Does the Oculus deal prove Kickstarter is no longer a place for underdogs?

Facebook's acquisition of the virtual reality company Oculus VR was difficult for many people to digest -- particularly for some of the 9,500 original backers who gave Oculus its first $1 million in funding through Kickstarter, making it one of the most successful campaigns in the site’s history.

In an instant, Oculus went from being an underdog to a monolith. And that didn’t sit well with the people who got it there in the first place. The company's huge acquisition deal almost immediately raised questions that went to the heart of Kickstarter's populist philosophy: If the platform is just a shopping site for big companies, then is it worth backing the little guys?

To date, Kickstarter, which declined to comment on the Oculus deal, has raised over $1 billion for 58,576 successfully funded projects. Its greatest success rates have been in the gaming and technology fields. Of the 59 projects that have raised at least $1 million on the site so far, 30 have been for gaming, and 12 have been for technology.

While this is the biggest acquisition deal for a Kickstarter-funded firm to date, it’s not the first time that a project creator has used the crowd-funding platform as a springboard to bigger things. Logitech acquired the creators of TidyTilt, an iPhone accessory company that raised over $223,000 on Kickstarter, and has since added the product to its lineup. A film project, Pariah, was picked up by Focus Features in 2011. Authors and musicians have also signed contracts with major publishers after successful Kickstarter campaigns.

So, why all the angst over this deal?

“People who invest in a Kickstarter don’t invest in a financial sense, but they do in an emotional sense,” said Dominic Eskofier, aka “dudelsac,” a moderator on the subsection of Reddit that's been dedicated to discussion of the Oculus Rift. Reddit became a central place for those upset by the deal to vent their feelings. "The anger came from the emotional investment; we were hoping that these guys would change the world on their own," said Eskofier, who has been an Oculus supporter since the Kickstarter campaign.

Eskofier, who works in the game industry but has a purely personal interest in Oculus, said that he understands the shock that many of the firm’s early fans felt at the sudden acquisition -- particularly by Facebook, a company that has no real history with the type of games of interest to the virtual reality firm. Many feel that Oculus could be doing more innovative work if it had stayed independent, and working by its own rules.

Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder and author of "Without Their Permission," a sort of startup call-to-arms, said he's  "disappointed, because I don't think Oculus can be nearly as disruptive within such a large corporation -- no matter how hands-off Facebook might be."

"Imagine if Pebble were acquired by Apple next week," he said. "Yikes. What ultimately makes hardware like this amazing is the developer community that builds software for it; that community is now looking for a new champion."

On the other hand, Ohanian -- who is also an investor in the crowd-sourcing site CrowdTilt -- acknowledged that this is a win for the concept of crowd-funding. "The good news is that this does indeed validate crowd-funding and will undoubtedly inspire many more founders to launch their own VR hardware companies to fill the void" left by an independent Oculus.

And in the end, Eskofier said, this kind of attention is exactly what project creators and backers actually want. Even if Facebook runs Oculus into the ground, he said, the virtual reality industry is getting noticed in a way that it never has before. As people process that idea, he said, the core community of Oculus fans is starting to see the bright side of being part of the monolith.

“It’s no longer the grass-roots movement that it was before,” Eskofier said. “But that’s what we wanted. We wanted it to be mainstream. We wanted AAA developers to make games for it. We wanted this to be on TV.”

In his opinion, Eskofier said,  Kickstarter is still a guide for those looking for cool ideas that deserve support and attention. And while he understands the wariness gamers feel over the fact that Facebook is now the ownership of the product they've watched grow over time, he also said that he has faith in Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey to stay true to the company's original vision.

“Give him the benefit of the doubt,” Eskofier said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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