Big Names in Big Games: What’s the End Game?

The past few weeks have seen an influx of announcements pointing to the future of music and gaming partnerships. This last weekend alone Wave announced a new show with Justin Bieber, the other week Decentraland held a three day “metaverse” festival and EDC was featured in Roblox. In late September, after a relatively sparse music schedule, Fortnite creator Epic Games announced a new in-game music events slate known as the Soundwave Series. So far they’ve announced the first six international artists to showcase who will bring the attention of their large followings to Fortnite.

Given that these in-game music events are just the beginning of the hype and growth indicated at the intersection of music and gaming during the restrictive conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the music industry might ask what these new announcements really mean for the long term of the format, who is benefiting from the results, and how to measure success in this new era of in-game music experiences.  

In this article, we’ll look at some of the major in-game Fortnite concerts of the last year and a half to learn what this all means for gaming companies and platforms like Epic and Roblox, the music industry, how to measure success in this new context, and a brief outline of where we are on the timeline of making in-game music experiences accessible to all. 

We’ll start with a breakdown of Grande’s recent Rift Tour to get a better understanding of what these events are like, and how they are received from the perspective of gamers and Grande fans. 

Grande’s Rift Tour: An Interactive Music Video

Here’s the full 10 minute video. If you were there or have already seen replays of the event, skip to the next section for data and insights:

Close to event start time, my avatar entered into a sort of holding place with other players. We could fly, jump, transform ourselves into a fire hydrant, telescope, tires and a few other random objects before returning back to avatar form- some amusement for frequent gamers, and also non-gaming Grande fans who might be experiencing something like this for the first time. 

Quickly checking YouTube and Twitch, it was apparent that many streamers were concerned about the interruption of their game (every Fortnite player was dropped into Grande’s event during the tour times as the rest of Fortnite shutdown), but also, there was some excitement about what was about to happen. 

As the clock counted down, the lighting began to dim, reminiscent of a theatre performance, or the moody blue and calm before a storm.Then, a massive lightning portal appeared. I flew towards it, holding on tight to my digital umbrella, catching the digital thermals that drew me closer to the shimmering rectangle. Suddenly I turned, an attempt to test the limitations of the experience, trying to fly in the opposite direction, but to no avail. The experience was “on rails” (predetermined, or controlled). 

Through the gateway the screen went blinding white. I reappeared in a wormhole flying through time itself, passing capsules of previous moments in Fortnite history, and towards a giant Grande unfurling from fetal position, beckoning my avatar into an energy ball glowing in the palm of her hand. As a little treat for Grande fans, gamers and/or Fortnite fans too, there were a few special surprises that were revealed. Epic placed easter eggs throughout the experience. Stans were rewarded for their fandom with hints, clues and references to Grande’s life and career that only they would understand. Fortnite fans discovered references to former events like the Marshmello concert, and also clues of what might come next like former characters who may return to the game. 

Now, another blinding white blast transitioned the scene, this time with a few other players, or maybe NPCs (non-player characters aka “bots” to simulate a social experience). We were dropped into a bubblegum themed infinity slope where I surfed through digital waves, picking up points along the way.

BOOM, I smashed into a purple gooey waterfall and the screen blanked again before dripping purple slime to reveal another mini world that rippled as my feet hit the ground between flips, jumps, and spins.

After a few moments, my avatar drifted up towards the sky and into blackness. Suddenly an aircraft was whipping by and my avatar automatically swung onboard. On the plane, a few other players (or NPCs) and I were equipped with guns to blast away at a threatening monster, earning points, with a high score revealed at the end. It was quite random, but seemed to soothe the Fortnite streamers on YouTube and Twitch as they returned to their natural mode of FPS (first person shooter). 

In a final fit of rage the monster cut into our plane with laser beam eyes. We were doomed. It spun all its force into a tornado that pulled our burning plane down into the eye of the storm.

The next scene placed my avatar on its knees, a fallen warrior, unable to move until another player (or NPC) took my hand and pulled me to my feet. At this moment, I was prompted to reach out to another player (or NPC) and help them up too.

