For as long as social spaces have existed on virtual platforms, there have been designers who understood that every map shouldn't be a simple platform in the sky, or a box with a mirror attached. Instead, virtual worlds have grown by usage type: worlds to test avatars in, worlds for optimization (where the "box world" becomes useful), and, more interestingly, worlds for simulated luxury.
Virtual reality is particularly helpful, in that a user can experience spaces featuring high-end design while not spending a single cent to actually enter the space itself.
There are a lot of implications for that sentence. As a positive, it breaks down the myth that luxury is reserved for the uber wealthy. It democratizes design and taste so that anyone can develop a preference and critical eye, even for hotels in physical reality which advertise themselves as high-end experiences.
But as a negative, virtual luxury can also be used to placate the poor and disenfranchised. Is your apartment awful in real life? Slap on a headset. Now, you're sitting somewhere else. This doesn't guarantee a better state of living for the impoverished tenant; rather, VR could be weaponized in the future to distract the tenant, putting a piece of pithy tape over the massive problem of an out-of-control housing market and abusive landlord practices.
This doesn't mean virtual architecture shouldn't exist. It very much should. New ways of considering how spaces should be designed can be tested in virtual reality first. Designers who never dreamed of entering the world of architecture, can try their hand at assembling dream structures. That designer can be commissioned for new jobs, elevating their lives in ways they hadn't dreamt of before. For platforms which advertise themselves as being free to play, getting started on the path of virtual design is really a question of having a PC and the will to learn.
The world is slowly changing as new technology arises. Understanding virtual design is not only necessary for ensuring a better future, but making sure it remains a force of good as well.
Much as in physical reality, virtual architecture has gone through its own movements. Around 2018, the most successful maps were large, with high ceilings and a predominantly warm orange glow. That's changed as new designers have entered into VR to put their own vision to the test. One team of artists, ~Sam and Camille, have focused on maps with lower overhead, smaller scale, and cozier spaces with rounded corners as a focus on softness and comfort. There's also a professional edge to their design; any of their worlds could be marketed with a major company. Instead, ~Sam and Camille run a Patreon for users to donate to.
Their latest project, Y2K Dreamhouse, is a slickly produced map in theme with the latest Barbie movie release. It calls to mind earlier aesthetics with an ultra-femme edge, advertising avatars that are a collaboration with avatar creator Zinpia.
How long have you been creating worlds in VRChat?
Camille: I started playing VRChat around April 2022, and very quickly was interested in creating worlds.
~Sam: I've been creating worlds in VRChat for just over 3 years.
Your Soft map series is so popular, it actually resulted in a tribute map in an entirely different platform (Rec Room). What do you attribute to your worlds resonating with users?
S: I'm not the best at knowing what I do good at in terms of what I create, but people have said that my lighting and attention to detail are always contributing factors to why people enjoy the worlds.
C: I think Sam has always struck a particular market within VRChat with his worlds, with the darker lighting and realistic cozy spaces. They're just like comfortable, true to life atmospheres that people like to go relax in after a long day. With the Soft series, we truthfully didn't plan for it as a popular project. We just wanted to collaborate on something, and would have been just as satisfied with 100 visitors to Soft Space. I think part of what has contributed to it blowing up, especially into the top 10 which is a pretty established mapset, is that they're in these very feminine soft colors and feminine forms/ curving shape language that is just appealing to people. I designed these worlds as spaces that I would want to hang out in, places I'd want to just chill and sit in and be comfortable.
The Soft series is also smaller in scale, yet is still public instance friendly. What elements did you purposefully include to make that happen?
C: So right now, we have technically 4 Soft worlds in the series, Soft Space, Soft Sea, Soft Solace, and Soft Sea of Stars. You can see all of them here. For our smallest world, Soft Solace, we built it intentionally smaller with the understanding that we'd like to later sell the Unity package to users. Similar to the appeal of being in comfortable realistic spaces, we wanted some fantasy realism but that was small and intimate enough that someone might be interested in purchasing it and uploading it to their own account. It's a great way to show photos of friends, customizations, etc. Currently we're selling Soft Space and Soft Solace on Gumroad and Booth, under Sam's name, "SamVRC".
S: Camille likes to design spaces, so there is plenty of space to relax, but also for the public instances you can get a general ambient sound of the other players using the space.
More maps in VRChat are becoming smaller and more intimate, even ones designated for public gatherings. What do you think the change is due to?
S: I think worlds are getting smaller because smaller spaces tend to be more comfortable and don't require players to move around as much, with also the previous point of being able to have that ambience of other people having their own conversations.
C: I think for myself as a user, I have to be in the right mood to go to mini game worlds and play games, or to go to a Black Cat / Midnight Rooftop to have potential interactions with a lot of different players. Usually I log in because I just want to be around people and be comfortable, head empty. I think...when I'm in a soft restful space, if the vibe is calm, I'm happier to meet people in that environment. It's interesting, I think that part is because people want to chill and the other part is people seeing success of other smaller comfy worlds and wanting to create similar successes. I'm here for it!
Where do you think VR architecture might go from here? What are some trends you're interested in seeing?
S: I think the worlds over the years in VRChat have gotten so much better, I personally love the sci-fi/cyberpunk style and would love to see more of those styles become more popular like with ArtsyGlitch's Cyberlove Suites.
C: Oh man so impossible to know. For us, we want to focus more on spaces that are cyberpunk style, but still an environment that you'd want to hang out in. We bring some of that futuristic flavor into Soft Series, but we'd like to take a hard turn on what it means to be dystopian cyberpunk but also...cyber comfy cozy soft, haha. I'd love to see more like that, Artsy Glitch achieves this really well in the look and feel of CyberSuites. I'd also love to see more world creators cross-collaborating for the sake of making cool shit together. It's really easy to get isolated making your own work in a bubble, but there are so many talented passionate creators in this space I'm looking forward to working with more folks in the (near) future.