Combining art, function

Luxury: High-end computer makers such as Voodoo and Alienware lure hardcore gamers with well-crafted, fast machines.

July 11, 2002|By Crayton Harrison | Crayton Harrison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Jim Austin wanted something sporty, something that would turn heads and handle his speed-demon demands.

After months of study and deliberation, Austin, 43, became the proud owner of a Voodoo Egad, an intimidating machine with a window displaying its Ferrari-red interior and neon lighting. Friends visit his Wylie, Texas, home just to gawk at the $5,500 computer system.

"There's nothing wrong with having a high-end Dell or a high-end Gateway, but nobody's going to come over to your house and want to see it," Austin said. "A Voodoo is just the opposite. There's some sex appeal in there that puts them head and shoulders over a lot of the competition."

Voodoo Computers Ltd. of Calgary, Alberta, and a handful of other computer companies believe people such as Austin are willing to pay $5,000 or even $10,000 for custom-built, super-fast machines that look like they belong to Jedi Anakin Skywalker.

"These are passionate gamers, hardware freaks who want the latest," said Kevin Wasielewski, spokesman for Miami PC maker Alienware Corp.

And as the market of video-game enthusiasts broadens, these tiny, privately held companies are contemplating how to expand without losing their reputations as the sophisticated upper echelon of the computing world.

"We've been growing very steadily. We're just trying to control it," said Kelt Reeves, president of Falcon Northwest Computer Systems Inc. of Ashland, Ore.

It's hard to keep pace with the video game industry. PC entertainment software alone brought in $1.4 billion in U.S. revenues last year and will reach $2.5 billion by 2005, according to Dallas investment firm SWS Securities.

In the world of PC gaming, like the console world where Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft play, technology keeps driving games to require better graphic, sound and processing speeds.

But PC gamers don't have to wait for new PlayStations or XBoxes to use the latest technology. Instead, they constantly upgrade their machines with new processors, video cards and other components.

That means plenty of business for component makers who can keep up with the latest demands. And since gamers often buy better machines more frequently than other users, they're a hot market for the PC industry.

The big, publicly held PC makers, including Dell Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., aim some products at the video game connoisseur, but they're targeting other markets at the same time.

High-end PC makers say they've become successful by treating their customers like royalty and carefully maintaining their brand names.

The companies will never reach the sales figures of Dell or Hewlett-Packard but dedicated game players will keep them healthy as long as they maintain good reputations, said Scott Miller, chief executive of 3D Realm, a Garland, Texas, game developer.

"I'd guess there's about a million to 2 million hard-core gamers out there," said Miller, who uses an Alienware computer at work. "You pay a little extra for these systems, but the quality is in there. They're tailor-made for gamers."

Like many in the industry, Reeves of Falcon Northwest is an avid gamer himself. In the early 1990s, he started building computers for fellow students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, specializing in machines capable of handling flight simulator games.

Around 1992, he placed an unsuccessful black-and-white ad for custom-built PCs in a computer magazine. Then, he tried a color ad. The orders began trickling in, and soon Falcon Northwest's reputation was spreading.

As the market for PC games grew, bigger computer companies such as NEC Corp. tried to sell high-end systems. But their mass-production approach didn't work.

"Big companies normally study markets and then introduce products to fill that need," said Reeves, 31. "But the gaming world is a huge expanse of people. It's people who do nothing but play games, really hard-core guys, to people who play the occasional game at work.

"I can't figure out the size of this market. I wouldn't even know the right questions to ask."

For now, Reeves has been content to keep his sleek, colorful systems aimed at diehard gamers with deep pockets, selling a few hundred machines a month at anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. Every Falcon Northwest PC is different, and he doesn't plan to make a model for the masses, he said.

But Reeves and other competitors are carefully watching the latest bold move by Alienware, which is showing off display models at Best Buy stores. Customers can buy those models or order their custom-built Alienware PC through the store.

Voodoo has taken a middle-of-the-road approach, forgoing the retail route for now but offering a ready-made, less-expensive model for customers who don't need a custom-built PC. Of course, at $1,550, it still has enough power and style to make the neighbors envious.

But Voodoo's biggest sales still come from gamers who want to be different. One man paid Voodoo several thousand dollars to fit a computer into the F-16 cockpit he had in his basement. Another wanted his system gold-plated. No problem.

"We've designed the ultimate piece of furniture, a true luxury-class computer," said Rahul Sood, who founded Voodoo in 1991.

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