We’ll be blunt: way too many promotional games launched alongside music releases can be filed under ‘crap platform game’ or ‘crap Temple Run clone’, with whatever the new track is playing in the background.
It’s a very common will-this-do dynamic, which is why Music Ally’s radar pings loudly when an artist does something more interesting and ambitious. A post-apocalyptic monster-spotting RPG [roleplaying game] delivered to fans as a Discord bot certainly qualifies.
That’s what British artist Emma McGann is launching alongside her latest EP ‘Monsterverse‘, a project that also involves music videos created using gaming engine Unreal Engine.
Having originally come to our attention in 2019 as one of the first musicians to build an audience (and income) on livestreaming app YouNow, McGann has since continued to explore new technologies in service of her music: an Alexa skill, and a £20 ‘virtual tour pass’, for example. And now: monsters!
“I wanted to create an entry point for people to step in and explore the story behind the music in an immersive way where they feel like the main character,” McGann tells Music Ally. The ‘Monsterverse’ EP’s themes are dealing with your inner demons, and that’s expanded on in the Discord RPG, where players are ‘Monster Watchers’ tasked with spotting monsters and stealing crystal shards.
“This is where the RPG really comes to life for fans. They’ve been exploring each world by looting for gold, battling monsters and levelling up their characters with new weapons and armour,” says McGann. “The multiplayer aspect has encouraged people to become quite competitive, trying to get themselves on the top of the leaderboards. It’s really great to see them engaged in the game!”
This being Discord, it’s a text-based game, developed by McGann as part of a three-person team. Fans have been beta testing it within her Discord server, with new updates rolling out as they go.
“I think at the back of my mind I struggle with the idea of songs being undervalued these days: people scrolling and consuming things so fast. So I’m inspired by this idea of creating unique experiences around the songs to encourage people to live with the music a little while longer,” she says.
“I’m hoping it strengthens the connection to the story around this four-track alt-pop EP for the listener overall. The levels of the game are inspired by the first-person music videos and worlds within them, so the two are intrinsically linked. They can also unlock bonus items by streaming one of the songs or following me on various platforms.”
Discord has become an important place for McGann, like a growing number of other musicians using a platform first adopted by the games industry.
The ‘Team McGann’ Discord has 1,174 members at the time of writing, which is small by the standards of mainstream social platforms – as comparison, McGann has more than 40,000 YouTube subscribers, and more than 15,000 followers on both Instagram and Twitter – but that’s its strength. Discord is where the core fans gather.
“It’s become a vital place for my community. The great thing is it encourages only those who are genuinely interested in what you’re doing – it’s a place to host your most engaged fans and allow them to get to know one another too while they have something in common, you and your music,” says McGann.
“It’s been an important builder for my community as I like to allow them to have a say in the content I produce for them, so naturally Discord has become a place where we host those conversations. They can submit song suggestions for my content, challenges to try on stream, their own projects, pet pictures and more.”
McGann encourages any musician who has “a sharp focus on online content” to consider hosting their own Discord server, and notes the recent addition of ‘activities’ including co-watching YouTube videos and playing games together. “It’s really a game-changer if you’re looking to engage your followers beyond just the music itself.”
Besides the Discord RPG, McGann has released four music videos from the ‘Monsterverse’ project so far, creating them using Epic Games’s Unreal Engine. That’s been used for a growing number of music projects (Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia Exhibition for example) with bigger budgets, but in this case, it was very much an independent affair.
“I started teaching myself Unreal and 3D modelling during the pandemic. With the ‘Monsterverse’ music videos I wanted to spotlight Unreal for other artists who might look to use it in their own way. It’s such a powerful and valuable tool. I wanted to show exactly what could be done with a very low budget and just your imagination,” says McGann. “Whatever you can imagine, you make it in Unreal if you’re willing to invest the time.”
How much time? The first video, for lead track ‘Monsters’, took her two weeks as she figured out the process. The last video, for ‘Wild Thoughts’, took just two days. McGann explains the process, which at one point also included getting her Twitch viewers to help her design some monsters.
Last night on stream you helped me design some ideas for the next music video of my new EP 'the Monsterverse'😈— Emma McGann (@emmamcgann) October 20, 2022
Enjoy these stream highlights of my questionable drawing skills.
Watch all the Monsterverse episodes so far here: https://t.co/CBTLFrjSWp pic.twitter.com/AIEbeswMsm
“First I’d model the monster creatures inside of Blender, then I’d animate them using a mo-cap suit. Next, I’d set up the scenes inside of Unreal and render out exactly what I wanted. And finally, stitch everything in an edit within Da Vinci Resolve,” she says.
“The budget to create these videos was very minimal. I paid for a few 3D models of trees and buildings and that’s it really. I already owned a mo-cap suit from a previous project before the pandemic too. All of the monsters you see in the music videos are actually just me dancing around in my living room…”
“Honestly it was so fun to play around with. I think as an independent artist I’m a bit scrappy with finding new tools to take the music and visuals to new heights and Unreal helped me do that in spades,” she continues. “No doubt that I’ll use it again in different ways in the future too.”
This is a theme running through McGann’s career: a willingness to jump in and experiment with new technologies, but as part of her creative process rather than as marketing gimmicks.
“While I write songs there’s now always this parallel thought train of ‘what can I create with new tech that’ll be a fun experience that extends beyond the music?’ It became about acting on ambitious ideas I’d have while writing the songs themselves instead of just putting out a three-minute song into the abyss and hoping people playlist it,” she says.
“I like to think outside of that blueprint because that’s what most are doing. I want to be remembered for doing things differently most of all.”
The run-up to the release of ‘Monsterverse’ has also included a stunt where one of the world’s portals suddenly appeared behind McGann while she was hosting one of her acoustic streams on Twitch:
“Another thing we did was create a TikTok filter for the first single from the EP where you become the monster,” she says. “If you can tap into new tech and entry points for people to experience your project in a unique way, I think it only benefits the music as a whole.”
The costs of all this may have been low, but they do require time. McGann has encouraging thoughts for other artists who might be daunted by the challenge.
“I am still independent doing everything myself. Every music video, every song, the merch designs (I created a themed merch bundle ‘Survival Kit’ for people to grab before jumping into the Monsterverse’) and the game itself were all created by me and my teeny tiny team of three people: my partner James and our best bud, Al,” she says.
“So it’s completely possible at the independent level if you have that time to invest. You don’t always need a big label budget… but it certainly helps.”
McGann’s process is still DIY, then, but ‘Monsterverse’ has also seen her partner with Virgin Music UK. What has that relationship brought to the project?
“It’s been helpful to bounce my creative ideas off an extra set of ears and they clearly have a passion and align with my own ideals of approaching things differently,” she says.
“Sync is also a world I’m still not familiar with but have wanted to break into – so the team have been helping to pitch some of the tracks from this project which I otherwise would’ve found difficult to do with all of the creative we were running with for the ‘Monsterverse’ EP. They’ve been awesome so far and I can’t thank them enough.”