Very few things are likely to get a fashion CEO as hot under the collar right now as the promise of a prime slot in front of a famously gaming-hungry (e-comm fatigued) Gen Z audience, especially with most pandemic-hit stores and IRL activations still languishing on ice.

Since gaming officially became the apogee of the entertainment world, eclipsing movies and music combined (the record still stands with Grand Theft Auto’s first 24hr sales of $800m in 2013 vs. Avengers: Infinity War’s $257.5m in 2018) canny luxury fashion brands have been aching to infiltrate its tasty triple threat of product discovery, fan addiction and spending. US rapper Travis Scott’s virtual appearance in Fortnite last month, which pulled in a record-annihilating 12.3m viewers (live), proved definitively that if you can’t beat ‘em you really should join ‘em.

There are three routes in: either via outfits a.k.a. ‘skins’ in existing games (see Louis Vuitton and League of Legends); the burgeoning metaverse – SimCity style shared virtual landscapes where people can interact with each other and brands – such as Nintendo’s wildly popular Animal Crossing; or purpose-built fashion-meets-gaming platforms. The latter shouts retail gold, but most fall short on visual seduction, real-time connectivity to their commercial ecosystems and risk savaging the halo of rarity inherent to the luxury glow. New platform ADA, by Singaporean-based group Unmatereality, which launched earlier this month in China in partnership with the Sina Corp (expect a global release late summer 2020) is an amalgam of routes two and three and plans to raise the stakes on all fronts.

ADA's virtual replication of a Moncler show piece, as seen in-game

ADA’s virtual replication of a Moncler show piece, as seen in-game

Unmatereality / Moncler

The Man Behind the Mission

Key to the ADA story is the man driving the mission: Andy Ku is a Korean social media and games publishing entrepreneur with rather prescient previous in this creative-commercial sweet spot. A graduate of both Cornell and Harvard university prior to pivoting into tech in the early noughties (with degrees in architecture and urban planning, respectively) in 2007 he launched MStar, a 3D-avatar based fashion game, generating a then-unprecedented average of $83 per month per user selling virtual fashion.

In 2012 he sold Mstar’s parent business Nurien Soft to Korean gaming monolith Netmarble Corp before founding Seoul-based mobile media and education company BlueArk Global – which partners with Nickleodean, XIX Entertainment and the Cartoon Network among others to birth their famous creations as games. There have also been collaborations with industry giants including David Jones, creator of Grand Theft Auto.

“The next big market for fashion isn’t China, it’s virtual commerce,” says Ku. As an early indicator of the buzz, ADA had approximately 20,000 beta testers on launch day. 

Next Level Tech Mix Envisions a Neo Social Media

Umatereality wants no less than to transform the world of luxury e-commerce via a breed of gamification in which a tantalising mix of consumer-creation, social networking, addiction-building gaming mechanics, cinematic level 3D visuals and the small matter of real-time e-commerce connections (making it possible to wish-list or buy items in-game) will transcend most challengers.

While it almost certainly won’t satisfy those craving the parallel dimension of a Second Life scenario, it is likely to be a dream for fashion fans seeking a more immersive, resumable iteration of social media with amplified opportunities to flex a fantasy persona. According to Ku: “ADA is different [to its competitors] because it’s a combination of 3D gaming components and engines, and a 2D web-based social media functionality, which is an extremely rare thing. Think of it as an ongoing fantasy-driven platform or narrative, not a single play game.”

An ADA avatar, street style

An ADA avatar, street style

Unmatereality

How It Works

Armed with an extensive customization toolkit, players swiftly create avatars that inhabit personal rooms they can decorate themselves. Within these rooms they can view and virtually try on reams of fashion from participating brands within a virtual closet, all of which are replications of physical garments that can be bought in-app. Everything is a status symbol in-waiting; the rooms are upgradable (for a cost) and the next phases of the game are likely to see collaborations with furniture brands, electronics companies, and even automotive manufacturers. Individuality is the platform’s ultimate currency. As Ku states: “This is about total lifestyle”.

Echoing the privacy mechanics of Instagram players can visit one another in their rooms, talking via a chat-based function. They’ll also be able to wander the network like a legion of tiny virtual voyeurs through a vast virtual hotel, checking out their fellow players, unless they’ve chosen to lock their rooms. AI-fed algorithms and advanced data mining will surface players with similar tastes, potentially birthing micro fashion communities (“or clans, as we say in gaming,” says Ku).

