Razer is a company that exists within its own bubble, building products that they themselves would like, generally regardless of the greater market consequences. This has arguably kept it from breaking into the mainstream, but it’s also helped to foster a passionate respect from its loyal and growing fanbase. As the company’s motto states it is “For Gamers, by Gamers.”
Razer’s personality is defined in part by its charismatic CEO, Min-Liang Tan. After graduating from law school in Singapore, Tan joined with Robert Krakoff to form Razer USA in 1998. The company has specialized in high end gaming peripherals from gaming controllers to keyboards, and has seen a remarkably steady rate of growth. In 2011, Razer unveiled the Razer Switchblade, the company’s first laptop, and a big step in a new direction for the company.
The Switchbalde would eventually become the Blade, a powerful laptop dedicated to gaming, with a hefty price tag and the performance to back it up. Razer recently reintroduced the Blade line, unveiling the Blade Pro, a powerful 17-inch laptop, as well as the new model of the Blade, a 14-inch Ultrabook. They left us impressed.
We sat down with Tan and discussed the new products, the direction the gaming industry is going, and how Razer products are designed.
Digital Trends: First off, where are you based out of?
Min-Liang Tan: Ha! I’m based on a plane. I’m based over here [San Francisco] , and I make the circuit – because we’ve got three design centers – San Francisco, Taipei, and Singapore – I make the circuit every month. So I go around the world once every month.
I bet your frequent flier miles are awesome.
Well, my jet lag is awesome.
How long have you been in development on the new Razer Blade?
Wow – well we have a lot of iterative projects and stuff like that, but I think in terms of systems as a whole, we’ve been doing this since 2007, 2008. It’s been a couple of years.
So how far out in general do you have to be thinking about a product?
Three to Five years.
We’ve been looking at it for a long time. We do all our design in house. We’ve got a technology center out of Austin that looks at everything three to five years ahead, and we’ve got a product roadmap that sees anything one to three years.
So are laptops the new focus for Razer?
“Gaming is pretty much pushing the entire consumer electronics market.”
So are you looking at anything for the next gen of consoles?
All the time <laugh>. In fact, I think we are looking at things the gen after this, the next gen, already. So I’ve been playing around with this for a long time.
With laptops in general, one of the big things is battery life. There are a ton of stories about people coming up with revolutionary new battery technologies, but how far away are we from an actual jump in battery technology?
Well, that is one of the areas there’s a lot of research going on. We keep our eye on the ball, especially in terms of battery. We look at other … options, like wireless charging and all that kind of stuff. I think we’re still a bit aways away from that. Battery life goes up, the demands of processing go up at the same time – thermals go up and that burns more battery life –
Right, Moore’s law.
Yeah. It’s just a constant catch-up in terms of that. Definitely one of those areas we’re working on.
I don’t think so. It’s one of those things where a door closes and another one opens. Long ago people said that 8 bits was enough. Look where we are now.
What do you think is driving technology at the moment?
I think gaming is usually – especially for the consumer electronics market, or consumer technology – it’s the most demanding market. It’s the user, and this isn’t just PC gaming, it’s the Xbox, it’s the PlayStation, it’s dominating the attention of consumers today. Take tablets… 85-percent of users that own a tablet use it for gaming. And the gamers tend to be the most skeptical and demanding users in the world. Anything that’s good enough for gamers is good enough for everybody else. So that’s the best graphics, the most amount of processing power. Gaming is pretty much pushing the entire consumer electronics market.
Gaming is kind of the Trojan horse…
Do you follow the neurogaming developments, like the tech using EEGs and the like?
Uh-huh. Non-invasive stuff. We do a lot of R&D on that front too.
So what kind of future and fringe technology does Razer look in to?
That’s not fringe stuff for us. That’s serious stuff for us. There’s lots of fringe stuff we do. We don’t talk about it publicly, but biofeedback, eye tracking… we do a huge amount of work on that front.
Going back to the idea of gaming leading the way idea, the Kinect wasn’t the first gesture based controller, but I’d argue it was probably the most important and it spurred others.
I think having good tech today isn’t good enough. You’ve got to have a great platform, you’ve got to have users that believe in it. It’s not just having hardcore tech. I’ve seen some really good tech fall by the wayside because they don’t get enough eye time with the users. So that’s where I think we are really blessed with the opportunity, that everything that we launch tends to get a huge amount of interest from our user group and things like that. And it’s also integrating it with the rest of the entire system. That’s really, really import.
