Alienware’s push into the living room

Gaming PC vendor sets its sights on console gaming with its Steam Machine.

Alienware built its reputation over the years on building high performance gaming PCs. It started out in the desktop PC market in the late 90s before expanding its line-up to include high performance notebooks. Now the vendor is hoping to get into the console space with its upcoming Alpha system, which is build around the Steam platform from Valve.

We caught up with Alienware product planning director, Joe Olmsted, to talk about the vendor’s plans for its new product.

How long has Alienware been looking to get into the console space?

Alienware product planning director, Joe Olmsted (JO): We made out first living room gaming PC back in 2002, and we learned a lot of lessons from that. We realised people don’t like keyboards and mice in the living room. We also learned about spouses and how much they will accept from technology in the living room as well. We did that for a few years and we gained a lot from it, and then two years ago we started talking to Valve about their Steam Machine. We thought it was an incredible, great idea. The one thing PC gaming didn’t have was a couch companion.

What is your thoughts on console gaming

JO: I grew up with an Atari 2600 and every Nintendo console you could have. I dreamed of having a Sega console when it first came out, but I could not get it. The one thing that kept driving that desire was to have all of my buddies over and play split screen or just play a game together. It is different from online multiplayer because you get that great social aspect. We knew we wanted to do this when Valve started to talk about their Steam Machine. So we have been working with Valve out of Seattle for years trying to get this right, and we announced the partnership in January of this year.

How did the concept for the Alpha system come together?

JO: We knew from our previous experience that we had to make it quiet for the living room and unobtrusive, which meant we couldn’t use our standard gear. We also had to make it small so it could fit as a living room console anywhere in the world. So we went to Intel and NVIDIA, and told them about our need for a small box that is incredibly powerful. That’s why we have a custom GTX GPU from NVIDIA that is an incredible powerhouse despite its size. We knew what our market was, so we designed Alpha with enough performance so it can run any game at a fast frame rate, and that it would run extremely quiet so you would not hear it in your living room.

Read more: Use a 13in laptop as a dedicated gaming system with Alienware's Graphics Amplifier

What has the public reaction been to the Alpha?

JO: It has been incredible. I say that because there won’t be any other box at the price and performance we’re going to be offering this. The other huge benefit to our product is we ship with Steam Big Picture mode pre-installed and enabled. Unlike any other console you can purchase today, it gives access to all of your games and it follows you into the living room. There are approximately 3600 games on Steam right now, and the average price is $20, so you have an incredible catalogue to take into the living room. In addition to all of your old games, there are 600 that are meant to just work with the controller.

How is Alpha designed to be easy to use?

JO: We are shipping it without a keyboard or mouse, and only with a wireless Microsoft Xbox 360 controller. We have taken the need for a keyboard and mouse out of what is, at its heart, a PC. We have written a user interface, called Alpha UI, which allows a customer to set up the machine and manage their system and network settings using the game controller. You can also do what you can on a PC, such as surf the web, from a controller. It is something our engineering team went above and beyond to create.

What do you think about the recently announced Windows 10?

JO: We’re excited about Windows 10. Microsoft has started to move gaming into the spotlight, and we began working with them on what was going to be after Windows 8.1 about a year and a half ago. We’re a little bit different from most gaming brands in that we are a part of Dell, so we have very early access to making an impact on Microsoft products, as well as those from Intel and NVIDIA. We have been working with Microsoft on Windows 8.1, and on the early discussions around Windows 10 when it was known as something else. We wanted to make sure gaming was not encumbered by the Windows OS. We’re very happy to see that it is not.

Read more: Dell Precision M2800 mobile workstation

Any interest by Alienware in making an x86-based tablet PC?

JO: We’re always working on new products and categories, and we always try to stay to our roots. To make a beautifully thin x86 tablet means you have to make it beautifully thin, so you have to limit the performance you can put in it compared to a standard notebook or desktop. Right now we have no plans in making a tablet because we don’t know how we would make it better. Tablets are great products and I have one, but it’s not really the gaming experience you would feel comfortable purchasing from Alienware. We love tablets and are a big believer in them, and we’re just trying to figure out how to fit in that world. Dell just announced the thinnest eight inch tablet in the world, so as Alienware is not trying to force performance into a box it’s not made for, [while] Dell is innovating tablets.

Do gamers have to worry about the "death of the PC"?

JO: I think it’s the opposite. We’re growing faster than the industry, and the industry is still growing in the gaming space. The one thing smartphones and tablets have done is create a world of gamers. I don’t know anyone who does not play a game, and two or three years ago they would not have. Now everyone is becoming a gamer, and we look at the smartphone and tablet market as a gateway for someone who wants to go to better gaming. Better gaming is certainly PC gaming, more titles, open eco-system, so in our opinion it really is the best type of gaming there is. PC gaming also has innovation unlike any other form, and those types of innovations are driven by PC gaming, since it is such an open eco-system and anyone can develop for it.

Where does the Australian gaming market fit in for Alienware globally?

JO: We started shipping Alienware into 55 countries about five years ago. We went from 6 to 55 overnight, and Australia is in our top ten markets worldwide. When at holding events, we look at the countries growing the fastest and driving the Alienware brand. Australia was at the top of the list, and we launched our new products in Paris, New York and Australia. So Australia is a very important market for us.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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