Alienware was founded 20 years ago to make gaming PCs. And at the most recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), it showed off a bunch of new products such as the Alienware Alpha desktop, the full-tower Area 51, the OLED-based Alienware 13, and a backpack and computer that enables players to wear a PC on their back while they play virtual reality games.
Those machines offer screaming performance to players who want exceptional graphics quality. But now the PC is changing, as Microsoft is trying to drive Windows 10 and Xbox gaming and its Project Scorpio game console (coming in holiday 2017) into a kind of converged product.
GamesBeat talked about the 20th anniversary of Alienware and the convergence of PC and console gaming with Frank Azor, a cofounder of Alienware and general manager of the gaming division of Dell.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Frank Azor: We’ve done a lot of firsts over our 20 years. We made the first gaming notebook, and now look how big that market is. The first liquid-cooled desktop. It’s hard to see a gaming desktop today that isn’t liquid-cooled. The first customer-creatable external graphics. Just a year and a half ago we launched that. The first PC console. We saw a couple of competitors coming out with things like that. So who knows where we’ll be in the next 20 years?
The main recurring theme here is that except for the 13 inches, every product has VR consideration in it. The Area 51 is obviously VR capable. The Aurora is VR capable and designed to scale with your VR experience. Looking at the Alpha R2, we have a VR path there as well. VR is going to be as relevant to our future as PC gaming has been to our past.
GamesBeat: I’m curious where you think some of this is going. Microsoft’s Project Scorpio almost implies a kind of fusion between PC and console. Do you see that happening as well? How does PC gaming stay distinct from console gaming given that kind of road map?
Azor: The lines between PC and console gaming are blurry. They’re going to get blurrier and eventually disappear. Scorpio is proof of that evolution.
GamesBeat: If you’re going to upgrade your Scorpio, is it going to upgrade the way a console upgrades, or the way a PC upgrades? Do I pull something out and plug something in? I wonder.
Azor: PC will continue to have distinct advantages in certain areas, but it’ll come at a price premium. Xboxes, whatever flavor they may be, they’ll have advantages as well, but they’ll have an opposing disadvantage compared to what PC architecture can offer. Upgradability is one of those things. The option to run different operating systems, to sideload content, to live in an open ecosystem—those things will probably remain properties of the traditional PC.
These are all assumptions, though. What they revealed yesterday is maybe 75 percent of what they’ll eventually end up doing. We saw so much change between the Xbox One launch and today. It’s good that Microsoft is able to adapt.
GamesBeat: What strategy do you guys have in a changing landscape?
Azor: We laid out our strategy pretty clearly two years ago when we launched the Alienware Alpha, and then shortly after that the Steam Machine. We believe the PC is the best platform for the living room. It’s the most open platform. It’s the most powerful platform. It provides the option to upgrade. It can scale with you over time. You don’t lose backward compatibility with games and apps you love. It has the largest library of content and games.
There are so many advantages compared to every other appliance we’ve put next to our TVs over the decades. It’s the only appliance that’s survived those decades, if you think about it. We were at HD resolution 10 years ago when TVs were just barely getting there. We jumped in early and helped define that category in a lot of ways – not only with Alpha and with Steam Machines, but we were doing living room form factors in 2003. We were building products like the Hangar 18 and the DHS, learning what it takes to put a PC in the living room.
Now these latest iterations have been the most successful machines we’ve ever built. They’re smaller and more user-friendly. The ecosystem has changed considerably as well. I don’t have to put an optical drive in this anymore. I don’t need a TV tuner or a cable card. The content comes in via Ethernet more than traditional media formats. We’ve been able to shrink the form factor, consolidate content, and get rid a lot of those cards and things that made the experience less user-friendly.
GamesBeat: How much of that blurring turns into the best of all possible markets for you? There’s still a border between hardcore gamers and the mass market, it seems like. Do you see that line disappearing?
Azor: At this point, how do you define a hardcore gamer versus a casual gamer? I honestly don’t know. I look at our market as any person who enjoys playing games and doesn’t want to have to worry about their hardware. They want us to worry about their hardware for them while they focus on playing games.
It’s hard to segment the market and I try not to. I know hardcore gamers who are technically adept, who can build their own machines, and I know hardcore gamers who aren’t. The ones that are technically adept aren’t any better or worse gamers than the ones that aren’t. They’re different skill sets. For us it’s simple. We build a turnkey solution so you can focus on enjoying your games. If something goes wrong, we’ll take care of you.
If you can build it better than we can, we encourage you to go do that. We have a community that talks and engages about this stuff. We held a modder’s contest a few months ago. That’s not who we’re targeting. We’re trying to simplify gaming. We’ve been doing that for 20 years. Don’t worry about the hardware. Focus on what you love to do, which is enjoying games. We’ll give you all different shapes and sizes and price points for you to be able to do that.
