Facebook is turning VR into a platform — but some indie developers fear its power

Facebook’s Connect conference is one of the biggest days of the year for virtual reality. But in 2020, developer Guy Godin was nervous.

Godin is the developer of Virtual Desktop, a top-selling VR app that enables desktop computer access inside headsets. In 2019, he’d added a new feature to his Oculus Quest app, letting users of the mobile headset stream VR games from their PC. The feature was popular, but Oculus’ parent company Facebook wasn’t happy. The company made him roll back the update, saying its stream quality wasn’t reliable enough for Quest owners. Godin re-added the feature as an unofficial patch, downloadable outside the store. But he suspected Facebook was testing its own streaming feature — and that at Connect, it would make his version obsolete.

By Godin’s reckoning, it would be the second time Facebook had pulled the rug from under Virtual Desktop. In 2017, the tethered Oculus Rift headset incorporated his app’s core functions into the Oculus app… under an icon labeled “Virtual Desktop.” Godin says the move caused confusion and frustration, with users leaving one-star reviews because they thought he’d ripped off Oculus. “Every year at Oculus Connect I’m crossing my fingers. I hope they don’t screw with me this year and develop the same thing that I’ve been working on.”

Facebook didn’t announce streaming VR at Connect. But executive John Carmack told the audience Oculus was deeply interested in adding the feature, citing the fact that “right this very minute, someone is using a wireless VR streaming system and getting value from it.” On Oculus headsets, that someone is probably using Godin’s app.

“If you’re successful, you’re likely going to get copied by Oculus. They’re going to integrate into their platform,” says Godin. “If they offer something free, you know, I can’t compete with that.” And while his app was safe, Facebook did announce a health tracking tool called Oculus Move — which UploadVR quickly compared to the Quest app Yur Fit.

Virtual reality is one of the newest and strangest kinds of computing. But as it’s grown from a hobbyist experiment to a small commercial ecosystem, independent developers are facing a familiar problem: an ecosystem where powerful platforms are effectively competing with their own developers. In the 1990s and 2000s, desktop software companies worried about being “sherlocked” by Apple or crushed by Microsoft, with the computing giants either cloning key features or favoring their own competing products. In the past decade, iOS developers have complained that in-app purchase fees and arbitrary App Store policies benefit Apple’s own services. And for VR app builders, getting Facebook’s approval is becoming more and more important.

Facebook — through its subsidiary Oculus — has become a cornerstone of the VR market. Oculus kickstarted the consumer VR boom in 2012 before being acquired in 2014. Today, the Oculus Quest is reportedly the top-selling VR headset, and a cheaper successor called the Oculus Quest 2 was announced last week. Facebook says the Quest drove $100 million in software sales within its first year — a big number when a game crossing $1 million is considered a major success. After years of dependence on Apple and Google hardware with its mobile apps, the company is poised to dominate VR.

“Facebook’s the most motivated to win here,” says Darshan Shankar, CEO of VR social app maker Bigscreen. “It’s hard to compete with the Quest, because it’s just such a good device.”

But even as Facebook has expanded the market for VR software, some developers are ambivalent of its power. Antitrust watchdogs, including several members of Congress, have accused Facebook of monopolizing social media by cloning or acquiring competition like Instagram and WhatsApp. Godin and Shankar, among some other members of the VR community, believe Facebook has similar plans for Oculus apps. In addition to making numerous first-party games, it’s already acquired studios like Beat Games, developer of the breakout hit Beat Saber. “They want to own it all,” says Shankar. “We’re basically guinea pigs — building cool stuff to see what works.”

Both Godin and Shankar say they fielded early hiring offers from Oculus. “For years various people at Oculus and Facebook would suggest to us: ‘We’re working on this stuff too. We have all these prototypes. We’re doing what you’re saying you’re going to do. You should just join,’” says Shankar. “‘Facebook will eventually crush you. Why don’t you just join right now?’ That’s kind of the message we would get over and over.” A Facebook spokesperson declined comment, saying the company doesn’t discuss specific app decisions.

Shankar still sees a bright future for Bigscreen, which has established its own audience since launching in 2016, despite the looming rollout of a more metaverse-like Facebook app called Horizon. But on social media, he’s expressed frustration with Facebook’s 30 percent in-app purchase commission, which he says makes Bigscreen actually lose money on attractive features like movie rentals. “It is financially impossible,” he tweeted in August. “We asked for help, Facebook told us to find a better business model like games.”

Facebook is hardly unique in taking a substantial cut of developers’ in-app sales. But the practice is increasingly scrutinized outside VR. Among other complaints, Spotify and Epic Games have filed legal pleas over Apple’s in-app subscription fees, with Spotify calling the charges an anti-competitive “tax” on third-party developers.

Similarly, tech industry critics have questioned whether app stores’ rules, intended to protect users from malicious or badly designed software, are being used to lock out competition. Oculus has been clear about its intentions to curate the Quest store and avoid experiences that might damage users’ opinions of VR. It holds apps to far higher standards than Apple or Google, asking developers to pitch Oculus early and demonstrate “probable market success” alongside broader quality benchmarks.

Around the Quest 2’s announcement, Oculus product manager Prabhu Parthasarathy said that “we still haven’t been able to land in terms of a compelling experience on wireless.” If it can’t find a solution it considers acceptable, it’s not necessarily surprising that it would crack down on Virtual Desktop’s version.

But in a Voices of VR podcast interview, Godin contended his experience wasn’t meaningfully less reliable than the experimental and sometimes buggy Oculus Link feature, which lets Quest users play PC VR games through a USB-C cable. “I’m fine with them releasing their own version of Virtual Desktop,” he says. “What I hate is that they’ll rip off the name or they’ll block me from putting features in my app because they’re working on them. That’s not fair competition.”

Not all social developers are worried. Around the Quest 2’s announcement, Oculus prominently showcased a third-party virtual office space called Spatial — a cross-platform, business-focused tool that’s become a substitute for physical meetups during the coronavirus pandemic. Spatial CEO Anand Agarawala says small developers still have advantages over giants. “Big companies just move slower,” says Agarawala. “We’ve been around — we’ve got the most advanced solution in the market.”

Oculus has gone all-in with the self-contained Quest and its carefully managed app store, recently announcing the upcoming retirement of its Rift desktop headset. (Users can still play Oculus PC games and other desktop titles on the Quest, but it requires a separate cable.)

“VR has been a pretty open platform since the beginning, and even Oculus themselves were making very open headsets. You plugged them into computers,” says VR and AR consultant Nima Zeighami. By those early standards, “this is just a completely closed platform.” So getting visibility on Oculus’ storefront is more important than ever.

Facebook still has potential competition, particularly from Apple and Sony — the former is rumored to be building an AR or VR headset, and the latter may refresh its PlayStation VR system alongside the PlayStation 5. Both companies are known for their locked-down platforms, however. PC-based headsets offer a more open environment, including through Valve’s competing SteamVR store, but they still require a high-powered PC and come with a generally higher price tag.

The ideas behind tools like Virtual Desktop weren’t invented out of whole cloth, and for many Oculus users, not having to install an extra feature could feel like a win. The Android-based Quest hardware also isn’t as locked-down as Apple’s iPhone. It allows users to sideload apps, including the streaming patch for Virtual Desktop. On a platform like iOS, Godin’s workaround would be a nonstarter.

But for people who built VR apps because they loved the medium’s sense of endless possibility, feeling shut out of Facebook’s walled garden can be a bitter turn of events.

“I’m committed to VR. That’s what I do every day, and that’s my business,” says Godin. “But it’s just very frustrating as a developer — to be developing for a platform that tries to kill you every year.”