Oculus Rift: Selling Out and Cashing In

I’ve watched this topic get batted around a few news sites, discussed on a few blogs, debated in dozens of comment sections …and some seem to grasp what’s wrong with the Oculus deal. Will it hurt Oculus in the end? Who knows? I’m not wishing them any ill will. But was there something wrong with striking a deal with Facebook?

Why is anyone even pretending there’s nothing wrong with this? I think it’s obvious this is a betrayal, regardless of whether this turns out good for Oculus. The argument that because this ensures VRs future, it’s not a betrayal is hypocrisy if you believe Facebook isn’t in it for the same reasons as the Rift team. And that’s not even a wild guess — of course they’re in it for consumer information. Facebook is in it for as much personal information as they can wring from users who don the goggles, as much as they can rip out of your virtual body. It’s a deal with the devil.

The Kickstarter Angle

There’s the angle that says Kickstarter is just a place to support projects you believe in. It’s not a purchase. It’s not a pre-order. It’s not a promise of any sort. You throw your money into a hole and feel “warm and fuzzy” for supporting your local designer. If only this even came close to matching the reality of what Kickstarter means to backers.

Kickstarter, for ordinary people, is about good faith. It’s designers coming to an audience and saying “hey, we’re too poor to make our dream come true, but it’s a very worthy dream and all that’s holding us back is money. Can you help?” People who identify with this level of material deprivation go there to show solidarity. They do it because they know what it’s like to not have the capital for your dreams. They know what it’s like to have a great idea and have money be the reason you can’t realize it. These people are here on faith. They want these projects to not only succeed, but to be able to stand next to their designer and say “alone, we couldn’t do this, but together we’re as good as the best of them. Together we don’t’ need corporations.” This is what Kickstarter does for it’s community of backers.

I loathe the whole line of reasoning which ignores this. So many want to pretend this was strictly an economic transaction and I get it. That’s one of the things capitalism does best: alienate us from the things we do. We aren’t people, we’re dollar signs, a line on the balance sheet, on the expense report. You’re not a person, you’re a hammer, you’re a coder, you’re a writer, you’re a bank account; your work and money are divorced from your person. And the market doesn’t care about people; it only cares about the services people provide. This is the lens those who ask us to see this as a simple economic transaction use to frame the discussion. But a backer on Kickstarter is more than his money. A designer is more than his design. This is fundamental to the ethos of Kickstarter: that there are people here and they matter.

Of Faces and Facebook

This beast called Facebook is not your friendly neighborhood Mr. Rogers or Mary Poppins. This is the neighbor peeping through your window with a telescope every night. Facebook is the Dark Lord of Privacy Invasion, Prime Evil worthy of Diablo tales. Their users are little dots on a grand chart, each of whom represents a byte of information. Facebook wants to turn you from a byte to a terabyte. They want to reduce you to pure information for the purposes of selling it. This is what Facebook sees in VR technology, another opportunity to convert your person into pile of lifeless cold cash.

This is whom Oculus sold to. This cannot be overstated because it so defines the anger, disappointment and betrayal felt by supporters of Oculus.

If Oculus had sold to Microsoft or Google or Mozilla, there’d be moaning of a different sort. If it had sold to Blizzard or EA, its possible the dissent would be little more than curious mumbling if any at all. Any company but Facebook was more appropriate even if not totally appropriate. Facebook represents the very opposite of Kickstarter. If Kickstarter is about grassroots people supporting one another, Facebook is about turning people into faceless commodities, packaging them and selling them like they’re nothing.

White Lies and Whole Truths

Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) headset designed specifically for video games that will change the way you think about gaming forever.

This is one of the opening sentences of the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus Rift. Importantly, note who and what they said this was designed for. This kind of verbage is plastered all over the Kickstarter, updates and various game companies and conferences the developers patronized. Not to mention that some of the developers are industry veterans. No matter what song they sing today, it’s undeniable that they went to the gaming community for support and intended to build hardware for that community. They found millions of dollars and support there.

