Editorial: The Rapidly Changing Face of the Music Industry—What Sansar Is Doing Wrong (and Fortnite Is Doing Right)

Earlier this year, after an extended break, I rejoined the official Sansar Discord server, and while I have not nearly been as active there as I used to be, I still lurk from time to time. I had a good laugh at this snippet of conversation from the day before yesterday (and yes, I do have both Medhue’s and Vassay’s permission to quote them, and to post this image here on the blog):

Medhue: Literally, Ryan Schultz does more marketing for Sansar than Sansar does.

Vassay: Funniy (sadly) enough, that’s true.

Medhue: IMHO, we have a bunch of people who live in the past, when music was a 50 billion dollar industry. It is not anymore, and likely won’t ever be again. Gaming has always been growing and there are really no signs of it slowing, grabbing more and more of the entertainment market each year.

Wookey has been strangely silent since its purchase of Sansar, and their team have been largely absent from the Sansar Discord. And yes, it is indeed true: even though I barely write about Sansar at all now on this blog, I still do more promotion of Sansar than Sansar does! This relative lack of marketing activity is frankly baffling to me. After all, the often ineffective marketing of Sansar by Linden Lab contributed to the difficulties it encountered in enticing people to visit the platform—and keep them coming back for return visits, a key indicator of success.

As you might know, the money-losing Sansar was recently sold by Linden Lab to Wookey. Many Linden Lab staffers who worked on Sansar moved over to Wookey, including Sheri Bryant, who was Vice President of Strategic Business Development and Marketing and then General Manager at Linden Lab, and is now President of Wookey Technologies (LinkedIn profile). She is widely credited with saving Sansar by setting up its sale to Wookey, and it is under her management that Sansar has significantly shifted its primary focus from a VR-enabled platform for world builders and content creators (i.e. a second-generation Second Life), to a VR-enabled live events venue.

An example of the recent shift in emphasis in Sansar (from the Sansar website)

While a quick glance at the Sansar Events calendar shows that the deal Linden Lab previously struck with Monstercat to bring live musical events into Sansar has continued now that the platform is owned by Wookey, the company is going to have to do a lot more work to attract musical artists to give virtual concerts in Sansar.

Let’s contrast the modest success that Sansar has had with Monstercat with what has been happening on other virtual world and game platforms in recent years:

In addition, both Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has recently announced a pivot to live events) and the ever-popular VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events) are no doubt eyeing the possibility of hosting live concerts on their platforms. And let’s not forget the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform, where Facebook will probably take what the company has learned over the past couple of years with Oculus Venues, and where they will want to sign their own exclusive deals with musical performers to entice people to visit their platform after it launches.

And this is the important point: some profitable companies with very deep pockets—Epic Games (the makers of Fortnite), Microsoft, and Facebook to name just three examples—are going to want to get into this potentially lucrative market. Smaller companies like Wookey, trying to shop around Sansar as a live events platform, are going to find themselves outbid by companies like Epic Games to bring in top talent, which of course brings in more users to Fortnite. It’s a vicious circle; the big players get bigger, while the small ones fight each other for the leftovers.

Following on from Medhue’s point in the quote above, the music industry has already seen many changes and gone through many wrenching shifts in how it operates and how it makes money in the past (notably, the shift away from physical media like CDs to the now-ubiquitous music streaming services). But now the gaming industry is bigger than both the music and movie businesses combined!

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered real-world concert arenas for the foreseeable future, which has only increased the economic pressure on the management representing the artists to sign deals with various metaverse-building companies in order to host virtual concerts and events. There’s probably already a lot of activity going on behind the scenes that we can’t see, but I expect we shall see quite a few announcements for virtual concerts with major musical artists, as well as many smaller artists, over the next six months.

Where Fortnite is already running circles around Sansar, even at this very early stage of the game, is their ability to sign deals with the highest level of talent (using all those billions of dollars of profit earned from their games like Fortnite), and their ability to host massive live events for millions of attendees (again, leveraging off their technical know-how to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure to support millions of Fortnite players playing the game simultaneously all around the world).

One thing that Wookey could be and should be doing for Sansar is promotion—and yet they are leaving it to bloggers like me to talk about the product. Where is the marketing? If they are holding off on marketing, waiting until they land some big-name events, I think that would be a tactical error.

Wookey needs to get Sansar’s name out there; many people in our attention-deficient society still have no idea that the platform even exists. Yet everybody and their grandmother has heard of Fortnite by now. That is no accident. Epic Games did a masterful job of fanning the flames of user interest. Wookey should be taking notes.

If no action is taken, Sansar is going to continue on its downward trajectory, slowly circling the drain, and eventually will fold. Linden Lab has already made many grievous errors in trying to effectively promote the platform; Will Wookey continue making the same mistakes?

