Raindance Immersive Judges For New Category: Best Immersive World

Seven of the best virtual worlds available to explore in VRChat.

(Originally posted on VRScout on November 15, 2020)

London’s Raindance Immersive Festival takes place from October 28 to November 22, enabling virtual explorers to discover a world class selection of new indie games, fantasy worlds and multiplayer experiences from home. This year Raindance Immersive curator Mária Rakušanová has taken on the impossible task of curating for ‘Best Immersive World’, a new category added to this year’s festival awards.

Having attended the festival in London in 2019, I was incredibly interested to see what it may bring this year, as a landmark festival on the immersive yearly calendar, and Rakušanová’s second year as curator. 

Early on in 2020, she made the decision that Raindance Immersive would continue to single out the most cutting edge artists of this medium to share their work with industry and VR enthusiasts—an event not about mainstream appeal or accessibility, but about future creativity and innovation; a PC VR focused experience. 

To better understand the nuances of existing virtual worlds, Rakušanová spent months exploring hundreds of virtual locations in VRChat, selecting seven to feature at Raindance Immersive:

The three judges of “Best Immersive World” posing together, having completed The Devouring after 5 hours and 86 deaths.

How to Make the Best Immersive World  

Before meeting Rakušanová in-world, I caught up with ‘Best Immersive World’ judge Michael Salmon, founder of KRAKED and Associated Industries and a worldbuilder himself, to get a better understanding of their criteria for selecting the best virtual environments from an ever-growing galaxy of world hubs.  

“It’s about having a sense of immersion, it’s about having a world that invites me to want to explore and discover, but the key thing is that it must be a place where I want to spend time with other people,” says Salmon. 

When looking at the selections for ‘Best Immersive World’ you’ll find a wide variety of interactive experiences, from game-like “multiplayer experiences” (Lost Worlds – Pandora NightSHELTER IN PLACE) to story-driven quests (EdenTerminus). Some allow you to stroll a surreal beach (Maranga) while others have you rediscovering the beauty of nature (Skin of Earth). 

“If it makes sense, and it’s cohesive, and you can make sense of what the world is, like Shelter in Place, it can be as simple as a beautiful place to talk. Skin of Earth is more like a walking simulator, it’s a beautiful expansive world, and other than walking, there’s not much to do. The point around it is about sensing awe and wonder, and giving you a sense of place,” he says. 

It’s right to classify a world other than by the way we know our own physical reality, as VR worlds can be nearly limitless in creative possibility. I expect to see the series of worlds chosen in the years to come to be even more varying in content and experience as world builder tools and our concepts of how to create for this new medium evolve. 

“There’s such rampant creation on these platforms and it’s driving new concepts, new ideas of how to interact in these worlds. People take on these characters and they role play. That’s a big part of these platforms. You are playing, getting in and participating,” says Salmon. 

With fellow judges (no women judges in this category, but Rakušanová confirms that overall there’s a 50/50 split of ladies and gentlemen as festival judges), Salmon dives into one of the immersive worlds, The Devouring, living the experience, using army commands as the three friends approach walls on high alert for danger, with one person peeking around the corner, surveying for ghosts, then giving the all clear as the tension eases. 

Arriving at the Embassy 

Equipped with this knowledge of the criteria for ‘Best Immersive World’, I jumped into VRChat to meet Rakušanová at the Embassy, the central hub with portals to all of Raindance Immersive’s content. Immaculately dressed in a ballgown fit for the red carpet, Rakušanová  immediately began to receive both virtual and real world calls and requests to join as her avatar appeared online. 

Having become deeply involved and recognized in the VRChat community, the Embassy, initially empty, blossomed with her presence. Rakušanová expertly created a new instance (a separate mirror virtual Embassy) where we could privately explore and discuss. 

Jumping through the portal to our version of the Embassy, we arrived on the streets of London, seeing classical landmarks such as the London Shard, a red telephone booth, and Banksy art that made the city instantly recognizable. At a time when the city is under lockdown, Rakušanová’s hard work and dedication is a reminder that London is equipped to throw fantastic Red Carpet events, this time, for limitless attendees from around the world. 

