Alienware Interview

Alienware Interview

Written by The GN Staff on 3/18/2004 for
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A few weeks ago we did a small interview with Dell on their XPS laptop gaming line. The talk of gaming enthusiast machines with Dell inspired us to go out and talk to one of the premiere gaming enthusiast machine producers around. Today we had the great opportunity to talk to the kind folks at Alienware. Brian Joyce of Alienware talked to us about what makes Alienware go. The interview was conducted with both Charles Husemann and John Yan asking questions.

Gaming Nexus: What do you think sets yourself apart from other companies and what do you think contributes to your success?

Brian Joyce: There are a couple of things. It also depends on who you are comparing us against. To some extent, the Alienware is in a league of their own. We’re not a little boutique anymore but we’re certainly not Dell either. So, when you compare me against Dell for example, the thing that sets us apart most is the gaming focus and the fact this company was founded on high performance computing and specifically with a gaming audience in mind. Almost everybody is a gamer and some of these folks are seriously hardcore. The main management team is still extremely hard core. I’m going to a BFV land party tonight and for that we still understand sort of what it means with the lifestyle is about, what’s important and what’s not important. And we don’t have to fake it.

Gaming Nexus: So the company was founded by hardcore enthusiast?

Brian Joyce: Oh absolutely . Alex Aguila is our president and Nelson Gonzalez is our CEO they were both gaming enthusiasts and into flight sims. The company was founded in 1996 so back in the day of course; the software was outpacing the hardware with all the proprietary technology it was a pain in the butt to try to keep up. So they started building their own machines thinking there was a market after all their friends and family asked them to the same thing. And they sent the machine for review to a magazine called Boot at the time, which is now Maximum PC. And they got a great review and basically placed a small ad in the way back section of the magazine and started taking orders almost immediately. And since then, the company has been, with no further investment revenue funded, doubling and tripling every year. Last year we did on order of $100,000,000 in sales.

That’s why I saw we’re not the boutique size or style as much anymore so against a Dell we’re certainly, believe it or not, price comparative when you do an apples to apples comparison. But also our focus is different. Dell entered the market after a long deliberation of return on investment analysis and market sizing evaluation. They’re in it for the money. We’re basically in it because it’s what we know and what we love.Gaming Nexus: Do you feel any pressure now from Dell?

Brian Joyce: Certainly we watch them and we’re very interested in how they are going to succeed and how successful they will be. We knew for a long time they had plans to do this. It’s a pretty small industry but honestly we anticipate it to be a good thing not just for the industry but for Alienware and so far that’s been true. For the industry it’s lends a lot of credence to the fact that you can make money doing this. It’ a viable thing and it’s not making toys for kids. And it’s not just millionaires who are interested in playing games to the best of their capabilities. For the company itself being the leader in this niche, every time somebody mentions Dell they essentially mention Alienware. And it’s sort of like how you got in touch with us. You want to find out what our perspective is on it is because we’ve being doing it for so long.

Gaming Nexus: In my interview with Dell, I did compare their laptop to yours as one of the first to offer an upgradeable graphical solution for laptops.

Brian Joyce: Yeah and that’s sort of our focus going forward is that not just to be a system builder but to sort of showcase the innovation and to do a lot more in research and design. The upgradeable graphics for the 51-M is sort of the first showcase or the first piece of evidence of that effort.

Gaming Nexus: You’ve come a long ways since 1996. Can you describe how the market and times have changed since you started and the difference between now and then.

Brian Joyce: Sure. Back in 1996, this really was a special interest kind of market. It’s almost an underground success story where as now, you see the IDC statistics on the growth of gaming in general and PC gaming and the PC enthusiast market it’s obvious it’s a viable market with good growth potential. So that’s certainly different. In addition I think you see more competitors now. There’s a lot more boutiques out there. There’s a lot more foreign competition. PC system builders that are probably based in Asia. There’s a lot more here in the US. And with the big OEMs coming on board you have to be really, really good at this to keep growing cause there are so many more sharks in the pond.

Gaming Nexus: Are you seeing a lot of business coming out of the country such as Asia?

