An Au­di­ence With… Min-Liang Tan

Razer’s co-founder dis­cusses life as the self-pro­claimed Tony Stark of the videogame pe­riph­eral

EDGE - - HYPE - BY SI­MON PARKIN

Sin­ga­porean ex-lawyer Min-Liang Tan’s sem­i­nal in­ven­tion was a mouse de­signed to give him and his friends a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage in Quake. The mouse, later dubbed ‘Boom­slang’, proved so pop­u­lar that he co-founded a com­pany just to man­u­fac­ture it at scale. A decade later, Razer has a small but re­fined clutch of pri­mar­ily eS­ports-re­lated pe­riph­er­als: mice, key­boards, head­phones and lap­tops. They’re aimed at the pre­mium end of the mar­ket and tai­lored for pro­fes­sional play­ers or wannabes. While Tan was per­haps born too early to make pro gam­ing his pro­fes­sion, the de­signer is able to live his child­hood as­pi­ra­tions through the 260-odd pros that Razer spon­sors. As we meet in the dark­ened belly of a Lon­don ho­tel, he presents an al­most phil­an­thropic ea­ger­ness to serve play­ers with his prod­ucts and Razer’s sup­port. Is this just spin? How did videogames fac­tor into your child­hood in Sin­ga­pore? I grew up in a small city-state. There was a lot of fo­cus on aca­demic achieve­ment. Videogames were not en­cour­aged. Nonethe­less, I was a hard­core gamer grow­ing up. It’s what I spent the ma­jor­ity of my time do­ing. Grow­ing up, com­puter gam­ing was some­thing seen as a waste of time. Peo­ple told me that I was wast­ing my youth and that noth­ing good would come of it.

What was your first sys­tem? The Ap­ple II. I played Lode Run­ner and Res­cue Raiders. That got me started. Then I had a 286 af­ter that. One of the games I was most pas­sion­ate about was Waste­land. I ac­tu­ally pi­rated

Waste­land at the time. I felt bad about it for years af­ter­wards. So when Brian Fargo Kick­started Waste­land 2, I wrote to him to tell him what I’d done, and to pledge $10,000 to the cam­paign. I also pushed the Kick­starter to the en­tire Razer com­mu­nity. We helped that pro­ject to be­come one of the largest [crowd­fund­ing] cam­paigns ever. He then wrote me into the game as an NPC. Did your par­ents buy the Ap­ple II for you? Ac­tu­ally, my fa­ther, who worked in real es­tate, bought it for him­self. But I quickly re­alised that you could buy games for the sys­tem, and my brother and I took it over. Once we got a mo­dem, many years later, I started to play online games such as Un­real Tour­na­ment and Quake. I was truly pas­sion­ate about it, to the ex­tent that, as a teenager, I went on some­thing of a pil­grim­age. This was be­fore the era of eS­ports. In the ’90s, it was known as ‘pro gam­ing’, and the heart of the scene was in Korea. So I scrimped and saved for a ticket to get me out there. I don’t speak a word of Korean. I had no idea what I was do­ing. I wanted to play games for a liv­ing. So I trav­elled to Korea by my­self and made friends. Even at that time, ev­ery­one was ob­sessed with find­ing ways to have the com­pet­i­tive edge – that un­fair ad­van­tage. That was re­ally the ge­n­e­sis for our first prod­uct: a pro­to­type mouse de­signed es­pe­cially for pro gam­ing. There was this Eureka mo­ment when I was play­ing Quake and they kicked me off a server be­cause they thought I was us­ing an aim­bot.

This was in Korea?

No, later in San Fran­cisco. OK. Let’s go back a bit. Where did you stay in Korea? With one of my gam­ing bud­dies, who I’d met over the web. He was cool with me stay­ing at his house and in the day­time I’d hang out in the PC bangs, the In­ter­net cafés where many pros would con­gre­gate and com­pete. Af­ter a while, I de­cided to leave for Amer­ica.

I wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily plan­ning to start a com­pany out there. I was just look­ing for fun and a way to see the world. When I ar­rived, my friends and I be­came ob­sessed with find­ing ways to give our­selves a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage through mod­i­fied hard­ware. We’d ad­just the com­puter mon­i­tor to find the per­fect an­gle. I sug­gested the idea of a mouse that was faster and more pre­cise. It wasn’t a real busi­ness at this stage. It was just a de­sire to cre­ate tools for our friends to use to play.