When it comes to gaming graphics, are we reaching a plateau? It seems like the improvements are great, but nowhere near as big a leap as they used to be.
Have you seen the crazy shit Nvidia has been up to?
Do you think graphics still attract gamers though?
All the time. I’ve seen this thing on Facebook where this guy says ‘wow, real life graphics, it’s really great.’ And that to me is amusing because I believe there will be a day when graphics are just going to be like real life. And that is the Holy Grail of sorts. You don’t get higher resolution than that.
Do you think we want to go that realistic, or do we want the division between real and virtual?
I think that’s where we want to go, I suspect. In the sense that it’s all about immersiveness. And I don’t think there’s going to be a difficulty in differentiating between virtual and real life. Some people might have difficulties, of course –
Yeah, but those are the people that have difficulties anyway –
-in anything anyway. So, I would love to play – without having to run around, I suppose – Battlefield 3 in real life. With great graphics and stuff like that. That’s what I like.
At CES a few years ago after the first big 3D pushes, one of my coworkers joked that after the show the real world just wasn’t 3D enough for him.
I find myself looking at things, and looking at scenes and stuff like that, and thinking ‘that would be great in a game.’ Or ‘that’s going to be phenomenal.’ I’m looking at physics in graphics like water, hair, dust, and things like that. It’s getting to be really cool.
So what do you look for in games you play?
Personally I’m most excited about content in a game. I play a lot of RPGs, so I think that’s the basis. I play games for the story. I’m really old school. I’ve played games from Ultima and things like that… and that’s a basis. On top of that there’s the graphics, there’s the gameplay. I love all of that.
Do you still have time to actually play games?
“If we just really cared about profits and stuff, we wouldn’t be making systems.”
I get it. I have an ultrabook, and it can only play a handful of games.
Yeah, not the hardcore stuff, right?
Yeah, and that’s why I designed [the new Blade]. It’s cool. In essence I have a team just do the stuff I wanted for myself. Which is a real shitty way to say it but…
Whatever, there are perks to being in charge. The Razer stuff also can handle most business applications and uses, but has the company ever considered focusing on more business oriented stuff? Maybe even enterprise stuff one day?
Well, not enterprise. I think the general consumer, we have oddly enough. I was just talking about it, we’ve got these megastars and music artists, and they aren’t really hardcore gamers. But you see our stuff in sitcoms or movies, and people approaching us saying ‘I love your product,’ and I’ll ask ‘are you a gamer?’ and they’ll say ‘no, I like the design’ and stuff like that. I don’t think we’ll be moving in to enterprise. Software, I think we’ll be doing a lot more work on. I think we’ve got one of the biggest software platforms for gaming in the world right now, with 3 million active users, it’s pretty big. But probably more consumer.
Many people have asked us, are we going to move in to mainstream, like mass market. I would say no, we’re going to bring gaming to the mass market instead.
It’s tough to define what the mainstream is anymore. But thinking of the Razer brand, how do you continue to grow and still protect your brand and image?
We protect our brand, it’s a big deal for us. Not just legally, but internally. Lots of guys have said ‘why don’t we just put our brand on this, or put our brand on that, we could make a shit load of money.’ But I’m not really interested in that. If we just really cared about profits and stuff, we wouldn’t be making systems. For us, we like what we do and life is short, right? I wouldn’t do anything else, it’s just fun for us. It’s crazy that we get to design the stuff that we do and still stay profitable. Fingers crossed. And it’s something that we feel really fortunate to be able to do.
Speaking of that, you guys have always gone high end. Have you ever looked to make an economy device to introduce people to Razer?
Well, we don’t design to price points, and that’s the thing. We tend to sit there and we ask ‘what would we like for ourselves?’ And we start from that perspective. Like, I told the guys that I wanted a gaming laptop that I could travel with, and they said ‘ok, great.’ So we worked together and we designed that. The problem is that when we’re designing for ourselves we tend to just want everything, because it’s just for ourselves, right? We’re probably not great at designing budget stuff. It’s not that we don’t want to design a budget thing, but because we tend to work the other way around, we start with the features rather than the price point. We’ll probably leave the more inexpensive stuff to the guys that want to make it.
We’ll probably never be a big company. We’ve resigned our fate on that. You know, we’re not going to be a big corporation and stuff like that, but hey, life is short. It’s ok.