Gamers on the leading edge of high-end, souped up PCs

Sunday, August 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MESQUITE, Texas (AP) _ These 21st century hot rods have exotic electronic components, plastic windows, fancy lacquered paint jobs and neon lights that pulsate to music.

They also have price tags in the thousands of dollars.

In one of the personal computer industry's few robust niches, a handful of companies are turning a profit selling expensive, custom-made PCs and accessories to wealthy, elite gamers.

``Games certainly are the most demanding (on computers), short of decoding the human genome,'' said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research.

All computers basically use the same parts, be they hard drives, processors or memory chips. In gaming computers, though, everything is installed by hand and fine-tuned for maximum performance.

These souped-up machines use the fastest memory chips and arrays of high-capacity hard drives. Tiny fans and water-cooling systems rapidly dissipate heat, the nemesis of speedy computer parts. A powerful graphics card costing as much as $400 directs the on-screen action.

Kelt Reeves, who formed Falcon Northwest about 10 years ago when id Software Inc. released the iconographic game ``Doom,'' is widely considered the creator of the gaming computer market.

Ashland, Ore.-based Falcon Northwest began by building a few high-end systems for gamers wanting the three-dimensional world of demons and weapons to run smoothly.

With today's games striving for photorealism, there's plenty of demand for more power.

``Business is phenomenal,'' Reeves said. ``It's more than we can handle, actually.''

Aesthetically, tricked-out neon lights and windows that let you see the computer's innards are another source for bragging rights, and the demand for beauty as well as brawn is growing, Reeves said.

That's especially true for affluent gamers who prefer exotic computers costing between $2,500 and $10,000, he said. Each Falcon aluminum case is unique, featuring custom graphics and 15 coats of baked-on automotive grade paint.

Inside, every bit of wiring and circuitry is meticulously threaded around the motherboard to the power supply, disk drives and other parts.

Those newer to gaming or without the large bank accounts tend to buy Falcon Northwest's beige gaming machines, which sell for less than $2,000. The pricey computers outsell the cheaper models 4-to-1, Reeves said, declining to release sales figures.

Then there are hobbyists who build their own gaming rigs, part by part.

The specs on Kevin Atkison's latest computer could just as easily be for some newfangled street cruiser: Blue neon light tubes, Corsair XMS 3200 DDR memory and a GeForce 3 video card, all wrapped in a shiny aluminum Lian Li case with a clear plastic side window for easy viewing.

The 22-year-old Phoenix resident was among the thousands who recently hauled their systems to QuakeCon 2002, the annual gamer festival held in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite.

Like many, Atkison opted to buy the parts separately and build his machine at home _ all for a little over $1,500.

``It's just to show off your stuff,'' he said, flipping open the front glass panel to access the disk drives.

For others, the less it looks like a computer, the better.

While others strained to lug their computers in the line entering QuakeCon, Melinda Buckley of Valdosta, Ga., pulled hers with a cord.

The computer was built to look like a miniature World War II troop transport truck: A camouflage tarp over the truck bed, wheels, headlights made of two flashlights, and painted green plastic toy bricks holding it together.

``I want to do more stuff,'' she said. ``Brake lights, and if I can find a motor powerful enough, a remote control.''

Roger Kay, an industry analyst with technology research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., estimates that gaming computer companies accounted for less than 1 percent of the 15.5 million home computers sold in 2001.

Still, with their relative high costs, companies like Falcon Northwest and Alienware are padding their bottom lines while the commodity PC industry experiences lackluster sales.

Because of the current slump in consumer PC sales, Gartenberg believes bigger players like Hewlett-Packard and Dell may try to cash in on the high-profit gaming computer market.

Wooing customers won't be easy, though.

``It's a tough market,'' Gartenberg said. ``It's a core audience that installs a new operating system as a form of social entertainment. If you don't cut the mustard, you're called on it right away.''

Kay said that despite recent growth, gaming computers should remain a niche market, especially when compared to the giant console game industry that includes Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameCube and Sony's PlayStation2.

``It's not going to grow,'' Kay said. ``It's only for those fanatical and rich enough to indulge in keeping their systems at the cutting edge.''