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Editorial: Could Fortnite Become the Next Second Life? A First Look at Fortnite Party Royale

Watching the sun rise on Party Royale Island in Fortnite

I am not a gamer. The only possible exception to this ironclad rule are puzzle games, such as Cyan’s Myst, Riven, and Obduction, and the truly wonderful Eastshade).

I’m simply not that interested in most shoot-em-up, combat-and-killing-focused games and MMOs (although I did get as far as level 20 in Lord of the Rings Online, only because I am such a Lord of the Rings fan).

To give you one example, I succumbed to peer pressure when No Man’s Sky released a VR-compatible update, and I bought the game. I think I played No Man’s Sky a grand total of three hours, maximum, and that was in desktop mode! Since then, it has been quietly gathering dust in a corner of my hard drive.

So I came to Fortnite as a clueless newbie with pretty much zero previous computer game experience.

I have written about the phenomenally successful battle royale game of Fortnite several times on my blog already. I blogged about Marshmello’s concert in Fortnite back in February 2019, and in November of that year, I even went so far as to actually download and install Fortnite on my computer, just so I could visit, explore, and report on the groundbreaking decision by the Royal Canadian Legion (Canada’s military veterans’ association) to create a custom-built Remembrance Island within Fortnite to celebrate Remembrance Day on November 11th (which I blogged about here and here). I thought it was such a cool way to reach out to an audience that the Legion probably would have otherwise had difficulty connecting with (namely, children and teenagers).

Remembrance Island in Fortnite (November 2019)

I then promptly uninstalled the game and pretty much forgot about it.

Oh, and I also reported on Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH talk in July of 2019, in which the founder and CEO of Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, mused about the future of the metaverse. At that time, I wrote:

I must confess that…I am rather skeptical that Fortnite, as it is right now, would form a useful model for the future metaverse. Games are designed to be focused more on linear play-through and set objectives, while virtual worlds are meant to be more open-ended and less goal-oriented in nature (although you can certainly have games within virtual worlds). As well, you can have thriving social communities in MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, so there is a somewhat fuzzy boundary between games and virtual worlds.

Well, today I am going to eat those words.

I have decided to start covering Fortnite on this blog. Why? Well, it’s because of something new in Fortnite, called Party Royale: an open-ended, non-combat extension of the game.

Image taken from the Fortnite Party Royale website

Marshall Honorof of the blog Tom’s Guide writes:

Party Royale went live in Fortnite on April 29th, 2020 as part of the game’s most recent update. The mode has no weapons and no crafting — the two hallmarks, one would think, of the Fortnite experience. Instead, an in-game message invites players to “hang out with friends, play games, perfect your skydive and more.” Also noteworthy: Unlike normal Fortnite games, Party Royale mode is not limited to 100 players.

Here’s the slickly-produced official trailer for Fortnite Battle Royale:

On May 8th, 2020, Fortnite held its first big event in Party Royale, dubbed the Fortnite Party Royale Premiere: an epic concert featuring not just one, but three top-tier, internationally-known DJs: Deadmau5, Steve Aoki and Dillon Francis. I’ll be writing more about that in another blogpost later, but if (like me) you missed all the fuss, here’s a replay of the one-hour event:

And you can bet that Epic Games has been busily signing deals with the representatives of various big-name musical performers for future concerts to be held in Fortnite Party Royale. They’re only just getting started.

And their reach (over 250 million Fortnite players as of March 2019) means that they have a huge potential audience for those future concerts, 85% of whom are aged 18 to 34—a highly-desired advertising target market that makes corporations salivate, and which is significantly younger than the userbase of more established virtual worlds like Second Life:

Fortnite user statistics (source)

So, it’s time to firmly put Fortnite on my radar.

I am adding Fortnite Party Royale to my List of Non-Combat, Open-World Exploration/Puzzle/Life Simulation Games, instead of my much longer Comprehensive List of Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds, because it seems to fit in bettter among the games on the first list. However, you could argue that Fortnite Battle Royale is the first tentative step for Epic Games to expand Fornite from just a game to a full-blown, open-ended virtual world like Second Life.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Forbes reporter Paul Tassi is convinced that Fortnite will indeed become the next Second Life. In a recent artcle titled ‘Fortnite’ Party Royale Will Become ‘Second Life’ On Its Way To Being The Metaverse, he writes:

Last night I attended yet another concert in Fortnite’s Party Royale mode, the combat-free zone where everyone just hangs out and doesn’t kill each other. It’s a small island and an early experiment, and yet as I witnessed live sets performed by Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki and deadmau5, all world-famous DJs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was yet again witnessing something pretty significant and incredible.

