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“We didn’t stop until 5am”: The Story behind VRFocus

VRFocus is one of the most established and trusted publications in the VR industry, reporting on its key movements and announcements. Writers upheld that reputation by working very hard to push out the content we read and appreciate. Before its acquisition in November 2018, laid-off staff reported poor working conditions and work/life balance, pushed by inept management. These views represent those who are gone, both publically in this article and those who wished to stay anonymous. Publically, the article references two of the five staffers who worked at the publication.

The fate of VRFocus has been widely reported by the community. On November 6th, 2018, VRFocus laid off its entire editorial staff. The parent company, InvestVR, decided not to fund the website after the departure of its CEO and Editor in Chief Kevin Joyce. Many suspected this was the end of the publication, which started in 2014 with Joyce and Jamie Feltham. Yet two weeks later, Admix acquired VRFocus, which let the company continue its work whilst retaining its editorial independence.

What is not reported is the conditions of staff, and more information on the acquisition itself, and changes to VRFocus after Admix took the reigns from InvestVR. This article will explore the life of VRFocus before the acquisition, asking questions from previous staff and members of Admix.

High workload and poor management

The state of VRFocus can be best described as a content-churning machine with long hours. The staff’s main complaints were the way they were managed – or rather, not managed. “There was always pressure to produce, to write more and more, even when there wasn’t much out there to cover,” said Rebecca Hills-Duty, a Staff Writer at the time. “Kevin Joyce was meant to be Editor in Chief, but he rarely seemed to do any editing. Event weeks like E3 were especially tough, one day at E3 I started work at midday, and didn’t stop until 5am. Even then, despite all the work done by myself, Nik and Kevin Eva, we were told by Mr Joyce that we weren’t hitting targets.”

Kevin Eva echoed the same thoughts on the workload. “It was like trying to juggle blindfolded on an endless treadmill. It was entirely target driven. There had to be a story every hour on the hour, regardless of what it was. A lot of the time we were forced into using stories we knew people wouldn’t necessarily be interested in just to fill the story quota.”

Kevin reported that there was no such thing as a slow news day; only the team not trying hard enough. The goal was to reach the highest numbers possible on Google Analytics, by churning out content as much as possible. “The amount of content put out by Peter, Rebecca and Jamie Feltham is staggering. Even I, who wasn’t supposed to be writing ended up writing with close to 1700 pieces in my time there. That is ludicrous.”

It is also understood that in the absence of a regular Editor, Kevin Eva was effectively managing content operations on a day-to-day basis and more, doing a lot that was not under his remit. Rebecca asked him about style guidelines, how to respond to emails from companies asking for changes, because “Joyce would either not respond or say something vague.”

It’s a way of life

When asked about these conditions, Kevin Joyce replied that it was a way of life in the industry. “It’s a reality that in our modern world – especially in a young industry such as VR – building something great takes a huge amount of hard work and dedication. The fact that VRFocus is recognised as a leading publication for the industry is a testament to the efforts of every member of the team.

“The chosen career path of games/technology journalist is a very demanding one, and often – particularly during international events such as GDC and E3 – the hours all members of a publication’s team have to deliver are unthinkable in many careers.”

In many respects, it is right to say that hard work necessitates the culture needed. Kevin noted that he was always open to staff approaching him with issues. “I am also a firm believer in personal days and have always encouraged my staff to reach out to me directly with any concerns or personal issues they may have, whether regarding their work or their personal lives.”

This statement conflicts somewhat with the experiences of those I talked to. Kevin Eva noted that, by early 2018, he was owed “around 60 days” a lot of which has accrued thanks to effectively being prevented from taking any serious time off over the previous two years thanks to the need to cover people, avoid events, the fallout from the site’s first brush with disaster in 2016 when nDreams pulled funding, and other factors.

How did VRFocus initially fall?

The conditions and grievances stated by the staff continued until they were informed of their redundancy.

On October 10th, 2018, Kevin Joyce sent an email to colleagues informing them that he was leaving and that a board meeting has been called to discuss future plans for VRFocus. Staff asked if they can be represented, as they can handle of the site and made plans for its short and long term growth. They were told it would not be possible. When plans to find a buyer fell through, staff were made redundant.

A few days after the public announcement, and shortly after Kevin Eva left, VRFocus made a tweet implying that the company may continue:

Kevin Eva was surprised to hear this, as the tweet was sent shortly after Kevin entered gardening leave. The implication was that VRFocus sent the tweet once one of its staffers left. “As soon as I found that out I was onto Joyce asking him what the hell was going on. Was there a takeover after all? Why were we not informed about this? What’s our situations? Rebecca obviously also sent messages. We were blanked.” Kevin would eventually receive a reply to another query on December 10th, which confirmed the new position of VRFocus.

Why did Admix acquire VRFocus?

So why did Admix acquire VRFocus? Samuel Huber, the CEO, cited supporting the VR and AR community. “Admix’s mission has been to empower VR/AR developers to be successful. Similarly, VRFocus empowers developers to be successful by celebrating them, allowing them to reach a passionate audience, and more broadly, by showcasing XR’s awesomeness and educating the general population about it.”

“So, while the target audience is different, Admix and VRFocus are sharing the same vision: providing value to the developer community and pushing the XR industry forward. This is why it made total sense for us to acquire it, and invest our resources to help it grow faster.”

Sam noted that Admix and VRFocus are entirely separate, and that the publication has “complete freedom about what they cover, where they go and who they meet.” Their long-term goal is to make VRFocus “the number 1 outlet covering VR and AR,” utilising Admix’s resources.

I asked whether VRFocus is currently profitable. “We did not acquire VRFocus as a revenue machine,” replied Sam. “We constantly get requests to run advertising campaigns, but rarely handpick them as it is not our aim to fill VRFocus with ads. This means that the team can focus on delivering the best reports, and the readers can enjoy the experience without being bombarded with ads.”

In short, Admix’s aims with VRFocus is to become the go-to place for high-quality reporting, to support the community. In light of this, I asked Kevin Joyce whether the content strategy had changed since he joined Admix. Curiously, despite the complaints of staff, the strategy has not. “There has been an inevitable adjustment period as VRFocus has changed hands,” said Joyce, “and I am no longer leading the content production team, however by-and-large the strategy remains unchanged.”

A new VRFocus for 2019

Staff cited long work hours, a content strategy which focused on volume rather than length, and a lack of communication among management. These conditions may change as VRFocus enters a new year with a new team, as they are currently looking for new hires. It should be noted that those who were made redundant were not asked to come back; a Staff Writer position is open, whilst Rebecca has not received an invitation to apply.

Kevin Joyce was positive about his expeirences leading VRFocus. “Having been behind the reins of VRFocus since inception I can honestly say that it was one of the highlights of my career.

“I’m extremely proud of what my team achieved during my five years leading VRFocus and I look forward to reading the content that is delivered on the website over the next five years!”

Like any organisation, it is defined by its people. As VRFocus hires a new team, there is a new chance for the people to make an impact on the industry, similar to Jamie Feltham who now works at UploadVR. With Admix’s mission statement, VRFocus has the potential to make a great contribution to the community. It depends on whether the staff are either adequately take care of, or can keep pace with the industry.