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Oculus Rift and Facebook: Subverting the Underdog Story

First, some background. For the five people that don’t know, Kickstarter is the king of crowd-funding websites, a sort of open-source Dragon’s Den where people pitch their ideas, and strangers throw money at them in vague hopes that their projects will be funded.

The Oculus Rift is probably one of Kickstarter’s biggest success stories. Basically, it’s true, proper virtual reality, a headset that tracks your movements and lets you be truly immersed in an environment. It was inching closer to release, with development kit prototypes being sent to some of the early backers.

Well, to everyone’s surprise and shock, Facebook straight up bought them, forking over a cool 2 million for the company. And people are furious.

A curious response can be seen on the original Kickstarter page for the project, which is still active. A large number of people are straight-up demanding their money back, claiming alternately that they didn’t pay for this, they don’t want to support Facebook, that they’re going to destroy what Oculus worked to build, or, amusingly to me, that they missed the boat and aren’t going to get a share of that huge corporate money. Here’s some screenshots, taken from Kotaku:

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Probably the most serious response comes from Markus “Notch” Persson, creator of the smash-hit indie PC game Minecraft. He was in talks with Oculus to develop a version of the title for the Rift, and promptly announced his company was going to halt development on the project, simply because of his dislike for Facebook, saying “Facebook creeps me out.

It’s Notch’s cancellation that exposes the interesting branding problem with this move. Minecraft is an independent game, developed outside of major studio or corporate involvement, a true underdog success story. Up until now, the Oculus Rift was seen as the same thing, a few kids working out of their garage who had a dream, and struggled to see it through. A scrappy independent developer does what major corporations can’t do. It’s the modern, business-related version of a rags-to-riches underdog story, and it’s seen as damning when other indie success stories disassociate themselves.

Looking at these reactions, it feels more like people are angry that the brand narrative of the cool indie project was interrupted, that being bought out and going corporate was not the happy ending the story was supposed to have. It’s really because of the narrative. People want to see these guys complete the narrative, not go corporate. Instead, they “sold out” to “the man.” This is ignoring a very real problem with Kickstarter, that a successful campaign is not a guarantee of success, period, and so only a third of game-related Kickstarters that are successfully funded actually deliver. Even the Oculus Rift in all its success still hasn’t been released, and they were funded two years ago.

Indeed, co-founder Palmer Luckey took to Reddit to defend his position, and a large part of his defence is that the raw money is allowing him to actually see his vision through. He also took the time to promise no Facebook tie-ins, and claim he didn’t go to Apple or Microsoft so his creation wouldn’t be torn apart. His choice of Reddit as the forum to discuss these things is worth noting, too. Rather than doing a corporate press release, he opted to seem as down-to-earth as possible, and communicate through an extremely informal medium, almost as an attempt to remind everyone where he came from.

Response seems to have cooled since then, and, to be honest, considering Facebook’s brand power, nothing will likely come of this. For all their noise, the fact remains that the hardcore gaming and tech audience that funded this are really a drop in the bucket compared to the audience they can reach. For now, this will go down as an interesting look at how we build narratives around companies, and how we react to plot twists that don’t jive with the narrative tropes we’ve grown to expect.