Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)

Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)

Min-Liang Tan is the CEO and creative director of Razer, as well as the company’s co-founder along with Robert Krakoff. He is a board member of the PC Gaming Alliance, has been named one of “The Top 25 Most Creative People in Tech” by Business Insider and was recently given third position on Juniper Research’s 2015 list of the top 10 technology leaders, influencers and visionaries. Bit-tech caught up with Tan during his recent pre-E3 press tour to chat about Razer as a company, its products and Tan’s views on the gaming and esports markets.

bit-tech: Give us a snapshot of Razer’s position in the market, and how you’re looking to grow upon this?

Min-Liang Tan: We don’t really focus on sales figures. For us, it’s all about creating the best possible product. We’re the only company in the world that has won ‘Best of CES’ five times in a row; that’s like a stamp of approval of innovation. But I think there have been reports by analysts etc. that have us in a leadership position for gaming mice and we maintain that but, candidly, our focus has always been to design great products. It’s not so much about shipping the most. Could we easily ship more than what we’re shipping today? Absolutely – we can dumb down the products, bring the price lower etc., but that’s not what Razer’s about.

Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: What would you say to those who say the PC is dying, or that mobile gaming is taking over?

Min-Liang Tan: I see these as separate issues altogether. Let’s talk about the PC as a whole. I think the industry has kind of stagnated but the PC gaming business is on an exponential drive. We’re seeing exclusives right now. XCOM 2, for example, which I’m actually very excited about, is going to be a PC exclusive. We’re seeing all kinds of games, Star Citizen, for example, is gonna be a PC exclusive too. I think PC gaming is massive and we’re super excited about it.

Now, the thing about Razer is that we are a company for gamers, by gamers and we didn’t necessarily say just for PC. So on the mobile side of things, for Android, in fact, we are very excited. The Forge TV, which we haven’t launched in Europe, but which we will do very, very soon, is revolving all around the Android living room experience and mobile is definitely something that we are excited about too. So those are areas that we see huge opportunities for Razer to bring a much better experience than what’s available right now.

bit-tech: You mentioned your ‘For Gamers. By Gamers’ slogan. How would you say the needs of gamers have most changed since you started Razer?

Min-Liang Tan: That’s actually an interesting question. We have seen the users grow up with us because gaming stays with you, we just play differently now. Back in the day, I would say there were fewer great games. Today, we tend to have to be very judicious in the games that we play because there’s so much more opportunity to play great games. It’s a better time to be a gamer now than any time before and with the promise of new technologies like VR and things like that I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world, and I’m really excited about the prospects of gaming as a whole.

Razer’s a very different company from pretty much every other company out there. Many gaming companies, or companies that are building gaming products, are doing it because it’s a growing category or market for them. For us, we will always be doing gaming, we were doing gaming products before it was sexy. We created this category. We’ll still be doing gaming products when it’s not sexy because that’s what we know. We’ve had people in healthcare, military and space programs approach us. We’re happy to license our technology out but when they ask if we’d be happy to build products for them, we know it could be lucrative but that’s not us. We prefer to focus on what we’re great at, which is designing products for gamers.

Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: What are the biggest risks Razer has taken?

Min-Liang Tan: Oddly enough, I don’t think we really think about taking risks in the traditional sense. It’s like playing a game, you think you’re going to respawn anyway. Sometimes you do something really stupid and people ask, “what were you doing?” And you go, “well it seemed like a good idea at the time.” I think that’s the way we do things at Razer. We don’t necessarily weigh in, we ask if it’s going to be fun and then do it.

bit-tech: What can we expect to see from Razer in the short term, say within the next year or two, generally speaking?

Min-Liang Tan: I think that every other company that’s making a product for gamers would love to know the answer. The thing about Razer is we don’t design products right now, we design entire industries; we design entire new categories. Every new category that we go into, everybody rushes into it, because we take the risks. We are the ones that kind of spearhead it for everyone, that’s what we do, so we don’t necessarily disclose what we’re working on.bit-tech: What are you looking to gain from your presence at E3?

Min-Liang Tan: Hang out with more gamers there, meet more of the fans and talk to them. At a lot of the events that we do, it’s not branding or marketing. Our userbase knows us and we’re happy with that. Are we looking to expand that? Not necessarily. One of the questions many people ask me is if we are ever going to go mainstream. Our answer is we’re not going go mainstream, mainstream is going to come to us because we’re going to see more gamers everywhere. At E3, we want to present our new products, we want to get in touch with our community and our fans.

bit-tech: How do you use partnerships with other companies like games developers or even other hardware manufacturers to your advantage at tradeshows like E3 and Gamescom?

