The Score: More game studios experimenting with virtual K-pop groups

Editor’s note: Last year we introduced The Score, a dedicated vertical for exploring the intersection of video games and music. We explored the rise of virtual music in mobile games, such as Justin Bieber’s in-game performance in PUBG: MOBILE and the licensing opportunities for independent artists in video games,

Following the growing interest in this vertical, we’re excited to announce a new format for The Score: A monthly newsletter distributed for free to all Water & Music newsletter subscribers.

Each issue will round up and analyze the biggest music and gaming stories of the month, through Water & Music’s unique industry lens — forever curious about the latest tech innovations and eager to dive into the weeds, while also pulling out actionable insights grounded in music-industry needs and challenges.

Paying W&M members get access to an exclusive forum in our Discord server where they can connect with other readers and exchange thoughts on issues of The Score and music/tech trends at large. Learn more about our membership here.

Netmarble launches virtual K-pop girl group MAVE

Metaverse Entertainment, a subsidiary of the South Korean mobile game developer Netmarble, has released the debut single by MAVE, a virtual K-pop girl group featuring four hyperrealistic members created using AI.

Their first track, “Pandora,” has been out for less than a month, but the music video has picked up nearly 12 million views on YouTube, while the band’s Spotify page has over 840 million monthly listeners.

Why is a video game studio experimenting with virtual K-pop groups? While this project might seem unusual, there are plenty of reasons why it makes perfect sense.

Let’s start with the fact that some of the biggest studios in mobile games – a sector that surpassed $110 billion in global revenue in 2022 – are based in South Korea. Many have already cultivated a track record of successful collaborations with K-pop groups.

There’s Krafton’s PUBG Studios, publishers of the battle royale shooter PUBG: BATTLEGROUNDS and its mobile adaptation, PUBG: MOBILE, both of which share similarities with Fortnite in terms of gameplay mechanics and audience reach. The mobile version of the game has over one billion registered players and has generated over $7 billion in revenue since its release in 2017 (including $170 million in January 2023 alone).

Krafton is starting to expand its IP into wider entertainment categories. In June 2022, they released AVA, a hyperrealistic virtual human designed to “engage a global audience and help establish KRAFTON’s Web 3.0 ecosystem.” Engaging fans through K-pop seems to be part of that strategy, as AVA released her first single “Shine Bright” in September. A month later, Krafton hosted a collaboration in PUBG: MOBILE with Blackpink to debut new music through an in-game concert and themed music video.

Then there’s the South Korea-based Devsisters, who make Cookie Run: Kingdom, an action RPG with over 200 million players. In addition to successful collaborations with Disney and Sonic The Hedgehog, Cookie Run: Kingdom hosted a 100-day-long collaboration event with BTS in late 2022. Players could interact with the group’s music in special rhythm games and endless runner modes (think Temple Run meets Guitar Hero), and purchase BTS-themed items such as costumes and decor. BTS members also appeared as characters and heavily promoted the collaboration on the Cookie Run Kingdom YouTube channel. All of this BTS-themed content was heavily monetized through in-app purchases.

It’s too early to say what Netmarble has planned for MAVE. They could publish a video game for the group, given they’ve done the same for BTS (and are the second biggest shareholder of BTS’ label, Big Hit Entertainment). Netmarble could also use MAVE’s music and characters as part of a strategy to promote its wider portfolio of gaming IP.

This is a strategy that Riot Games adopted when it created its chart-topping virtual group K/DA in 2018. K/DA features four themed characters from its League of Legends video game, and character cosmetics for the group are available to purchase in the game. The group’s most popular single, “POP/STARS”, has over 540 million views on YouTube at the time of writing.

K-pop groups have been very open to experimenting with virtual artist personas, in line with the prevalence of virtual idol culture in Asia at large. K-pop group Aespa, signed to SM Entertainment, will premiere their AI artist persona Nævis at this year’s SXSW.

Aurora’s standout in-game performance in Sky: Children of the Light

There have been plenty of attempts at replicating the success of Travis Scott’s performance in Fortnite, whether it’s Blackpink in PUBG Mobile, Justin Bieber in Garena Free Fire, or the variety of concerts that place on the Roblox platform.