As more characters emerged from the darkness, the camera panned upwards to reveal a twinkling night sky and a big shooting star. We followed the star’s movement down to a giant orb where it transformed into Grande for a dazzling sequence that transitioned us next to a bubble gum pink sky with giant fluffy clouds. 

With a few other avatars, each enclosed in a bubble, we followed Grande to a mind-bending stairway. The seven of us avatars (that I counted) ran up the stairs, trying to keep pace with Grande, waiting for portals to unlock, or stairways to align so that we could meet her at the top. Grande threw her hammer into the sky Thor style, cracking the shell of the sky (sky’s have shells- why not!!) and sending us into a glacial world with beautiful Northern lights. Just minutes later, Grande lifts her hammer for a final time, breaking the ground and shooting us into the sky.

About 10 minutes after the concert started, the lightning gateway reappeared. My avatar was sucked through into the final world, Fortnite’s battle-royale island. On a piñata-like unicorn, I collected points by drifting through rainbow circles. I did this until no more rainbows could be found. Sadly, my points bar wasn’t complete so I desperately searched for more rainbows, but eventually gave up as I was all alone and couldn’t find out what was going on. Later research showed that this re-emergence into the battle-royale map indicated the end of the concert, but without a clear sense of a conclusion, my piñata steed and I were left floating aimlessly in the abyss. 

What’s in it for Epic: The End Game for Games 

Why would Epic want to experiment with music performances in one of the most successful games of all time? Documents from the Apple v. Epic case reveal that the revenue Epic earns from Fortnite is the game giant’s biggest earner. Fortnite alone brought in $9 billion for Epic in 2018 and 2019, where Epic’s game engine Unreal Engine brought in just $221 million over the same period, and the Epic Game store which launched at the end of 2018 brought in a total of $235 million between 2018 and 2019, reported Mitchell Clark in The Verge. At risk of “breaking Fortnite”, what is the end-game for Epic in the pursuit of working with big artists? To answer this question, we look at data that can be tracked in Fortnite, external data, and the opportunity for Epic to tap into pop culture. In Grande’s Rift Tour, we have context for some of these answers. 

First, Ariana is known for her obsessive fan base, or “Arianators,” consisting mostly of girls between the age of eight and 18 years old. In contrast, Fornite’s player base is slightly older, with 60% of players in the 18–24 age bracket, and the remaining mostly between the ages of 25–34, according to third-party market research. Of Fortnite’s 350 million registered users and 80 million monthly active users, only 27.6% are female.

This data presents a clear prospect of attracting a new fan base to Fortnite (namely younger female audiences). While there is a risk of creating content that doesn’t feel authentic to Fortnite’s audience, the company balances this with its need to open the floodgates to a new demographic of players to keep the game’s persistent revenue stream alive and growing. In addition to the hype of media coverage leading up to the event, the surge in Ariana Grande mentions in gamer and fan online discussions was only the beginning of the awareness the event created for the battle royale game Fortnite. It’s an indicator that there’s a massive opportunity for Epic to collaborate with a superstar like Ariana Grande to attract new audiences to their game. 

Next, we look at Grande’s social media following. What type of exposure would Epic earn from partnering with Grande to access her audience? Grande has over 259M followers on Instagram, 84M on Twitter and more across other social media platforms. This is far more than Fortnite itself with 25.9M followers on Instagram and 13.2M on Twitter, but throughout the Rift Tour, only a few posts were made across Grande’s social media accounts. Was the cost of creating and marketing Grande’s Rift Tour worthwhile for Epic in terms of customer acquisition cost and new audience retention? 

What we don’t know is how many new Fortnite accounts were created during the Rift Tour compared to average, how spending habits and user behaviors changed during that time, retention rates, dwell time, and marketing spend, among other stats. Neither Epic nor Grande’s team released detailed information, and according to Billboard, Epic Games declined to state how many viewers tuned in over the weekend, but these are the questions we should be asking ourselves to measure success of the music experience for the gaming platform. 

