A few hours after it was announced that Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) would be buying virtual reality headset maker Oculus, the creator of one of the most popular games on the market took to Twitter to express his displeasure with the deal.
Minecraft creator Markus Persson, who tweets under @notch, posted "We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just canceled that deal. Facebook creeps me out."
That's a pretty harsh reaction to a deal in which Facebook went out of its way to say it will allow Oculus to maintain its headquarters in Irvine, Calif., and continue development of the Oculus Rift, its virtual reality gaming headset.
While it may be harsher and higher-profile given that it's coming from the creator of a game that not only has topped 100 million players but has crossed into pop culture on T-shirts, LEGO sets, and other product tie-ins, Persson's feelings were echoed by many in the gaming community.
What is Oculus and where did it come from?
The rise of Oculus has been a grassroots success story not unlike Facebook's, though perhaps without the backstabbing, intrigue, and identical twins. The company was founded by Palmer Luckey, a boyish-looking now 21-year-old genius who describes himself as a "virtual reality enthusiast and hardware geek" (which also seems pretty similar to Facebook's creation story). Luckey, with his name that sounds like the lead character in a movie pitched as "Indiana Jones in space," took his idea for a virtual reality headset to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and promptly raised $2.4 million.
The company has yet to release a consumer product, but it has sold 75,000 of its kits for developers and has become one of the perceived leaders in the emerging immersive gaming space. And while the gaming community -- at least part of it -- is outraged at the move, Oculus' management posted a note to the company website explaining why they took the deal.
At first glance, it might not seem obvious why Oculus is partnering with Facebook, a company focused on connecting people, investing in Internet access for the world, and pushing an open computing platform. But when you consider it more carefully, we're culturally aligned with a focus on innovating and hiring the best and brightest; we believe communication drives new platforms; we want to contribute to a more open, connected world; and we both see virtual reality as the next step.
More importantly Oculus as a stand-alone company -- no matter how innovative it was -- had a huge risk of failure. Developing a virtual reality platform costs money, marketing the technology takes even more, and keeping ahead of the competition drains capital too. There have been countless geniuses with hot ideas who fail. Sometimes it's as simple as having the right product at the wrong time.
As part of Facebook the Oculus team has access to near-limitless resources, a huge marketing platform, and a ready customer for the technology. Joining Facebook may harm the company's purity in the eyes of certain gamers, but it gives its eventual products a much better shot at being more than a footnote to someone else's story.
Why did Minecraft's creator react this way?
After his Twitter post Persson added an entry to his blog that explained his love for what Oculus had done -- finally make a virtual reality device that worked -- and his disdain for Facebook. Persson noted that he had donated to the Oculus Kickstarter at the top level, owned its developer kit prototype, and had visited the company's office (one of the Kickstarter perks). His blog post expressed his admiration for the bootstrap methods Oculus used to get where it is, while saving time to express his lack of respect for Facebook.
Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.
Don't get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications of VR. Being able to sit in a virtual living room and see your friend's avatar? Business meetings? Virtual cinemas where you feel like you're actually watching the movie with your friend who is seven time zones away?
But I don't want to work with social, I want to work with games.
I'm sure people in the gaming world will salute Persson's stance, but he sounds like someone who stops liking a band when it has a hit because it "sold out." Facebook has not said Oculus should stop working on games or that the technology will solely be used for social purposes. Is it not possible that under Facebook Oculus will have more money for development and can pursue a gaming path along with other uses for the technology?
Minecraft fans won't get to be part of that because Persson went all indie rock and took his ball and went home without giving Facebook -- which has been hands off with other acquisitions -- a chance to show what it would do.
Persson is not alone in his dislike of the Facebook deal -- technology website Kotaku posted a lengthy article of gamers reacting negatively.
Mark Zuckerberg is not the devil
Somehow creative genius wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg, who started his company in a dorm room and inexplicably turned into one of the top companies in the world, no longer has any credibility with the geek world because he figured out how to make money. Facebook's somehow not pure anymore because the company's innovations no longer take place due to passion, so the story goes.
That might be true. The history of cool start-ups being ruined by the giant companies that buy them is a long one. But just because that has happened does not mean it's going to happen here. Facebook owning Oculus may kill some of the romance, but you can't fund where Oculus needs to go -- even just for gaming -- on Kickstarter alone. Would Persson feel more comfortable if some faceless venture capital company provided the money behind immersive virtual reality gaming? Those guys actually have only one goal -- making money -- while Zuckerberg and Facebook have a history of being socially conscious.
Facebook could ruin Oculus and suck the soul out of a cool idea. It could also give the company the resources it needs, marketing might, and an actual shot at success. Zuckerberg might not be the cool nerd eating ramen noodles and living whatever fantasy life Persson has romanticized, but I'm guessing he -- or at least the people who now work for him -- would have delivered a pretty cool virtual reality Minecraft.