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Why Cirque du Soleil Tapped LA Game Maker Gamefam for its First Virtual World
After almost 40 years since its founding, Canadian entertainment powerhouse Cirque du Soleil is embracing the metaverse.
The circus tapped Los Angeles-based Gamefam, which develops custom games for brands. Called “Cirque du Soleil Tycoon,” the game will come out this summer on Roblox— a sandbox-type title that allows players to create a number of public and private virtual worlds.
GameFam launched in 2019 and has created 30 custom games for brands eager to explore the metaverse as a way to reach more diverse audiences, including the BBC, Mattel, the NFL, Puma and Samsung. In addition to creating games in Roblox, it also has made custom programs for “Fortnite” and “Minecraft.”
Sébastien Ouimet, Head of Filmed & Immersive Entertainment for Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, told dot.LA he felt the circus – which celebrates its 40th anniversary next June – could use a digital boost. “The idea was to bring a brand new perspective on our creative universe,” Ouimet told dot.LA. He added that “we can offer such an access to our fans that we cannot necessarily offer in the real world,” including virtual backstage passes, and behind-the-scenes looks at how the troupe trains, designs costumes and makeup.
“Cirque du Soleil Tycoon” is based on the troupe’s newest acrobatics show, “ECHO,” which is themed around the balance between nature and technology. Renderings of the game show a bright, cartoon-ish world. Players can make custom parks and big tops, choreograph their own shows and “hire” artists in-game to bring their shows to life. There’s also a suite of mini-games themed around the circus.
“It's important for us that when we transpose our creative DNA of ‘ECHO’ or Cirque du Soleil the mother brand, that we do it in a way where we just don't duplicate our creative DNA, we transform it, we adapt and change it,” Ouimet said. “[Our creativity] embraces everything that platforms such as Roblox have to have to offer.”
Cirque du Soleil does have nearly a million subscribers on YouTube, and while much of that behind-the-scenes content is perfect for a YouTube video, Ouimet said he’s keen for fans to experience the show in a more immersive way through the upcoming game – especially the people who might not have the funds to shell out for tickets or a show in Vegas. Ouimet added that he’s aware the audience for Roblox skews younger than the average Cirque du Soleil ticket buyer, but added that he hopes the game appeals to a wider audience of varying ages.
Recruiting a new audience is important to the circus’ longevity – though it’s unclear if the metaverse bet will pay off in dividends. In June 2020, Cirque du Soleil entertainment group laid off 3,500 people and filed for bankruptcy protection, citing mounting debt that piled up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic forcing it to cancel shows. By November 2020 Catalyst Capital Group bought the business for an undisclosed sum.
“What we're doing in the immersive space actually adds value to our live stage experiences,” Ouimet said. Going beyond the big top is key, Ouimet said. “For us, bridging the physical and digital world is quite important in terms of how we define success,” he added.
Gamefam chief business officer Ricardo Briceno wouldn’t disclose how much Cirque du Soleil paid the company to make the game. But, he said Cirque du Soleil actually reached out directly to Roblox first, which made the introduction.
In February, Gamefam partnered with another household name – the NFL – to create a similar game in Roblox called “Super NFL Tycoon.” The game has nearly 10 million visits to date and lets players create their own simulated NFL franchise, and was sponsored by Intuit. Around the same time, Gamefam launched what Briceno called “the first Super Bowl concert on Roblox,” where Warner Music rapper Saweetie performed a free virtual concert.
Last March, Gamefam raised a $25 million Series A to develop more in-game worlds for brands. Briceno said on average, there’s 12 million players around the world engaging with Gamefam’s content daily. He also noted that on a monthly basis, Gamefam players spend a combined 96 hours – four straight days – in its custom-made games.
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If the Metaverse is Officially Over, Someone Should Tell Apple
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Disney CEO Bob Iger recently announced plans to lay off around 7,000 employees over the next few months, as part of a broader effort to slash costs. (Iger hopes to save $5.5 billion in total, with $3 billion of that coming from the content side of the company.) Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that some of these losses will come from the company’s “next-generation storytelling and consumer experiences unit,” including the relatively small division that was working on metaverse development and strategy.
Disney’s 50-employee metaverse group was put in place by previous CEO Bob Chapek in February 2022, and was led by former consumer products executive Mike White. The team had been tasked with finding ways to use cutting-edge technologies to tell interactive stories utilizing Disney’s familiar stable of IP and branded characters. In a memo sent at the time of its creation, Chapek said he envisioned the team creating “an entirely new paradigm for how audiences experience and engage with [Disney] stories.”