Another factor that makes it challenging to measure legitimate interest and success is that Fortnite as-we-know-it was effectively shut down during the Rift Tour. All players online during the Rift Tour times were automatically transferred into Grande’s event. I checked out a few livestreams, seeing a good number of comments along the lines of this is a “massive interruption to the game” and “rage quit” to “my computer crashed” to more positive feedback about the Rift Tour being “very cool” and “exciting”. There were also lots of comments about Travis Scott’s appearance being preferred— likely the result of it being more in-line with the game’s existing demographic preferences and perhaps also novelty at the time. As data tools become more sophisticated, tracking these types of responses on chats across streaming platforms will provide additional valuable insights into previously untapped audiences for artists. 

In terms of costs, Epic declined to reveal how compensation has been handled for Grande, but there are some stats from previous events that offer insights into deal structure. Travis Scott reportedly earned $20million from his ‘Fortnite’ event, including merch sales (NME). To put this in context, Scott’s four-month-long, 56-stop Astroworld tour from 2018 to 2019 garnered approximately $53.5million, or roughly just under $1million per show (NME). That makes it clear that there’s an obvious benefit for the artist involved in terms of new revenue streams, but is the end-game as clear for Epic?

GamesRadar journalist Alyssa Mercante wrote “Ariana Grande got me into Fortnite and now I can’t get out.” As a Grande fan, she felt compelled to download the game and spend $20 on Grande’s cosmetics bundle. Mercante added that the “Ariana Grande Fortnite concert wasn’t the fanfest I expected” but now she’s played Fortnite non-stop since the first night of the Rift Tour. As an avid gamer, Mercante represents an obvious audience for this type of content, but this doesn’t mean that non-gamers would feel the same desire to log in, purchase digital goods, and convert to first-person shooter battle royale stans. Here we might ask what is the actual appeal of the in-game event to non-gamers? Who is Epic’s target audience and what is their strategy to appeal to the new audience while retaining their current audience? What value do audiences get from Grande’s concert that they couldn’t otherwise get from streaming it on a platform like Twitch or YouTube? When it comes to any medium, we must ask why it’s the best medium for what is trying to be achieved. In my opinion we haven’t yet figured out how to bring the magic of live music experiences into games, but every event- like Grande’s Rift Tour-  provides valuable information to stakeholders and audiences. Similar to the likes of Facebook and Google, data and practical experience here is key to success which makes Epic a likely candidate, but there’s also so much market value to capture that there will be many players who succeed in this space on the games side of things, and artists too. 

In summary, data points to the end-game of in-game concerts for Epic being audience acquisition to keep their cultural phenomenon of Fornite alive. It’s their billion dollar baby, with huge potential for growth with the influx of new audiences and largely untapped demographics like those of Grande’s fans. Additionally, the company has the tools and resources to experiment with the rituals and economics of in-game concerts, demonstrating scale (but perhaps not scalability just yet), demand, and product market fit that is valuable to Epic’s goals as a business looking to tap into and lead the in-game concert revolution. The recent announcement of the Soundwave Series in Fortnite is a great clue that Epic is moving as fast as they can to capitalize on the market opportunity of in-game concerts, collaborating with the music industry to work with artists that bring new demographics to their game. When approaching gaming companies about bringing your artist into their game, audience reach and demographic suitability will likely be a driving force in the decision making process.

In Game Concerts: The End Game for Artists 

We’ve already covered a few of the benefits for artists to perform in games, like new revenue streams from digital merchandise, booking fees, audience acquisition, and marketing perks like community awareness and media coverage, but how do we measure success for artists in the context of in-game collaborations? Let’s take a look at some of these KPIs, and perhaps most importantly, the value of integrating music with gaming culture. 

First stop, merch. Before the tour started, Grande’s digital assets were already for sale in Fortnite’s store. Just like at physical concerts, attendees could show off their fandom and playfulness by purchasing merchandise before the main event, building hype and awareness. Grande’s digital goods ranged in price from 500 to 2000 v-bucks (Fortnite’s in-game currency), or 4500 v-bucks for a bundle. Typically goods in Fortnite range from 200 v-bucks for dance animations or emotes to around 1200 v-bucks for new outfits or characters. In a 2020 survey by LendEDU, it was found that the average Fortnite players spend per year is $84.67. So, buying a full Grande bundle would be a splurge for most players. 

