Tuesday, February 8, 2022

It's The Meta

Hold that bandwagon! There's people still trying to climb on!

I was most amused this morning to read this in the financial pages of Gamesindustry.biz:

 "Hiro Metaverse Acquisitions (HMAI) has raised £115 million through an Initial Public Offering on the London Stock Exchange.

I was even more amused to find, further down the page, this summary of what HMA had in mind:

 "It intends to focus on the acquisition and development of games or games-adjacent businesses in the UK, Europe and Israel."

Seriously? It's that blatant now? The digital equivalent of Cash for Cars? I do like "games-adjacent" though. That could catch on. Maybe Haven Studios could use it for the "persistent and evolving online environment" they're building for Sony

As Paola Jouyaux, Haven's founder puts it, "these environments are not just games, they are also social platforms for many players. It has to stay that way. To last, a game must remain pleasant to visit." Well, yes, I guess it must. Maybe someone should mention that to Bobby Kotick. Probably a bit late. 

Meanwhile, as every wide-eyed venture capitalist with a couple of million bucks to rub together pulls a muscle trying to throw a bundle of money into the lap of the next self-appointed Architect of Tomorrow, the actual metaverse continues to pull itself up by its virtual bootstraps as we watch. We're already far enough in for NME to have put together a list of "The Best In-Game Concerts Ever", although I do think they might have waited until they had at least ten of them, just for the look of the thing.

Give it a year or two. We're almost at the heart of a perfect storm right now, when it comes to the virtualization of the live experience. Platforms like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft already have both the reach and the audience to attract the biggest of names but, more importantly, they also already have the technology and the infrastructure to offer them the showcase experience they and their fans deserve and expect.

At the same time, thanks to two years of a global pandemic and counting, live venues across the globe have been pushed to the edge of financial viablityEven when the clubs are open, the whole live experience has become so awkward and problematic as to scarcely seem worth the trouble. Huge events like Glastonbury and the rest of the ever-growing mega-festival circuit will return, recover and flourish. It's the cellar clubs and small halls that could disappear.  

Meanwhile, as the streaming wars continue to escalate, with Spotify taking the brunt of the assault from the old guard, Arcade Fire's Will Butler puts his finger on an even bigger existential threat to the culture: 

"My deep dread, though, is that this ability to tune out and focus on art becomes an aristocratic luxury; that a lack of money for music means a lack of money for musicians; that new ways of doing business are destroying the possibility of a creative middle class."

And that's where the metaverse - the real one - comes in.

It's all very well for old rockers to shake their grizzled heads and mutter about nothing ever taking the place of beer down the back of your Charlatans tee and over-stimulated engineering students elbowing you in the ribs as you strain to see over the shoulders of the giant biker in front of you but the world moves on. These days a gig didn't even happen unless you recorded it on your phone. It's not such a big step from there to holding the event inside the phone itself.

Roblox vice president and head of music Jon Vlassopulos, who it has to be admitted could scarcely be described as an unbiased observer, reckons we're at the point when there will be artists whose entire careers will be lived online: "some artists will be able to launch and sustain successful careers virtually without ever having to play a real world show", he says and I'm sure he's right.

He's in a powerful position to facilitate that change and indeed he's started already. Two of those seven "best-ever" virtual gigs were staged in Roblox - Royal Blood and Lil Nas X

I only vaguely know who Royal Blood are. I tend to get them mixed up with Royal Trux, something I'm sure would piss both of them off, erm... royally, if they only knew. Everyone on the planet knows Lil Nas X. Neither of them, for all their undoubted qualities, would nudge me into downloading Roblox just to watch their blocky avatars emote. 

There are performers and events that would prompt me to find the website, register an account and install the game. It's already happened. I did it a few hours ago.

On stage this Friday evening, live, will be PinkPantheress, winner of the BBC Sound of 2022 award and increasingly frequent presence on this blog. She'll "perform a virtual concert in Roblox in collaboration with the BRIT Awards 2022." If I can, I'll be there as it happens. If not, the performance will be repeated, hourly, for the whole weekend.

I feel I should emphasize at this point that I am not now, nor have I ever been, remotely interested in The Brits. It's a shallow and fatuous, self-mythologizing award show of no cultural import or aesthetic value whatsoever. Apart from that, it's great!

