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Gearing up for the big game

Although software makers and equipment manufacturers are still romancing the corporate market, there’s another audience that’s challenging developers to come up with faster, shinier, and more compelling technology. Behold the power of gaming.

Innovation is a curious beast. You never know where it’s going to come from or, more interestingly, where it’s headed. In the past few decades, much innovation has taken place in the computing world because corporate IT departments have been hungry for faster processing speed, more secure networks, and better ways to communicate. Although software makers and equipment manufacturers are still romancing the corporate market, there’s another audience that’s challenging developers to come up with faster, shinier, and more compelling technology. Behold the power of gaming.

Unlike general computer users, who have a wide array of technology demands, gamers have very specific needs: fast processing, cool-looking computers, noise-cancelling headphones, and quick-responding monitors. Some may argue that such requirements merely make them into early adopters, but that’s not quite accurate. Gamers aren’t just a batch of technology-hungry geeks who happen to like buying the newest machines on the market. They’re a group that’s actually driving innovation, not just buying it.

Now hear this

Gamers present a challenge for companies attempting to sell to them, because they stray outside the boundaries of normal marketing tactics. For regular consumers, companies usually build a product they think will appeal to a mass audience, and then try to convince people that they need it or want it.

It doesn’t work out that way for gamers, who have such specific requirements that often a product must be built from the ground up just for them, rather than developed and then marketed to them after design and production.

One example of this is headphones, which many gamers use during tournament play to block out the chaotic sounds of dozens of other games in the same room. To meet the needs of the gaming community, companies often have to invest more time and energy in research, to find out what gamers really want.

Bill Whearty, vice president of Connecticut-based headphone company Sennheiser Communications, says that the firm makes products specifically for gamers, and they developed them with plenty of input from game aficionados.

“We’ve been in the audio business for a long time,” Whearty says, “Our stuff is used heavily in the music industry, and has been for many years.” Despite having the blessing of studio musicians, the company still had to build its gaming headphones somewhat from scratch.

Whearty adds, “Serious gamers expect a certain kind of product, one that fits what they’re doing very well. You can’t create a product and hand it to them and say, ‘Here, this is good for you, buy it.’ You have to ask them what they need, and then develop it.”

Art of seeing

With the ears taken care of, we turn to the eyes. The gaming community has been driving monitor designers to work a little harder on getting them a usable LCD monitor. Up until now, gamers have been using CRTs because they have a faster response time, better performance, and no ghosting effects.

However, now that monitor makers know the size and buying power of the gaming world, they’ve been racing to develop a flat panel that any character in Vice City would be proud to appear on.

Samsung in particular has been keen to get gamer interest, and recently introduced the SyncMaster 172X 17-inch LCD display that they say is ideal for gaming. It has a 12-millisecond response time, which ensures better performance of motion video and produces smoother edges, clearer images, less eye fatigue, and a more natural image response. The company has its fingers crossed that gamers will be enthusiastic about switching to its display.

Well, it might be putting in a bit more effort than just crossing its fingers, actually. To get the word out, the company is a major sponsor of the World Cyber Games, and plans to market gamers more heavily in the coming months.

“The 172X isn’t for the average person, and it’s not for using every day,” says Monica Islas, Samsung product manager for monitors. “It’s being pushed for the gamer, because that’s who it was developed for. It’s for people who buy Alienware.”

Samsung isn’t the only company seeking to woo gamers with specially-built LCD monitors. Dell, which has announced a major expansion plan into consumer electronics, recently unveiled the 2001FP LCD with a 16m response time. Other companies are working to meet the gamer need as well, and it shouldn’t be long before gaming and flat panels go together like Sims and hot tubs.

Winners in the all-around

To get the best picture of how gaming is driving innovation, it may be easiest to just take a glimpse at the machines being created for gamers and gamers alone. The top contenders for this market are Alienware, Voodoo PC, and Falcon Northwest. For these computer makers, every component is in the equipment for only one reason: because gamers want it there.

“The two founders of the company are hardcore gamers,” says Kevin Wasielewski, Alienware vice president of marketing. “They started the company because they thought there would be other people that would want machines built just for gaming. Turns out, they were right.”

Building entire machines, as opposed to just processors or monitors, for the gaming audience is fairly challenging, Wasielewski notes, because they not only have specific needs to be met, but also lengthy wish lists of things they’d like to have, like faster gameplay and better refresh rates.

To make sure that every gamer can get as close to what they want as possible, the company allows for a very high degree of customization. In fact, every machine is built to order. Recently, the company developed a laptop, the Area-51m, that is destined to be ubiquitous LAN parties across the globe.

Speed and graphics are nice, of course, but don’t think for a second that gamers care only about how fast the characters can jump in Star Wars Galaxies. To really appeal to gamers, companies also have to focus on making their products look cool. The molded Alienware case has glowing eyes, and its laptop looks like it fell from the hatch of a passing UFO.

Voodoo PC has a range of chassis that cover a computer’s guts with aluminum, funky colors, cut-out windows, and quirky designs. CEO Ravi Sood says, “We appeal to the user who truly wants a work of art on their desk. They want to know they’re working on a finely-tuned machine.”

For computer users who aren’t gamers, and don’t invest in the type of equipment adored by joystick lovers, the technology developments that are created for the gaming market are worth noticing. After all, if gamers demand better monitors, faster computers, and spiffy headphones, it won’t be long before those perfected products land on the mass market.

“What drives this industry isn’t Dell or Intel or even Voodoo,” says Sood. “It’s innovation. Gamers are at the forefront of that.”

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