The games at large has always been hungry for revolution, especially in recent times with the growing maturity of the medium and a new generation of console hardware leaving everyone chomping at the bit for The Next Great Step Forward. The rise of the Oculus Rift has recently become somewhat of a lightning rod for this obsession, being The Future Of Game Interaction married to crowdfunding, The Future Of Retail. Bold statements have been thrown around higgledy-piggledy, hype has been lapped up and held close to many chests and people have been perfectly happy to make emotional investments in a future that has been perceived as more like the final act of a Hollywood biopic than anything resembling reality.
Because that’s the thing: it’s not about revolution, but evolution. Revolutions invariably fail because they try and enforce change on an environment that has been engineered to sustain the status quo; the real change comes with time, incremental adjustments to that status quo that slowly but surely make their mark on the whole and influence it. Crowdfunding has been a bold and worthy development for an industry where cynicism towards traditional retail models has reached an all-time high, but it comes with clear limitations that too many people are continuing to ignore until their expectations outstrip the reality of what they’ve paid for.
First, there’s the practical issue: Crowdfunding will get you so far, but it’s been generally shown to come with a glass ceiling when it comes to how ambitious you can be. We’ve seen several games abandon Kickstarter because the funding accrued was insufficient; Divekick was taken on by a publisher, and Double Fine eventually adopted an episodic early access structure to secure the money they needed for Broken Age, and while high-profile Kickstarter projects exist such as Chris Roberts’s Star Citizen (Currently standing at some $40m raised) and Warhorse Studios’ Kingdom Come: Deliverance, neither have as yet released anything that qualifies as playable code.
Consider that we’re just talking about software here: think of the sheer amount of money it takes to develop electronic appliances, especially something like the Oculus Rift that is reliant on tech that is both hugely complex and unproven in the market. The truth is, Oculus have done well using the Kickstarter money to come up with several thousand devkits and an HD prototype, but crowdfunding money was never going to be enough to take this thing into the mainstream. At some point, the big boys were always going to have to step in.
“I didn’t chip in $10K to seed a first investment to build value for a FB acquisition.” - Markus ‘Notch’ Persson
No, Notch, you didn’t. But neither did you buy the right to determine how Oculus run their business in perpetuity, either.
What you did give Oculus money for is the same thing every other backer did, what every other backer of every crowdfunded project is promised: the chance to support potential. You read the pitch, you donated money to help them realize this ambition, and they went forth and given what they’ve come up with using this Kickstarter money, I’d say it’s fair to consider the result so far well worth the contribution made. What you did pay for is stated very clearly on the Oculus Rift Kickstarter page: “We’re here raising money on Kickstarter to build development kits of the Rift, so we can get them into the hands of developers faster“. As promised, several thousand dev kits have been manufactured and shipped to developers who have spent the better part of a year and a half adding Rift support to games, many of which are already available and ready for consumer use. With the help of Kickstarter, Oculus VR proved their concept and made the Rift a viable option in the marketplace. Now that that has been achieved and then some, what Oculus do with it is immaterial.
Isn’t the fact that the Rift has made enough of a dent in the zeitgeist already to be in the position to be bought by these bodies a triumph in itself? When the Rift was first announced it was joke fodder; now it’s been adopted by scores of developers, copied by none other than Sony and now bought for 2 billion dollars by one of the world’s major online companies. Kickstarter helped give the project life and make it thrive, and that is what Kickstarter is there to do. If you want to tell people what to do with these products a year, two years, even six months from now, buy shares in that company. If you want to support a cool idea, donate away but be aware that donations only ever go so far.
This brings us to the second, and more pertinent, issue at hand: emotional attachment. Most of the commentary about the Facebook sale, particularly coming from Kickstarter backers, has been purely emotional in nature. People feel ‘betrayed’, ‘ripped off’, ‘let down’, ‘stabbed in the back’… Being the Internet, I’m sure the term ‘raped’ has been flung around at some point. It makes you want to double-check the bosses at Oculus and see if any of them are called Lannister.
The thing is, I get it. Part of the big appeal – and one of the implicit dangers – of crowdfunding is that sense of being there for something’s creation, to play a part in its coming to being. It makes you feel part of the team, and it’s a buzz to see something you contributed money towards sprout wings and make a mark on the mainstream. I’ve experienced it myself. But ultimately, whether a project flies or dies makes no difference to what you are to it. The original terms still stand, and you have no legal right to any involvement or influence past those terms. You can romanticize your involvement all you like, but that thing isn’t yours and neither is the company that made it, and just because they’re using Kickstarter now doesn’t automatically mean they can’t pursue private funding or sell out altogether later, if the company’s ambitions have provided them an opening to a bigger stage.
This goes for all crowdfunding methods, and the sooner people get it straight the sooner the drama will settle. This is still a new phenomenon whose rulebook is still being written, and the more drama that gets kicked up by people led astray by their own unsubstantiated expectations the less focus can potentially be put on genuinely dishonest pitches. Not that I don’t understand disliking Facebook: I’m not a massive fan myself. But again, it’s Oculus VR’s right to pick whoever they feel can offer them the best deal. They are a business, and backers donated money to help them establish that business at the stage the pitch was issued. But nobody paid a cent to determine their business decisions years down the track, and trumpeting their disappointment now that that concept has been demonstrated to them only highlights how little they understood what they were getting into.
Right now Facebook’s lack of meddling in past purchases such as Instagram is the most encouraging sign that Oculus will be allowed to continue bringing VR to PC gamers; with a large number of games either having Rift support developed or having had it included already, you would hope that they’re smart enough to not stall this momentum. What is significant is that Oculus VR now have the resources behind them to turn their product from a cult contender to a major product, and while I can’t say that I’m excited by the prospect of Facebook: Lawnmower Man Edition the fact that the Rift tech is now being opened up to applications beyond gaming is potentially massive, and something that Facebook will want to exploit as much as possible if they’re smart. Remember how much use some medical facilities got from modified Kinects? Imagine that paired up with Rift. You could also think of the kinds of simulations used in engineering, and consider how much use could be made of, say, being able to walk around a building to test out things like potential stress points or design flaws.
But instead it’s so much easier to cry ‘sellout!’ and boo at the big bad media giant and mourn our perceptions of ‘what could have been’ like a spurned date. Sure, it could all go horribly wrong. Facebook could turn the Rift into an ad delivery device and price out the very developers that are turning it into a gaming innovation. They could snaffle all the tech for themselves, and that could be the last we ever see of it. Going by their relatively unobtrusive treatment of their other acquisitions such as Instagram, however, there’s at least reason to hope that the Rift will stay accessible to developers and we can see the growth of the device continue on the path that’s served it so well thus far. All we can do is see how it goes, but the point is if you’re bemoaning the worst at this point, you’re doing it without evidence and for your own enjoyment – not anyone else’s.
By buying Oculus Facebook have created potential for the tech to be used for things other than games. If they hadn’t have swept in with their jumbo pocketbook someone else eventually would’ve, even if the Rift were destined to stay a niche gaming device. Either way, an Oculus VR with big-time resources behind it is at least worth the risk. In the more immediate future, however, it will be interesting to see how the PR crisis affects peoples’ perception of crowdfunding, or more accurately their relationship with it.