

I resurrected some of my work from my college years in Connecticut: a piece from the Yale Record about a young man who would fit in well in certain Facebook groups these days, and an installment from my tech support column.

I posted a piece about technology transfer in fantasy worlds — I write a lot about dwarves, apparently — and the rules for Necromantic Checkers.

Over on Twitter, I started a thread of resources on nerd culture problems.