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Meet the Independent Artists Building the Metaverse

I walk slowly around the Hidden Heights mansion holding a glass of red wine. No one’s home, and it’s nighttime, like a party has just ended or is about to begin. Inside, the stairway railings and arms of modern metal chairs gleam in the light cast from dripping chandeliers overhead. White couches and wall-to-ceiling windows, stainless steel appliances, dark wood, a glass wall-length wine rack—it feels expensive in here. Outside, fronds of a palm tree stir over the shifting pool that overlooks the city skyline, all lit up in white lights. I pick up an inflatable donut and fling it across the pool. 

I can’t actually touch any of this, or smell the night air, or drink the wine I’m holding. It’s a custom-made world created by Elaine, a digital designer who makes places like Hidden Heights and commissioned spaces for people to use in virtual worlds like VRChat, Horizon Worlds, and Altspace. Her work can bring in thousands of dollars a month; for corporate clients who want to commission a space, she requires a $10,000 minimum. 

Elaine is one of thousands of makers creating assets—including environments like houses and bars, or physical attributes like full custom avatars or small parts of a whole appearance—within the metaverse. They’re creating entire economies within virtual worlds, where people play in real-time with friends and strangers. The demand for these virtual goods is booming. 

“Social VR can act as an extension to someone’s social life and it can feel very personal,” Elaine told me. “The avatar you use becomes something that represents you. It makes sense that people would want something they customized to be that representation of themselves. Same thing with environments. Just like you decorate your bedroom or home, I think for the people that are using social VR as an extension to their social life, they would want an environment that feels comfortable to them.” 

Like every other aspect of the metaverse, economies within virtual worlds aren’t a new phenomenon, and didn’t first spring up with VRChat, or even Second Life. In the 90s, games and social spaces implemented unique economies of their own, where players could earn in-world currency and exchange it for virtual goods and services. 

Launched in 1986 for Commodore 64 computers, LucasArts’ Habitat was one of the earliest massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, and one of the first to include its own economy in-game. It was a side-scrolling 2D platformer where one’s character traversed cities, beaches, and suburbs, interacting with other players in real time. Players had bank accounts which they accessed by visiting in-world ATMs. Buying, carrying, and using objects was an important part of the game, as was theft and murder, two events that would cause players to lose their hard-earned items. Text based multi-user domains, where people roleplayed as fantasy versions of themselves, had similarly walled-off economies within their own virtual worlds. The money made and spent in these games didn’t translate to real-world currency, however, and players couldn’t craft custom items.

With the next generation of MMORPGs, like Everquest (1999), EVE Online (2003), and World of Warcraft (2004), that changed. Game economies became more complex, and people found new ways to capitalize on them. Players sold weapons and trinkets they’d gathered in Everquest on eBay for real currency—until eBay banned these auctions in 2001 for infringing on the developers’ intellectual property rights. In EVE Online, the economy isn’t tied to IRL events, but is its own ecosystem and still issues monthly economic reports. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, an economist who embedded with EVE Online, told CBS in 2011 that “there are more people that believe in EVE Online credits than those that believe in the Icelandic Krono, my national currency.” It’s been at the center of gambling controversies and big bank fraud, and strictly bans selling anything from inside the game for real cash. World of Warcraft’s economy grapples with inflation and complex economic machinations.

The most notable of these early aughts economies, of course, is Second Life. Launched in 2003, Second Life was founded on the idea that people should be able to create and explore freely, in collaboration with others in real-time. The Second Life Marketplace, where residents can purchase everything from knee-high boots to stretch marks and cellulite, to real estate and decor for a virtual home. These are all crafted by other residents, many of whom make this their full-time job—Lindens, the in-world currency for Second Life, can be cashed out for dollars. Second Life paid out $86 million to creators in 2021, up from $60 million in 2014.  

Nylon Pinkney has been making items for Second Life since she first logged on around 18 years ago. “I knew you could sell virtual items for real money and that was very appealing,” she told me. “I took a look around and decided I could add in my own style. I was in my 20s and interested in recreating clothing and styles that were trendy at the time.” 

She was coming from other virtual worlds like The Palace, a mid-90s graphical chat room (which popularized those customizable Dollz avatars that were all over the internet as glittery GIFs in the 90s) and There, a virtual world where users could make and buy worldbuilding elements using in-game currency purchased with USD. 

In Second Life, Pinkney specializes in making avatar wearables—fishnet and lace bodysuits, glittery mermaid minidresses, elaborately detailed hairstyles—that often feature hand-painted textures. She said she makes enough from these sales to “get by,” and that the income from it varies month to month, as with any freelance work. It takes her three or four days to create a piece, plus the time it takes to get it ready to sell. “After you make something, you also have to prepare it for sales, making a display and ads. It isn’t much different than selling in the real world,” she said.