It wasn’t till about 2005 when I de­cided I wanted to turn what we were do­ing into a real busi­ness. That’s when we for­mally in­cor­po­rated the com­pany. I led ev­ery­thing to do with cre­ative de­sign and prod­uct. Since then, we’ve been funded by some of the top ven­ture cap­i­tal firms in the world, but our fo­cus has al­ways re­mained the same: de­sign­ing great hard­ware de­vices, and con­nect­ing them to great soft­ware plat­forms. When you first left for Korea, what did your fam­ily think about what you were do­ing? They thought it was a hor­ri­ble idea. In fact, most of the time I kept what I was do­ing from them. I was jug­gling

school with my game-play­ing habit. I ac­tu­ally grad­u­ated and prac­tised law for a while. But gam­ing has al­ways been my true pas­sion. When you were hang­ing out with semi-pro play­ers, did you not also want to com­pete? I was play­ing com­pet­i­tively. Even to­day, I play com­pet­i­tively when I can. Then what made you de­cide to launch a startup rather than pur­sue a full-time ca­reer in pro gam­ing? Back then, star­tups didn’t have the sexy vibe that they do to­day. We didn’t think of our­selves as en­trepreneurs; it was just this nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. We were spend­ing so much time de­sign­ing prod­ucts for our friends to use in com­pe­ti­tions, and ship­ping them out, that it be­came ob­vi­ous that we should for­malise the ar­range­ment… It wasn’t a real busi­ness in 2005. Even to­day, to a cer­tain de­gree, we don’t look at it like a real busi­ness. We have nu­mer­ous de­part­ments, 600 em­ploy­ees world­wide, ten of­fices and all the rest, but we’re still pretty much the same. When peo­ple talk about man­age­ment, I look at Razer like an RTS. You have re­sources that you mine, and then you make dif­fer­ent things from those re­sources. You were one of the first com­pa­nies to spon­sor pro play­ers. How has the scene been changed by money? What’s been gained, and what’s been lost? Back in the day, a tour­na­ment was lit­tle more than a group of peo­ple com­ing to­gether, putting five dol­lars in a pot and al­low­ing the win­ner to take all. It was a mixed bless­ing to win, since ev­ery­one ex­pected you to buy the drinks. You’d lose more money than you gained! To­day, some games have $15 mil­lion prize pots. But the fun­da­men­tals are the same: peo­ple go to com­pete and to win. Un­for­tu­nately, there are some neg­a­tive as­pects: throw­ing games, cheat­ing and so on. But this is a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion of any sport. It’s a nec­es­sary evil. What do you re­quire from play­ers when you take them on as your own? Team Razer cur­rently has more than 200 eS­ports ath­letes. We prob­a­bly win more podium places than any other spon­sor out there. Typ­i­cally, our play­ers are al­ready fans of Razer be­fore we take them on, so we don’t pay them to use our prod­ucts. But that’s one of our re­quire­ments. Usu­ally they ap­proach us and we eval­u­ate them. We’re mainly look­ing to see whether we will be able to find ways to make them bet­ter com­peti­tors. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, we look at whether we can help them im­prove their ca­reers by pro­vid­ing, say, travel to for­eign com­pe­ti­tions. We pro­vide rest ar­eas for our play­ers, of­fer train­ing fa­cil­i­ties and so on.

What do those train­ing fa­cil­i­ties look like? At tour­na­ment venues, we pro­vide a pri­vate area for our play­ers. We pro­vide a pro­fes­sional masseuse to give them a good mas­sage. We have sta­tions that are primed and ready. We [of­fer] psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tions, and ways to help them over­come their jet­lag, for ex­am­ple. In com­mer­cial terms, is your in­volve­ment in eS­ports more about the mar­ket­ing ben­e­fits or the fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits that you skim from play­ers’ win­nings? Many peo­ple have asked us why we still bother to spon­sor eS­ports when we are al­ready the most recog­nised brand in that sphere. To that I say: it’s some­thing we view as a re­spon­si­bil­ity, rather than [us be­ing] in search of a mar­ket­ing re­turn on in­vest­ment. Ev­ery­one in eS­ports knows who we are, but we want to give back to the com­mu­nity by spon­sor­ing tour­na­ments, ath­letes and so on. We also spon­sor some shout­cast­ers and stream­ers – so it’s im­por­tant for us to give back by sup­port­ing even the lay­ers that aren’t mar­ket­ing-driven. We do this be­cause, as you’ve heard, eS­ports is in our DNA. In terms of the hard­ware, what ad­van­tages can your prod­ucts give peo­ple in prac­ti­cal terms? We in­vented the gam­ing mouse. We cre­ated this in­dus­try. We [set] bench­marks, so to­day’s prod­ucts tend to be much faster and more pre­cise.

