Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Thoughts on Facebook + Oculus

(before I get into this, here's a disclaimer: I haven't been following development of the Oculus Rift super closely, so I may be lacking in detail. Also, a lot of this is pure speculation and might be crazy or completely wrong. If that's the case, feel free to rant in the comments.)

I've had a bit of time to think about Facebook's acquisition of Oculus, and here's where I stand.

If I had pre-ordered a Rift headset, I would cancel it. Of course the worst-case scenario is that the Rift will be tied to your Facebook account and every time you play a game you'll face an apocalyptic rain of advertisements before you get started and between levels, but that's not really what's important right now.

Forget all the paranoia about ads and walled gardens and Zuckerberg owning your retinal scans. At the most basic level: before the acquisition we knew where Oculus was heading as a company; after the acquisition we don't. Even if Facebook says they're going completely hands-off, and are completely sincere about it, there's no reason to believe that things will stay that way forever, and Facebook is under no obligation to keep that promise.

Will the Rift still be a good product? I'm sure it will be. It might even be revolutionary. But will it be the product gamers wanted? We'll have to wait and see. 

Even if you've completely abandoned all hope in the Rift (which seems a little overdramatic to me), it may have been the most promising consumer-level VR headset, but keep in mind that it's not the only one. As a high-profile example, Sony just announced one for the PS4. A lot of gamers are very upset about the Oculus acquisition, and you know what that is? A market waiting to be exploited. If another company has the capability to step up and deliver an open platform consumer-level VR product, the disgruntled legions would embrace it with enthusiasm.

This may be the fanboy in me speaking, but: what about Valve? We know that Valve had been working closely with Oculus to adapt games to the VR headset, and has their own high-end internal VR prototype. Valve's prototype is technically ahead of the Rift with two 1080p screens instead of one 1440p, among other features. Of course this means that Valve's prototype is much more expensive - since it's purely for testing and development, they don't have to worry about affordability for the general public.

Now it's optimistic speculation time.

First question: what are the contractual obligations of the developers at Oculus? Presumably everything the company has produced now belongs to Facebook, but if push came to shove, could the developers jump ship and head somewhere else? What if someone else offered them work?

Second question: what if Valve decides that the Rift's niche is now compromised and begins to adapt their internal prototype for the consumer market? Valve is viewed with incredible positivity in the gaming community and has massive clout - I have no doubt that if Valve announced their own consumer-level VR headset tomorrow, plenty of gamers would be willing to pre-order then and there.

Or what about Razer, the peripheral company that's had surprising success building high-end gaming laptops? Notch, developer of Minecraft, expressed serious reservations about the Facebook acquisition, and in response Razer's CEO sent this intriguingly ambiguous tweet his way. I wonder if Razer has been quietly cooking something up, and will take advantage of the craziness to make a big announcement.

Speculation: since Valve is primarily a software company and even their big hardware initiative (Steam Machines) is all about partnerships, would it be crazy for Valve and Razer to team up? Think that could be a thing?

This is all a roundabout way of saying that the Rift may not be dead, but even if it is there's still a lot of promise for VR gaming stewing patiently in the corners. At worst, this is a setback for VR gaming, but not a serious one - we already know for a fact that Oculus was not the only company working on consumer-level VR, they were just the furthest along. Worst-case scenario, we'll just have to be a little more patient.

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