Facebook has put in a $2bn offer to buy Oculus VR, the company behind the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset that’s got the gaming world excited. Or at least, it had the gaming world excited until the news of the acquisition broke last night.
Reactions have not been positive, for the most part. The comment sections on both the Reddit thread and the post on the Oculus blog where Oculus founder Palmer Luckey shared his take on the acquisition are full of anger and disappointment over the news from gamers, developers and general commenters alike.
A common theme in these comments is disappointment at the apparent “selling out” of backers of the headset. The Oculus Rift started life as a Kickstarter campaign, meaning money for its development was obtained from a community of people genuinely passionate about the technology, but now, with financial backing from a huge corporation like Facebook, many feel that Oculus VR is turning its back on the people that got them where they are.
Worse than the snub, is the fact that in so doing Oculus appears to have used their backers’ cash to make a product that brought in the big bucks, without any commensurate backer reward. That may change in the coming days/weeks/months, of course, but for now that is definitely how it looks.
Even more worrying for some is Facebook’s reputation as a money-chasing corporate behemoth that’s more interested in advertising revenue and mining its users’ data than anything else. From the many comments, it’s clear people are fearing that Facebook will turn what was looking to be the most amazing VR headset to come along in years into something Mark Zuckerberg and pals can use to get more eyeballs onto more adverts than ever before. Especially as the company doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to gaming, with one commenter saying that Facebook hasn’t done “anything relating to gaming that wasn’t a cancer” in its 10-year history.
Reddit user Soranma, apparently a developer of some kind, questioned whether Facebook’s funding of the headset will prevent developers from doing what they want with the device, and asked whether its commercialisation by Facebook would force specific conditions on its use, like “targeted ads overlaid over games, intrusive tracking of applications or programs that we run, brick walling indie developers from the rift, and allowing our personal information to be sold/marketed/given to Facebook?” All valid questions, none of which were addressed by Palmer Luckey’s official post on the matter.
Notch says no
Soranma isn’t alone, either. Markus “Notch” Persson, the man behind the block-building mega-franchise Minecraft, tweeted the following shortly after the announcement:
We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out. — Markus Persson (@notch) March 25, 2014
But is all the hysteria really justified? Gamespot’s Peter Brown doesn’t seem to think so. His recent editorial talks about how the extra money will simply allow development to progress at a faster pace, and get into consumers’ hands just that much quicker. He even defends Facebook, saying that the company has a history of letting the companies it acquires carry on doing what they do with minimal interference.
He cites Instagram as an example, a company that had 30 million users before being acquired by Facebook, and 200 million users a year after while remaining largely independent. That, he says, provides a glimmer of hope that Zuckerberg et al will simply trust Palmer Luckey and the other people at Oculus VR to keep doing what they’ve been doing, only with more money behind them.
That sentiment is echoed by Mark Zuckerberg’s own post on the matter, in which he said:
Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences.
Immersive gaming will be the first, and 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.
A handful of commenters are also resisting the urge to ride the panic train in favour of more measured, reasonable thoughts on the matter. One astute Gamespot reader even pointed out that Facebook is the only big tech company that could feasibly partner with Oculus VR, since Sony, Google and Microsoft all have their own virtual reality headset projects on the go and Apple doesn’t appear to care about the medium.
The future is not written
What will actually come of this alliance is, of course, yet to be determined. Personally, I’m still very much looking forward to playing games with an Oculus Rift VR headset strapped to my head in the near-ish future (the OR was expected to be commercially available in late 2014 or early 2015, and that was before the acquisition), and I don’t believe Facebook is stupid enough to undermine its gaming potential with features that won’t appeal to the gamers it was designed for. That doesn’t mean Facebook won’t find some other ways to leverage it in their favour, but that also means I won’t absolutely have to participate in whatever those schemes are.
Even if the Oculus Rift ends up being as Facebookified as many are fearing, and Palmer Luckey simply up and retires to a newly-purchased island somewhere, the fact remains that the push to virtual reality gaming has started. Whether the Oculus Rift or someone else wins the race, at the end of the day us gamers will be the ones who benefit, and that thought makes me very happy.