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Meta’s unceremonious Echo VR shutdown is a missed Metaverse opportunity

I feel a tinge of sadness as I rewind back to July 20, 2017, the day a pivotal virtual reality game leaped out from the blue to shed light onto the then-unknown medium. This early Oculus Rift game, developer Ready At Dawn’s Lone Echo, would rapidly become one of the first VR games to receive critical acclaim, standing alongside the likes of Job Simulator and I Expect You To Die. Alongside it came one of VR’s first exemplary multiplayer experiences, then called Echo Arena but later retitled Echo VR as it expanded its offerings to Oculus Quest users. And, for what it’s worth, this is the first VR game I would play in my own home.

Echo VR garnered a loyal audience and a thriving esports scene that’s been fostered and celebrated at many of Meta’s public-facing Connect events over the years, which is why it may come as a shock to so many longtime VR fans that Echo VR is now set to shutter indefinitely as of August 1.

Many online games with dwindling player bases do, ultimately, meet their end at the hands of company budgets that can no longer support them, but VR games have always been an interesting case. The expectation for any individual VR game has been much more lax, seeing as the medium itself is new and we’re all just hoping that we can build the audience to sustain it in the future. At least, that’s how things have been working up until now. Meta, formerly Facebook, has been virtual reality’s assumptive steward since acquiring Oculus (now Reality Labs) back in 2013, and let’s not make any mistake here: If anyone could meaningfully support an online game with a decent but non-ambitious userbase for 20+ years, a well-optimized Meta could probably support 50 of them without feeling a pinch.

But Lone Echo was always more than just some miserly, one-off, third-party paperweight. It was the beginning of Meta’s initial push into the consumer market, and when by all accounts it should’ve failed, it worked. I’d even go as far as to say Echo brought VR to life to an extent that Meta neither fully appreciates nor, based on its move to close the online component entirely, understands at a core level.

Echo VR in motion

Its masterful implementation of VR motion controls would quickly become the gold standard — dogging its way into discussions among VR developers who, even after six years of growing public interest and a widening pool of user research, are still trying to figure out how to make it feel good to move through their worlds. Yet back in 2017, Lone Echo and, consequently, Echo VR already had it all figured out. It allows players to explore space in such an enveloping, impactful, and believable way that it stuck in the minds of reviewers long after the credits rolled. Take our own review as a testament to how well-received Lone Echo was.

Most VR games, even now in 2023, either force you to teleport or “run” around with thumb sticks, and though these solutions make sense given the limitations of the hardware, they always feel unnatural, even jarring to some degree. On the contrary, Lone Echo and its free-to-play multiplayer component let you fly around an immaculately-detailed space station in zero gravity with jets attached to each of your hands. You can grab onto stationary objects to launch yourself, or grab hold of objects already in motion, manipulating gravity to slingshot your physically-rendered robot avatar even faster toward your destination.

Lone Echo Arena Review
Scoring a goal in Echo VR. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Echo VR is more analogous to Final Fantasy X’s infamous Blitzball mini-game than anything else. You and up to four teammates vie to capture the map’s only frisbee and carry or throw it through the opposite team’s goalpost enough times to win the game before they can do the same to you. The twist is that, once you and your teammates launch into the map’s massive canister-shaped arena, essentially anything goes as long as it works in zero gravity. You can punch opponents in the face to stun them, grab the frisbee right out of the enemy’s hands, boost yourself off of other teammates, or even hide behind a nearby floating object to stage an ambush.

It’s simple but infinitely replayable. And once you get into the rhythm of it — that is, after it teaches you how to move gracefully through zero gravity, something that feels exactly as weird as you think it would — it provokes a sense of “being there” that’s totally irreplaceable outside of a virtual reality headset. There’s nothing else like it. It’s a win for anyone who cares about VR.

Lonely echoes

Meta acquired Echo developer Ready At Dawn in 2020, making it the social media goliath’s third first-party VR game developer. Through this lens, it’s difficult to look at Echo as anything other than a critical and financial success, at least for the folks at Ready At Dawn. It immediately demonstrated that Meta’s VR properties could be sophisticated yet creative, playful yet rewarding — the perfect bullet to pierce through an outside world that didn’t care about VR. And even without any considerate investment of resources into Echo VR’s ongoing development, it still continues doing what it initially set out to do. Or, at least it continues to stand as one of Meta’s pillars of success in the field, showing what VR can be when it’s doing something unique and pushing the limits of expectation.

Lone Echo Arena Review
A group of Echo VR players posing for a photo. Image used with permission by copyright holder

And yet, as interesting third-party VR games do certainly continue to emerge, Meta’s first-party worlds have only gotten duller, less interactive, and more boring in the timespan between now and when Echo VR first appeared in the summer of 2017. Instead of integrating its existing properties into Meta’s, er, “verse”, Echo VR is now slated to shut down for good. This appears to be a rather sobering if not arbitrary response to one or both of two things: Meta’s recent efforts to flatten what it considers excessive waste under Mark Zuckerberg’s “year of efficiency” initiative, or Meta’s $13.7 billion losses in VR development in 2022 — presumably due to ongoing development for Meta Horizon Worlds, an Altspace-lookalike which has lost over 100,000 users since it launched to an underwhelming grand total of 300,000 users in February 2022.

Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth noted in an Instagram livestream following the Echo VR closure announcement that there are now tens of millions of users in VR (implying Meta has now either sold this many of its own headsets or believes it is now appealing to a market consisting of this many people) and, for this reason, the company can’t spare “human capital” that’s apparently preoccupied with Echo VR’s meager ~10,000-user player base.

Former CTO John Carmack, the distinguished VR dignitary and one-time Doom inventor who recently resigned from Meta in December, emerged in short order to follow up Bosworth’s comments with his own take, saying “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.”

Mark Zuckerberg's avatar with legs in black jeans
Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar displayed in Horizon Worlds. image: Meta / Meta

Yet as we’ve already seen with Horizon Worlds or even with Oculus Rooms, Meta doesn’t replace the destroyed value for one person with equal value for 10 people, let alone equal value for just one person. If you purchased an Oculus Go or a Samsung Gear VR, your hardware purchase and many of your software purchases were soon invalidated by the release of the Oculus Quest, which immediately ate up Meta’s attention as older hardware became deprecated if not outright abandoned. On the other hand, a company that has a spare $13.7 billion lying around to throw at a product that isn’t seeing returns and is actively losing users, is likely just as willing to assimilate and consume more value while it silently loses the exact people who generated that value in the first place.

As Carmack suggested, Meta can (and should) keep Echo VR running under the tight watch of a skeleton crew, especially if the company doesn’t plan to expand it further as a standalone product. But this would require Meta to do something it notoriously doesn’t do: be efficient.

Regardless, there’s only one thing that drives people to use VR: value. The company’s success isn’t assured by the amount of raw “human capital” it manages to suck out of existing projects and throw at other projects — especially other projects that few customers hold value for. Whether or not the company succeeds at building a functional metaverse ultimately depends on whether or not it can figure out how to cultivate the same value that brought it legitimacy in the first place. Until then, it’ll inevitably continue losing the virtual trees for the forest.

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Gabriel Moss
Gabriel is a freelance writer with a keen interest in gaming and technology. He has written at several sites including IGN…
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