Wccftech Interviews Min-Liang Tan, Co-founder, CEO of Razer


So I had an opportunity to get an hour with Min-Liang Tan as part of the launch event today (read our hands on coverage of the Razer Blade Stealth, Blade and Blade Pro launches today), so of course I jumped at the opportunity.

The presentation Min is giving me finishes up on the new Razer Blade Pro which is a ridiculously impressive piece of kit and it immediately takes the wind out of my sails a bit as I mentioned in the write-up because I had planned to ask about Project Christine. I mention this to kick off the interview portion of the meeting as my first question, so the interview follows.

In it, we discuss everything from the new machines to Min’s favourite games, with a stop off at VR, impending hardware updates and even a possible IPO. Of course I somehow manage to get Star Citizen into the conversation (actually, Min brings it up!).

Wccftech: When you were tricking me into believing you had a desktop to launch, that blew one of my initial questions away because I was going to ask you about Project Christine but I think I can basically cross that one off the list!

Min-Liang Tan : (Laughs) I would say that Christine is something we are still working on actually. I am still excited by the desktop form factor, don’t get me wrong, the Pro is a bit of sleight of hand but I think right now the focus for us is we’re really focussed on the user and the kinds of users who go for a laptop as opposed to pure desktop are completely different. We’re still working on Christine, it’s of course all about modularity but it’s still a work in progress.

Many of the OEM’s aren’t very keen on design and innovation, it’s all about price and driving volumes. We’ll keep trying to innovate.

W: Ok, so big question then. You’ve made the point in the past of saying you’re a gamer first and other stuff second (lawyer, CEO etc). So what are you gaming on? Are you throwing everything out and getting the Pro?

MLT: I’ll be completely honest. For me, I’m the customer that the Razer Blade was designed for. I travel a lot, I’ll admit that I keep a Razer Blade Pro at the office, but I’ve got a desktop at home but the Razer Blade accompanies me for trips usually. If I go for a day trip, sometimes I just bring my Blade Stealth because I feel I may be too tired to game at night, just bring the Stealth and take notes or whatever, I don’t even bring a charger. Although of course I’m one of the lucky few who has three or four different systems for every given scenario!

Guy starts a company to design himself a laptop...

W: Ok, so Kaby Lake in the Stealth with obviously some of the more powerful Kaby chips coming next year. Do you feel that you’re perhaps moving a bit too early with Skylake in the Blade and Blade Pro? Do you plan to update? What’s the life cycle of a Blade or a Blade Pro?

MLT: For us we constantly update but we’re probably a lot closer to the GPU update cycle because of course the GPUs really make a difference for gaming as opposed to the CPU so this is why we follow the GPU cadence a lot closer. But we’re also one of the few companies trying to constantly update our products all the time. Many of our users still use a 2011 Blade and it’s still relevant today because what we usually do is spec the machines so high such that it makes the machine relevant for a long time to come.

W: On that note then, we know that the 1080 is the flagship in terms of consumer oriented GPU’s today, but of course we know that GP102 exists in the new Titan X and will likely be brought out in a 1080 Ti or 1180 Ti or whatever, is that something that you’d look to incorporate?

MLT: We’re always looking for what makes the most sense for us for the future. Right now this is obviously the most powerful card there is in the consumer line-up, the thing is all our parts are bespoke so that’s the challenge, we don’t just drop it in. If Nvidia keeps the thermal envelope the same then that’s fine, but of course if they raise it, even just 5%, we have to completely redesign everything because we’re a bit like a Formula 1 car, we don’t design with any space or tolerance left on the table at all, it’s 100% of the capacity we can design to. If there’s something with a lower thermal envelope, of course it can fit it in that, but higher we would have to see.

W: So obviously everything here today is Nvidia focussed, what’s the situation, are you working with AMD?

MLT: We definitely engage with AMD, for us though we’re not really looking for bang for the buck, just what performs at the very best for a given scenario and I think today, Nvidia probably provides the best performance out there.