Brian Joyce: I can’t speak to how many PCs they’re selling because honestly I don’t know but I do know I’ve seen more and more of them advertised. So that to me means they’re trying. It seems to me that the top three or four of us consistently win in roundups in terms of performance and attention to detail and customer support but there are lot more options out there. So again it’s mostly a good thing for us at the top because it keeps us sharp.
Gaming Nexus: Who do you think is your biggest competitor right now?

Brian Joyce: Honestly, we really look at Dell more than anyone else. Maybe because they have such a great history of operational performance and they’ve essentially built their business plan on how much they can squeeze out of their supply chain and things like that. They are definitely somebody to watch when they get serious. Again over the long run, I don’t know how successful they are going to be but we do watch them more closely more than anyone else.

Gaming Nexus: Can you tell us some of the research and development process that goes into a new line?

Brian Joyce: First thing is, it’s probably a lot longer of a project than you would imagine. Even something like the revamp of the Alienware case. That design started as an initiative even before I came on board so it’s probably a year and a half type of an effort between getting the outside to look right, figuring out what features you want in the case, what materials, how it was going to be tooled, finding the right partners to work with, going through testing and validation. And sort of beta testing it with some customers and getting their feedback, putting that back into the design process. It’s much like anything else. It takes quite a while. We made some specific investments in engineers and technologists that can bring it to next level which is why we’re focusing on our innovation at this point. A lot of it is still built on recommendation from folks like yourself who are hard core gamers who play all the time, know what they like, know what frustrates them when they open the PC, know how to make it easier on themselves and by extension on people like themselves.

Gaming Nexus: So a large part of your research can be attributed to something such as doing surveys on gamers to see what they like or what their favorites parts are.

Brian Joyce: Absolutely. We monitor our own internal forums. We monitor the public forums. We do do surveys both over the phone as well as web surveys. We watch industry trends as much as they are applicable to our market. We’ll take input from anywhere. And we monitor closely what reviewers have to say about our products and what letters to the Editor have to say and things like that and take all that into account.

Gaming Nexus: Sounds like you’re a lot more customer friendly than a big corporation like Dell in terms of what goes into their system.

Brian Joyce: We’d like to think so. Absolutely. We definitely place a high value on our customers in trying to make things right. We’re not always perfect. No one is. But we always try to fix the issues that we run into occasionally and make sure it’s a systemic fix so it doesn’t happen again. Arguably the lifetime value of a PC enthusiast customer is huge. They buy frequently and upgrade frequently. They’re willing to spend more for the very best. These folks are worth a lot to keep happy.
Gaming Nexus: Building on the case design aspect, it almost sounds like a car model here. Is there already work started on the next iteration with the cases?

Brian Joyce: Absolutely. We get copied so quickly that we can’t afford to sit back and rest. Almost as soon as the current case was launched, the next project for the next and the next couple of designs actually was initiated as well.

Gaming Nexus: Where do you see the market place going? What trends do you see where gamers are going?

Brian Joyce: Certainly there is an increase in mobile gaming systems. That’s across the board. Across the PC industry you see the advanced of notebooks. Notebook growth is far out pacing desktop growth. So that’s one thing. And I think it has a lot to do with the social aspect of gaming where LAN parties are very popular and you want to be able to bring your system and bnot have to mess around with the monitor. So as notebook performance reaches quasi-parity with desktops you’re seeing those becoming more popular.

Gaming Nexus: Do you see sale spikes when major games are released?

Brian Joyce: Absolutely. Major games are definitely a sales drivers in our niche. So Half Life 2 and Doom 3 obviously are the two most prominent thing looking forward to in terms of games. Far Cry as well. You might see an impact from that. So those types of games that sort of cross the boundaries. I mean Doom was the first one you saw your uncle playing, your boss started playing. So those types of games that sort of cross the genre boundaries absolutely drive sales for us because they are compelling events for our customers. They absolutely know that they need a top performing PC in order to be able to enjoy the game to its fullest extent. Nobody even wants to play the game until they can get it so that it can run it at 1600x1200 with all the filtering on and all the dynamic lighting and all that other good stuff. Otherwise you’re sort of robbing yourself of the experience. It’s like watching a DVD on a black and white TV.Gaming Nexus: When we were doing research we’re kind of surprised to find that you sell high end AV systems. How much is your business is non-gaming related?

