Update: This story includes corrected facts from additional reporting.
Sometimes it’s impossible to enforce your legal rights and keep your good standing in the community of gamers. And maybe it’s impossible to figure out who really stands for gamers when companies go to war with each other, with billions of dollars at stake.
The dispute between ZeniMax Media and John Carmack is a case in point. Carmack, the legendary first-person shooter game developer of id Software, became part of ZeniMax back in 2009 in an acquisition. He frequently made contributions to technology out of his own intellectual curiosity. His obsession with making a rocket that could take off and land was outside of his work at id Software, and ZeniMax wasn’t about to claim that it owned any of his rocket creations.
[Updated: But virtual reality technology is another story. In 2012, Carmack solicited information about virtual reality heads-up displays. Palmer Luckey, who was then a lab technician at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Southern California, responded on a forum to Carmack’s query. Afterward, Carmack asked Luckey if he could buy one of Luckey’s head-mounted displays.
Carmack made his own software to work on Luckey’s Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, but Luckey had already moved forward on other technology for his goggles, which immersed you in a 3D virtual world, but they were relatively primitive at the time.
At the time, Luckey signed a nondisclosure agreement with id’s parent company, ZeniMax Media. That was related to a VR Testbed application, which Carmack had posted on in public forums. Carmack gave a lot of his time and he publicly touted his own software for the Oculus at the Electronic Entertainment Expo video game trade show in June 2012. That helped Luckey gather a lot of momentum for his project and his startup, Oculus VR.]
The endorsement from Carmack also enabled Oculus to raise $2.4 million from backers of its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. At that point, Carmack was a hero, helping the video game industry embrace a fundamentally new technology for gamers. Oculus and Luckey were also popular among game developers and fans for pushing beyond boring consoles.
Oculus walked on water after that, first raising $16 million. Carmack then saw much more potential in the future of Oculus. He tried at first to work for both id and Oculus. Carmack’s employment contract with ZeniMax expired in July 2013. He officially joined Oculus in November, 2013. That parting seemed amicable at the time.
Then Oculus raised $75 million in December. Marc Andreessen, creator of the Netscape browser and a tech billionaire, threw his support behind it. The project moved from a hobbyist’s cause to a potential blockbuster backed by one of the shrewdest technologists in the world.
But Carmack wasn’t the only one working on virtual reality technology at ZeniMax and id. Oculus VR hired five people from id in addition to Carmack. They got a whole department of people. Luckey acknowledged that the help from Carmack was pretty important to making the Oculus Rift work.
The picture got more complicated this month when Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion. At the time, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said the deal took only a few days to negotiate.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, ZeniMax sent legal papers after the deal to inform Facebook that Oculus and Carmack had used technology that had been developed while Carmack was still employed at ZeniMax. And ZeniMax argued that Carmack’s employment agreement meant that anything he developed while at id belonged to ZeniMax.
ZeniMax could sue Carmack, but that would make it very unpopular in the eyes of gamers, who idolize Carmack and who want Facebook to bring the technology to the market as soon as possible. But gamers, particularly some of the original Kickstarter contributors, weren’t big fans of Facebook taking virtual reality, a technology that had been developed in a very open way, and making it part of its private corporation. They were quite vocal about wanting their Kickstarter money back.
ZeniMax said it tried to get a fair price for its technology but couldn’t come to an agreement. Oculus/Facebook responded indignantly.
“It’s unfortunate, but when there’s this type of transaction, people come out of the woodwork with ridiculous and absurd claims,” a spokesperson for Oculus VR said in a statement provided to GamesBeat. “We intend to vigorously defend Oculus and its investors to the fullest extent.”
[Update: “Oculus uses zero lines of code that I wrote while under contract to Zenimax,” Carmack wrote in a tweet. On top of that, Carmack also claims that neither he nor Zenimax patented any of his concepts.
It’s also been pointed out to us that Carmack took the above picture with the Rift after his contract with ZeniMax had expired and he had been hired as chief technology officer of Oculus.]
It’s seems like a silly lawsuit. But what we have seen happen to virtual reality is its movement from an open, community-centric shared project to a commercial effort that is privately owned. That may be the best way to get it in the hands of gamers, who will be happy if that happens. But every party in this dispute should tread carefully.
When it comes to the community, game companies should care about doing the right thing. It would be a shame if this legal dispute slows down the accelerated life of Oculus VR and the second coming of virtual reality. And ZeniMax could become very unpopular if it gets the blame for putting such a giant fly in the ointment.
On the other hand, Facebook, Oculus, and Carmack better deliver. You can probably bet that ZeniMax would not have taken legal action if Oculus had not sold itself — and some say sold out — to Facebook.
We’ve seen this kind of clash between legality and community happen before, when King started enforcing its candy-related trademarks to stop the clones of its Candy Crush Saga game. Gamers hated that, even though King may have been in the right about the clones. It took a while, but King finally eased up on the pressure it put on other game developers. And that restored creative freedom for developers.
And we’ve seen Valve rebel against Microsoft after it appeared that Microsoft was intent on closing down the openness of Windows gaming. Valve created its SteamOS and Steam Machines in response to that, and it won a lot of fans in the gamer community as a result.
It’s not clear to me how the community will weigh in on the Oculus-Carmack affair. But the whole thing reminds me about the truth about video games. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a business.