Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR came as a shock to the industry's system, during a post-GDC week where we all expected things to be fairly quiet. A veritable tidal wave of sentiment and questions followed the news, even before we'd really gotten any statements on what the acquisition meant, or any potential roadmaps to the future.
But we all had a reaction, some fairly measured, others not. What was yours?
If you're not totally sure yet, fear not: We're here to help you argue on the internet. You can use the following points to decide how you feel about this thing we all just found out about, and then leverage them in conversations online, on Twitter and in forums, to enforce your position. Beause seeing what will happen is not really an option: You need to talk, now!
I'm unhappy about the Oculus news
You've done it, tech industry: Thanks to Kickstarter, you've found a way to make the consumer bear all the risk of funding the development of a new product, leveraged their loyalty and desire to build interest and attract talent, and then you sold the company for $2 billion.
"I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition," says Mojang's Markus Persson, explaining why the news caused him to back out of a deal
that would explore bringing Minecraft
Chances are, few of the 9,522 backers who eagerly kicked in money to Oculus' "Step into the Game" Kickstarter thought they were helping build value for a Facebook acquisition. I bet that, like Notch, they thought they were building a game platform. Now the vision they invested in has gotten away from them.
When a Kickstarter fails to deliver, annoyed consumers are told, "you did not make a pre-order, you invested in an idea." Now this happens, and we hear the reverse: "You were basically pre-ordering a product, and it's going to get made, so what's the matter?" Which is it?
It's not even that hopeful backers funded an early vision that's now enriching Silicon Valley. It's not as if any of the backers received a guarantee the company would never get sold, or that they were entitled to ask for one. It's the sale to Facebook -- a company who has arguably done more harm than good to game developers, who has been making all kinds of acquisitions lately on the way to some unknown, unfocused Voltron, who has a terrible reputation when it comes to user privacy and respect for developers.
Maybe there are no ramifications at all for game development or the desired direction of the Oculus Rift. But philosophically people are shaken, and developers are backing away from the device in droves.
People feel they "wasted their time" visiting and covering the device last week during GDC, and that the biggest winner out of this announcement is Sony's Project Morpheus, and "at least there's that", if you're passionate about VR and games. Sony does seem to be on a good streak of benefiting mightily from the PR gaffes of its rivals, always emerging as the "cool uncle," as one of my colleagues put it.
I know developers who have backed Oculus, who are (or were) making games for Oculus, who are investors in the company. Until today, whenever any of them talked to me about the device, they used dreamlike language: "vision," "future," "dream." The sense of wonder they discovered inside a Rift was, many told me, the reason they'd wanted to make games ever since they were a kid.
But Facebook is creepy. Facebook knows where you live and where you were born and who your friends are and it wants to know even more. It is pressing you every day: Where do you work. How long did you work there. What is your identity? You can upload a picture of yourself and your friend and Facebook asks if it can tag your friend for you. I know who this is
, whispers the service started by a college kid in order, basically, to give nerd guys some advantage over unattainable women.
Even if you believed in the bigger future of VR, the "social metaverse" -- wouldn't it be cool if VR enhanced our day-to-day interactions, if we could meet and spend time with one another virtually, if the social networking we already do could be even more immersive -- you must understand it's actually the immediacy, accessibility and instant gratification Facebook provides that helped tank the last round of metaverse fantasies at the turn of the millennium.
As recently as 2007 everyone believed interactions on the web could be more immersive, avatar-driven. That we'd live second lives in the virtual space. Virtual tours! Virtual office meetings! You'd have a second life, a virtual economy! Turns out it is easier to one-click buy something on Amazon than it is to navigate a virtual store. It's easier to "friend" someone on Facebook and chat with them, send them a couple Pusheen stickers and then go back to your life, than it is to meet them in Second Life and "hang out."
People are increasingly hungrier for simplicity, accessibility and gratification than they are for immersion. VR is naturally the enemy of the entire design philosophy of companies like Facebook and What'sApp and Instagram and everyone else Facebook has bought to try to make interaction instantaneous, viral, compulsive.