Awards shows don't need to be meaningful. They just have to provide a platform. Many a great performance has been given by many a great performer on many a crappy TV show. It's a longstanding tradition and I see no reason why that shouldn't carry over into the metadigital future.

The prospect of being present at a virtual gig by someone who, were I forty years younger, I'd most certainly have made the effort to see live was what got me to sign up to Roblox this morning, then log in to see how the whole thing worked. Unsurprisingly, after a quarter of a century of signing up for things, downloading them and figuring out how they work, the whole thing went entirely without incident. It took about five minutes.

There's a major irony in all of this. At sixty-plus I'd feel insanely self-conscious at a live show aimed squarely at a Gen-Z audience. Mrs Bhagpuss and I stopped going to small club gigs by up-and-coming young bands back in our mid-forties. It had already started to feel a bit weird. Imagine that twenty years on.

You might think, at sixty-plus, virtual gigs in video games ought to feel even weirder, let alone when they're happening in Roblox, a gaming platform seen even by gamers as "for kids". Nope. Not in the slightest. 

Here's the thing about the metaverse, as it actually is, rather than as we're told it's going to be by people who want to sell it to us. It's freeing. It's democratizing. That old saw about how anyone can be a dog on the internet  remains true, maybe now more than ever. When you suit up in your blocky avatar in Minecraft or Roblox or your slick skin in Fortnite, that's not just who you are, it's all you are. Or, more appositely, all you need to be.

It must be obvious I'm quite excited about the potential and the possibilities for the true metaverse, which I imagine as nothing more scary than a somewhat slicker, sprightlier version of the good old worldwide web we've all come to take for granted these last twenty-five years. 

Back at the dawn of the mainstreaming of the internet there was a lot of talk about "Silver Surfers", the old people who took to the new medium, if not like ducks to water, then at least like elderly labradors to a shallow stream. You don't hear much about them now, other than a few jibes about how everyone only stays on  Facebook because their gran can't use anything else. 

These days we seem to have slipped back into the whole "old people don't get it" default mode for cultural change that's been in force not just since I was born in the late 1950s but at least as far back as the jazz age tales of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the fin de siecle decadence of Beardsley and Wilde

Yeah, well screw that.

As I look forward to my retirement and the inevitable shrinking of my physical capacities, it's joyous to think of a whole new world bringing itself to life all around me. A world where the sights and sounds and sheer exhuberance of life will come to me, even when I'm too old or unfit to come to them.

That, my friends, is the metaverse I'm looking forward to embracing. I'm happy to say that as far as I can see it's more than halfway here already.


  1. So, how do these virtual shows manifest, anyway? You go into Roblox, you control your avatar who goes to some kind of area or stage and looks at what? Is it another avatar jumping around while music comes out of the speakers, or is it live video of the performer on a virtual screen or what?

    The closest I've been to one of these was when Phantasy Star Online launched (the new iteration) and there was a pavilion where every few minutes a video of an avatar played out and some music played and they called it a "live show" even though it repeated every 15 minutes and was always exactly the same. Meanwhile a bunch of players stood around practicing the various emotes they'd unlocked.

    1. All of the above, I think. The review of the Royal Blood gig suggests they played the whole thing live but as this YouTube video shows, their avatars in game were pretty static. That said, as you can also see, there were plenty of fireworks and the audience did plenty of bouncing about. Even if the performers are quite limited in what they can do, the video game nature of the experience can make it feel very vibrant and exciting if you're inside the bubble.

      The Ariana Grande event in Fortnite is on the other end of the scale. I wish I'd been there - it looks absoluterly amazing in this recording. It looks it would have felt like being inside a music video.

      The ones I've seen personally have been more along the "giant video screen" lines but that feels pretty immersive in itself. Kind of like watching one of those big screens at a festival. I'm imagining the PinkPantheress show will be along those lines. From the promo material, I think the first performance will be "live", as in she'll be there to interact with the crowd, but I imagine the music will be pre-recorded. After that it'll be a video of the thing on repeat once an hour and I imagine that will be exactly like the PSO2 experience you describe. I hope I can be there for the live version but it's an iffy time slot for me.

    2. Cool, thanks for the info and the links. Yeah the Ariana Grande one seems like it's making a lot better use of the medium and seems like it'd be pretty fun to attend.

      Looking forward to your report from The Roblox Stadium!


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