According to WSJ, most of the team will lose their jobs, while White will remain with the company in a different role. Beyond just branded Metaverse apps, the team was also investigating ways to integrate AR and VR technology into Disney’s theme park attractions, fantasy sports offerings, and other consumer-facing experiences.
Notably, it wasn’t just Chapek who was eager to explore opportunities in the metaverse. Just one year ago, Iger personally invested in the tech startup Genies Inc., which helps users to create their own bespoke metaverse avatars. In his “exit interview” with New York Times reporter Kara Swisher upon exiting Disney the last time, in January of 2022, Iger spoke enthusiastically about his vision for a “dispersed metaverse,” in which users would maintain a single avatar and use it to explore a variety of separate digital realms and experiences.
Is the metaverse dead?
In just one short year, the metaverse trend seems to have not only stalled out but even reversed. It was only in late 2021 when Facebook’s parent company rebranded itself as “Meta,” putting its metaverse ambitions front and center, and they’re already in the midst of their own round of painful layoffs. Meta plans to shed around 10,000 employees in waves over the next few months, while winding down support for once-hyped web3 initiatives like NFTs. In February, Microsoft shut down its own metaverse team of nearly 100 employees, which had been focused on potential industrial applications for the technology. In September of 2022, Snapchat cut 20% of its employee base and abandoned its own AR and web3-related projects.
There are always a variety of factors at play in any kind of big-picture, industry-wide trend, but a distinct lack of interest in the virtual metaverse projects from the mainstream public inarguably lies at the heart of this sentiment shift. Back in October of 2022, WSJ reported on internal Meta documents that confirmed slower-than-expected adoption of the company’s metaverse tools and initiatives, particularly the flagship consumer offering, Horizon Worlds. Meta had originally set a goal of 500,000 monthly active Horizon Worlds users by the close of 2022; by October, that figure was sitting around 200,000.
Most Horizon Worlds visitors generally stopped returning to the app after their first month, and by the fall, the app’s user base was already shrinking rather than growing. According to internal Meta stats, only 9% of the app’s environments are ever visited by more than 50 people, and most Horizon Worlds’ creations have never been visited a single time. Surveys of Meta users cited issues like glitchy technology, underpopulated environments, and an overall lack of clarity about how to use the app as significant problems.
These issues also compound one another over time. If Horizon Worlds develops a reputation for always being sadly depopulated and empty, it only becomes more difficult to convince new people to join, thus making the place feel more popular and inviting. Game developers and marketing experts reading articles and newsletters just like this one, about a virtual metaverse in instant decline, and inevitably turn their attention elsewhere, potentially costing the metaverse its much-needed killer application.
Is there any hope?
Still, it’s premature to start writing the final Metaverse obituary just yet. There remain some obscure signs of hope that the idea’s reputation could still rebound down the road, particularly if a popular app ever gets released. Apple has continued work behind the scenes on its unreleased AR/VR headset, despite potentially entering the market with a few key disadvantages. The device will apparently cost around $3000, will have an external battery that needs to be replaced every few hours, and according to Bloomberg, it’s uncomfortable to wear. Additionally, the headset seems likely to launch without a standout must-have app or game. Nonetheless, CNET reports that Apple executives expect interest in the project to build over time.
VentureBeat also notes that, even if direct consumer interest in the metaverse continues to stall out, other applications could nonetheless find their way to market. Siemens Energy reports that metaverse applications could potentially save the company’s maintenance and inspection teams billions of dollars by eliminating downtime. And even if gamers never embrace bringing VR headsets into their homes for personal use, theme parks, media companies, and other businesses seem likely to find ways to apply metaverse experiences for custom marketing or entertainment purposes. Just as “AI” technologies went through a number of re-evaluations and re-imaginings before capturing the world’s imagination with apps like ChatGPT and Dall-E, the metaverse could also potentially reinvent itself down the road as an experience that genuinely engages people and leaves them wanting more.
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Taylor Swift Concert in the Metaverse? Ticketing Platform Token Is Using NFTs To Optimize Experiences
When Taylor Swift announced her ‘Eras’ tour back in November, all hell broke loose.
