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John Carmack goes off about online-only games being abandoned: ‘I believe in saving everything’

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Last week Meta announced that, as well as losing four billion dollars on the metaverse in the last quarter, it would be shutting down Echo VR. This zero-gravity sports title was one of the early VR successes for the then-Oculus, first on Rift and later on the Quest headset, to the extent Meta acquired the developer behind it, Ready at Dawn, in 2020.

The announcement of Echo VR’s closure (it’s still live but will shutdown on August 1, 2023) has caused some consternation among fans of VR generally, simply because this is one of the standout experiences and soon will be no more. It feels especially unusual to see it happening to a six year-old game that, relatively speaking, has found an audience. But such is the way of the world at Meta, with CTO Andrew Bosworth saying “those resources could be put to other uses that I think will be useful to the now tens of millions of people who are in VR.”

Interestingly enough Bosworth also said John Carmack, who’s now left Meta, “would not have shut down Echo VR.” And how. Carmack has sent a lengthy statement to UploadVR about Echo VR’s closure, and does not sound at all impressed.

“I thought it was a mistake to not keep Oculus Rooms running and port to Quest,” said Carmack, “and I thought it was a mistake to abandon all the GearVR/Go content when my emulation layer worked for at least a good chunk of things. I believe in saving everything.”

“Even if there are only ten thousand active users, destroying that user value should be avoided if possible. Your company suffers more harm when you take away something dear to a user than you gain in benefit by providing something equally valuable to them or others.  User value is my number one talking point by far, but ‘focus’ is pretty high up there as well, and opportunity cost is a real thing.”

Carmack goes on to say that Bosworth greenlit the release of the Oculus Go root build (an unlocked OS allowing full access) that he had long pushed-for, but “after seeing how much internal effort was involved to make it happen, I almost felt bad about it,” said Carmack. “The constraints are just different in a company the size of Meta.”

The id software co-founder goes on to suggest several alternatives, such as leaving a single developer in charge of maintaining the game, which he says id did with Quake Live for a long time and “was the right thing to do.” As he puts it, the cost-benefit analysis may not work for Meta, but “a lot of people are spent on worse things.”

Another alternative would be spinning off the project: Meta letting it go and allowing team members to leave, take over the rights for a nominal fee of $10,000, and maintain it. This does seem a little pie-in-the-sky for a giant company that shuts down divisions like most of us drink coffee in the morning, and even Carmack acknowledges that everything “is far from simple at Meta.”

The other options are to leave the game unsupported but running, “rather than explicitly killing it”, though as the game slowly rots “it could wind up being more net animosity than just cleanly killing it.” Open source is also floated, though Carmack acknowledges licensed commercial code would be a problem.

Why this is more interesting than just the single example here, with apologies to the Echo VR stans, is that Carmack left Meta after clearly becoming frustrated with how the company operates, and he goes on to enumerate how this situation is an outcome of practices that can and arguably should be replaced. 

“‘Keeping things alive takes work’ is true at some level, but it is possible to build systems that run untouched for years, and come up fine after a reboot,” said Carmack. “The default today may be a distributed mess of spaghetti, but that is a choice.”

The coder extraordinaire then advocates for building games that will still work “at some level” without central server support, encourages LAN support for multiplayer games (because this allows people to write proxies), and supports user-run servers both because they can help save on hosting costs and for the community creative angle. Then, appropriately enough for a man whose life is now devoted to rockets, Carmack takes off like one.

“Be disciplined about your build processes and what you put in your source tree, so there is at least the possibility of making the project open source,” said Carmack. “Think twice before adding dependencies that you can’t redistribute, and consider testing with stubbed out versions of the things you do use. Don’t do things in your code that wouldn’t be acceptable for the whole world to see.

“Most of game development is a panicky rush to make things stop falling apart long enough to ship, so it can be hard to dedicate time to fundamental software engineering, but there is a satisfaction to it, and it can pay off with less problematic late stage development.”

The last phrase is quite the euphemism for “the game disappearing entirely, forever” and through Carmack’s repeated exhortations and examples you get a sense of someone who’s very frustrated at seeing things built on foundations that can ultimately prove self-defeating. We’ve entered an era where even many singleplayer games require some sort of server ping, while other games don’t work at all if you’re offline (which outside of MMOs has sometimes felt like industry overreach). Then you get to something like Echo VR which has burned brightly but briefly, and will be extinguished, and you don’t know whether it’s a strategic decision for Meta or simply a rounding error: Just that it will soon be gone.

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