W: So a lot of the industry seems focussed on the so called “Decline of the PC”. What does Razer look to in terms of is there a future outside PC for gaming and you guys in particular?

MLT: First and foremost, we’re a company for gamers. We’re not even a gaming company and that’s a real difference. What we do is design products for gamers. In this case, we have been avid PC gamers from day 1 and we play PC games every day and that’s still the mainstay of a lot of our business. We also make console peripherals, we are excited about opportunities in the mobile sector and I think ultimately we will just go to where the gamers go.

Ultimately though, keep in mind that gaming is one of the few if not only sector which is growing aggressively in the PC space so that bodes incredibly well for us and who knows, maybe the PC ends up becoming a pure entertainment platform in the future. If that happens, of course we will be there, if that doesn’t happen, we will still be focussed on any platform that brings a great amount of value to gamers.

Mobility is something that is on our radar, Android is something we are excited about, of course we tend to be more focussed on performance gaming. Android is maturing to be a platform that is “good enough” for core games and we are excited about that. Other than that, I can’t say.

The things we typically get asked most for are:

  1. When are your systems coming to Europe?! Well we put that to rest today.
  2. What about a mobile phone from Razer?
  3. A gaming monitor from Razer?

Gamers aren’t so pigeonholed today as a PC gamer or a console gamer. What we see is that the hardcore gamer who is playing Starcraft or whatever is also playing Clash Royale on his mobile phone. So what I can say is that we are excited about this entire spectrum, every time we move into a new industry, everyone sort of sits up and says “great! Razer is opening it up for us!” So we just want to make sure we take our time with anything new and get it right.

W: I struggle a bit with VR, there’s obviously a huge content gap, hardware is expensive and it all seems a bit niche. Where does Razer see VR?

MLT: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in that there’s obviously no killer app. You look at people who have a Vive or CV1, they’ll use it extensively in the first 24 hours and then the usage drops of dramatically. Most people aren’t touching these things regularly, there are of course blips when friends come over and you want to show it off but then after that, it’s difficult to setup etc and the return on investment of time is just too low.

That much said, we remain very optimistic about VR, we think it’s a matter of time. When I say that though, I don’t even mean it’s time within this generation, could be next generation. Remember, VR has been around for a very long time. The question is whether this blip is “IT”. Is it going to go the way of the smartphone where it’s ubiquitous or the way of 3DTV which was a blip that got everyone super excited and then has largely disappeared.

The ultimate promise of full immersion is dramatic, there are lots of problems to solve. Even as good as the Vive is, it will get better, it’s just a question of time, money and content. Anyone who has used VR likes it, the question is how do we get the bar to be so low at a price point that is available to the masses to drive widespread adoption.

During the VR land grab, everyone was trying to build a closed system. OS VR obviously came along to try to spoil that. It’s telling that Razer hasn’t yet by ourselves come out with a VR product. With Razer, we try to have a truly premium experience where it’s out of the box, plugged in and everything works seamlessly with Synapse etc. That experience, I don’t think is available with VR yet. When that becomes available, then we can start doing more stuff. We’ve got some crazy VR demoes available internally at Razer. To me, it’s just a matter of time to get there.

VR isn't there yet, but is getting there...

W: IPO? There have obviously been a lot of rumours over the years about you guys eventually going public. What’s your thinking?

MLT: So I think we’re in the lucky position of being probably the biggest lifestyle brand for gamers. Just like with our products, we’ve been very selecting with our investor base where we want everyone to be aligned with our long term vision such that maybe the things we do don’t make a lot of sense to someone who isn’t passionate about our product and brand.

In the event that we do go public, and it’s something that we remain optimistic about and we look at, we would want to make sure that the company still has the wherewithal to continue doing what we’re doing because it’s very important for us to be the masters of our own destiny, create the products that we want, still do crazy things. We aren’t a traditional business by any means right, we still do left handed mice which makes absolutely no business sense whatsoever, but left handed gamers love it.

