Once it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon, society as a whole was forced to make a number of adjustments to adapt to this so-called “new normal”: the NBA and NHL went into bubbles to finish out their seasons, live shows gave way to virtual concerts, your bed became your new office. (No judgement.) And if you had any kind of live, in-person event planned from mid-March on, those quickly got un-planned. SXSW was the first major domino to fall. Then E3. Along with, unfortunately, ComplexCon. Luckily, in the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum, life, uh, finds a way.
Enter ComplexLand, a five-day virtual version of the annual IRL event, featuring just about everything you would’ve expected to see in Long Beach: killer performances, the latest fashion, sneaker drops, even food trucks. Part virtual mall/conference/venue/open-world game, the event wraps up today, but it’s been months in the making. And, as it turns out, the version you’ve been running around in all week isn’t all that far off from the original concept pitched by the agency behind ComplexLand, Jam3, which has its headquarters in Toronto, as well as offices in LA, Amsterdam and Montevideo.
“It's funny, there's a ton of elements in there today that goes back to that pitch deck,” says Steffen Christiansen, creative director for Jam3. While the tight four-month timeline meant some ideas had to be scrapped, all the key pieces were there from the jump—“The food trucks, the shopping, the idea of having a stage you go to and there's panels.” As well as the idea to structure ComplexLand as an open-world game where visitors hunt for exclusive drops, a major element of the real ComplexCon experience, and one that Christiansen and the Jam3 team had prior experience with.
“In 2018, we did an activation with adidas Originals at ComplexCon, which was a huge hit,” he explains. “That's kind of how it started.” Thanks to AR and in-app notifications, attendees were able to virtually queue for sneaker drops in a mobile store, turning what would normally be two hours (or more) in line into a two-minute transaction. That experience, of using tech to help democratize drops, while discouraging resellers and fights, provided major inspiration for what would go on to become ComplexLand.
That, and video games.
“I really like gaming. And throughout the first couple of months of COVID, I played a bunch of games,” Christiansen tells me. Including Assassin's Creed Odyssey, which features a common video game mechanic where players are directed to investigate an area on a map in order to uncover key items—the exact mechanic ComplexLand uses for its exclusive drops.
Fortnite’s supply drops were another key bit of inspiration for the Jam3 team here, and one that made it into the very first sentences of that initial pitch, says Christiansen. “It was like, it's open-world and there are drops that are coming down from the sky. And you need to rush to get them before they disappear.”
“Mechanically, the way it works is inspired a lot by the original Pokémon games from the '90s, back when I was a kid.”
“What if we took what we did in 2018, and then you combine it with game mechanics, so it becomes, hey, there's a drop coming, head to the drop zone. And it's a general zone that you need to run to and investigate and find this drop.”
Video games helped inspire the feel of ComplexLand’s open world as well. “Mechanically, the way it works is inspired a lot by the original Pokémon games from the '90s, back when I was a kid,” reveals Christiansen. And if running around the five neighbourhoods gave you serious Diablo flashbacks, that was fully intentional, he confirms, saying that the team decided to channel the lo-fi charm of ‘90s-era games once it quickly became clear that a slick, clean, modern look wasn’t the right direction to go. ComplexLand had to be way more chaotic.
“So we really started pushing the look of the world, which is very much inspired by streetwear,” says Christiansen. “This idea that shoes have grids on them, and cities do too. We started looking at different shoe silhouettes and different types of shoe grids and saying how could you translate this into a physical environment?” That means nods to sneaker icons like Nike’s Air Force 1 and Air Max, “the more bubbly kind of look and feel.” Or taking a camo pattern and turning it into topography. “It's all streetwear Easter eggs and references.”
And it’s all in service of creating a new kind of online shopping experience for visitors. A space for people to hang out and explore while they listen to beats on the in-world radio, check out panels, watch trailer premieres, read articles. Right now, so much of the modern e-commerce game feels like a Sears catalogue, according to Christiansen. “ ‘Here's the stuff I have, pick which one you want,’ ” he explains. “It worked for Sears in the 1800s and through the 1900s, and it works on the Internet today. It's an effective model, but we've never really spent time experimenting and trying to learn what experiential shopping is online.”
“ComplexLand is one of the first attempts to say, 'What happens when you add experience around shopping?'”
It’s one of the main reasons the Jam3 creative director thinks that virtual events like this could easily live on post-COVID—even though at this point last year, “you would never do a virtual event. That sounded lame.”
“I don't think real events will ever disappear, because they have other strengths and weaknesses,” he continues. “But I could easily imagine a future where both exist, in a pretty good harmony.”
For right now though, Christiansen’s just excited to see people and their avatars running around exploring this world after the frenetic four-month push it took to get here. “I know everyone on the team is super excited about how far it got pushed and, honestly, how weird and different it is.”