On January 14, 2021, VR developer Fox Buchele announced on Twitter that he was fired by Owlchemy Labs in 2020, and “I’m sharing this now because I’m done with this industry. And I don’t see myself coming back.” He described being a VR developer as “hard, thankless work – made worse by toxic, business-first development cycles, authoritarian ‘trickle down’ management and design, and a general lack of respect for the grunts in the trenches.” And that “I can’t in good conscience continue to support an industry so broken and exploitative while pretending everything is normal.”
I didn't leave @OwlchemyLabs. They fired me. Depending on who you ask, the reason varies from 'I don't know, your HR file was blank when I looked' to 'maybe they found out you reported Devin and Andrew to Google HR?'.
— Fox (@FoxBuchele) January 15, 2021
I reached out to Buchele to do an exit interview of sorts to explore his side of the story for what happened during his time at Owlchemy Labs, but also his perspectives on toxic work environments for VR developers within the game industry at large, what he sees as a stagnation of innovation and creativity due to authoritarian creative practices and a lack of diversity and inclusion, but also the larger context of the abuses of Big Tech.
This interview is an oral history of Buchele’s experiences and perspective. In the long run I’d love to capture other perspectives as well to get the full picture and other sides of the story, but the types of things that Buchele talks about are aspects of the games industry that others have been talking about as well.
Also, because Owlchemy Labs was purchased by Google on May 10, 2017, then this was also an opportunity for me to ask Buchele about that acquisition, and what types of insights that it could provide into Google’s overall XR strategy. Google has had a lot of XR projects come and go including Daydream, Google Cardboard, Google Expeditions, Google Poly, and Project Tango. Buchele points to the lack of willingness for Google to produce their own VR hardware combined with an already fragmented ecosystem within Android did not create a compelling platform for VR developers to buy into Google’s ecosystem. As a result, Google has yet to build up any serious traction within the broader VR industry, and they’ve been focusing their efforts on AR and AR Core within Android.
Fox’s time at Owlchemy Labs also mirrored the time in which Donald J. Trump was the President of the United States, and so he also talked about the dynamics of shutting down polarizing political discussions in the workplace during that time period. He talks about how he consciously and unconsciously shut down the more political parts of his social media presence in part because he didn’t want to have his private thoughts reflect poorly on the upbeat, positive, fun, and lighthearted brand of Owlchemy Labs.
He characterizes the working environment as one of “toxic positivity” that started with the stifling of polarizing political discourse, but ended in the resistance to having deeper critical deliberations about creative decisions. He claims that as time went on, then there was also a hierarchical creative decision-making process where only a couple of the leaders were involved making critical decisions in the absence of listening to creative feedback of the development team.
There’s certainly a number of things that Buchele discusses that is unique to his experiences at Owlchemy Labs, but also likely a lot of experiences that other developers in the VR industry and games industry at large have experienced as well. There’s a lot of taboos that Buchele is breaking in order to speak out about some of his experiences, and so I’m grateful that he was willing to elaborate on his Twitter. Sharing his story is in the spirit of being able to reflect upon some of the cultural aspects of VR industry that contributed to his experiences, and what we can do in terms of resisting Big Tech’s consolidation of power, the stifling of creativity through diversity and inclusion, and being willing to speak out about toxic elements of culture and how those can be changed.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
Here’s a Twitter thread where I reflect upon the deeper cultural and technological dynamics of political polarization and filter bubbles
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