This is a gross, bad thing: Proof that Kickstarter truly is spending money on faith, and that you have no control over how your faith will be rewarded. Proof that companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook are going to get their information-hungry tendrils into your playspaces and your hardware devices so that they can watch you shower and beam advertisements directly into your dreams. Once again, the loyalty and buying power of gamers was exploited to drive a hardware platform toward the mass market. Congratulations, suckers!
I'm happy about the Oculus news!
Let's be real: this deal with Facebook can't actually do anything to prevent Oculus from ushering in gaming's glorious virtual reality future, because it wasn't, honestly, pointing in that direction before
. There's a reason VR has failed again and again since those days in the 1980s, when Nintendo tried to introduce the Virtual Boy. It costs a lot of money and a lot of time, and even the Rift's most fervent evangelists agreed there was a long, long way to go. It was possibilities they were excited about, not reality.
It takes Facebook-level money and infrastructure to finally bring VR from the realm of experimental fantasy for Snow Crash nerds and into the realm of the actually-possible. It takes a John Carmack -- a man who probably doesn't need to work again for the rest of his life, but who's choosing to be part of this.
John Carmack's working for Facebook now, you say with disdain -- yes, and so are you! You always have been. Sore about building Oculus' value, only to have the company's choices escape you? You did that for Facebook, too. And Instagram: You donated your lives, your interests, your photos, your likes and dislikes, your time and your energy to those platforms for free, and your contribution of content and your active use is what made Facebook wealthy enough that it can do these kinds of deals. Every click and every share you've ever done on Facebook or Instagram has brought us all here.
This is an intuitive marriage of resources built from the way we all use the internet these days. To play and to interact. If you really believe in VR, this is the best avenue for it: This scale of infrastructure and financial resources is basically the minimum it costs to bring an entirely new platform to life. Maybe it'll actually happen this time. If Facebook as a platform can help build Candy Crush Saga
and played a crucial role in King's IPO, maybe it'll do the same for something you actually like. The sky's the limit -- do you really think that "virtual FarmVille
" is where this stops? Do you believe that's in the cards at all?
Oculus' Palmer Luckey immediately took to Reddit to confront the storm head on, and made a few distinctly unambiguous statements ("If I ever need a Facebook account to develop for the Rift, I'm done", and "this deal specifically allows us to lower the price of the Rift"). The official Oculus VR company Twitter feed directed concerned fans to the Reddit thread, but bizzarely that alert got only a fraction of the shares and favorites
on Twitter than this popular "Simpsons Did It
" image, or even my own snarky half-thought Tweet
about Kickstarter backers. No one wants to practically evaluate the market, its challenges or opportunities, they want to surf virtual-reality waves of philosophical hysteria.
We don't really know how Facebook's acquisition will affect Oculus besides the certainty that they have more money now, and that Oculus is devoted to making VR proliferate accessibly for everyone. Luckey's stated it plain: They can develop better hardware, not rely on the "scraps of the mobile phone industry." They can hire more talent. Almost anything that was too expensive before isn't, anymore.
And I hate to break it to you, but the company'd had corporate investors for some time. It had long ago migrated away from solely being a community-driven product, a starship from the civilian fleet piloted only by the whim and dream of trusted Captain Luckey. Not every sale is a sell-out.
That's the dangerous thing about open development and community funding: We have access to a product and the platform for its development, which often makes it hard to remember why we invested in these things in the first place: Because we trust that the people at the helm are probably a little smarter than we are and that they probably know what they're doing.
"We promise we won't change," says Luckey. We've believed in his promises all along -- we've joined him on an evangelical pilgrimage -- why stop now?
People who believe in virtual reality are often fantasists, conspiracy theorists, creatives, escapists. But if we're ever going to see the tech developed properly, funded thoroughly and adopted widely, we're going to need a dose of realism.
(But this is a little weird