Last night, The Daily Beast reported that virtual reality pioneer Palmer Luckey had secretly funded a pro-Trump group called Nimble America, dedicated to promoting internet memes and "shitposting" in support of the candidate. While Luckey’s general political alignment hadn’t been a secret, the news potentially tied him to some of the uglier parts of Trump’s online support base, including alt-right cheerleader Milo Yiannopoulos. Late on Friday, Luckey called the reports of his Trump support inaccurate, although he admitted to donating $10,000 to the group in question — and one of his key claims remains in doubt.
In the time before this statement, a handful of developers openly announced that they’re suspending work on Oculus headsets. Plenty of Twitter users have sworn off the platform, and Reddit’s Oculus community is debating the piece in a 3,700-comment thread. But it’s difficult to gauge what the long-term fallout will be, both for Oculus and the people who have invested months or years of work building for VR. Privately, developers I’ve spoken with have expressed a mix of frustration and disappointment, along with uncertainty over their relationship with a company whose name is nearly synonymous with virtual reality.
Few companies have as close, or as fraught, a relationship with fans as Oculus
Few companies have as close, or as fraught, a relationship with their fans as Oculus. The original Rift headset was funded by thousands of people who were willing to put down $300 for a device they’d never seen, and its then-teenage creator was a regular on VR forums and Reddit, popping into threads to answer questions. But a 2014 acquisition by Facebook alienated some of Oculus’ supporters, and the Rift’s consumer launch was stalled for months by an undisclosed component shortage. Even before Luckey’s project was discovered, the company had acquired — fairly or unfairly — a reputation for being aloof and secretive. Thanks to its shipping difficulties, its dependence on a few tentpole games, and the fact that it launched without motion controllers, the Rift is in a vulnerable position. And this news comes only two weeks before the annual Oculus Connect developers conference, where it’s set to reveal a shipping date for its long-awaited Touch controllers.
Despite today’s anger, though, there’s little sign that Oculus’ current catalog will suffer. While Insomniac Games, one of the Rift’s most prolific publishers, said the reported actions "do not reflect the values of our company," they made no mention of a boycott. If Oculus is in danger of losing anyone, it’s people who planned to port games from other platforms, like the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. Polytron, the company behind high-profile PlayStation VR game SuperHyperCube, stated today that it would not be adding Oculus Rift support — "in a political climate as fragile and horrifying as this one, we cannot tacitly endorse these actions by supporting Luckey or his platform," they wrote.
"Finding out last night that the founder of one of the main platforms for this medium basically thinks white supremacy is funny was a crystallizing moment."
Two Vive developers I spoke with, both of whom have highly rated games on Steam Early Access, also said that they would no longer be comfortable working with Oculus. "I am currently returning my Oculus dev hardware," says one, who recalls backing the Oculus Kickstarter campaign in its first hour. "One of the dignities of being an indie developer is being able to live one's politics, on a daily basis. Part and parcel of that is making regular decisions on whether or not to invest time/money/energy/allegiance to various platforms. For myself, finding out last night that the founder of one of the main platforms for this medium basically thinks white supremacy is funny was a crystallizing moment." Rift users will still be able to play the game through Valve’s SteamVR system, but it won’t be tailored to Oculus’ custom Touch controllers.
"We were approaching [our game] with ‘We should launch on Oculus Touch,’" says the other developer. "Now we have considerable questions. Very real ethical questions we'd like answered, such as: how much of the 30 percent cut of our revenue that goes to Oculus is going to fund neo-Nazi hate memes?" In both these cases, though, it was only the last straw in an already-difficult relationship with Oculus — one criticized a "control-freak and anti-competitive" approach to the development community, and the other called Oculus’ "stand-offish and unresponsive" behavior "the polar opposite" of Valve and HTC’s relationship to developers.
"I've had a great experience working with Oculus over the years ... But this sure as hell doesn’t make me feel better about it."
Developers who are already publishing on the Rift and Gear VR had more ambivalent reactions. "I've had a great experience working with Oculus over the years (including working with lots of good people), and I like the products that they've built. I don't think I'm going to boycott the company based on the politics of its founder," says E. McNeill, creator of Darknet and Tactica. "But this sure as hell doesn't make me feel better about it." McNeill floated the idea of a competing donation drive for Hillary Clinton, pledging $1,000 to the cause. Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs, whose game Job Simulator is a launch title on the Oculus Touch motion controllers, just directed me to an oblique cry of despair.
Every field will eventually have to navigate separating a creator from their creation. But with Luckey and Oculus, it’s particularly difficult. Even with the Rift's recent difficulties, Oculus is a titan in the VR space. Virtual reality isn’t an established medium, and for many developers, it’s not a lucrative one either. Anyone who makes a game or experience for a high-end headset is courting a tiny audience even if they release on every platform, and in the world of mobile VR, the Gear VR is currently the only real option beyond the super-simple Google Cardboard. And Luckey isn’t just the face of Oculus, he’s the face of virtual reality, as evidenced by this summer’s bizarre Time cover.
Also, in the 2016 election, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to draw a line between conflicting political opinions and supporting hate. "I don't agree with the politics of Palmer or Trump, but I disagree more with the instant and vitriolic reaction the internet has to beliefs they might disagree with," says Technolust developer Blair Renaud, who called for reserving judgment on the news.
But the argument, for most people, isn’t with Luckey’s beliefs, or even just donating to a pro-Trump cause. It’s that to the best of our knowledge so far, he chose one so closely associated with racism, harassment, and internet sociopathy — while representing a medium that’s supposedly defined by idealism and empathy.
Update 10:40PM ET: Updated with statement from Luckey.