Once upon a time, the Oculus Rift headset was a prototype with a blurry screen bound with gaffer’s tape. But 9,522 people saw the device’s potential, donating $2.4 million through Kickstarter to get early versions built and shipped to game developers. They wanted to see Oculus build "the future of virtual reality." They didn’t expect it to get bought by Facebook.
"I cannot put into words how betrayed I feel by this," backer Sergey Chubukov writes on the Oculus Kickstarter comment page. "I feel cheated. I backed a vision of what I wanted gaming to be in the future. Now all I want is my money back," writes Grant Wilkinson. "I'm disappointed. You had the potential to become bigger than Facebook on your own," says John Susek.
"I cannot put into words how betrayed I feel by this."
Unlike many Kickstarter projects, Oculus actually delivered on its promise to ship early versions of the hardware to people who donated. But its grand rhetoric gave backers the impression that they were buying into the virtual reality revolution and would be along for the full ride. Not all the reactions were negative; some are optimistic that Facebook will give Oculus the resources it needs to make virtual reality robust and widespread. But most seem to feel that it would have been better to see Oculus grow up on its own — and if it couldn’t, it would have been better to see it bought by a company with a proven track record on gaming, hardware, privacy, or taking care of its acquisitions.
"What made Oculus so great was that it was a DIY project by a kid in his garage that was so good that it gave John Carmack pause," says Jordan Orelli, a developer who lives in New York, referring to the creator of Doom who first enthused about the Rift and even quit his day job to focus on it full-time.
"What has Facebook done for gaming? Nothing," Orelli says. "If it was Valve that had bought Oculus, I would have peed my pants uncontrollably. Apple, Google, Sony, Nintendo, fuck, even Microsoft would have all been better than Facebook."
It also doesn’t help that Facebook has turned into a service people generally distrust but also feel like they can’t quit. By doing what many backers see as a bait-and-switch in order to align itself with a company many people see as untrustworthy, Oculus may have done serious damage to its reputation.
Minecraft founder Markus Persson, an early Oculus backer, was especially shaken. "I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition," he wrote in a blog post last night. "I will not work with Facebook. Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven't historically been a stable platform."
Oculus and Facebook announced the acquisition with a press release and a call with journalists. Oculus emailed its press release to backers and posted a contrite blog post seemingly as an afterthought. But after the blowback, founder Palmer Luckey jumped on Reddit to do damage control.
"I won't change, and any change at Oculus will be for the better."
Oculus will operate independently of Facebook, he promised, and users will never have to sign in using Facebook to play Oculus games. "I am sorry that you are disappointed. To be honest, if I were you, I would probably have a similar initial impression!" he writes.
"I won't change, and any change at Oculus will be for the better," he continues. "We have even more freedom than we had under our investment partners because Facebook is making a long-term play on the success of VR, not short-term returns. A lot of people are upset, and I get that. If you feel the same way a year from now, I would be very surprised."
Oculus can now afford to make custom hardware instead of relying on the scraps from the mobile phone industry, hire anyone it wants, and make large investments in content, he says, adding "this is about the best possible outcome for the future of virtual reality, not my wallet."
And in another comment, again: "We promise we won't change."
It’s out of backers’ hands
In the end, it’s a story that’s been told many times. A small, beloved startup gets bought by a larger company with stronger profit motives; fans bemoan the founders for being sellouts and fret that the product will lose its heart. This time, fans were financially invested as well as emotionally invested. Being mostly independent game developers, they were also building the first layer of Oculus’s business. But the story is not much different, and the ending will be the same. Facebook will change Oculus, for better or for worse. It’s out of backers’ hands.
João Branchier, a 16-year-old high school student in Brazil, saved for "quite a while" so he could spend $350 on an Oculus developer kit. "I ordered my Oculus literally days ago, but now knowing that Facebook bought it I don't know how I feel about it," he tells The Verge. "I understand that Facebook ... will supply Oculus with unlimited money for development and we will probably get a better product, but I fear they may try and make it just another product to get revenue and forget about all the indie essence of this project, initially funded by the community."