Min-Liang Tan: Well, we work with them. We’re huge fans of the games we work with. Especially in the UK, for example, we’ve got partnerships with a lot of game developers and we loan them products, we showcase their games. We think of this as a symbiotic kind of relationship that is great for the entire industry. Today we’ve got a massive software platform with Cortex that we like to showcase games from indies on, for example, and we hope to continue to be able doing that.

*Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan) Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: You were recently placed third on the Juniper Research list of most globally influential executives in technology space – in what way do you see yourself influencing the world of technology?

Min-Liang Tan: I think the big deal about that is it’s a great recognition for gamers. I don’t see it for myself. I think it’s more that the world is waking up to the fact that gaming or gamers are really pushing the envelope of technology. Let’s look at processing power – who needs the most amount of processing power right now? Gamers. They’re the ones pushing GPU technology, streaming and VR, for example. We are the ones that are pushing things like gesture technology; the Nintendo Wii did a great job there. It’s more a recognition that everyone’s waking up to that: who are these gamers? Why is technology so important to them, and more importantly, why are they so important for technology? That’s what I think that whole positioning is about. It’s a great recognition for gamers as a whole and the work that Razer does for gamers.

bit-tech: It’s been said that with great power comes great responsibility. Are you trying to use your influence to better the world of technology and gaming, and if so, how?

Min-Liang Tan: I think it’s a responsibility. A duty. Especially since Razer has morphed. I think of the early days where it used to be that we had to put the Razer wording logo on products. Then, many years ago, it kind of morphed to the fact that all we needed to do was put a triple-headed snake logo. Today, we’ve reached the point where if any gamer just sees the black and acid green accent, without even seeing the logo, he’s going to know it’s Razer. It’s pretty insane to be able to reach this point and I think we have a leadership role in innovation and technology for gamers and we see it as a responsibility, to be very candid. Razer’s a great platform to try new products and new technologies and we tend to harness that and really propagate things.

Conversely, and what’s more important, is why do we things like BBC and CNBC etc. We are evangelising what we as gamers represent to the world to a certain extent. I’ve spent a lot of my time in the past with people telling me I’m wasting my time with gaming. Everything I’ve been told about wasting my time has become the most valuable asset to me. And that’s something that we want to do, to essentially evangelise gaming as a sub-culture, and one that we should be proud of.

*Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan) Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: What changes would you like to see in the world of gaming and how can Razer and other hardware companies go about implementing them?

Min-Liang Tan: I kind of like the way that it’s growing but I think I’d like to see more power for the community as a whole, I think that’s very important. That’s one reason why we reach out to the community all the time. That’s what we did OSVR [Open Source Virtual Reality] for. We put the entire IP, both hardware and software designs, right into the open source so the community could get involved with it. So that’s one thing I’d love to see more of. More community engagement, more community leadership.bit-tech: Moving on to some specifics about your products. In terms of keyboards, I don’t think you widely advertise it but it’s fairly well known that you use Kailh switches now. There’s quite a negative perception around that company so what would you say to dismiss that?

Min-Liang Tan: We have our own lines that are dedicated to ourselves and we’ve got our own QA staff on the ground. We don’t just have one manufacturer. I think that’s the thing, we’ve got multiple manufacturers at any point in time and essentially they adhere to our specification. There’s a difference between buying an existing switch from someone and being a contract manufacturer, because as a contract manufacturer we dictate everything about the design, actuation points etc. We don’t see it as an issue because these are our switches, not just from an existing supplier. They only make it for us on that particular line because we own that line.

Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: With your Synapse software, what benefit is there to requiring an internet connection at first and stopping the use of onboard profiles?

Min-Liang Tan: We invented onboard profiles. We were the first in the world to do that. In fact, I think I hold the patent for onboard profiles. We just allow other people to use them; we could stop everyone else from using them. We own the patent for cloud-based profiles and I think it’s a natural progression. You only need to register once, and that’s it. I think everybody, almost every gamer, has an internet connection, and it’s not perpetual either – you can go offline. Even now, we’ve just very recently released tournament-grade drivers so you can actually create it, unzip it and take it as an offline driver.

bit-tech: So that would allow you to take all your profiles with you?