So we’re lucky that we have investors that support us, like when we decided to move into laptops, back then it was probably an insane decision from a business perspective. 2011, margins are already at rock bottom, so to tell the investors, hey guys, don’t worry, we’re going to create a new category of laptop, that’s not for the investor who doesn’t truly understand what we are trying to do.

Ultimately the brand is our platform. We’re both a hardware and a software company and to be able to execute that in tandem is kind of an Apple thing. There is a lot more we can do in terms of acoustic performance, so we get excited about acoustic expert talent we can bring in (Editor’s note: like THX!).

Questions like “why are you designing a laptop for yourself?!” In the end, we have a lot of guys on Wall Street using Blades. I said to some of them “what games are you playing?!” and they say “Well, I don’t want to buy a Mac because I don’t identify myself as a Mac person. I was a gamer, I think I’m still a gamer, at some point when my kids grow up, I’m still gonna go back to gaming, they’re just taking up too much time right now! When I go to a meeting and flip open the Blade, people around the room are like: What are you playing? World of Warcraft?”

We are that beacon, that brand, even though these guys admit they don’t have time to play because they have kids, they still say, “I’m gonna go back to it, this is my insignia”. That’s powerful.

I’m not saying we’re going public, but if you’re looking for an investment that’s going to give you a nice safe return, that’s probably not us. We take huge, but measured risks and truly disrupt the categories we enter, we’re not afraid to innovate. We’re lucky because we have a lot of interest in us. But who we choose is important because this is our life’s work. There are two brands in the world that people tattoo the logos on themselves from a consumer tech perspective, one of them is Apple, the other one is us.

I wouldn’t even call them customers anymore, they’re stakeholders. When you have people that committed to you, it’s not a privilege, it’s a responsibility. That for me means that we are always in a position to do truly great things, if something isn’t good enough, we say forget it, I’m not worried about that quarter because I know that it will come back later.

W: Ok, easier stuff now. Top 3 games of all time?

MLT: So I really like Ultima 4. That was a long time ago but it was really important for me because it wasn’t just about hacking and slashing. There were a couple of other things too like humility etc. That was a game that fundamentally got me involved from a storyline perspective.

Civilisation, I’m just waiting for 6 right now! I’m just so glad I’ve got a Blade with me.

Third one? Probably Quake. Q3A actually, (Quake 3 Arena). Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, I used to play very competitively back in the day, although nowadays I’m playing Overwatch.

I don’t know, I think I’m slowing down!

So yeah, Quake, Civilisation and Ultima specifically. So it was very cool for me to meet Lord British.

Min's immediate response... Ultima IV

W: Ok, last question. I know you guys make a lot of MOBA peripherals, what about other types of game controllers? Personally I’m into flight sims, space sims etc.

MLT: (Interrupting me excitedly!) Are you into Star Citizen?!

W: Absolutely! That’s kind of what brought me back to PC gaming, probably once a year or so I’d google “new Wing Commander” and then one day Star Citizen came up.

MLT: Wing Commander was great, I remember having one of the early SoundBlaster’s and when the space ship went by you and you can hear the sound and be like “Holy $4i7!”, back then it was EGA or VGA, I can’t remember.

I’m very excited about Star Citizen specifically, we’d love to be able to look at something, I’d love to see the game and play around with it, but I suspect if we ever designed one, it would probably be insanely expensive! Build out a whole cockpit because you just can’t stop with a peripheral for a game like that! I’m just waiting until its further along to play.

For us, new stuff often comes internally from someone in the company where you get someone who is a huge fan of something, then we will start putting a team around that person because for us, we need the people who are 100% passionate about certain categories and that really helps us design a great product and that’s important, just like the LoL guys and the DOTA guys are the ones designing the MOBA stuff and accessories, I spent a lot of time on first person stuff like DeathAdders and stuff like that. We’ve got some guys who have done mock ups of joysticks and things but there hasn’t been any core killer app to drive it yet. You’ve got Elite: Dangerous but…

At some point.

That wraps up the interview. Sounds like Min could be a fan...