Two years ago I read Console Wars, Blake Harris’ history of the competition between Nintendo and Sega in the 1990s. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Shortly after that book came out the leadership of Oculus VR asked Harris to document their efforts. Console Wars follows the men who lead that effort — Brendan Iribe, Jack McCauley, Michael Abrash, John Carmack, and most of all — Palmer Luckey.
The book begins by following Luckey’s initial work hacking together hardware components to attempt to mimic high-end virtual reality systems. The process is classic disruption, focusing on building a somewhat inferior hardware product at dramatically lower costs. Luckey succeeded at the goal, and had the good fortune to be working at the same time that John Carmack (creator of the DOOM franchise) was building and publicizing a ‘test bed’ to allow easy comparison of VR quality. Carmack heard of Luckey’s efforts, highlighted it during an industry conference, and the buzz began.
The second part of the book focuses on the formation of Luckey’s company, Oculus VR. This seems to have been a happy time. The narrative follows Palmer and Brendan primarily. I would have enjoyed learning more about what Carmack was up to, as well as the manufacturing process, but the perspective of these two are still great. Oculus first achieved fame beyond the gaming or VR circles for an extremely successful kickstarter campaign. The blow-by-blow of the creation of that video, which is later recapitulated during a lawsuit, was really fascinating.
The last part of the book is the acquisition of Facebook, and after. There’s actually a few sub-narratives here: the neutering of Oculus’s competitor, Valve. The lawsuit with ZeniMax/Bethesda. And Palmer Luckey being fired for his political activities.
Console Wars concerned Nintendo’s rise to the top of the Console Market, and then her challenge by Sega. At Sega’s best she controlled half of the home console market. Oculus headed off that possibility early on. What Tim Kalinske (head of Sega America) was to Nintendo, Michael Abrash (head of Valve’s VR effort) was to Oculus — a formidable potential competitor. So three days after Facebook acquired Valve, Facebook hired Michael Abrash, and thus (for one man’s generous compensation package) ended a potential competitor.
Throughout the book, the relationship between John Carmack and ZeniMax, the company that bought his previous company “id,” is a source of drama. ZeniMax has a poor reputation in the gaming community. The founder lost control of the company to the current CEO, who is a lawyer and not a developer by background. Unfortunately (for the source of drama) Facebook has both plenty of lawyers and plenty of money, so from a corporate perspective, the lawsuit seems to have been more important for honor than practical effects.
A more serious change was what appears to have been political reprisals by Facebook against Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, for donating $10,000 to a Trump-associated campaign group in the 2016 election. Non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements for now keep us from knowing the full truth, but The Wall Street Journal has a factual analysis of the situation. In this case it seems dangerous to be a conservative in a visible position at Facebook, and Palmer did not last long.
The History of the Future is an enjoyable and fast-paced read about contemporary corporate history. It’s a worthy follow-up to Console Wars. I read The History of the Future in the Audible edition. An hour-long interview with the author on Triangulation is also available.