Min-Liang Tan: Yes, but that’s actually geared more toward tournament certification. Honestly, who doesn’t have an internet connection today? It’s like trying to find something to talk about. You can go offline any time. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some very rare, one-off cases we’ve had issues with where somebody is in a remote mountain somewhere that doesn’t have any internet connection at all but we make it very clear that for the initial set-up you need an internet connection. I think for the vast majority, for 99.99 percent of users, Synapse is phenomena. And you see everybody else trying to copy it right now.

Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: What are some competing products that you’ve been impressed by recently and why?

Min-Liang Tan: I think Logitech makes good mice. That’s something I’m open about. In fact, they’re the only company I would recommend people to buy mice or keyboards from to be honest because they do their own proper design. I’m very open about it; I recommend them constantly. People think, “oh my god, you’re recommending a competitor”, but they make value for money products and they do good design. I think almost everybody else just kind of goes to a Chinese factory and makes some changes here and there. But we don’t necessarily see Logitech as a competitor internally. The difference between us and Logitech is that Logitech is more like a company for your dad. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they make great products, but they’re not going be able to innovate for the gaming industry. That’s the difference, but they make great value for money products, and that’s what I would say is great.

bit-tech: You guys have entered the wearables space as well. Is this just a gimmick or is it something you’ve seen serious interest in from gamers?

Min-Liang Tan: We think it’s a big thing for us, ultimately. It’s not just smart-bands or smart-watches. We’ve got a long-term roadmap for wearable devices for gamers.

bit-tech: There is a justified concern about the data collected by companies. What guarantees does Razer make about this considering things like Synapse and Nabu/Nabu X?

Min-Liang Tan: We use the data. It’s non-user-identifiable, but it helps us design better products. But most importantly, the Nabu, for example, allows you to switch it off altogether if you don’t want it. We put the power in the hands of the gamers themselves and I think that’s important. But we’re also very upfront when we say we’re looking at non-user-identifiable data that can help us make better products.

Jan Horak (European PR): Also, it’s all opt-in, which makes a huge difference compared to other companies that are getting data. Usually, it’s opt-out, but for us it’s very important to make it opt-in, so you have to actively choose to have your data collected.bit-tech: With esports, there’s a perception that it’s for the best of the best? How can more players be included who aren’t quite at that level?

Min-Liang Tan: We’ve got this new platform that we’re really excited about. We’re still in beta right now. It’s called Arena. That’s where we’re getting amateurs or semi-pro gamers to be able to come online. We’ve got Counter Strike, we’ve got Team Fortress 2, we’ve got Battlefield 4 and I think Dota 2 coming online and we’re going to have a lot more games. That’s where we’re going to be doing a lot of talent scouting and we’re going to be organising tournaments. I’d like to be able to get into a competitive scene but I’m not today fully invested to play 16 hours a day to train. Arena is one of those things that we’re giving back to the community, we’re investing in prizes and stuff like that but it’s still truly competitive. At some point in time we’re going to be splitting it up such that there will be the over 30s tournament, for example, ‘The Masters’. We’re going to have different categories and stuff like that. So arena.razerzone.com – that’s just gotten started.

*Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan) Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: What’s the one thing you like most about esports as it is today, besides the games?

Min-Liang Tan: I like the competitive aspect of it. I like when somebody does a phenomenal play, and it takes your breath away, one of those things where you go, “holy shit, I wish I could do that.”

bit-tech: If you could change one thing about esports, what would it be?

Min-Liang Tan: The one thing I wish would come back, honestly, is one on one FPS duels. I think those are visceral. I’ve seen a couple of games out there that I’m excited about. Reflex, for example, I think it’s an indie developer working on that, bringing back the Quake kind of tournaments. The new Unreal, based off of community feedback, I’m excited about that. But that’s one thing I would love to see. I know it’s a very hardcore niche, but when you see an amazing play come out from a gladiatorial style thing, it stays with you.

*Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan) Razer CEO Interview (Min-Liang Tan)
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bit-tech: You’ve been with esports for a long time – what catalyst or catalysts have there been that have most contributed to its explosive growth, where prize pools are now surpassing traditional sports tournaments?

Min-Liang Tan: The games themselves have made a huge difference. Guys like Riot coming in and supporting it and Valve supporting Dota. In the past, unfortunately, it used to be guys like us that were holding the flag and there was only so much we could do. But with guys like Riot, with guys like Wargaming, I think esports has got a massive amount of opportunity moving forward.

bit-tech: Thank you very much for your time!

You can keep up with Min-Liang Tan on Twitter @minliangtan