This past spring, the experimental pop duo 100 Gecs was slated to embark on a splashy tour: They would start in New Orleans, then hit Coachella on the way to playing 37 cities in 13 countries. Among the fans who bought tickets for an April show in Brooklyn was Zach Rice, a TV writer who instead watched as the pandemic forced live events to take a gap year. Like so many people in hard-hit U.S. cities, Rice was locked down, listening mainly to ambulance sirens as his quarantine soundtrack.
But then 100 Gecs also pivoted. On April 28, the duo, at home like everyone else, headlined a lineup of mostly electronic dance music acts on a virtual stage inside the massive multiplayer video game Minecraft —a Lego-esque world where you can appear as a blocky little avatar and explore, build stuff out of your surroundings, or just hang out. Rice rounded up friends in Los Angeles and Chicago while he logged in from Brooklyn, and together they did one of those only-in-2020 things that may wind up previewing the near future: They dropped themselves into a video game to meet up at a music festival.
Rice and his friends appeared inside the game in a tight, lantern-lit hallway that opened onto a dance pit beneath an enormous crescent moon and a starry night sky. He wandered around, scoping out little shops set up in trees, ambling through woods, checking out light shows. Toggling between his character’s point of view and the camera frame of the concert itself gave him the sensation of watching a documentary being made in real time. All the while, avatars for the band (a blocky version of Dylan Brady decked out in colorful checkers; a blocky version of Laura Les brandishing a green broadsword) and the audience bounced on stage, clapped, threw their clothes, and fist-bumped to the music.
Rice isn’t a regular Minecraft player, and at 27, he’s outside the game’s usual demographic. Sixty-three percent of Minecraft players are under age 21, and a significant share of those take up the game as children. Still, it proved the perfect hangout for Rice and his Millennial crew. After two hours of noodling around to the beats of 100 Gecs bangers like “Last Train to Awesometown” and “What’s That Smell?” with other dancing, bouncing, tricked-out rectangular folks, Rice was sold on the vibe. “It felt like the best parts of going to a concert without the worst parts of going to a concert — being sweaty, being outside, being afraid you’re going to lose your keys,” he says. “I know it’s lame to compare things to Harry Potter, but it felt what I imagine Harry felt when he was at the Wizarding World Cup. He’s seeing these oddities, people speaking a million different languages. We would see groups of Romanian Minecraft players. Like, whoa, how did we all get here?”
“Sandbox” video games — a genre of multifaceted, interactive gaming experiences that allow players to compete or work together online, move at their own pace, experiment with world elements, and either accomplish a mission or nah — have become de-facto concert-ready spaces in the COVID-19 era.
“It felt like the best parts of going to a concert without the worst parts — being sweaty, being outside, being afraid you’re going to lose your keys.”Zach Rice
Though not specifically built as music venues, these gaming worlds have in the past few months emerged as perhaps the only online platforms with sufficient scale and features to approximate the live music experience for would-be concertgoers. You probably already have your online hangouts, but unless you’re a gamer it’s probably not a 3-D environment built for exploration and play. Eventually, once people have widely adopted VR, we may all be as splintered across the coming immersive “metaverse” as we are on various social media platforms. But for now, sandbox gaming platforms are the most robust online engines to host giant events.
One reason is their sheer adaptability. Take Fortnite. Its standard mode drops you, hang-gliding, onto an ever-shrinking island where you and 99 other players pick one another off in a cartoonish but intense battle royale, punctuated by silly dances.
Sandbox games have been around for nearly as long as the internet itself. Early iterations included Second Life, which was a minor craze in the mid-aughts, and the Sims franchise, which launched its first game in 2000. But as the technology has improved, with faster internet allowing for more complicated gameplay and real-time user interaction, the popularity of the genre — including hits like The Sims 4 and Grand Theft Auto V — has grown exponentially. There are more than 350 million registered Fortnite players and 126 million monthly unique Minecraft players, and the games have become venues where people go expecting to bump into friends, even if they have to dodge sniper fire as they do.
