VR vs. Shuffling The Deck (Part 2) – Sideways

The problem with giving things a suffix suggesting that something is episodic in nature, is that you essentially are committing to more than one of the thing regardless of how the first one goes. Be it a written promise made in sincerity or a verbal gaffe by someone in prominence who has gone quite literally mad, (I’ve worked on a game where that’s happened, and it’s been an utter joy to behold the fabulous train wreck happening around you) this painting of yourself into a corner leaves you open to being undone, should the first be considered a failure or a critical disappointment. It also leaves you open to be undermined by time, that cruelest of mistresses. So as much as I’d finally like to get onto my 2016 thoughts, I get the feeling that if I don’t write part two to this now I may not be able to.

As I mentioned in last week’s pre-Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc. piece, Oculus’ upper management is going through something of a reshuffle. Governments do it with cabinets, and companies do it with boards. And, whilst Brendan Iribe’s decision that he was to step down from the role of Oculus’ CEO was a considered a rather big surprise, the news that Palmer Luckey would also be shifting roles was decidedly less surprising.

Luckey’s future has been in something of a state of limbo since it was revealed at the end of September that he had donated to (if not more accurately funded depending on which side you believe) a pro-Donald Trump/anti-Hillary Clinton meme/trolling group engaged in more than a few eyebrow raising activities. Which is an extremely polite way of putting it, if you look at some of the items they were connected with. As with anything connected with America’s future President, the response was immediately angry and dividing. Creators were furious, many drawing a line under any potential future dealings with Oculus until Luckey was removed, whilst others acted in a different way to counteract the donation by donating to a pro-Clinton group, or appropriate charities, as a way to redress the balance.

Palmer Luckey, Founder at Oculus

Whatever the case it was a messy time, with Oculus themselves coming under fire for… well… employing the man. It was a matter we discussed in a VR vs. at the time. (Actually the whole affair has the somewhat unusual honour on VRFocus of being one where I’ve been the writer on all the posts about it.) But anyway, the story broke – right before Oculus Connect 3, naturally – and Luckey hasn’t been seen, even on social media, since his September 23rd statement on the issue, where he apologised (to his bosses) over his actions “negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners”. Radio silence. He’s still using social media of course, he’s still on it. We spied him liking a story of ours about an Oculus Touch game a couple of weeks back. I’d’ve actually put money on a Christmas tweet being the beginning of his careful shift back into the public eye – a new year’s one may still be – but then the story came out and changed things. Oculus confirmed Luckey was indeed still with the company- but, and here’s where it gets interesting, the company would “have more to share on his new role soon.”

So with a new role, action being taken, Iribe moving down to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of VR’s masterplan the way is clear for the soon to be re-debut of Palmer Luckey 2.0, VR’s once and future king to retake his throne as VR’s poster boy. Which is all well and good to think that; but if you were Oculus (or Facebook) would you be happy anymore with that? I mean the Nimble America incident wasn’t the first instance of Luckey putting his foot in it and the resulting splash coating the company in rather noxious smelling PR.

So they’ve clearly made the decision after this, and the instances before, they can’t have him where he is. Will they move him up to CEO and have him take over Iribe’s job? Of course not. They’d have to be absolutely nuts. They can’t demote him either, as that would be seen by people as him being punished for the September revelations and they can’t do that because, of course, Luckey did not actually do anything wrong other than spend his own money in the way he wanted.

Of course that doesn’t stop it being a damned foolish thing to do, and frankly he shouldn’t have at all been surprised by the response.

So if you can’t move him upward as it would be seen to be rewarding, you can’t move him downward as it would be seen to be a punishment, you can’t get rid of him because again he’s not technically done anything wrong and you can’t leave him where he is… what now? How do you solve a problem like Maria Palmer Luckey?

Answer: You move him sideways.

Palmer Luckey tries Manus VR

Moving sideways is often seen as a negative on the career ladder when often it allows people to focus on new avenues of work and allows them the opportunity to advance when their present role would not allow them to. It allows companies the opportunity to keep experienced staff they may have otherwise had to lose. Allows new talents to be capitalised on, and continues a natural evolution of an individual’s skill set within the business. Although, in this instance it’s more that it is the only logical move Oculus really has, when you think about it.

So when the role is announced don’t be surprised if it is something new. A brand new role created expressly for Luckey. Whether he moves into some sort of heavily managed ‘ambassadorial’ role where he’s showing off the games like at E3 where we had the infamous Luckey and Road To VR Vs Upload VR and VRFocus Oculus livestream. (Incidentally: Anyone else think we should totally do little vs things against each other like that every now and then?) Or something else, again more behind the scenes working on the nuts and bolts like Iribe is doing. He’s not going to be the same front-and-centre guy he was before and there’s a very good reason why not. Facebook.

Facebook are a company. An incorporated company with shareholders. Shareholders do not like employees of the company or it’s subsidiaries for that matter rocking the boat. Doing so affects the share price. They own the shares. Rocking the boat, their boat, directly affects them financially. Were it just Oculus, things would probably have carried on as they had been, but unlike their cheque book Facebook’s patience is not infinite.

Luckey will no doubt fall on his feet. However, were this any other job in which a political sideways move was made due to corporate embarrassment he’d like as not find himself in a new office – and not just any office… one of those offices. You know the sort. The one down the corridor a bit out of the way and difficult to find. The one where the mail trolley always goes last if it finds it at all. The one with not quite straight walls that are difficult to get furniture for, half the plug sockets don’t work and the air con gives off a high pitched whine.  The office that’s sandwiched between the always smelly toilets no one ever goes in because they are ‘problematic’, the noisy boiler room next door and opposite the one fire exit which will guaranteed set off the alarms if opened so no chance of nipping out to have a crafty cigarette. In short, the office nobody wants. The office where no one wants to be, because unless you pull your socks up your next move will have you out onto the curb holding a cardboard box full of your personal possessions. The one where your boss visits you to see if you’re settling in, makes awkward small talk and then before closing the door stops, looks back, calls you by your first name and sighing says:

“Gordon.” (My apologies to all the Gordons out there.)
“Yes, sir?”
“You know why you’re here.”
“Gordon. Stop being a tit, Gordon.”
“That’s the last I’ll say on the matter.”

Luckey won’t end up moving offices, you can bet on that, but he would do well to see whatever role he ends up with in these terms. Rightly or wrongly 2016 showed he might be considered a liability to the company; and Oculus Connect 3 unfortunately proved Oculus does not need Palmer Luckey to act as the figurehead. In fact the business, publicly, would carry on just fine if he wasn’t there at all.

For now as mentioned above Luckey is still active, he’s still working. He’s still about. Heck there’s half a chance he’s reading this and cursing me between breaths. Or thrown something. Or blocked me on Twitter. That’s after all how we solve problems as a society nowadays. However, there are a number of reasons he shouldn’t worry what I think:

  1. He’s nearly ten years younger than me and has more money than I would earn in 300 lifetimes
  2. I’ve had to write this using a nearly decade old Packard Bell EasyNote, which means I’ve more than adequately suffered in creating this article
  3. Whatever happens he gets to continue working with the technology he loves

Not everyone would get that option to continue, and if they did they’d end up with an office sandwiched between the practice room for the new elephants-only troupe from Stomp and the bog of eternal stench. What he should worry about is his next move, how he’s going to use 2017 to do the best for Oculus he can, in whatever his role and prove to Facebook, Oculus and all of us just what an asset for VR he can be.

Or to put it another way, “Palmer. Stop being a tit, Palmer.”