I have to admit that my first reaction to the news that Facebook had bought Oculus was shock, with a tinge of fear.
I’ve had high hopes for Oculus Rift (Oculus is the company, Rift is the device) since hearing about the Kickstarter campaign back in 2012. I’ve been watching the development of the Rift and wondering what type of new experiences it might bring and how it would shape itself as an independent project. With the successful completion of the campaign, where it raised over $2 million, well over the intended goal of $250,000. When that happened, I remember thinking that this was a pretty good start and would tip off investors that there was renewed demand for virtual reality (VR) gaming, which was pretty much dead before Oculus brought it back.
I wonder how many out there remember when these systems were making the mall-circuit back in the 90s?
So, now that I’ve had a good 24 hours to consider what this means, I’ve come to two conclusions. First, that what I’m really having trouble with is the combination of Oculus and Facebook. I’m not surprised about the purchase, nor am I upset at either Oculus or Facebook for making what I think is a sound decision for both parties – it really was a matter of time and a matter of who would eventually pick up the company. Oculus needed financial backing, which started with Kickstarter and has now culminated in the $2B pricetag. I think it is somewhat naive for the Kickstarter crowd to expect that something this popular wouldn’t be scooped up. What concerns me is Facebook’s penchant for commodotizing its users. I’m interested in the game, not the purchase, which tends to be the focus for an advertisement-driven organization like Facebook.
As someone who would probably have purchased an Rift once it was shelf-ready, I will probably second-guess that decision now. Sure Facebook already has some of my information, but the micro-transaction craze has really gotten out of hand, although I realize that Facebook is not the only company to blame for this trend. What bothers me is that I am concerned that those developers who really would have had a leg up using system independent of a large organization’s focus, would probably have had an easier time changing the landscape of gaming. It’s this frontier attitude that made me excited for the Rift in the first place. Finally, we might have an opportunity to escape from the endless First Person Shooter (FPS), Role Playing Game (RPG), Platformer, Puzzle game loop.
My second reason for concern did have something to do with the Kickstarter crowd, although I’ll re-state that this shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise to anyone. The reason for my concern is for the destruction of the social capital that had been built up around the Rift. I’ve been learning a thing or two about social capital, mainly through the writing of Charles Kadushin. This concept is difficult to encapsulate, but easy to see in action. The Rift was an independent product, which had done amazingly well, based on the real capital that those who invested in its social capital were trying to realize. Kadushin explains:
On the individual level, social capital can mean that people who have a large number and/or a wide range of friends in different occupations, or who have friends in high-ranked occupations, have better occupational outcomes.
Here he’s talking about better occupational outcomes, but we can extrapolate this for the Rift. The loose network or highly motivated individuals who donated a fair amount of money to Oculus, could have been a major factor in it’s development and success. The simple fact that some are disenfranchised now, regardless of whether it is warranted or not, means that a certain amount of social capital (how much remains to be seen) is now not available to draw from. This weakening of the network that came together to initially fund the Rift is now not nearly as cohesive as it once was and there is no way to tell exactly where the holes are. Most are potential customers, but how many were potential developers, or potential writers?
So, where does this leave us now? Facebook/Oculus have the Rift, Sony has recently announced their foray into this gaming space. I’m sure that others will follow. It looks like the race is heating up, but I hope that it’s not a race to the bottom. I worry that large companies can’t afford to fail, so they stick to the tried and true (tired and true), whereas a small, nimble company, with a group of independent AND established developers might have been able to come up with something really unique. We will have to wait and see.
Kadushin, C. (2012). Understanding social networks : Theories, concepts, and findings. New York: Oxford University Press