While everyone’s there, why not throw on a few tunes? Fortnite’s first in-game concert took place in 2019, when the DJ, dubbed Marshmello (guess what his helmet looks like) held a live, full-blown rave. A novelty then, the format found new vitality amid the pandemic. In April, Fortnite held an event called “Astronomical” in which Texas-born hip-hop artist Travis Scott performed a psychedelic half-hour trap set as a Godzilla-sized version of himself, landing in the game from the sky with force enough to blast players back through the shockwave. As the players’ guns disappeared (replaced with flaming mic stands), the giant virtual Scott launched into “Sicko Mode,” his 2018 No. 1 smash.
During his short set list, Scott led fans careening around a trippy deep-ocean world and into outer space amid laser-lit constellations. A Los Angeles Times critic called it “hedonism at its most disorienting.” The performance drew some 12.3 million players, the largest concurrent gathering in Fortnite’s three-year history. The event was free to attend, with optional in-game purchases and Astronomical merchandise (T-shirts, hoodies, action figures, a Nerf blaster) that point to an economic model resembling that of tentpole concert tours. And a collaboration with Kid Cudi (real name: Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi) that Scott released inside the event, a track called “The Scotts,” subsequently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Since then, a nascent industry has cropped up around such events, with other platforms vying to be your home concert venue. An outfit called Wave is custom-building virtual concerts, complete with bonkers light shows, and has hosted performances by John Legend, the Weeknd, and Tinashe.
Can events like this survive the eventual return to post-pandemic normality? The success of events like the Travis Scott show suggests that some version of in-game music festivals is ready for prime time — especially when they take you to low orbit and then drop you back to Earth while blasting a spanking-new chart-topper. Whether they become a first choice for would-be concert-goers when we can all leave the house, however, remains an open question.
“I don’t think in-game concerts replace the live shows,” says Chris Foster, a lecturer at Northeastern University and a game developer at Fire Hose Games in Boston, whose credits include The Beatles: Rock Band and the massive Lord of the Rings multiplayer game. “They feel more like if a band goes on The Tonight Show. They become supplemental. But there’s a lot of downsides to a live show: prices, parking in the city, that person standing up in front of you when you really wish they would sit down. People are willing to project themselves into the screen.”
In-game concerts have downsides, too. Beyond video games, even the most sophisticated concert platforms lack a built-in audience ready to pay concert prices for an online event. “It’s probably still the gamers or those who have played a lot of games who are going to gravitate to these kinds of mediated experiences,” Foster says.
Another limit on virtual festivals is almost physical in nature: capacity. Just as you can cram only so many people into Chicago’s Grant Park for Lollapalooza or into downtown Austin for South by Southwest, server infrastructures overload when too many people are in the same virtual “place” at the same time. (Even Fortnite’s battle royales have a 100-person cap). What seems like one huge event is really thousands of cloned events happening at once.
What’s more, simply securing the rights to play music inside a game is a complex undertaking. Many fans stream the music in a separate feed, which subjects game-hosted virtual festivals to logistical and technical pitfalls that can parallel those faced by their in-person counterparts. This summer, a would-be festival inside Minecraft, called “Rave Family Block Fest,” charged $15 a ticket for a lineup of 950 artists across 85 stages. Fans endured an opening day rife with technical snags — in simply accessing the game or in playing the music via a separate streaming platform. Organizers were forced to cancel and offer refunds, drawing instant comparisons to the real-life fiasco that was 2017’s Fyre Festival.
For now, most in-game events will be the smaller sort. The massively popular game Roblox has debuted musical events featuring a single artist, delivered straightforwardly, to introduce live music into its universe gradually. Fortnite closed out the summer with a series of live concerts called “Spotlight,” played from a studio in Los Angeles. Those shows lacked some of the scale or effects of Astronomical, but they could become a routine stops for touring artists: Fortnite just announced that Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin will headline an in-game event called Fortnitemares at 9pm Eastern on Halloween (get directions on how to join here).
Such shows could pull in the sort of fans who, like Rice, didn’t plan to visit a gamescape until it threw a concert.
“This is like a night out,” Rice says. “I get to do it for free, I’m having fun with my friends, and it beats playing Quiplash again. It at least felt like an approximation of real life. Which, at that time, was nice.”