The online gaming platform, which has 150m monthly players, is parking its tanks on Fortnite's lawn with its first in-game show
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Virtual concerts aren't a passing fad – we're at the dawn of a massive shift in entertainment consumption, and it's time to get on board, says Roblox’s Jon Vlassopulos
By IQ on 05 Jan 2021
In late November, Roblox – a family friendly social videogaming platform with more than 150 million monthly users worldwide – staked a claim as the virtual concert platform to watch with its first in-world live music event.
The headline show, by ‘Old Town Road’ singer Lil Nas X, took full advantage of Roblox’s technical capabilities and diverse, engaged user base to deliver a must-see set by the double Grammy winner which was viewed over 30m times, rivalling Fortnite’s record-breaking Travis Scott event held earlier in the year.
With fresh concerns over the coronavirus already casting a shadow over live music in 2021, IQ caught up with Jon Vlassopulos, Roblox’s global head of music, to discover how artists, promoters, venues, festivals and labels can “reinvent” themselves for an online-first future; how the so-called ‘Metaverse’ will spawn a new wave of digital-native artists; and why the next generation of fans won’t have to choose between virtual and physical shows…
IQ: For the uninitiated, how would you describe Roblox? Is it a game? A way of creating games? A virtual world? Or something else?
JV: All of the above. I’d say Roblox is first and foremost an online community where people come together to play, create and explore millions of 3D virtual worlds together with their friends. Our vision for this online community of shared experiences draws inspiration from gaming, entertainment and social media. People come here to be who they want to be, and we provide them with tools to create their unique identities (avatars).
In addition, most of the virtual worlds on the platform have been created by our developer community – we have built a proprietary, next-gen tech platform that allows anyone to create and experience 3D content, forming the Metaverse, and we have invested heavily to build the technology and infrastructure for that.
You’ve seen huge growth through the Covid-19 pandemic. Why do you think that is, and how do you see that continuing in future?
This year has been an extremely challenging time for our global society. What we’ve seen during physical distancing is that people are turning to Roblox for the social connection, play and learning opportunities that they aren’t getting in their real lives right now.
When we surveyed our community (nearly 3,000 teens responded to the survey) as part of our Digital Civility Initiative, we saw some positive trends around the use of the Roblox platform during this otherwise difficult time. For example, over half (52%) said they were spending the same amount or more time with their real-life friends via Roblox, voice/chat programs and other online gaming platforms during Covid-19. They also reflected on how meaningful online friendships can be for them, with two in five reporting that their relationships with online friends on Roblox got even better during COVID-19. Nearly 30% said parents are showing more interest in their online lives, including learning about and playing Roblox with them, and a similar number of teens reported that they started building their own games or learning how to code during this time.
You just hosted your first in-world concert. Was music always a focus from the outset, or is this something that’s naturally developed over time?
Music has been present on the platform and embedded in different ways and formats since the beginning. Our developers can access a broad catalogue of music to use in their games, and we have been adding to that recently with great licensed partners like Monstercat. There are also a variety of music-themed worlds on the platform, like the Dance Your Blox Off dance competition game and the AI game Splash: Music World, where people can DJ and create music. Splash actually did a fun collab with Tones & I before Christmas.
When I joined Roblox, mission one was to double down on what we were already doing and grow our music offering significantly so music becomes an organic part of our users’ daily experience on Roblox. We want to connect fans with each other and with their favourite music and artists in new and unprecedented ways. Getting into virtual concerts, like our recent Lil Nas X show, is a natural area of focus for us. We want to make the virtual concert experience even better than the real-world experience for our fans. I’m very excited about what we are going to be rolling out in 2021.
“We want to make the virtual concert experience even better than the real-world experience”
Will the new concert venue be used for other shows in future?
The Lil Nas X concert space was custom-built for this event, but a lot of the new features we debuted will soon be available to the developer community to leverage in their games. We do have our Launch Party product that artists and labels can use to create their own custom [album] launch party on Roblox. Warner and Ava Max used the code to build out a custom venue for the launch of her recent album, Heaven and Hell. It was a big success, with more than 2.5 million visits of the experience.
We have lots of interest from labels to do their own launch parties in 2020. It is such a fun way for the kids and teens on Roblox to get closer to their favourite artists and discover the best new music. We are working towards making the experience turnkey. For example, an artist could choose a pre-made set (ie a stage in the desert or floating in space), drop in some customised merch and then encourage fans to attend and watch their performance or enjoy their new music videos.
For the Lil Nas X event, how many people did you have capacity for?
We are a virtual platform so hopefully don’t have to think about having to turn people away from our events. We had our main concert and three encores, and the total number of visits of the experience has surpassed 33 million. Some people may have come back multiple times to catch additional shows or experience the pre-show events, including the scavenger hunt and Lil Nas X music video performance, but it’s millions of people who were able to experience the artist’s world and performances, which is a unique advantage of these virtual co-experiences.
They represent a massive opportunity for artists to reach their fans around the world and extend their brand into the Metaverse, especially during this time when larger real-world social events and artist tours are not possible.
Was it a pre-record, or was Nas actually performing live?