On the other hand, concert goers easily spend more on a night out between transportation, tickets, drinks, and merch, but watching a music video is free. The range of prices for digital goods during the Rift Tour set the standard to identify and validate what gamers and music fans are willing to spend around this new type of experience. While merch sales data is unavailable for Grande’s in-game event, Travis Scott’s estimated $20M in earnings- including merch- highlights the positive outcome of digital goods as a highly attractive new revenue stream for game companies and artists. Recentlyo, Fortnite revealed a continued collaboration with Grande as another outfit inspired by her has been added to the game as the “Spacefarer Ariana Grande” which has various styles available. It’s for sale for 2,000 V-Bucks or in a bundle with a harvesting tool, glider, back bling, and emote for 2,500 (source). Even outside of special events, there’s value in artists collaborating with gamemakers for cross-pollination of audiences and sales of digital goods to audiences who otherwise may not typically purchase physical or digital artist merch and accessories. 

After merch, streaming is another obvious KPI to measure for success. In 2019, Marshmallow’s Fortnite concert drove a 24,000% increase in on-demand video streams on the day of the gig (Nielsen Music). In terms of social media, Marshmello gained 699k new subscribers (1,800% increase) one day after the concert, and saw an increase of about 500% from his January average of views per day on YouTube (YourEDM). Travis Scott also saw massive hype around his Astronomical Fortnite tour. He racked up 24.4 million on-demand streams of his songs (in both lead and featured in songs), and drew 10.3 million streams or a 136% surge during the event. On the sales side, Scott’s catalog soared by 1,488% to 34,000 downloads on April 24, up from 2,000 on April 23. Subtracting “The Scotts,” his catalog still moved 4,000 downloads on April 24, a 69% gain, reported Kevin Rutherford and Keith Caulfield in Billboard. Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour saw similar positive metrics. Dangerous Women saw a 123% surge in on demand video and audio streams during the Rift Tour Dates of August 5th and August 8th, R.E.M saw a 94% increase, and The Way a 44% increase. Grande’s event featured other artists too, with Wolfmother’s Victorious seeing the biggest increase in all for on demand video and audio streams of 663% (Billboard). 

Now we get into the less obvious KPIs of in-game concerts, and the value of penetrating video game culture in general. Games have a rich history of driving artist discovery, growing their audiences, and have helped the music industry survive and even thrive in many areas during the transition from vinyls to streaming. Licensing for video games became prevalent in the 90s, with game’s like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Grand Theft Auto and Wipeout becoming just as well-known for their soundtracks as they are for their gameplay. This hasn’t always been about celebrity artists. Many up-and-coming artists credit video games for their growing fan base, and many fans discover artists through video games as is often demonstrated by the number of comments on YouTube music videos from folks who say they discovered the track from a game they played. Games have been an essential part of marketing for artists campaigns for a long time, but these collaborations are not without growing pains sprouted from the varying success metrics, data availability and goals around specific campaigns or promotions that look very different in the world of gaming and in the world of an artist’s campaign and touring metrics. Do games and streaming platforms have all the tools the music industry needs to define and measure success? Not yet. While Fortnite and Grande’s team have held on to a lot of the data collected from the in-game, it’s been pointed out on other platforms, like Minecraft, that games don’t have the interfaces and data the music industry needs to measure success and traction from one event to the next. These tools will need to be developed to accurately define success in this new context of in-game music experiences and produce long term value for artists and their teams. 

The final success metric we’ll talk about here, is the value of penetrating video game culture which may be one of the most difficult measurements to quantify. From music being streamed on in-game radio stations, soundtracking games that leads to fan conversion, artist’s characters and performances in games that generate awareness, to more nuanced insights like gaming community discussions on forums about tracks they discovered while gaming, to in-game chat about the music, and even simply (and controversially) music that’s discovered on playlists on influencer or player streams. There is a lot of value generated in these situations (like artist discovery), but some might argue that there is also a lot of value that is lost too.