Brian Joyce: It’s not huge but not insignificant. I can’t really give you an estimated number but we had that whole line spring from folks who were asking us to create it basically. So, I think a lot of these folks are pro-sumers or professionals who work in digital content or digital video or digital audio who are gamers at home who had Alienware systems at home , love the performance, love the reliability and customer support and had to go to the job portion of what they do and they couldn’t get the same kind of quality in those systems so they asked us to start building them. And really we haven’t looked back. We keep pumping more and more performance in those systems and support and offering a wider variety of software vendor partners as well.

Gaming Nexus: A couple weeks back we actually saw a press release that you’re working with a super computer project in Florida. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Brian Joyce: That was a pretty exciting design win. It’s the Florida International University super computer. I believe 48 Athlon64FX systems and that particular cluster is going to be used for hurricane simulation modeling and protein folding. It will be borrowed by colleges and universities across the country. So it really puts FIU up there as a Top 500 in terms of computing capabilities. It was exciting for us because it was the first time we had done something like that at a university level. And we were up against a lot of named players in that server space. And we won based on the fact we can do custom configurations, high performance support. We have a dedicated support team for that type of sale. It was pretty good and a very exciting thing for us.

Gaming Nexus: Was it one of those things were someone bought one of your gaming systems and were impressed enough to bring you in, a contact made through a sale?

Brian Joyce: Obviously FIU is very local to us so folks know about us from the business community. So they knew of us and worked hard, some of the folks in the engineering department of FIU worked hard to get us involved in the bidding process. And once we were in they liked what they saw.Gaming Nexus: Which is your most popular configuration right now? What’s your biggest seller?

Brian Joyce: It’s probably toss up between the Area 51, which is our flagship desktop system and the Area-51M, which is our mobile gaming system. They’re both extremely popular.

We like to offer a choice between the latest components. But then again most of our users go for the very latest. So we don’t offer the 2.8GHZ P4 anymore. It’s the very, very tip of the iceberg.

Gaming Nexus: Do you see sales heading into more of AMD or Intel currently?

Brian Joyce: Right now Intel. But the answer to that is they always go for highest performance. There’s a certain percentage loyal to Intel or AMD just like there’s a certain percentage loyal to ATI or NVIDIA. But really it’s whatever performing best is what sells right now.

There was a time in Alienware’s history where AMD had majority market share. Currently most of the systems we selling are Intel, but then again the Athlon64 FX is gaining ground. Whether people are buying into the 64 bit future promise or the benchmarks in various tests I honestly couldn’t tell you at this point. The performance story is compelling.

Gaming Nexus: On your web site you program partnering with game developers. Can you tell us a little bit more about which developers you’ve signed onboard?

Brian Joyce: There’s a couple things here. We do game partnerships which is what results in game inserts in Battlefield Vietnam boxes. That we’ve always done and we’ve continue to do with the leading titles. We generally offer those folks systems for development and they come with those anyways. That’s sort of a promotional partnership. The actual game developer program, we’re able to offer a wide variety of game developers discounts on systems; steep discounts on systems because we’ve worked several of our hardware partners to do so.

Gaming Nexus: We noticed you do promotions with LAN centers. Are they are any particular LAN centers you work with to supply systems to or partnering with?

Brian Joyce: We work with a lot of them. I can’t think of any big one you might have heard one off the top of my head but I know there’s a huge one in New York City a lot of times some good tournaments are held at that have all of our systems. A big center owned by Bawls Guanara down here we work with. We are frequently contacted by LAN centers to put something together and we do the same thing. We try to get them a reasonable price on systems so that they can offer that to folks that come into play and see a large increase in gaming centers contacting us.

(At this point of the interview we went off geeking on LAN centers with Brian and had a great time discussing various issues on that matter.)-John- I’ve done plenty of interviews over the years and this one was by far the most enjoyable one to do. Brian was great to talk with and he didn’t come back with PR-ish answers or give us the runaround on any issues we brought up. I was very impressed with what he had to say and I have a new found respect for the company. I really want to thank Brian for taking the time from his busy schedule to chat with us and give us some insight on the Florida based company..

- Charles– I’ll basically parrot what John said about the company and add some thanks to Jacklyn Gonzalez and Raluca State for helping setup the interview. While researching the company for the interview I was really struck by how focused they are on the gaming scene and that it’s more than a market segment to them, they actually really care about games and making the best stuff for gamers. To say they are "Living the Dream" would be an understatement.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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