I’ve talked a lot about the Metaverse with Fortnite, the grand virtual world that may end up replacing the internet someday, and in fiction, often appears in immersive VR form, and is full of brands and companies vying for their place among users. And you can definitely feel a significant step in that direction from Fortnite, especially last night as I, controlling X-Men’s Psylocke as my Avatar, danced with John Wick and Harley Quinn and dozens of other player avatars during the hour-long show.

When I posted the clips online, many of my followers remarked that this looked like Second Life, and honestly, while the Metaverse is still ages away in its “true” form, it does feel like Fortnite is gearing up to start with something more akin to Second Life or PlayStation Home instead.

Fishing rod in hand, scanning the seashore

Paul continues:

Second Life operates as a virtual world where players are not killing each other, but rather building homes, trading goods and services with each other, and attending events (Second Life was doing concerts a decade before Fortnite).

Now, it seems like Fortnite is on that path, but in a more attractive package. These days screenshots of Second Life unintentionally make it look like some sort of porn sim (though plenty of naughty stuff can and does happen in Second Life), while Fortnite’s Pixar-like animation and brand deals with Marvel, DC, Star Wars and more are combining different intellectual properties in one place in a way that no other game has before in a better-looking world.

Fortnite has pretty much all the pieces it needs for its own version of Second Life. With Party Royale, it has a combat-free hub where you can’t destroy anything and you just hang out playing minigames and attending events. With Fortnite Creative, you have an infinite hub of user-generated content that could be used to populate expansions to that initial world.

Combine those two together, and what do you have? Really, all the building blocks you need for a virtual world in the Unreal engine. How long until Epic starts letting players build their own houses in an expanding Party Royale zone? How long until creators can sell their custom works to other players, creating an in-game economy? My guess for both, not long.

Fortnite already has its own in-world currency, V-bucks
Shopping (and a fashion market!) are already an established part of Fortnite

Second Life had better be looking over their shoulder. A new competitor has appeared in the race. And they have deep pockets: Epic Games made a profit of $3 billion over 2018 (source). Fortnite has the potential to steamroller over Second Life, particularly as SL’s significantly older user base begins to decline. And you can bet the youngsters are flocking to Fortnite and other games in droves. While Second Life still has its relatively small but intensely passionate fan base, it is widely seen as outdated, faintly quaint technology among the general public (remember this recent article in The Atlantic magazine?). That’s why Linden Lab embarked on the ultimately disastrous Sansar project in the first place; they knew that Second Life could only be extended so far, and they could see that the writing was on the wall.

Marshall Honorof of Tom’s Guide (link up top) summarizes the potential impact of Fortnite Battle Royale quite nicely:

What’s interesting about Party Royale mode is not necessarily the feature itself, but that Fortnite is beginning to establish itself as a digital alternative to the “third place”: a location where people feel at home that isn’t their house, or their office. For a lot of people, this is often a bar, or a gym, or a coffee shop — places where it’s basically impossible to go right now. Party Royale could encourage people to mingle digitally in the long run, or it could just be a stopgap until things get back to normal in the physical world. We’ll know for sure in (hopefully) a few months.

Hang gliding over Party Royale Island in Fortnite

The line between what is a virtual world and what is a game has always been a somewhat blurry one. For example, virtual worlds such as Second Life have always been home to games, for example, But the launch of Party Royale in Fortnite is the clearest signal yet that the game companies want to move into the open-ended virtual worlds market, too. The game companies might not actually refer to them as “virtual worlds”, but that is essentially what they are.

So, last night, I went and reinstalled Fortnite on my personal computer. Things are about to get very, very interesting, and I want to be there when it happens! And expect expanded coverage of Fortnite Party Royale on this blog in the future.

Setting foot in a brand new, open-ended virtual world

Remembrance Day: Pictures From A Return Visit to Remembrance Island in Fortnite

Photo by Laurentiu Iordache on Unsplash

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
  That mark our place; and in the sky
  The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
  The torch; be yours to hold it high.
  If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields, by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD

As it turns out, when I first visited Remembrance Island in Fortnite (the custom island built for the Royal Canadian Legion to commemorate Remembrance Day, November 11th), there was a software bug which had the lighting permanently set to nighttime, which of course made it difficult to take pictures!