How does that work prac­ti­cally? Take the gam­ing mouse, for ex­am­ple. Our prod­ucts use sen­sors that are more pre­cise than the nor­mal con­sumer mice out there. We tend to be an en­tire gen­er­a­tion ahead of our com­peti­tors be­cause we work on a sil­i­con level to­gether with the sen­sor providers. For ex­am­ple, our

sen­sors can be cal­i­brated to a spe­cific dot per inch value. This is a tiny in­cre­ment, but when you’re play­ing in a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar tour­na­ment, ev­ery sin­gle ad­van­tage is crit­i­cal. Like­wise, our key­boards are faster and crisper. This kind of stuff doesn’t mat­ter for the gen­eral user, but if you’re a se­ri­ous com­peti­tor, it mat­ters a great deal.

What’s your process for de­vel­op­ing new prod­ucts? We do all of the de­sign and re­search in-house. We have a ded­i­cated team just look­ing at fu­ture tech – any­thing from three to five years away – based in Austin, Texas. Then we have three de­sign cen­tres in Sin­ga­pore, Tai­wan and San Fran­cisco. We have more engi­neers than all of our com­peti­tors com­bined. All of this al­lows us to come up with pro­to­types that our spon­sored play­ers then test in live com­pe­ti­tions. They give us feed­back that al­lows us to op­ti­mise. This loop of de­vel­op­ment and im­prove­ment means that each prod­uct has a long pe­riod of evo­lu­tion. One of the big­gest crit­i­cisms of Razer is that we have very few prod­ucts, but that’s be­cause of this it­er­a­tion process. We think it’s also what gives us an ad­van­tage. How do you know when a prod­uct is ready if you’re con­stantly it­er­at­ing based on tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances? Some­times we’re still tweak­ing even the day be­fore we ship. We can al­ways make things bet­ter. The prob­lem at Razer is that you’re never go­ing to be happy. We never pat our­selves on the back, be­cause when­ever we launch a prod­uct, there are al­ways things that can be im­proved. But surely there aren’t an in­def­i­nite num­ber of pos­si­ble im­prove­ments with a mouse or a key­board? At some point, it has to reach the point at which the ben­e­fits are im­per­cep­ti­ble for a hu­man be­ing. A good ex­am­ple would be the Naga mouse we cre­ated. It changed the face of MMOG gam­ing. We launched the mouse in 2008. Back then, ev­ery­one knew that you needed a great many but­tons on a mouse for an MMOG, but no­body could find a way to make it work, be­cause peo­ple couldn’t get used to it. We de­signed our MMOG mouse around the tra­di­tional mo­bile phone. I found that I could text with­out hav­ing to look at my phone’s key­board; I had mus­cle mem­ory and knew where the but­tons were. So we took the phone key­board and placed it on the side of the mouse. It went on to be­come the most pop­u­lar MMOG mouse on the planet. Back then, peo­ple would have said, ‘There’s noth­ing you can do to im­prove a mouse for an MMOG,’ but we rein­vented it. More re­cently, I’ve see other com­pa­nies copy that de­sign. It’s funny, be­cause if I had to come up with that con­cept to­day, I’d come up with a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing it. That style of mo­bile phone is no longer around thanks to the rise of smart­phones. So from a de­sign per­spec­tive, an­thro­po­log­i­cally and cul­tur­ally, it was the right de­sign at the right time. But in 2015, it makes no sense to de­sign a prod­uct like that. So there are al­ways im­prove­ments to make. The mouse and key­board have been around for a long time. We’re cur­rently in­vest­ing in cam­er­abased ges­ture tech­nol­ogy. It’s al­ways chang­ing. Your prod­ucts are mostly aimed at top-level play­ers, which rep­re­sent an im­por­tant mar­ket, but a rel­a­tively mi­nor one. How have you man­aged to grow the com­pany, given that you tar­get a sub­set of play­ers like this? We could def­i­nitely grow the com­pany in leaps and bounds if we were a real com­pany. But we aren’t.

“I LOOK AT RAZER LIKE AN RTS. YOU HAVE RE­SOURCES YOU MINE, AND THEN YOU MAKE DIF­FER­ENT THINGS FROM THOSE RE­SOURCES”

