How Complex Converted Its Flagship Festival Into a Sprawling Online Video Game

The annual event became a futuristic virtual world complete with food trucks and ecommerce

ComplexLand features an expansive virtual venue. Complex

Complex Networks may be taking its annual music and fashion extravaganza online this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s giving up on the food trucks and festival atmosphere.

Instead, the culture-focused media company has turned its virtual event into a sprawling video-game-like venue in which attendees can customize avatars and wander between event stages, as well as purchase goods at Shopify-backed ecommerce shops and even food trucks complete with actual restaurant deliveries for users in certain major cities.

The ComplexLand festival runs from Monday through Friday this week, with panel discussions focusing on entertainment, fashion and culture. ComplexLand is being hosted by celebrities ranging from comedians Desus & Mero to rappers Lil Yachty and Fat Joe and former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. Around 70 brands have signed sponsorship deals to back the event.

“It’s kind of become a one-stop shop for commerce and digital content, all wrapped under the Complex umbrella,” said Complex’s head of collaborations and experiential, Neil Wright. “[This year] really took [the festival] to another level and evolved it in a way that really delivers whether you’re a gamer or just into street culture—you get to customize the experience to what you’re looking to do.”

Much like a role-playing game, the experience starts with a customization station where users can pick the dress and look of their avatar with the help of a digital stylist. Some of the clothing options are, of course, branded, like a Gucci-sponsored pair of virtual sneakers.

The mechanics of the virtual space also draw other common elements from video games, like non-playable characters that offer assistance to avatars and “fast travel” between each of the map’s four neighborhoods. A ticker across the top keeps attendees up to date on the timing and location of the video link for any upcoming events, and a chat feature allows people to communicate with one another anytime.

The concept was created in partnership with experiential agency Jam3 using a Javascript program called WebGL, which allows it to render 3D graphics on mobile and desktop browsers. The visual style is inspired by open-world online gaming, and some of the actual architecture of ComplexLand is designed to look like giant sneakers and other items central to the magazine’s themes.

Steffen Christiansen, creative director at Jam3, said the challenge from a technical standpoint was how to design an experience that incorporated the “three main pillars” that Complex wanted—gaming mechanics, street culture focus and a festival feel—in a way that “feels meaningful.”

The team was inspired in the conceptual phase by a virtual Travis Scott concert held within the game Fortnite early on in the pandemic. As the team developed the concept, Wright said he wanted to push the futuristic aesthetic even further.

Wright sought to translate that concept into the virtual space by taking taking real-life experiences and then evolving those elemental touchpoints into something that felt “a bit more whimsical or otherworldly—a little bit more futuristic.”

ComplexLand ultimately won’t fill the revenue hole left by the cancellation of the physical ComplexCon festival in what would have been the event’s fifth year, Wright said. For one thing, admission to the online experience is free in order to cast as wide of a net as possible. And the roster of 70 brands backing the event is less than half of the 175 to 180 sponsors that the media company usually racks up for its physical festival.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.