For example, there are countless hours of music that have been played in the background of streaming platforms. Since 2014, Twitch has been working to scan videos on their platform to mute sections that contain copyrighted music, but in June 2020, a new spotlight shone significant attention on copyright infringement as about 50% of the live music industry’s revenues derived from sales of tickets and live performances disappeared overnight as venues and touring circuits were shutdown (World Economic Forum). In terms of recorded revenue, streaming makes up almost half of recorded music revenue as a result of the growing adoption of streaming services by music labels and consumers. It makes sense that streaming is under scrutiny, but there’s also an argument that these streams could be seen as free billboards for an artist’s songs. It’s likely an unpopular perspective, but as younger generations are growing up with all-access passes to unlimited music for ~$9.99 a month, and music on YouTube is essentially completely free (in exchange for watching some advertisements), it might make sense to focus on this new paradigm shift and opportunity that gaming presents for artists and industry as an entirely new and potentially one of the biggest revenue sources yet. What if all the data around music streams on streaming platforms was accurately collected and easily accessible? Would this give enough value to the music industry to reach new audiences with unparalleled insights to benefit from this economically? The recent licensing agreements between the NMPA (National Music Publishers’ Association) and Twitch and Roblox indicate that music licensing is moving in this direction, making it easier for the music industry to unlock new ways for music to be meaningfully integrated into large communities like Roblox’s 48 million daily active users (Reuters). 

Grande in Epic Games demonstrates just a fraction of the value that gaming collaborations can bring to the music industry as a whole. While these types of experiences are primarily limited to superstars and mainstream games for now, it’s not long before a platform and toolkit with data insights for the industry will emerge for artists and the industry to enter into and benefit from the rapidly developing music x gaming market. 

The End Game: When Will We Get There and What Will it Look Like?

Grande’s tour was an evolution of the language of in-game concerts. It had more interactivity than Travis Scott’s tour, boasted multiple-mini games and numerous worlds with interactive elements. However, it wasn’t a concert, nor was it a video game or a music video. It was something of an interactive music video- with lots of room to grow. Overall we can ask if for gamers, was Grande’s Rift Tour “game” enough? For Grande fans, was Fortnite a logical stepping stone for the superstar? What counts in both words regardless of platform and artist, is authenticity. Successful in-game music experiences will be just as considerate of the gamers as of the artist’s fans and newcomers.

Whether music, dance or theatre performances, these classical shows- like concerts- have a format that’s been established over hundreds of years. What weaves throughout is a clear introduction, a strong narrative, and an obvious ending where the audience rises in applause. When it comes to exploring what an in-game music experience or virtual concert can be, we are still defining the rituals. There will be many ways of presenting virtual concerts as platforms emerge that provide tools for artists to create and perform their shows live and directly to fans in digital spaces. 

So where are we on the timeline of in-game concerts becoming accessible to all artists with data insights for the industry? Creating a multiplayer concert platform is a capital intensive game with a complex (but not complicated!) tech stack. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Epic Games’ Head of Brand Phil Rampulla said that Grande’s visual and concept design was executed by more than 100 people and initially conceived over several months before becoming an open door collaboration with Grande, whose team engaged in daily and weekly calls with Epic. In an interview with Billboard, a representative at Epic said that Grande’s concert development took six to nine months. 

With some quick math, and a few assumptions, it can be estimated that those 100 people working at ~10K/ month would mean that labor alone would roll in at $1M/ month, leaving team costs at $6-$9M on Epic’s side, not including Grande’s fee arrangements, marketing and other costs. For comparison, Scott’s performance took over a year to come together, and lasted approximately ten minutes. These costs and workforce numbers are mind boggling for most artists and their teams, and completely inaccessible, but circling back to the introduction of this article, there are many new startups emerging in this space, collaborating with the music industry to solve for the problems and unlock the potential of this new era of interactive online music experiences. 

In this journey, we are setting our sails in a blue ocean of opportunity, purchasing tickets to what’s going to be one of the most incredible music eras of all time where live performance and creativity bridges the real world, and virtual ones in unimaginable ways.

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