What does that mean? You’ve al­ready said that you have in­vestors. Pre­sum­ably they wouldn’t be very happy to hear you say that. Well, we are fo­cused on the best prod­ucts with­out be­ing bound or shack­led by tra­di­tional cap­i­tal­ist con­cerns like meet­ing cer­tain rev­enue num­bers. We’ve done it dif­fer­ently. We’ve been told that we could triple or quadru­ple our prof­its if we were will­ing to bring our price points down to a mass-mar­ket level. My an­swer has al­ways been that if we did that, we’d com­pro­mise on the fea­tures in our prod­ucts. Once we com­pro­mise, it would no longer be a Razer prod­uct. So we have five mice and two key­boards, two kinds of head­phones and two lap­tops. We’ve in­cre­men­tally in­creased our cat­e­gories, rather than in­creas­ing the num­ber of prod­ucts within those cat­e­gories. That’s been our strat­egy for the com­pany. Do your sales im­prove when a Razer-spon­sored team wins a ma­jor tour­na­ment? It doesn’t hap­pen for us. We see eS­ports more as a way to val­i­date our prod­ucts. It’s a huge hon­our for many peo­ple to be un­der the Razer um­brella. They get to use our lounges. There’s al­lure. And we also bring that to the home user. How do you see the com­ing wave of vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets – Ocu­lus CV1, HTC Vive, Mor­pheus, and so on – af­fect­ing your busi­ness? We’ve ac­tu­ally been in­vest­ing in VR for a re­ally long time. We’ve taken all the work we’ve in­vested in the tech­nol­ogy and have made it all open source. OSVR is prob­a­bly the world’s largest open source plat­form in VR to­day. We have more than 50 col­leges and univer­si­ties signed up. We have some of the larger game pub­lish­ers sup­port­ing us. We think VR is po­ten­tially the next big plat­form. There’s still some way to go, but al­ready you’re see­ing mu­sic video pro­duc­ers de­sign­ing for VR. We’re only just at the cusp of where VR will take us. There was a great deal of noise over OSVR when it was an­nounced, but that ex­cite­ment seems to have cooled off since. Is that be­cause you’re no longer fo­cused on this area so much? In the open source com­mu­nity, [OSVR] is mas­sive. Not so much on the con­sumer side, per­haps, but we have more than 100 de­vel­op­ers who have signed on. Berke­ley and Johns Hop­kins univer­sity are de­vel­op­ing in OSVR, as are Ubisoft, Valve and Gear­box. It’s be­come the big­gest open source plat­form. Our fo­cus is re­ally work­ing with de­vel­op­ers and academia. But, as a prod­uct com­pany, how does that fit into your busi­ness plans? We don’t look at our­selves like a prod­uct com­pany. We are a com­pany for gamers. We have more than two mil­lion play­ers us­ing our soft­ware plat­forms [daily]. At the end of the day, we don’t do ev­ery­thing for busi­ness rea­sons. OSVR is some­thing we look at [and] we think it’s pretty cool. We think it’s go­ing to be a mas­sive plat­form, and that’s good enough for us. What ex­actly do you say in your in­vestor meet­ings when you’re talk­ing about al­most giv­ing phi­lan­throp­i­cally to the ad­vance­ment of vir­tual re­al­ity? How do you jus­tify it? We’ve been lucky to find in­vestors that have in­vested on the premise that we know what we’re do­ing is to serve gamers. We were up front how we run the com­pany. We’re not fo­cused on the bot­tom line. We’ve re­mained true to this. It’s great tes­ta­ment to our in­vestors that they’ve al­lowed us to con­tinue in this way. Fin­gers crossed I’m not go­ing to be fired any time soon. And we’re grow­ing quickly. Part of our suc­cess is down to our cul­ture. What do you per­son­ally get from this? Other than a vo­ca­tion and liveli­hood, what gets you out of bed each day?

I get to be the Tony Stark of gam­ing. It’s in­cred­i­bly fun. I get to de­sign stuff for my­self as a gamer.

Do you see your­self as an in­ven­tor? I see the team as in­no­va­tors. We are the only com­pany to have won Best Of CES in five con­sec­u­tive years. It’s tough to con­tin­u­ally push the lim­its, but we have a plat­form in what’s go­ing to be the big­gest growth en­ter­tain­ment sec­tor in the world. There are two bil­lion gamers out there. The idea of the gamer as a stereo­typ­i­cal base­ment­d­welling teenager has changed. We’re see­ing gamers who are bankers, lawyers, young par­ents and even small chil­dren. They are all gamers. And that’s the group that we’re fo­cused on.

78

Pho­tog­ra­phy Kevin Nixon

Razer’s fo­cus is the com­mit­ted end of the gam­ing mar­ket, but it has dab­bled in mo­bile, too, with its Jun­gle­cat iPhone con­troller

While much of Razer’s fo­cus is on com­pet­i­tive pe­riph­er­als, its of­fer­ing is grow­ing in­creas­ingly di­verse. Its Tur­ret ‘lap­board’ is de­signed with liv­ing-room PC gam­ing in mind, a fold­out mag­ne­tised mouse pad stop­ping the wire­less mouse from slip­ping away as you bal­ance the setup on your lap The 27 teams un­der the Team Razer brand racked up over 280 podium places and $4 mil­lion in prize money in 2014, the big­gest share of which came from Dota2

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