As Lil Nas X moves through the setlist of his next concert, the world will change around him. It’ll transform from an Old West set, complete with wooden saloons and spinning dust devils as he sings “Old Town Road,” into a darker, almost vampiric stage for “Rodeo.” Later, it will morph again into a futuristic city as he plays “Panini.” This sort of larger-than-life, impossibly elaborate staging is one of the advantages of performing inside of Roblox — the hit kids game — where Lil Nas X will become the first major artist to use the platform for a fully virtual concert this week.
“I didn’t want to do a normal live stream because that’s what everyone else is doing right now, and I really wanted to create something special that people wouldn’t expect,” Lil Nas X wrote in an email to The Verge.
Roblox is one of the biggest games in the world, with more than 150 million players, mostly kids and teens, signing on each month. As its audience continues to grow up, Roblox is trying to grow up, too, by expanding into music, offering its players a way to hang out with their friends and catch a show — a particularly useful service at a time when pandemic restrictions prevent large gatherings across most of the world. Roblox has been experimenting with musical events over the course of the year, setting up stages where players could watch streams of the One World: Together At Home benefit concert and an Ava Max performance. But this week’s event will take players, and its performer, to the game’s most elaborate staging yet.
The show will feature a motion-captured avatar of Lil Nas X dancing around an in-game stage, shouting out the audience, and singing a number of his hits along with a new single, “Holiday,” that debuts this week. The entire digital venue has been built around Lil Nas X’s persona. Players will be able to explore an Old West environment and collect hidden tokens by answering trivia questions about the performer and his music. There’ll also be a digital merch table where players can use in-game currency, Robux (which are typically purchased with actual cash), to buy virtual shirts, hats, and other merch to outfit their player. It’s the digital equivalent of picking up a concert tee. (Lil Nas X’s favorite item is a set of “Rodeo”-inspired wings and shoulder pads. “Those are crazy,” he wrote. “Everybody go get those!”)
Digital concerts have been around for more than a decade, but they’ve become increasingly popular in recent years. In 2019, Marshmello got onstage inside of Fortnite where he DJed to 10.7 million people. In April, American Football played to a packed house at a digital music venue inside Minecraft. In the most elaborate of these shows so far, Travis Scott performed inside Fortnite earlier this year, where a giant version of the performer warped around the game world before raining down fire over the island, taking players under water, lighting the sky up with laser light constellations, and eventually sending players flying off into space to watch him perform while sitting atop an entire planet. More than 27 million people attended over the course of five separate shows.
These performances accelerate a trend that’s been happening for years: games have been turning into virtual hangout spots, and every concert gives players another reason to spend time together online. “Maybe when we were in high school, you’d go to the mall or basketball court,” Jon Vlassopulos, Roblox’s head of music, told The Verge. “I have an eight and a 10 year old. They meet at a game on the [Roblox] platform.”
Lil Nas X’s performance will unfold as a multiday event. Starting today, the performance space will open, and players will be able to start exploring the set and answering trivia questions. On Friday, players can return to watch a broadcast of a prerecorded Q&A with Lil Nas X. Then on Saturday afternoon, Lil Nas X’s avatar will finally perform. The show will be replayed two more times, including on Sunday, so that people in other time zones around the globe can catch it, too.
Roblox plans to keep pushing its music integrations forward. Vlassopulos hints at more of these elaborate motion-captured performances coming over the next year. He also says Roblox is working toward making a simpler, scaled-back performance style — one that relies on broadcast video, so it’s a lower lift for artists, and pre-built sets — so that more artists can use the platform. Artists might choose a premade beach set or a stage floating in space, drop in some customized merch, and then encourage their fans to sign on.
“Many devs think [Roblox is] for younger kids and the visual aesthetic is not as good,” Vlassopulos said. “We’re saying, ‘Hold my beer — this is what Roblox can do.’”