An Audience With… Min-Liang Tan
Razer’s co-founder discusses life as the self-proclaimed Tony Stark of the videogame peripheral
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.
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