Junk Explained: How Do Video Game Music Festivals Actually Work?

Marshmello's 'Fortnite' show wasn't the first gig to take place inside a video game - and it's definitely not going to be the last.

Marshmello Fortnight video games music festival photo

Concerts in video games are exactly what they sound like — live musical performances inside the virtual world of a game. In that respect, they’re fairly straightforward. It’s when you ask how they work that it gets complicated.

Most games aren’t coded to let players pluck at guitars or bang on drum kits, and those that are can’t currently accommodate the artistry and nuance that musicians coax from real live instruments. 

Even if they could, the ability to play ‘Classical Gas’ on an acoustic guitar doesn’t translate to an ability to hit the right buttons in Guitar Hero.

The mechanics of playing video game instruments are significantly different to playing actual instruments, so even the greatest musician wouldn’t be able to just log on, pick up a guitar and start playing.

Virtual concerts thus don’t rely on virtual instruments. Though the way they’re pulled off varies from event to event, and is greatly impacted by the technology available, typically the performer will stream audio of their performance while an avatar representing them moves in sync with the music.

Think of it as a puppet show or a live Gorillaz performance, but instead of watching from a sardined crowd, you can climb up onto the stage and dance right next to Noodle. Well, an avatar of you, anyway.

Video Game Concerts Aren’t New

Though Marshmello’s 2019 Fortnite concert may have brought the phenomenon to mainstream attention, musical artists have been putting on in-game performances for years. In fact, one of the earliest recorded virtual concerts took place way back in August 2006. 

Hosted by US radio program The Infinite Mind, audio of Suzanne Vega’s live studio performance was simultaneously broadcast on radio and streamed into Second Life, where an avatar resembling the singer was puppeteered in front of a small audience.

It was a modest event by today’s standards, and not without significant glitches, but at the time Vega’s performance pushed both bandwidth and boundaries.

Technology has improved significantly since then, but the base concept of the virtual concert remains largely unchanged.

When Norwegian tech conference The Gathering held a concert in Minecraft in 2016, it employed a similar approach. While AlunaGeorge, Broiler and Lemaitre dropped beats at the Vikingskipet Olympic Arena, volunteers copied their movements with customised avatars in an in-game recreation of the venue.

How Does It Work?

Minecraft is a popular game for virtual concert organisers. Not only does the sandbox game’s immense customisability allow them to build practically any venue they desire, but its ubiquity means many potential attendees already own the game. They just have to download a client or connect to a specific server.

The downside to Minecraft is that, unlike Second Life, the game does not support audio streaming. As audio isn’t really optional for a music festival, this means organisers have had to get creative.

In 2013, Monstercat held a charity music festival in Minecraft. Called MonsterCharity, the two-day festival featured EDM acts such as Hellberg, 7 Minutes Dead and Stephen Walking. 

Fans could attend the in-game light show by downloading a modded Minecraft client from the Monstercat website, and a donation of at least US$25 would allow attendees to “fly and ride around in a spaceship during the concert”.

However, in order to hear the music, attendees had to have Monstercat’s Twitch video livestream of the artists’ live performances open at the same time.

Other Minecraft music festivals such as Coalchella have also required attendees to stream music in another program. Fire Festival had a website for streaming audio and a Discord server so attendees could talk to each other, as well as virtual festival grounds in Minecraft for them to explore.

However, not all video game concerts use live performances. For example, both Fire Festival and Pixel Festival streamed prerecorded audio, allowing DJs to spend their sets personally controlling their avatars and interacting with fans.

What About Marshmello’s Fortnite Concert?

Though most virtual concerts are organised without the official sponsorship of the games’ developers, having that support greatly opens up options for what organisers can do, and what games they can do it in.

Marshmello’s Fortnite concert wouldn’t have been possible without the support of developer Epic Games. Even if he streamed audio through his mic, there is practically no chance that he would have been able to build a stage in the battle royale before dying an untimely death. Gathering a crowd of enthusiastic attendees would have been even more difficult.

But as Marshmello had partnered with Epic, they built an environment in Fortnite specifically to facilitate the concert. Epic created a special game mode, disabled weapons, built a stage and put on an impressive virtual show, complete with holograms, gravity manipulation and official Marshmello-themed items.

Epic also enabled Marshmello to broadcast his audio through Fortnite itself, no separate streams were required. Attendees didn’t even need to look up server details — they simply had to download and open up a free game.

Why Are They Becoming  So Popular?

Though they may seem strange, virtual concerts such as these can go a long way toward making music more accessible. Physically attending a music festival can be difficult for some people, including children, people with disabilities, people with limited disposable income, and people who live in remote communities. 

In-game concerts not only allow these fans to participate in the scene, but offer them the same access to the same experience as everyone else.

They’re also safer and less expensive to hold, which have become significant considerations particularly in NSW. Several music festivals have been cancelled in recent times, citing unfeasible costs associated with the Berejiklian government’s new safety requirements.

These virtual concerts may not be the same as sitting on a friends’ shoulders and yelling out lyrics in real life, but they help keep the scene going, bringing live music, a vibrant atmosphere and a friendly community to a wider audience.

Plus, sometimes, they also let you fly. You can’t say that about Lollapalooza.

Amanda Yeo is a Sydney-based writer, lawyer and gaming enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter: @amandamyeo.