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Video games are the new kings of communication

Gaming companies are focused on creating interactive experiences for consumers by hosting movie and music content in games

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A youngster plays Fortnite featuring Travis Scott Presents: Astronomical. With concerts on hold to halt coronavirus spread, the gaming world is increasingly catering to music lovers, with artists becoming animated performers in virtual realms

VIDEO-GAME platforms like Fortnite and Roblox have already become go-to spots to celebrate birthdays, hear new music and watch movie trailers.

Now they're pushing to become true media hubs, where entire albums may be distributed exclusively and socialising is just as important as gaming. Even as people begin to emerge from pandemic lockdowns - and can get up from the couch - video games are looking to bolster their status as the new kings of communication.

Garth Brooks is a convert. The country superstar, who has outsold Elvis, expects to start releasing new songs within Zynga Inc's mobile games, such as Words With Friends, which recently began offering free content for Amazon Prime subscribers.

"The future is limitless, especially now that they've teamed up with Amazon," Brooks said. "What's possible is an entire album solely for Zynga and Amazon. And then a year later, it can release into the whole other retail."

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, video-game use exploded - both as a way to pass the time and maintain friendships. And they began to supplant more traditional social media.

Animal Crossing saw one of the biggest spikes of new user interest among social-media channels, according to a recent report from analytics provider Talkwalker. Players have begun celebrating major life events, including this spring's graduations, in Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite and other games.

Using the same platforms to watch entire movies and attend concerts is seen as the logical next step. "Because of the lockdown and people being confined, they have more time to game, but there are also other things they want to do," said Billy Pidgeon, an independent game-industry analyst.

Even as the lockdowns are being lifted, many consumers are hesitant to head back to movie theatres and concert halls - and may stay away for some time. Artists and filmmakers can find them inside games. "With terrestrial radio, they want it to be a hit already before you bring it to them," said Brooks, who started working with Zynga last year. "With gaming, it allows a lot of people to hear it before it's played to them. If you make the song famous through gaming, by the time it hits retail, then people don't have the hesitation of spending the money. It's a win-win for everybody."

Already, Brooks has performed in a Covid-19 relief concert on game-streaming site Twitch. Back in April, artists such as Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish participated in the One World: Together at Home concert, with about four million gamers tuning in from Roblox. Nearly 28 million fans flocked to Epic Games' April concert by Travis Scott in Fortnite. And more recently, Epic premiered a new trailer for the upcoming Christopher Nolan movie Tenet.

Rockstar Games and 2K have had special events, and corporate parent Take-Two Interactive Software Inc is "looking at all kind of interesting things" in terms of interactive content, said chief executive officer Strauss Zelnick.

Roblox, played by a third of all Americans under the age of 16, is now working with the movie and music industries to host their content in the game. It expects to make announcements soon.

"Historically, what we've been doing has been promotional in nature," said Craig Donato, chief business officer at Roblox, which created special characters and contests within the game for Warner Bros and Walt Disney Co - to promote Aquaman and other titles. "Now we are very much focused on creating interactive experiences where people are also consuming this entertainment," he said. "I have a team of people talking to movie and music industries, and this is something we are focused on."

The idea is not just to stream a video inside a game, but to also offer extra features unavailable in a real-life concert or movie theatre. Music fans' avatars may be able to go backstage to greet their idol, to ask a question or to request a favourite song. And, of course, they can play games and socialise while watching.

"The dimension we are trying to figure out here is truly social consumption," Mr Donato said. "The people around me, the larger group, my connection to the artist. There's really opportunities to create compelling experiences. It is a long-term opportunity to bring in a broad audience that will hopefully stick around."

Here's how that played out during the One World concert: While the music blared on a big screen, players' avatars jumped on trampolines, or chilled and chatted on a river in floating flamingos while wearing solidarity shades.

Amrik Raj Singh Chattha, who is 12 and lives in Marin County, California, had his avatar wearing a light sabre and watching on the stage, and said it was "very exciting. When you are watching TV, you might be alone," he said. "When you are in the video game, there are other users in the game. It feels slightly more lifelike."

Gaming companies could potentially include exclusive concerts in their season passes, according to David Cole, founder of research firm DFC Intelligence. Selling virtual merchandise is another moneymaker, he said.

"For game companies, I think it is a long-term opportunity to bring in a broad audience that will hopefully stick around," he said. BLOOMBERG

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