This bug has since been fixed, so here are some photographs I took of Remembrance Island on a return visit. There are eight environments to visit in total, following the trail of red poppies:

  • trenches from the First World War,
  • the Pool of Peace,
  • the Vimy Ridge Memorial,
  • the Battle of Ypres,
  • D-Day on the Beaches of Normandy,
  • a ruined town to show the liberation of Europe,
  • Hill 355 from the Korean conflict,
  • and a sandy landscape depicting Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

A small section of the island to the west of the towering Vimy Ridge Memorial presents information about the Canadian soldiers’ experiences in the Korean War, where 516 Canadians died serving their country:

And there is an area which recreates the recent Canadian mission in Afghanistan, where 158 soldiers lost their lives:

At the end of exploring the island and learning about Canada’s war history, you arrive at a virtual recreation of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, with row upon row upon row of soldiers’ graves.

This is a sobering and moving experience, which I do recommend you pay a visit to, in order to be reminded of the sacrifices made by so many soldiers, beginning in World War I and up to the present day. Lest we forget.

Visiting Remembrance Island in Fortnite: The Royal Canadian Legion Sets Up a Custom Island in the Popular Game for Remembrance Day, Nov. 11th

Remembrance Island (image from The Globe and Mail)

I am not a gamer.

To give a very recent example, I bought No Man’s Sky when I was swayed by all the hype about the recent Beyond update that supported VR users. I played the game a grand total of 90 minutes (in desktop mode, no less), set it aside, and haven’t touched it since. I much prefer the open-ended nature of social VR and virtual worlds, and even the open world exploration offered by No Man’s Sky, with its millions of procedurally-generated planets to explore and asteroids to mine, bored me. I just couldn’t get into it.

Yes, I have tried MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), mainly because I was curious to see how faithful the game would be to Tolkien’s books. But I never got past Level 20 on my hobbit. Again, I couldn’t be bothered with all the battling and leveling up required. Yawn.

So, thus far I have successfully avoided the cultural juggernaut known as Fortnite. But when I read in The Globe and Mail newspaper today that the Royal Canadian Legion (the Canadian military veterans’ association) had decided to create a custom-built Remembrance Island within Fortnite to celebrate Remembrance Day on November 11th, I was intrigued.

Ahead of Remembrance Day, the Royal Canadian Legion hopes to teach children about the sacrifices men and women in this country have made in conflicts dating to the First World War with a game, one built inside the popular survival video game Fortnite.

Remembrance Island, a custom Fortnite island launched by the veterans’ organization, features First World War trenches, D-Day beaches and the Vimy Ridge cenotaph. Unlike Fortnite, there is no violence on this island.

Instead, players start at the beaches of Normandy and follow a trail of poppies through environments depicting conflicts Canadians have fought in, stopping at trail markers that offer information about each one until finally arriving at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, where they are asked by the Legion to share a moment of silence of their own on Nov. 11 at 11 at night — a time meant to meet gamers on their terms.

“It’s an opportunity to meet younger Canadians on their own turf and educate them about the contributions of Canadians who have served our country,” says Ari Elkouby, executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson Canada, the agency that developed the game on a pro bono basis for the Legion.

The agency partnered with a licensed Fortnite island builder, someone able to design unique islands within the game, to create Remembrance Island.

Given the nature of Remembrance Day, when the country celebrates sacrifice, not violence, it was crucial that the game exclude any combat or ability to destroy or defile anything on the island, Mr. Elkouby says.

“We wanted to kind of flip the idea of Fortnite on its head, where Fortnite is a place where you fight and you battle to a place where you respect and remember,” he says. “We wanted to ensure that the sanctity of what we were creating was maintained.”

Each of the game’s eight environments – trenches from the First World War, the Pool of Peace, the Vimy Ridge Memorial, the Battle of Ypres, D-Day on the Beaches of Normandy, a ruined town to show the liberation of Europe, Hill 355 from the Korean conflict, and a sandy landscape depicting Canada’s mission in Afghanistan – were created by researching archival materials, Mr. Elkouby says.

So, I decided to download Fortnite (it’s free), and I followed these instructions to pay a visit to Remembrance Island.

I stumbled around a little bit at first, like a deer caught in the headlights (What? There’s no beginner tutorial!?!! I’m just being DROPPED OUT OF THE BACK OF A FLYING BUS?!??), but eventually, I was able to orient myself and successfully reach Remembrance Island.

Trying to find my way around in the darkness, following the trail of red poppies, I came to my first destination: the beaches of Normandy.

As I went along, pop-up text laid out the scenes, explaining how the battle played out, and what the soldiers faced:

I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but I really did feel at times as if I were a lost, scared, confused soldier, running across the nighttime battlefield landscape, not knowing what lay around the corner.

I leave you with a 40-second video put out by the Royal Canadian Legion to promote Remembrance Island in Fortnite:

And, now that I (kinda) know what I’m doing, I might just pay a return visit on Remembrance Day, November 11th, to virtually salute Canada’s veterans. I think this is a genius idea for outreach to younger Canadians!