Pinkney is one of many Second Life creators who transferred existing skills to the platform and found success. “Highly active Second Life users often find a niche that makes use of talents they already have as a way of generating supplemental income, or even turn it into a full time job,” Wagner James Au, author of The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World, told me. “For instance, there’s quite a few people who are professional wedding planners and DJs in Second Life, and they’re already using those skills in real life on some level.” Second Life introduced “mesh” graphics in 2010, making it even easier for people already familiar with 3D modeling tools like Blender to adapt their skills to making things for Lindens. 

For a lot of people who immerse themselves in virtual worlds, a big part of the appeal of living and playing there is the ability to customize their appearance. For those with a virtual reality headset, the custom experience is even more important. An entire cottage industry for custom avatars has sprung up in VRChat, one of the most popular virtual social worlds, and people sell commissions and individual items for avatars on sites like Etsy and Fiverr. 

“Embodying a character in virtual reality is more immersive than playing a character on a flat screen so it makes sense to me that people want a custom experience,” Andre, who creates avatars and accessories for VRChat and sells them on Etsy, told me. “When you move your body, so does the avatar. People will set up mirrors in VR just to see themselves move or interact with other players. I can totally understand why a person would commission an avatar that really expresses some part of themselves or lets them play out a fantasy.” And it’s not just fantasy, either; one of Andre’s most popular requests, he said, is for accessories that people have in real life that they want to wear in VR. “People especially like to have some sort of hat or item they own in the real world turned into a digital item for their avatar,” he said.

a screenshot from Andre's Etsy shop

Custom, commissioned avatars can also be a status symbol in the metaverse, Andre said. Being unique and recognizable—outside of the pre-selectable hot dog suits, giant cactuses, and anime characters that are available when you first log in—is a way to stand out among as many as 75,000 active users on a given night. 

This capacity for self-expression might be one of the major reasons VRChat and platforms like it are more popular than Meta’s Horizon Worlds which only gives players a preset selection of appearance customizations. “The ability to customize avatars and worlds is one of the biggest draws for people in any metaverse-like setting which is why I think something like the Facebook Metaverse is dead in the water for VR gaming enthusiasts,” Andre said. “It’s too corporate and sterile to have any lasting appeal to the average player.”

The customization can get a lot more granular than hats, however. A creator who goes by RuzzaWolf, who started taking commissions in 2021 through Etsy, told me that they primarily sell retexturing of existing avatars. Clients send them images of their existing character or avatar, and they create a new texture to overlay on the avatar, to make it look more realistic, or add fur. “The only reason I started to take commissions for others is because they liked my texture work and wanted something of their own,” they said. “So I started to offer it as a commission but also tried to keep it affordable so everyone has a chance to get one.” The income they earn from these commissions isn’t much, they said, as it’s more of a hobby than a job.

screenshot from RuzzaWolf's Etsy shop

And, like Elaine, many people focus their commission work on environments for these avatars to roam around in. After joining VRChat in 2017 and noticing how many people make and upload their own content, from avatars to worlds, a creator who goes by LegendsVR said that he taught himself how to use Blender, Unity, and 3D modeling techniques and principles with the help of the community on the platform and grew into a professional 3D environment artist. In 2020, he had to leave his job as a “grunt factory worker,” he said; being able to turn to work in the metaverse paid his bills, and he now works full-time on commissions. His most requested kind of space from clients is the “comfy space,” or home worlds, where people can just hang out and socialize.

 “When people commission me, it is usually very large hangout spaces. The spaces usually have interiors and exteriors, interactives, and even theme changes like, Halloween, Christmas, or weather modes,” LegendsVR said. “People also love to throw parties or get-togethers on the weekend and often need big beautiful spaces to hold them.” A lot of commission requests also come from people seeking to throw big events in VRChat, and need interesting, interactive spaces to host them. These are popular with Vtubers—people who stream as avatars—and Twitch streamers, he said. 

“I’m still learning many things to this day, and see no moment of slowing down anytime soon,” LegendsVR told me. The momentum of demand for custom created player content is only going up, and exists in most platforms that allow this level of personalization. In 2020, for example, Roblox announced in its SEC filing that creators earned $209 million, nearly tripling payouts from the year before. 

“I always dreamt of making environments or games when I got older, but I would have never expected downloading VRChat in 2017 to be the outlet of creativity I needed, and I would have not expected VRChat to be the route that would lead me to this path,” LegendsVR said. “It was a hobby at first but is now a profession that has led to amazing lifelong friendships, and a career, all of which have changed my life in amazing ways.” 

Supported by Omidyar Network. VICE World News retains complete editorial autonomy.

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