Facebook, VR and the Content Creation Dilemma

Last week, I stumbled upon a very interesting interview of Jason Rubin — VP of Content at Oculus/Facebook. The first part of the interview focused on Facebook’s efforts to build an ecosystem for Virtual Reality developers. The ambition for Facebook is to create such a robust platform that ultimately, Facebook would keep its subsidising efforts at a minimum while benefiting from content developed by third parties. Apple is probably the best example to illustrate this goal: because Apple provides great hardware and operating system, it doesn’t need to publish or fund the development of almost all apps on its platform.

On the topic of content creation — specifically for Facebook and its VR ambitions — there is one quote in the article that really caught my attention:

“How weird it must be to know that if you do everything right and help your company succeed that the ultimate result could actually mean your job is redundant. That’s exactly the feeling that Oculus head of content Jason Rubin and his team at the virtual reality firm must be encountering. Why? Because, as we all know, Facebook is a platform, and if the end-state within VR for Facebook is to become a fully functional social VR world, content generation won’t be a primary goal anymore.

From this quote, we can extract two keys points of Facebook’s strategy for VR:

  • Building a platform for development of VR content.
  • Using this platform to build a “fully functional social VR world”.

As indicated before, the ideal scenario for Facebook would be mirroring what Apple did with the App Store and have its own ecosystem for VR. But if Facebook wants to build a “social VR world”, there could still be plenty of room for content creation or “suggestion” within Facebook itself. It will all depend on what type of virtual world Facebook wants to build. Would Facebook really want to keep the platform as open as possible? As the owner of this VR world, what sort of control would Facebook want to maintain on it and how much efforts should it put in for content creation?

These are interesting questions reminiscent of the discussions I had with game developers about modding when I was working on modblock. Most game developers I talked to were open to the idea of (monetised) modding but one thing that kept coming back was the scope of it. Most game developers I talked to believed that there should be some limitations to prevent modifications to gameplay or Artistic Direction, or ensure a game’s overall stability. These are very valid concerns but what it actually means is that developers would effectively pick what mods they want (and don’t want). In the case of Facebook and its VR ambitions, would it want developers to create and integrate content freely? Or would Facebook be “tempted” to curb the content so that it fits into a hypothetical vision for a large open VR world?

If we were to take those two visions and put them into shape:

  • The first one could be a VR version of the App Store, where users would navigate a hub and jump into different experiences with no links between them — just like one can use Netflix and then jump to Spotify on his/her Iphone. While Facebook could still build content (just like Apple still build powerful apps for its hardware — e.g. iMessage, Facetime etc), the overwhelming majority of content would come from third parties.
  • The other way of looking at it — a much more ambitious vision — would be a large virtual world. This would probably look like an open world that would seamlessly integrate content from third party developers. What it means is that Facebook would then have to create — or subsidise — a lot of the core content for that world and allocate resources to ensure smooth integration of third party content. One analogy to this vision could be the MMORPG, whose developers could integrate third party content but would still have to bear responsibility for maintaining and expanding this virtual world. What it also means is that there would probably be restriction in terms “content scope” so that the whole virtual world is consistent and stable (much like a developer of an online game would drastically limit modding to ensure that online experience doesn’t get disrupted).

The second vision — although a lot more challenging technically — would be much closer to the concept of facilitating social interactions that has been Facebook’s core vision since its inception. At the F8 Conference last year, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook’s plan for the next 10 years. Among the main objectives was the mention of “Social VR”.

We hope that this year’s F8 will give us more indication on how Social VR will materialise and how its shape will influence Facebook’s long term strategy for content creation.