I agree that VR is bigger than gaming, most reasonable people do. What I disagree with is how once $2 billion was waved in their faces by Facebook, it suddenly became beyond gaming for them. Throughout the whole campaign it’s been all about gaming, but once Facebook waves that cash it’s suddenly FOR THE WORLD.

The dev team sold out. Notch said it perfectly: “I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.” This captures the anger expressed by supporters. Gamers aren’t claiming sole ownership of VR, but it’s been financed by our community by developers who told us that their first design was for us. The OR team got ahead of themselves and slipped into the world of dreams before they even successfully put the first pair of glasses to market. All this talk of the future of VR when they have yet to deliver the present.

Since our Kickstarter is all about developers building great games for the Rift … – Oculus Rift Kickstarter Update #6

Those were the days, eh?

The Done Deal

So now that we have this context, let’s revisit a few questions.

What was wrong with selling Oculus Rift to anyone?

The Oculus team knew going in that they were going to sell to the highest bidder and they abused the faith of Kickstarter backers to do this — without even thinking there’s ANY ethical considerations here. This isn’t what Kickstarter is about for it’s backers. And its exactly this kind of abuse that will make them discontinue supporting the platform, not that it will hurt Kickstarter. It’s increasingly a a scouting grounds for venture capitalists, people very unlike the average Oculus backer. So Oculus and company can do what they did, but it has a different cost that future developers on Kickstarter will pay.

What was wrong with selling Oculus Rift to Facebook? Facebook. That’s what’s wrong.

I’m sure Oculus VR needed those millions to get the thing through development and to market. I have no doubt about the usefulness of such cash. That also doesn’t matter. The sale represents bad faith to supporters who aided their success and who showed a willingness to financially support them into the foreseeable future.

I think the OR team’s days are numbered, not because I want them to fail (I don’t) but because they’re in a deal with Facebook. They can drink their own Kool Aid, but that won’t turn it into truth serum.

And now the Oculus deal is done and it’s OK. We all learned our lesson. Kickstarter backers are now much more wary of backing such projects, knowing that these designers intend to abuse their faith. We can all talk about “the rules” of Kickstarter and “the obligations” of using it until the cows come home and it won’t change the fact that Kickstarter has been a community built on good faith and succeeding without The Man. Kickstarter thus far has been nothing if not commoners helping commoners, sharing the successes of a few geniuses whose ideas we admire and whom remind us of ourselves. Having Facebook emerge the winner of a Kickstarter project of such importance is bad for everyone involved.

Scree Tags: #kickstarter #oculusrift #virtualreality

The Development of Genres


“Street Cafe” by Raben Aas of Deviant Art

I’ve never been able to put my finger on why genres always seemed awkwardly named or labeled based on its core gameplay mechanic. Even Extra Creditz has sort of mused on this question, but I think I get it now and I also think it makes perfect sense to continue it the way it’s currently trending.

EC used the comparison of other media, such as movie genres, to show that the way we label games is …awkward, and possibly inappropriate. For example, there are horror, sci-fi, and drama genres for film. Games instead look at the core gameplay mechanic for names: First Person Shooter, Role-playing Game, Real Time Strategy. If we look at what’s being relayed via this naming mechanism we can see that games tend to name type of fantasy or simulation they do. And if it’s trying to describe genre of fantasy or to pinpoint the name of the simulation, then this is entirely appropriate.

When we view games as virtual worlds, even offline games, even single-player games — we can see that naming genres based on the experience is valuable. If I were to walk into a VR Bar 100 years from now, I may have to buy a ticket at the door and then choose from a menu the kind of fantasy I want to experience. Those fantasies might be named Sandbox Venus, First Person Shooter, Maze Sim, and so forth. Games are virtual reality without the peripherals (yet). Can genres be refined into even better descriptors of the fantasies they represent?

New genres seem to pop up every year, really. Developers are trying hard to really nail down precisely the experience the player will have with their games.  This might also be why the Action/Adventure genre continues to be one of the most ambiguous. This can mean so many different kinds of fantasies. After all, even an FPS is an adventure of sorts so what does the Adventure genre really indicate?

Anyway, there’s some food for thought. What do you think of the way the industry labels games?

Scree Tags: #virtualreality #gamertalk #aboutgenres