“If a big rapper was doing a thing in Fortnite and it looked amazing for one time, you’d think ‘let’s just do one of these a month!’” says Joel ‘Deadmau5’ Zimmerman. “But then there’s a big $6,000,000 ‘no’ attached to that. They’re all very pre-produced, linear-coated, hard-blocked a month in advance. They do it, it’s ‘live’… but they couldn’t plug it in and do it again next week.”
Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen a huge uptick in virtual concerts. As Covid-19 throttled the live music trade (and the UK government did precious little to aid venues hit hardest by the sudden evaporation of live music) all types of artists appeared in pre-recorded, one-off online performances.
But these performances – billed as ‘live concerts’ are rarely actual live events. Record labels, game designers, marketing departments and fleets of engineering staff work meticulously on these events to make them seem live, but the truth is they’re rarely more than pre-recorded sessions from the artists thrown into a game engine and made interactive.
“With the Fortnite concert, unfortunately due to the time constraints and stuff, I couldn’t fly down to Raleigh, sit with the artists and make stuff with them as they’re sculpting and moulding and ask them to put bits of geometry in there, or tweak this, or whatever, in the Fortnite version of the engine – which is different to Unreal Engine, slightly,” explains Zimmerman when we ask him just how much impact he had in helping create his marquee Fortnite concert back in May 2020.
“Otherwise, I would have been like ‘hey, can you give me, you know, the actual engine that you’re using for actual Fortnite?’ They were like ‘yeah, we’d love to but you’d have to sign an NDA as thick as a Bible’ and so on. And that’s fine, fair game to them.
“So, in making the concert, the process was more of just a weekly update: ‘more of this, less of that’. That kind of thing. I tried [to be more involved], but due to time constraints and version constraints, it just wasn’t possible.”
When you’re used to having a lot of creative control over your stage setup (and music, and lighting, and props – and just about everything else), these virtual gigs can be a little constrictive. They inhibit the imagination. They’re designed more for the spectacle than for enabling artists to fulfil their vision in the virtual world. Zimmerman himself says that these one-and-done gigs are transient: “We’ve seen virtual concerts in the past, but after making a splash, they fizzle out; there’s no shelf life to them,” he explains.
Zimmerman and Manticore Games – the developer behind Core, the ‘radically accessible game construction kit and social entertainment platform’ – want more in a world where music is increasingly looking to online audiences for connection and attention.
To that end, Zimmerman and Manticore are collaborating on Oberhasli. Designed as an interactive space in the multiverse where fans can meet up virtually, Oberhasli is billed as a permanent mainstay for the artists’ metaverse, regularly updated over time, built around hosting both in-game events and complementing real-life ones, too. The experience kicks off within Core on October 14 with a proper live set from Zimmerman.
And he’s clearly confident about its chances, even against social gaming platforms like Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox and The Sims. And Oberhasli, it feels relevant to point out here, is a type of goat – a word synonymous in perpetually online circles as ‘greatest of all time’.
[Oberhasli trailer when available]
“To contrast [Deadmau5’s experience in Fortnite],” says Jordan Maynard, co-founder of Manticore Games, “Core is built so that anyone can build any content in any geometry very, very quickly, without having to have a game development background. We gave Joel the development build practically the day we met him.”
To illustrate how easy this whole process of creating in Core is, Maynard showed us around a fully realised in-game world – so professionally done, it looked like it could have been its own POI in Fortnite – that was created in under two weeks by a 19-year-old recent high school graduate with no prior game development experience. It was created as part of a collaboration between deadmau5 and Core, tasking the loyal deadmau5 collective with creating a world in the platform that could be used in the video for deadmau5 single, When The Summer Dies.
“She downloaded Core three days into the contest, and it was a 14 day contest,” explains Maynard. “If you’re familiar with 3D modelling and 3D game development, you know that with an environment like this, you’re probably looking at a month’s development time, with a team of 10 to 20 artists.
“The fact that she could download the tool, create this in 11 days… that’s why we think that Core is the prime place to do this type of live continuous experience.”
And it makes sense that Deadmau5 would want to rig up gigs in Oberhasli – he’s already performing with enough tech to create unique, in-engine experiences when he’s at his live shows. The tricky part is getting the physical and virtual world to respond to his commands together, at the same time. But, of course, he’s already working on a solution to that (with a little help from Epic).
“A lot of the technology I use in a real show is easily translatable to a game engine – at the same time. I have a computer front-of-house that I send a lot of information to via different protocols – one of those is DMX. I was told by some friends at Epic that the engineers there were working on a DMX plugin. They have all these really nice light shaders already, so they want to start using [Unreal] as a production tool for previsualisation for concerts. Now, when you’re doing previsualisation, the problem is that you can’t see volumetrics and fog and the things that you actually need to really previs how physical lights are gonna work.
“So Epic has designed these fixtures and a protocol that works exactly like a light desk would as the front-of-house console. We spent months and months and months making DMX work with Unreal Engine. And I thought ‘now we’re getting somewhere’.”
As Zimmerman began to play with more tools and import more elements of his live concerts into Unreal, he began building his actual stage set-up in there, too. “That’s how I program my show now,” he tells us. “I showed this to some guys at Epic Games and they were like ‘this is a case study of why we make these tools available to developers’ and I’m like ‘Fuck! This is great! I’m gonna make a game now!’
Zimmerman fell down the rabbit hole, but as he began to pull at one thread, the whole idea started to unravel: netcode, multiplayer, player data and a slew of other obstacles threatened to kill his dream and leave it dead in the water before it even began. “I had my idea, but to get it up and running I thought I’d need like $30,000,000 and 150 people working on this thing. But then Core and Manticore came up on my radar and I just had to get in touch with them and send them all my stuff.”
Maynard whisks us off to an unmistakable mouse-head stage, complete with props and lights and all to-scale – as you’d see in some East London warehouse, five beers deep – and it’s uncanny. You can practically feel the sweat of hundreds of trendy, clammy gig-goers through the monitor, feel the phantom throb of the bass through your own floors.
“This is what I need,” Zimmerman said when the proud staff of Manticore Games showed him his stage, rendered in Core, on the same day he gave them the assets. “And it already has the net code, and all the multiplayer capability, all the little bells and whistles, that one would expect from a platform catering to an online community. And I was like: “Oh my God. Thank God!”
Zimmerman’s dream is for Oberhasli to be a platform that does three things: firstly, it will be a place where his audience of over 15 million people can socialise and share their creative projects. Secondly, it will be a space he can communicate with his fans in and share exclusive insights into his creative process – whether that’s watching him create new stage assets, work on new demos or something else entirely. Thirdly, and most importantly for the state of the music and games industry at large, he intends for it to be a vessel by which he can truly merge live performances and in-game events.
“A year down the line, here’s the goal: I’m playing a show out in Iowa, in a cornfield (with a really good internet connection) and I’m streaming my content from that show, with the stage mechanics and with mocap and with all my stuff, and you can just go boop up your computer, run Core and jump into my world. Maybe you couldn’t make the flight to Iowa, it doesn’t matter: the same thing that’s happening in Iowa is happening in Core at the same time.
“It’s a tall fucking order,” laughs Zimmerman. “But I believe the tech is here.”
Oberhasli will be available in October.