 Democratized Luxe

The gaming factor and thus the typical in-game hierarchy or ranking system kicks in via daily styling challenges set around themes or brands, fueling/feeding off gamers’ creative vanity. But there are also ‘mission boxes’ that dish out virtual money to use in-game for potentially doing nothing more strenuous that visiting a brand’s pop-up store (more on these below).

These are modes of incentivization – both nudges and opportunities that the brands hope will blossom into advocacy, as well as increased eyeballs on products and deeper layers of behavioral analytics – that form a core part of Ku’s core motivation: “You can earn enough points via these activities that the game will effectively subsidize your eventual cash purchase. Some people can just buy the garments direct, others will need to earn them via game-play. We’re trying to democratize the luxury experience. ADA is for people who love fashion but have not had any real opportunity to access or explore it in any form yet.”

But In-Built Rarity Keeps Luxury Values Alive

 This may be a virtual world, but that doesn’t mean an endless supply of luxury garms. Ku seems acutely aware that while this is a playground for hungry young enthusiasts, sanctioning excessive exposure could take some brands a few short seasons away from irrelevance.

While for a $1000 item the in-game version will cost just $1, as in the real-world there will be a limited number of pieces available, accessible on a first come first-served basis. Incentivising play, high-ranking players (for instance, those whom the system and/or fellow players deem to creating the best looks or undertaking the most tasks) will even be able to pre-order some pieces. 

Redefining The Digital Flagship

Not only can brands drop items into gamers’ virtual closets they can also commission virtual pop-up stores, or any virtual space including showrooms and catwalk presentations, which in future may even include fully conversant virtual sales associates. At a time when apps already constitute 40% of mobile spending, it’s a sea-change that’s already spurring shrewd brands to dramatically reimagine the flagship and its service capabilities.  

Brands can also populate ADA with avatars of their ambassadors, pure fantasy figures or living people, with whom players can interact. Hyper-advanced visually (just imagine the colossal celeb sign-off process) this week alone has seen Unmatereality scan the perfectly groomed head of Balmain’s very own Olivier Rousteing, while supermodel Natalia Vodianova (who is also an investor) was an early otherworld specimen.

Vodianova exemplifies the premise of ADA as bridge between worlds; at ground level her avatar provides an in-game photo opp for the social media equivalent of autograph hunters, with automated, bot-style responses engaging with fans. But she can, and apparently sometimes will, wander the maze communicating directly, a little like David Bowie with his prescient Bowienet in the early noughties – an alternative reality, avatar-based chat system which he would often enter, like a mystery shopper, and have conversations with his fans.

Natalia Vodianova's bespoke ADA avatar

Natalia Vodianova’s bespoke ADA avatar

Unmatereality / Natalia Vodianova

User-Generated Content: Fan-Consumer Creation

Consumer creation/fan-made content is the other cherry in ADA’s virtual confection; there’s barely an inch of gaming space not primed to be gamer-manipulated, and for good reason. While it’s possible to attribute the boredom of lockdown to the soaring user rates for platforms built on user generated content, a.k.a. UCG (TikTok’s viewing figures have shot by 15%) a 2020 study by Australian UGC specialists Stackla reveals 79% of people are highly influenced by UGC when making purchasing decisions, rating it as six times more influential than brand-created content.

Aside their own avatars and styling themselves and their rooms, gamers can also create look-books (shareable instantly on social media, of course) and will in future, thanks to 5G, be able to stream and download motion content on screens within their virtual quarters. Ku even intimates they’ll be an opportunity to co-create 3D designs and upload them in-game. So far, so meta.  

The Brands Benefitting from Superior Immersion

Less than a month in and the 35 or so launch brands is impressive. The currently mostly Western rundown includes heavyweights Armani, Dior and Prada while more avant-garde attractions include cult players such as American menswear brand Thom Browne, Japanese streetwear label Sacai and the LVMH 2017 young prize winner Marine Serre.

The renderings will be key. With every digital construction house worth its pixels currently flexing serious lifestyle muscle, from Dutch ‘digital fashion house’ The Fabricant (which co-created the first piece of commercially sold digital couture) to young pretenders like Robhau – a Berlin-London brand with the chutzpah to launch during lockdown – fan/consumer expectation is extremely high.

Next up? Virtual Only Collections & Transferable Avatars

Indeed, Ku’s goal is that in future collaborating brands will product virtual-only collections (“we want to be the biggest library of virtual goods in the world”) while he also speculates that, “it will be possible to take your avatar from ADA into another online space, including another game”. This Ku concludes, “will be an ever-evolving service.”

Hyper fantasy in fashion gaming from Unmatereality

Hyper fantasy in fashion gaming from Unmatereality

Unmatereality