Facebook has acquired virtual reality manufacturer Oculus VR for $2 billion, and the overall feedback from the internet appears to be one of disdain, betrayal and fear for Rift's future. Dave Cook reasons that we all need to take a moment and think clearly about this one.
”Oculus VR was clearly formed to be sold one day, much like Dave Perry’s Gaikai after it was purchased by Sony. It was, until last night, still very much a start-up without a clear, commercial strategy.”
Few could have predicted that Facebook would buy Oculus VR last night. It came out of nowhere and hit the internet square in the gut, leading to a wave of negative detritus based on theoretical musings and presumptions that the world is assuredly doomed. We've all slept on the news now and the planet continues to spin, but have those negative opinions cooled? One glance at VG247's social and news feeds suggests they have not.
When Oculus VR was formed by the now 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, there was an exciting air of independence and rebellion about the start-up. Its collective of tinkerers and creative types were working on something new and disrupted, with the support of Kickstarter backers and interested companies around the world. It was a group that took its time to innovate and research the format in an attempt to avoid the VR flop of the early '90s. Virtual reality is now in the most viable and prosperous state it has ever been in.
The technology still has its critics of course, and that's absolutely fine of course, but the rank wave of negativity surrounding the Facebook acquisition confounded me last night. One common criticism was that the Facebook deal was akin to stabbing Oculus VR's Kickstarter supporters in the back. My question is, why? When you laid down your investment in Luckey's firm, it was in the tech and its subsequent development, not the business itself. If you received an Oculus Rift kit following your investment, then by rights the company's debt to you is paid in full. I'm not seeing the betrayal here.
Oculus VR was clearly formed to be sold one day, much like Dave Perry's Gaikai after it was purchased by Sony. It was, until last night, still very much a start-up without a clear, commercial strategy. It's something I, and four Oculus-developing studios discussed in a recent round-table discussion. Rift is still not a consumer product and is likely far from it, meaning it is not yet beholden to the paying public. Most of you haven't bought into the brand, yet there is a feeling of ownership at play out there. It's confusing.
That said, I do understand why invested developers and those with Rift dev-kits might feel worried. They want to know if they will still receive tech support and access to future iterations of the Rift device to enable them to continue on with their prototypes. Notch's withdrawal of the Minecraft Oculus project is confounding however, given that Mojang just banked some $128 million in profit last year, and has a long string of Minecraft merchandise to its name. It is not a small indie any more. It is a big player, like those we gamers often claim to despise.
Distrust in Facebook is understandable to a point of course, as I too am not a fan of having my habits monitored and my data ownership relinquished by some small print in a garbled T&C document. Notch explained his rationale by saying, “Facebook creeps me out.” On the other hand, Luckey himself said in his open letter, "Facebook first approached us about partnering, I was skeptical. As I learned more about the company and its vision and spoke with Mark, the partnership not only made sense, but became the clear and obvious path to delivering virtual reality to everyone."
Now, we do not know the technicalities of the deal beyond top-level money incentives and initial investment, nor do we know what those discussions between Zuckerberg and Luckey involved. Regular readers will know me as a 'glass half full' kind of chap, and while I have long refrained from giving my mobile number to Facebook, among other details, I do not sit in my flat with the windows boarded up while wearing a tin foil hat. I believe this does not spell the end of the solid, consistent and incredible work Oculus has produced in the VR field to date, it will empower the firm and accelerate the technology to a point that, hopefully, sceptics will accept it.
Zuckerberg himself wrote in his own open letter, "We’re going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this." Do I have reason to disbelieve him? No, because Facebook is not a VR company. If it wants this deal to bear fruit and become a commercially viable facet of gaming and technology, it will listen to Luckey, Carmack and the rest of Oculus VR's elite. They hold the answers, and with new capital behind them they can finally hone that vision of immersing worlds and new methods of play faster, and more efficiently.
Others have scoffed, adding that Oculus Rift games will be reduced to the liked of Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga; the kind of titles you see on Facebook today. Who said that exactly? If you think that this deal is going to cut out the likes of Frontier's Elite Dangerous, Epic Games' Couch Knight, CCP's Eve: Valkyrie and other 'real' games - for lack of a better term - then there's every chance you might be getting a tad over-excited. It makes absolutely no sense for the work that has already been done to be discarded. None at all.
The point is that we do not know the fine details of where this acquisition will lead, but Zuckerberg seems confident that combined, Facebook and Oculus VR can not only bring virtual reality to a level that we all stop mocking it and view it in a more-positive light, and where it becomes integrated into everyday life beyond gaming. Joke about sending VR pokes and reading your Facebook activity wall through a blue and white headset all you like, but overlooking the positive potential of this investment is to lose sight of what could be the next evolution of our medium.
It won't come today, or the next day for that matter, but VR is a long-term strategy that will take time to blossom. Stunting that potential now makes absolutely no sense.