It was pre-recorded but presented as-live to the Roblox community. There were a lot of engaging real-time features baked into the experience that made it fun to experience live with your friends: You could dance together using custom, exclusive emotes, throw snowballs at each other, dress up in custom merch, hunt for coins, etc. The main concert featured a photorealistic motion-capture avatar of Lil Nas X dancing and singing across four different worlds that tied to his top songs: ‘Old Town Road’, ‘Rodeo’, ‘Panini’ and ‘Holiday’, his new single, which he performed for the first time during the concert.
The different worlds for each song were built using the latest shadowing, lighting, and physically based rendering (PBR) facial-recognition technologies available on the Roblox platform. The entire experience was designed to give Roblox users and Lil Nas X fans a unique way to discover and enjoy music together with their friends and connect with their favourite artist like never before.
“We were encouraged to see seven figures in merch sales for our first concert event”
What is the economic model for a show like this? Is it a straight revenue split on things like merch and other in-game items?
Yes, we split revenue from anything that is sold related to the concert with the artists and the label. It’s a net new revenue stream for our partners in addition to their current sales of physical merch, tickets, sponsorships, etc. We were encouraged to see seven figures in merch sales for our first concert event. Moving forward we plan to experiment with other types of monetisation around concerts and events.
Other virtual worlds/games, such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Sansar, have also hosted virtual shows. How is the Roblox experience different?
First, Roblox is a platform not a game – we have global scale, with millions of people from around the world coming to Roblox to hang out, chat, play, create and explore new places. They love to dress up and check out events together, so concerts are a perfect use case for us. It’s similar to the way kids and teens do in real life, where the majority of them go to shows just to be with their friends or show off a new outfit.
We think we can bring and potentially improve on these real-life shared experiences. We can make discovery of music and artists super-interactive and special for the Roblox community, delivering experiences that may be unattainable in the real world. For example, at a real concert very few fans have the opportunity to do a meet and greet with an artist or dance on stage. We can make these things happen and give our community tentpole moments and connections with their idols that they will hold with them all their lives.
Each of our community members have their own unique identity (avatar) that they take with them as they move across different virtual environments and worlds, which means they get recognised by friends. That means they love customising their look and getting unique merch that will stay in their virtual collection.
Finally, Roblox has millions of developers on the platform, so artists can create their own unique experiences or connect with existing developers to collaborate to reach their fans around the world.
What does the core Roblox user look like?
An average of 36.2m people from around the world come to Roblox every day to connect with friends, and it’s a truly global and diverse community. For example, over 40% of our users are female – this is pretty unique in the world of online gaming. Over half of all kids and teens under the age of 16 in the US are on Roblox. While our user base has historically skewed younger, we are seeing people staying on the platform as they are growing up. Entire families are using Roblox to connect and have shared experiences like the Lil Nas X concert; older demographics attracted by incredible new content.
We are focused on retaining those users and bringing on new demographics to the platform as we continue to innovate in creating more immersive experiences, introducing new realistic avatar technology, spatial audio and other new features available both to our creators and users.
“Virtual shows can be a great way to kick off a real-world artist tour”
More broadly, what do you see as the possibilities for virtual live music events in future? Do you see the trend towards these kind of shows continuing even once we’re all vaccinated against Covid-19?
Absolutely. We believe discovering and enjoying music in the Metaverse together with friends from all over the world is a unique experience that can bring millions of people together, and often can’t be replicated in the physical world. I don’t think fans will need to pick real world or virtual once lockdowns are over – they can have both.
Virtual shows can be a great way to kick off a real-world artist tour. If you can aggregate tens of millions of fans over a weekend online, you can then drive them to buy tickets for the tour. If you attended the virtual concert you could unlock special experiences at the live concert. Then, post-concert, you could go back to Roblox and have a post-show artist experience and meet fellow fans from around the world.
The concert market is going to get a lot bigger and more exciting for fans moving forward. Remember, most concerts are 18+ or 21+, and we have a large community of users under 18, so everything we do is additive. We are helping many of our kids and teens experience a concert for the first time – and no one forgets their first show!
It’s all very exciting. And as the Metaverse expands, we’ll see new forms of entertainment emerge; new Metaverse artists will be able to launch careers virtually without ever having to play a real-world show.
I think it is important to note that we are right at the beginning of a massive new industry. We are just scratching the surface with shows like our Lil Nas X concert. I have been through the birth of the internet in the ’90s and the impact it had on the music industry, then we have had mobile for the last 20 years. I believe the Metaverse has the potential to be bigger than all of them.
Artists, labels, publishers, venue and festival owners, video platforms, etc., all have a chance to reinvent themselves and capture first-mover advantage on platforms like ours. For 2021, we are looking to work with forward-thinking partners who can help us create some amazing case-study experiences that others in the industry can learn from and follow. We look forward to a future where kids can reconnect with music at a very core level, and artists are able to express themselves fully beyond what they can do on streaming platforms. Along with all of this innovation will come new and lucrative new revenue opportunities. If you have creative projects that you think would be a fit for Roblox, please get in touch!
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