This whole unification between console and PC is going to make it easier for folks to do that. They don’t have to buy into discrete hardware platforms to enjoy their games. They can buy the games they love and play them anywhere they want. As gamers, we’ve wanted that for so long, but the discrete PC and console markets have prevented us from being able to enjoy that. I look at the things we’ve done with the Alpha and with the Steam Machine as very forward-thinking on our part, hopefully leading the industry down this path.
You can buy an Aurora for $799 with an i3, and a year later you can add all this other hardware. It’ll be virtually none of what we sold you. But if you call us, we’ll answer that support call. We don’t force you to go back to factory components. We build upgradability into all of our machines. That may not appeal to the hardest core of the DIY guys, but for someone who wants a base platform to tweak later, we provide support.
Building the external graphics amplifier, leading the market in doing that—that decision potentially defers a customer from buying a new product from us. Now a customer can get longer lifespan out of their Alphas or Alienware gaming notebooks, versus pushing them to go and refresh their product. It’s not necessarily the best business decision for us, but it’s the right decision for customers.
It’s a pain point to not be able to upgrade your notebook or your Alpha. We set out to solve that. We spent seven years before we were finally able to launch a product, solving the engineering issues. Now the market’s following us and building solutions centered around a different interface, an industry standard to some extent. It’s taken them well over a year and a half to catch up to us.
We trailblazed that path at the expense of PC sales, quite honestly. What does that say about our commitment to gamers? It’s more important to us than business results.
GamesBeat: Where is the VR revolution at now that the first hardware has launched? Are there any trends visible that you couldn’t see before?
Azor: It’s only been three or four months since headsets started shipping. It’s been remarkable how successful they’ve been, but still, it’s a poor indicator of what the future will be like. Certain price expectations were set and they weren’t met. Availability expectations were set and only just met now with HTC’s announcement that they’re shipping headsets in two or three days. The performance requirements and the price of that performance in order to enjoy HTC and Oculus VR—that’s pretty expensive.
We’ve made improvements with the Aurora, bringing that price point down by $100, and we plan to drive that rapidly. AMD is making a huge effort with their new graphics card announcement to significantly accelerate that. We applaud them for doing so.
The limited amount of content is also an issue. But you factor in all those things and consider that it’s still in high demand—as successful as it’s been, I think that’s remarkable. As the issues get solved, especially the availability of headsets, and as price points come down to make entry into VR more attainable, it’ll set up a fair playing field for us to see what the potential of this is going to be. Up to now, almost all the odds have been against it. Because of how compelling the experience is, it continues to defy those odds. That gives me a lot of optimism.
GamesBeat: Back to the blurring part, some things were easier when there was a clear line. A Sony exclusive was a Sony exclusive. Now, it runs on a PS4, but it’s also on PC. Soon, if it’s on PC it’s also on Xbox. Is there a console-only future coming, or is this PC-console combination a big advantage for somebody like Microsoft?
Azor: Gamers have voted with their dollars. The PC gaming market is larger than it’s ever been. It’s eclipsed the console market in its size and its success, if you look at PC software sales versus console software sales. Looking at the innovation opportunities that have occurred in the history of both of those platforms, console has had its one-ups, if you will, but PC, for the majority of that 30-40 year history, has been in the lead.
When you look at VR innovation, which stands to be one of the most revolutionary moments in gaming and the way we consume and interact with media, most if not all of that innovation has occurred on the PC. The new purchasing models – subscription, free-to-play – all emerged on the PC first. If you look at consoles today, they’re more comparable to PCs than they’ve ever been. The architectures are PC architectures. You have what’s basically Windows 10 running on Xbox One, and it’ll be even more Windows 10-like on Scorpio.
The PC has won. To continue to fight that, I think, will severely limit, if not negatively impact, the traditional model’s ability to survive and succeed. Microsoft is aware of that. They’re demonstrating their awareness and their foresight in the announcements they’ve been making, like Scorpio and UWP and bringing content to both Windows and Xbox.
I encourage the rest of the console makers out there to focus on what makes them special, which is the games, the franchises, the stories they tell, the characters they’ve built. The hardware space is an opportunity for less and less differentiation when it comes to what you can build for $300 or $400. That’s okay. Moving forward, we have an opportunity to do incredible differentiation when you have $600, $700, $800 to invest.
In the future there will still be appliances, still room for guys to go out and build these subsidized boxes at lower price points with limited scalability and limited feature sets, as compared to what some of these more premium, scalable PC architectures have been delivering and will continue to be able to deliver. But the content should be ubiquitous across everything, in my opinion. As much as I want console-exclusive franchises to come to the PC, I want PC-exclusive franchises to go over to consoles as well. It’s not a one-way street. Gamers are going to benefit from that.
We’re gamers. We don’t want to have to invest in three hardware platforms to play all our favorite games. I’d love to buy one platform and focus on playing the games I love.
You can't solo security COVID-19 game security report: Learn the latest attack trends in gaming. Access here