Yesterday afternoon the Internet was rocked by the announcement that Facebook has acquired Occulus, the gamer’s VR darling startup, for $2 billion. At first, I, like many others, thought it was a joke, one of those bogus posts that people put on Google+ during a slow workday, or some clickbait article from some douchey gaming blog. I even thought for a millisecond that it might be an April Fools’ gag, though April Fool’s Day was still several days away. However, as I quickly double-checked and triple-checked, and finally confirmed the news as true, several emotions rushed right through my mind: anger, betrayal, and finally sadness. Many gamers felt those very emotions, from the comments on gaming blogs and social media sites, and the Occulus/Facebook damage control PR machine went into full overdrive, with a statement from Mark Zuckenberg, Mr. Facebook himself, with assurances from Occulus founders Palmer Luickey Brendan Iribe that this would be good for the company and for gaming, and with comments posted by “professional PR operatives” attempting to counteract the upsurge of negative reaction to the news. The gist of the damage control “message” was that gamers were paranoid and overreacting, that Occulus would remain independent, and that this would be good for gaming.
Don’t believe it for a second. It’s all bad.
First, there’s the issue with Facebook and Zuckenberg’s track record. After the news of the deal became public, Minecraft creator Notch made a public statement to the effect that he was canceling all Minecraft development for the Occulus Rift. Apparently he had been working with the Occulus people, and had been to his offices as recently as last week, and he was never told of any impending acquisition. He further stated that he did not contribute $10,000 of his own money as early seed capital for Occulus, only for the founders to turn around and quickly sell the company to Facebook for a windfall. I’m guessing Notch is echoing the feelings of many of Occulus’ early backers there. He also stated that Facebook’s intentions are unclear, and that they “give him the creeps.” He’s also echoing the feelings of most gamers with that one as well. After all, isn’t Zuckenberg that screwed everybody over, including his partner and best friend, in order to make Facebook a success? Did you read/watch “The Social Network”? Do we really think he’ll let Occulus operate independently for very long?
There is only one thing Zuckenberg/Facebook are interested in with the Occulus purchase: public perception and shoring up the Facebook share price. It’s no secret that Facebook has had trouble monetizing the site, despite its giant popularity. Facebook was late to mobile, and all its initiatives there have crashed and burned. (Does anyone remember the HTC or Motorola Facebook smartphones?) In the past year, Facebook has launched into an acquisition spree (from Instagram to WhatsApp) , in order to give the investors and the public at large that Facebook is a growing, thriving business that’s keeping with the latest technological developments/trends. Now that mobile is stagnant (and mobile companies are betting on those silly wearables as the next big thing… but that’sa topic for another day), the next big things in tech are AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality.) AR belongs to Google, with its Glass technology (which will be huge, mark my words.) But VR is still a nascent technology, with the most publicized efforts being those of Kickstarter statup Occulus and Sony’s Project Morpheus. By buying Occulus, Facebook gets to say that it’s at the forefront of VR technology, which will be parroted by know-nothing financial analysts and reporters. Facebook is cool and edgy again.
So Occulus gets much needed capita out of the deal. How can that be bad? Well, like I said before, the money has strings attached. Facebook’s corporate tendrils will begin to probe insinuate into Occulus, and will destroy the young company. Maybe it will begin with an ambitious suit, initially sent as a liaison. Then more suits will follow. Pretty soon they’ll have those hapless occulus employess filing TPS Reports in triplicate, and the talent will head out the door (beginning with John Carmack.)
And those $2 billion will attract hucksters and con-men to VR, just like what happened with Kickstarter when it first went big. Expect a lot of VR startups with big promises scamming investors out of their cash, with little to show for it. The technology will get a bad rep before it’s even ready.
Then there’s the company culture… remember Star Trek’s Prime Directive, about non-interference with less developed cultures? Occulus was a startup, and it needed to remain a startup for a few more years. Startups achieve great things – look at HP, Apple, Google. Would they have achieved what they did without the pressure to succeed? This deal erases all that. Occulus is now Facebooks kept, well-fed pet. The pressure to succeed and achieve is off, gone. Nothing to see here, folks, these are not the droids we’re looking for, moving on to Sony and Project Occulus, move along.
This is all that went through my mind yesterday when I read the news. Today? I just feel sadness… for what could have been.