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The internet (or more specifically, the very vocal gaming side of the net) exploded a few days ago when Facebook purchased Oculus Virtual Reality for $2 Billion. That's Two Beeeeeelion and more money than I can even understand. What I can understand is that this technology can really be something special - a huge leap forward in interaction and virtual reality, and the more money we can throw at that to make it grow, the better.
First, some tempered required reading from cooler heads in the gaming world:
Patrick Klepek - Facebook, Oculus, and Trust
Cliff Bleszinski - Riftbook
Strap on Your Goggles
People are upset because Facebook is not exactly a hardcore gaming company, and many bought into the Rift as primarily a gaming platform. Many of its notable investors and programmers are game developers and many intriguing work-in-progress titles have been produced with some wildly successful results. No, I don't think we're going to see Farmville VR or whatever nonsense people are knee jerking too. If the Facebook overlords are benevolent, they'll allow Oculus to keep on keepin' on (and they've stated as much). Here's the choice quote from the Zuck:
Oculus already has big plans here that won't be changing and we hope to
accelerate. The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and
there's a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform.
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.
He goes on to further iterate how exciting this technology is well beyond the realm of gaming. It represents a whole new way of interacting with each other, and the world. As it progresses and improves (and more importantly, becomes cheaper and cheaper) a VR headset could easily replace the mobile phone for our primary means of digital social interaction. It's god damn Star Trek times people! How can we be raging against this?
The Kickstarter Problem
Kickstarter is a popular means of crowd sourcing money to build whatever you're pitching. In the gaming world that's usually a game, but sometimes it's an entire startup company or piece of tech. The Oculus Rift went to Kickstarter to drum up money and support for their Neat Idea, and this Neat Idea was successful enough and garnered enough support that they were able to attract the attention of the Big Bad Corporation which swiftly bought them out. Only they didn't exactly "buy them out," Oculus wasn't trying to compete with Facebook, but Facebook saw on opportunity to capitilize on an emerging piece of technology and saw the potential it could create - again, not just with gaming.
The problem is that the average joe (or jane) that tossed money at Oculus now feel entitled to some compensation, believing either that they suddenly became an investor or that Oculus (or Facebook) somehow owe them something for helping them get to this point.
It's important here that we understand what Kickstarter is: a stylish, marketable way of begging people for money. That's it. Hopeful crowd-sourcers can and do set reward tiers for certain amount of money given, and games work nicely as a relatively cheap buy-in of $10-$20, often rewarding you with the game itself, essentially making many gaming Kickstarter projects a very early pre-order system.A pre-order system with zero guarantees.
I've done it with a ton of games over the last couple years, most of which have yet to be released, and a few of which I'm quite worried will ever see the light of day. But that is the caveat, the backer's remorse; you are throwing your money in a tin can, as Kelpek puts it, and hoping for the best. You are not an investor, you are not rewarded with shares in the company, nor have any say with what that company does, and certainly aren't entitled to any compensation. If you receive all the Kickstarter rewards that you were promised at your appropriate tier, that's it.
I personally didn't back the Rift Kickstarter because I can't afford a $300 toy, but with the huge influx of money they get from Facebook hopefully they can improve it to make it cheap enough for the rest of us.
I would hope that backers would be extremely excited at the notion that this technology garnered such interest to be given that insane amount of money. I would hope that people would see the positivity in bringing this technology to every facet of life, and look beyond the knee-jerk reaction that VR can only be used for checking status updates now. I would hope that people wouldn't explode with rage and that selfish sense of entitlement that often pervades the gaming world.
I would be wrong.
Another Notch in the Goggles
In a lot of ways Markus "Notch" Persson is an idealized version of the independent game developer. He revolutionized the way indies can develop games, pretty much single-handedly introducing the concept of Early Access - selling the game early and letting people play alongside its development. That game was Minecraft, and Notch became a gajillionaire from its crazy success. But he's also a beloved gajilionaire as he's truly passionate about gaming and the industry, investing much of his own money into games and projects that he likes - we're talking millions here - and supporting other independent developers. He's become a champion of the people and a major force and voice in the insular gaming world.
Thus it saddens me greatly when he knee-jerks worst of all. "Facebook creeps me out," he ominously utters as he cancels any talks of Minecraft coming to the Rift. Okay, so you don't like Facebook. Many people don't, it's designed to use your personal information and sell them to advertisers for targeted marketing. How dare they attempt to advertise things I would be interested in! Those monsters. But as an independent developer, Notch still holds the keys to his baby, and it's absolutely within his right to decide where he parks it. But his influence holds a ton of sway, and he's already being held up above the unruly mob that's outraged over the whole thing. "You see!" They scream at no one, "Notch hates it too!" It's a bummer, and I agree with Cliff that it makes him look like a pouty kid.
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Corporation
People love the little guy and love to *** on the big corporation. I don't think it's a recent phenomenon either, but it's especially apparent in the very knee-jerk reaction and outspoken world of gaming. Corporations are evil, faceless money grubbing groups that are only interested in squeezing every last drop of money out of you while squashing the dreams of starry-eyed developers.
That's the picture we have long painted in our cultural mythos, at least. After all, Electronic Arts managed to win Worst Company in America two years in a row despite being up against some truly awful, life-ruining competition (looks like they're out of the running this year. Progress?). Because they charge for short DLC? Because of some game delays or launch woes? This could easily turn into a rant about the entitlement of gamers but I'll wrap it up by saying we are far too quick to jump on the "*** all Corporations" bandwagon when many of our most beloved gaming franchises would simply not exist without them. Like it or not, AAA gaming is an extremely expensive and risky venture, and we need those Big Bad Corporations to fund them.
Facebook has become one such Big Bad Corporation. I'm not sure at what level it happens, but when it happens you know. People start cracking jokes and rolling their eyes, but go right on using whatever company's products without irony. I've been using Facebook since way back in my college days of 2004ish, back when it was nothing but a single profile page per person and a literal .txt wall that you wrote on each others pages. Zuckerberg was a champion of the young techies and an inspiration for many. Then he started making money, lots of it, and ads started popping up on the site and everyone got gradually pissed about it, but rarely enough to ever actually stop using it. It might have lost some relevance when your parents and grandparents could hop on and see everything you did, but instead it just became something else - a great way to casually keep up friends and family and share photos.
Facebook acquiring the Oculus technology makes sense from an investment stand point - it could easily become the next big social tool. Or it could become nothing and dwindle away into obscurity. Had it been acquired by a dedicated gaming company, we might have gotten some sort of Oculus Rift console with some cool games. But if EA or Activision had purchased it, people would have lost their *** just the same, and Oculus would've only gotten a fracture of the money and support it needed to flourish as anything other than a niche toy. With this amount of attention and funding, VR could really become something special - a piece of technology as life-changing as the mobile phone or the internet. And yes, hopefully we'll still get some awesome games out of it.
I'm the PC Editor over at Leviathyn.com. You can check out my published articles here. Any views expressed in this blog are my own.
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