In most cases, these musical experiences are short and sweet, and rarely last longer than 15 minutes. And while millions of players can take part in these experiences, technical restraints mean that, in most cases, you can only interact with a maximum of 100 players simultaneously.

This is what makes Aurora’s concert in Sky: Children of the Light, a video game developed by thatgamecompany (Journey, Flower, Flow) so impressive.

The concert experience lasted for 45 minutes and featured seven of Aurora’s songs, with simultaneous support for up to 4,000 players. In a recent interview with PushSquare, thatgamecompany’s CEO Jenova Chen explained how Fortnite’s Travis Scott concert inspired the ideas that shaped their Aurora concert:

“I never felt like Travis Scott was really there. He never looked at me. I don’t know his soul is there. So I wanted to build [an environment] where you can feel the presence of the artist. Another thing, I went to a Taylor Swift concert, and I was in the stadium with 30,000 people, and it definitely felt like I was a part of something bigger. These are the two things that I was like, “I think we can push the boundary on how a game makes you feel.”

While we’re yet to experience an in-game concert that matches the energy and emotional experience of watching a live artist in a crowded room, this Aurora concert comes pretty close. In between songs, you’re transported to an amphitheater and encouraged to interact with other players by communicating with emojis and messages.

The worlds you navigate during the concert experience have been carefully designed around the themes depicted in Aurora’s songs, taking players on a narrative journey that explores how nature views humanity.

The first concert experience started on December 8, 2022 and was attended by 1.6 million people, with follow-up concerts occurring every four hours until January 2, 2023. The experience has now finished for everyone except those players that spent $25 on a cosmetic cape that allows unlimited replays. That said, you can watch a full video of the concert here.

Is the music industry missing a beat when it comes to monetizing through video games?

Joost van Dreunen, an academic researcher and video game expert who has an excellent weekly newsletter covering the video game industry, hosted a panel at the DLD conference exploring the intersection of video games and music. The panel featured Warner Music Group’s chief digital officer and EVP of business development Oana Ruxandra, as well as Micaela Mantegna, an attorney specializing in video games policy, XR, and AI ethics.

The full panel is worth a watch, but we wanted to focus on Ruxandra’s thoughts that the music industry is missing out on about 75–80% of revenue value from the gaming industry. Ruxandra may have laughed and said she hopes no one quotes her on these figures — but those revenue predictions might even be conservative.

The vast majority of the music industry’s gaming revenue comes from sync placements, partnerships, merchandise and in-game purchases such as music packs.

In terms of dollars earned, this only scratches the surface of what’s possible with in-game purchases, which is where the gaming industry generates most of its revenue. Many of the most popular video games today are now free to purchase, and generate revenue through in-game purchases like cosmetic items (e.g. character and weapon skins), subscription passes (e.g. battle passes), in-game currency (used to purchase special items), or new à-la-carte story content.

By collaborating with other games and entertainment IP, video games such as Fortnite are able to build a lucrative recurring business around a regular flow of themed items. As an example, leaked documents revealed Fortnite’s parent company Epic sold 3.3 million NFL-branded skins in a two-month period, netting Epic around $50 million.

When artists such as Ariana Grande and Travis Scott appear in Fortnite, these collaboration events often accompany new cosmetic items to purchase. Travis Scott’s Astronomical Bundle cost 2,500 V-Bucks (roughly $18), while the Ariana Grande bundle cost 2,800 V-Bucks (roughly $20). Similarly, music experiences in Roblox, PUBG Mobile, Garena Free Fire and Sky: Children of the Light have all been monetized by selling cosmetic items through in-game purchases.

But if the music industry wants to generate more revenue through gaming, it must foster partnerships with studios outside of the go-to metaverse platforms and AAA games.

For instance, considering mobile games account for more than half of global gaming revenue, music labels may want to consider exploring more partnerships with mobile studios. A great example is Meghan Trainor’s partnership with the mobile game, Candy Crush. The pop star launched her new track “Made You Look” in the game with a 24-hour exclusivity period.

The music industry also needs to think beyond just music alone, and explore the more holistic brand potential of its artists. If video games are exploring a new frontier of user-generated content with a focus on player expression through fashion, is there any reason why labels shouldn’t be pursuing partnerships with video game studios to sell band merchandise through the games that best align with their artists’ demographics? Fashion brands are already on top of this — so why shouldn’t bands be as well?

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