Why You’re Right to Be Worried About the Facebook-Oculus Deal
The Kickstarter Myth
Most members of the gaming community became aware of the Oculus Rift thanks to two things: the ringing endorsement of id Software co-founder and Doom co-creator John Carmack at QuakeCon 2012, and Oculus’ Kickstarter campaign. The latter garnered impressive support, drawing some 9,522 backers who donated a total of $2,437,429 — nearly 10 times the stated goal of $250,000.
At its best, Kickstarter is a pre-order system. At its worst, it’s panhandling with an elevator pitch.
It’s as much the fault of Kickstarter as it is Oculus that backers and players are upset about Oculus pulling down $2 billion by selling to Facebook. The very nature of the crowdfunding service is to help bring into the world creative projects that couldn’t otherwise get made. Oculus pitched the Rift to consumers and asked them to donate (or at the least, pre-order an early prototype software development kit) in order to help make the Rift a reality.
Kickstarter subsists on a culture of consumers and creators banding together to circumvent the traditional gatekeepers — rich folks who get to decide what gets made and what doesn’t, since they control the money. It’s a camaraderie service as much as anything, but with consumers sharing the risk for a project with the creators.
But the difference to the usual system is consumers don’t “invest,” since traditional investors risk their money for the chance of making more. Instead, consumers are offered Kickstarter “rewards” that a project or company is under no legal obligation to actually provide. At its best, Kickstarter is a pre-order system. At its worst, it’s panhandling with an elevator pitch.
The issues of crowdfunding aside, the culture of asking consumers to help with a project often outwardly states, and always implies, that the project needs the help of consumers. It’s a great idea that can’t get off the ground. The gatekeepers won’t let the creatives make their dreams come true. Only you can make something like the Rift a reality — fuck The Man, we can do it together. That’s the narrative crowdfunding creates to separate donors from their money, and it’s a narrative Oculus benefited from to the tune of $2.4 million (and more if we make the short leap in thinking Oculus’ securing of venture funding was helped along by its extremely successful Kickstarter).
In funding the Rift, players gave their money to the idea that they would help Oculus realize its vision on its own terms — something reiterated by Reddit users commenting on Luckey’s post, and something echoed in a blog post written by Notch.
“I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition,” Notch wrote. That’s exactly the sentiment many who backed the Oculus have right now.
It doesn’t help that Luckey himself said in 2012 that Oculus would not sell out to a larger company.
“Oculus is going forward in a big way, but a way that still lets me focus on the community first, and not sell out to a large company,” Luckey said on the Meant to be Seen forums.
So while of course businesses exist to make money, to generate profit, and to sell products to those ends, Oculus’ use of Kickstarter traded on a more altruistic narrative — that it was existing outside the usual paradigm and needed donations in order to realize its great idea. It’s callous to ignore the fact that that’s how Rift was sold to Kickstarter backers, who contributed no small amount of money to help make it happen.
But as it turns out, the Kickstarter narrative of donors banding together to help creators realize their crazy ideas is a myth. The Kickstarter myth exists as long as it’s convenient to helping people get free money out of consumers, before it shifts to, “Well, this is capitalism, of course they were going to sell out / were in it for the money / weren’t actually in this together with donors.” If you’re feeling like a chump for buying into the story, you’re not alone.
Donors invested themselves in the idea they were becoming a part of helping a vision become real — not helping to build value in a company that, it’s worth recalling, hasn’t actually really made anything yet. Selling the company with its promise to backers unfulfilled feels like a betrayal because in a very real way, it is.
The Appropriate Response is Skepticism
Of course, at least some of this is a matter of emotional attachment to a company that, ultimately, was nobody’s friend. It’s unfortunate that Kickstarter perpetuates an altruistic myth of consumers helping to bring good ideas into the world, when the reality is that good ideas clearly have no need to beg for free money. Good ideas make money and people with money want a piece — it’s the system as it has always worked, and crowdfunding culture is often twisted to allow even bigger benefits from the traditional system to everyone involved, except consumers.
The fact is that the thing Oculus has positioned itself as has changed drastically.
All that said, Oculus being bought by Facebook is just an event, and there’s no information yet as to how to judge that event. Facebook has a bad reputation but it also has been decent to Instagram and other acquisitions, and the members of Oculus who the public trust insist the company will continue as it has, but with a great deal more resources.
It all really could work out for the best, the way many members of the tech and games journalism community seem to think.
But Facebook’s questionable history in dealing with users, Oculus’ apparent exploitation of the altruistic nature of crowdfunding, and the fact that the VR company was in no way hurting for cash thanks to venture capital funding means gaming fans are fully in the right to be at least skeptical of the deal.
The fact is that the thing Oculus has positioned itself as has changed drastically. Its goals have changed drastically. It now is part of a company that has quarterly reports and income projections and, most importantly, shareholders to whom it is responsible. Oculus’ very nature is different. That can’t be ignored.
It’s certainly too early to judge Oculus based on its decision to sell to Facebook. As Jim Sterling put it in his latest episode of “The Jimquisition,” in reality, it could be worse — Oculus could have been acquired by a gaming company, after all. Facebook has a much better track record with acquisitions than pretty much any major gaming corporation. You’re just as likely to see ads in your VR with EA or Microsoft taking over Oculus as Facebook.
There’s also the upshot that Facebook’s investment creates an even bigger, more intense public focus on virtual reality; Facebook just spent $2 billion telling the world there’s a burgeoning VR market where there’s money to be made. That’s going to mean more competition as other companies amp up their VR work, or jump in anew. And that could bring about the VR world players were hoping for when they first heard about Oculus, as much as one company working with the backing of Facebook.
But as for Oculus itself, it’s time to exercise some skepticism and some patience, and to wait to see exactly what a marriage with Facebook will look like.