Hundreds of thousands of dedicated Swifties — many of whom were verified for the presale — were disappointed when Ticketmaster failed to secure them tickets, or even allow them to peruse ticketing options.
But the Taylor Swift fiasco is just one of the latest in a long line of complaints against the ticketing behemoth. Ticketmaster has dominated the event and concert space since its merger with Live Nation in 2010 with very few challengers — until now.
Adam Jones, founder and CEO of Token, a fan-first commerce platform for events, said he has the platform and the tech ready to take it on. With Token, Jones is creating a system where there are no queues. In other words, fans know immediately which events are sold out and where.
“We come in very fortunate to have a modern, scalable tech stack that's not going to have all these outages or things being down,” Jones said. “That's step one. The other thing is we’re being aggressively transparent about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. So with the Taylor Swift thing…you would know in real time if you actually have a chance of getting the tickets.”
Here’s how it works: Users register for Token’s app and then purchase tickets to either an in-person event, or an event in the metaverse through Animal Concerts. The purchased ticket automatically shows up in the form of a mintable NFT, which can then be used toward merchandise purchases, other ticketed events or, Adams’s hope for the future — external rewards like airline travel. The more active a user is on the site, the more valuable their NFT becomes.
Ticketmaster has dominated the music industry for so long because of its association with big name artists. To compete, Token is working on gaining access to their own slew of popular artists. They recently entered into a partnership with Animal Concerts, a live and non-live event experiences platform that houses artists like Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg and Robin Thicke.
“You'll see they do all the metaverse side of the house,” Jones said. “And we're going to be the [real-life] web3 sides of the house.”
In addition, Token prides itself on working with the artists selling on their platform to set up the best system for their fanbase, devoid of hefty prices and additional fees — something Ticketmaster users have often complained about. Jones believes where Ticketmaster fails, Token thrives. The app incentivizes users to share more data about their interests, venues and artists by operating on a kind of points system in the form of mintable NFTs.
“We can actually take the dataset and say there’s 100 million people in the globe that love Taylor Swift, so imagine she’s going on tour and we ask [the user], ‘Would you go to see her in Detroit?’ And imagine this place has 30,000 seats, but 100,000 people clicked ‘yes,’” he explained. “So you can actually inform the user before anything even happens, right? About what their options are and where to get it.”
Tixr, a Santa-Monica based ticketing app, was founded on the idea that modern ticketing platforms were “living in the legacy of the past.” They plan to attract users by offering them exclusive access to ticketed events that aren’t in Ticketmaster’s registry.
“It melts commerce that's beyond ticketing…to allow fans to experience and purchase things that don't necessarily have to do with tickets,” said Tixr CEO and Founder Robert Davari. “So merchandise, and experiences, and hospitality and stuff like that are all elegantly melded into this one, content driven interface.”
Tixr sells tickets to exclusive concerts like a Tyga performance at a night club in Arizona, general in-person festivals like ComplexCon, and partners with local vendors like The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach to sell tickets to the races. Plus, Davari said it’s equipped to handle high-demand, so customers aren’t spending hours waiting in digital queues.
Like Token, Tixr has also found success with a rewards program — in the form of fan marketing.
“There's nothing more powerful in the core of any event, brand, any live entertainment, [than] the community behind it,” Davari said. “So we build technology to empower those fans and to reward them for bringing their friends and spreading the word.”
Basically, if a user gets a friend to purchase tickets to an event, then the original user gets rewarded in the form of discounts or upgrades.
Coupled with their platforms’ ability to handle high-demand events, both Jones and Davari believe their platforms have what it takes to take on Ticketmaster. Expansion into the metaverse, they think, will also help even the playing field.
“So imagine you can't go to Taylor Swift,” Jones said. “What if you could purchase an exclusive to actually go to that exact same show over the metaverse? An artist’s whole world can expand past the stage itself.”
With the way ticketing for events works now, obviously not everyone always gets the exact price, venue or date they want. There are “winners and losers.” Jones’s hope is that by expanding beyond in-person events, there can be more winners.
“If there’s 100,000 people who want to go to one show and there's 37,000 seats, 70,000 are out,” he said. “You can't fight that. But what we can do is start to give them other opportunities to do things in a different way and actually still participate.”
Jones and Davari both teased that their platforms have some exciting developments in the works, but for now both Token and Tixr are set on making their own space within the industry.
“We simply want to advance this industry and make it more efficient and more pleasurable for fans to buy,” Davari said. “That's it.”
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