I couldn’t wait to ask questions, but Rakušanová was so excited to show off the Embassy, it was like trying to follow the rabbit in Alice and Wonderland. At moments, it was nearly impossible to keep up with her as she lept from one place to the next in her ballgown, proudly showing off sculptures, robots, architecture, and art. 

We passed through the main corridor with posters of all the worlds, games and experiences, before rushing by built-in portals leading to each of the immersive worlds. It was then I discovered the main ballroom at the back, with an immaculate bar, robot waiter—and just under the winding staircase, the entrance to a speakeasy, designed with careful attention to every detail from color, to material and feel. 

On the Cutting Edge 

Following conversation on a Whatsapp group for Raindance Immersive attendees and friends, it was criticized that Rakušanová and her team decided to make this an enthusiast and industry only PC VR festival, but when explained, followers understood Rakušanová’s vision—the desire to bring the highest quality and cutting edge worlds and works to the public, with no compromise to reduce the quality of content for accessibility. As we saw with the Jean Michelle Jarre concert this year, also in VRChat, compromise can often wreak havoc. 

Having covered CannesXR, the Venice Film FestivalNewImages Festival and now Raindance Immersive, I have observed a variety of decisions and efforts to balance accessibility with quality. It makes sense to go with the strengths of each platform, choosing a focus and sticking with it, working within its limitations, and getting high quality content to a specific audience. As Rakušanová made an early decision to use only VRChat as a platform and central access point for Raindance Immersive, there was a certain ease and flow to the Embassy and portals after initially experiencing technical and audio issues. To Rakušanová’s credit, this is far from a perfect medium and what she has accomplished with limited time and resources is impressive. 

The tour instantly showcased Rakušanová’s deep understanding of the VR community and the medium. As a gamer, she applied an intuitive sense of game design to the festival, creating an experience that in many ways, is better than its 2019 IRL counterpart, where I spent lots of time commuting on London’s tubes, tracking down venues, showing credentials, and easing through lineups for on average 4-minutes of uninterrupted time in a VR headset. 

Not to mention, in an industry that is so male dominated, this was really a landmark interview to showcase a fantastic world with Rakušanová’s touch on the design, architecture and aesthetics.

To learn more about each of the individual immersive worlds curated, listen to Kent Bye’s Voices of VR” podcast episode #956 where he and Maria talk through some of the curated experiences in depth. 

Predictions 

Grasping the expanse of Raindance Immersive beyond the Embassy to the worlds, games, quests, and community, we get just a hint at the scale of development that is taking place in the metaverse. This month VRChat made headlines as the platform topped 24,000 concurrent VR users, a considerable feat considering the slower-than-predicted consumer adoption rate of VR headsets. 

Speaking with Salmon about what to expect in the years to come, we discuss how barriers to creation will continue to lower thanks to coding-free developer solutions, how processing power and cloud computing will improve graphics quality, and how virtual worlds will continue to become more accessible through mobile phones.

Following the crowds, next will come the commercialization of these spaces. Already we are seeing VC and celebrity backings of numerous virtual worlds, with multiple brand sponsorships and businesses already flying their flags throughout the metaverse. 

What festivals like Raindance Immersive are doing is preserving the original intent of these worlds; the indie developers who are pushing the medium and creating it for the sake of art, offering an uncommercialized place for us to gather, discover, talk, and play. 

“There’s this participatory democratization culture that’s happening on these platforms, and it’s enabling everyone to build and create. It’s creativity for creativity’s sake as there’s no monetization. It’s a chance to see it in its purest form, before it gets commercialized, packaged, and potentially sterilized. It’s the best time to be a virtual world hopper,” said Salmon. 

Finally, I expect to see further collaborations between festivals and platforms. Pre-COVID it made sense to have multiple festivals around the world with very similar selections. With the rise meteoric rise in remote video conferencing, however, people can now connect face-to-face with anyone, anywhere, at anytime. What would it be like to have a persistent and evolving space where each festival took over for a month with their own unique curation? It would save time, resources, and generate further visibility for artists and their art. Potentially, it could bring together brands, communities, technologists, platforms, and worldbuilders to advance our virtual civilizations with unprecedented collaboration.

Header Image Credit: Raindance Immersive

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