AMD’s best idea in years: Want to play?

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Sunnyvale (CA) – There is not a whole lot coming out of AMD that can get you excited and there is a good chance that the company’s latest pitch, which does not even include a new product, may cause little more than a yawn here and there. But we are convinced that AMD’s Game! campaign is the best idea the company had in some time and provides an answer for many people to the question why they should buy and AMD PC and not an Intel system.

If you have been wondering whether AMD would really wait until 2010 and its Fusion processor until it would take advantage of its ATI product line, you weren’t the only one. From our point of view, it was simply stunning to hear continued promises in quarter conference calls as well investor and analyst conferences that the benefits would show up soon. Even more stunning is the fact that an almost invaluable advantage over its key rivals Intel and Nvidia has been there for more than a year and the company either did not know of this advantage or simply failed to exploit it in an effective way.

AMD has told us for some time that it offers a “balanced” platform, which may not sound too great in the ears of many journalists. “Balanced” simply sounds like AMD offers every essential part of a computing platform, but doesn’t excel at either one, which, in fact isn’t far from the truth. The CPUs aren’t necessarily a match for Intel’s offering these days and its graphics chips trail Nvidia’s products. However, “balanced” also means that the platform is “good enough” for a lot of applications – and “good enough” is really what most consumers on a budget are shopping for these days.

And if AMD’s marketing strategists are right, then consumers are bit confused about what is “good enough” for playing games on a PC. We are not talking about enthusiasts here, who tend to always get high-end components (if they can afford it) and not about casual gamers who stick to Solitaire and are just fine with any PC. AMD is aiming for the mainstream gamer, which, according to the company, makes up about 20% of the overall gaming market and describes  people who don’t to use their PC exclusively for gaming, but only for an occasional game of Quake Wars, Command&Conquer 3, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 or other current titles.

To support the decision making process in a store, the company will place AMD Game! stickers on machine boxes that will essentially tell people that a PC will be able to run PC Games with a speed of at least 30 frames per second. Yes, it is a marketing program, but, if you think about it, it is an ingenious way for AMD to promote its products to people who may not be interested in a certain brand, but simply in the fact that they want their applications, in this case games, to work. The marketing approach carves out a niche into which neither Intel nor Nvidia can follow, since these two companies do not have the minimum hardware required to guarantee the complete “experience”. Nvidia does not have the CPU and Intel’s graphics chips don’t run the most demanding games on the market today.  

If this mainstream gaming market is as large as AMD says - 20% or 52.6 million people of a total base of 263 million PC gamers – this program could have a substantial impact on a market AMD has an advantage over its rivals right now.

AMD’s Game! sticker will come in two flavors - a “Game! Experience” (“Game! Ready” for the build-your-own segment) and a “Game! Ultra” version.

 

The baseline “Experience” will call for at least an Athlon X2 5600+ CPU, an AMD 770 or Nvidia nForce 500 chipset as well as a discrete HD Radeon 3650 graphics card to enable 30 fps in current games at resolutions of less than 1280x1024. If you want to play at higher resolutions of up to 1600x1200, you will have to be looking for the “Ultra” sticker, which will mean that such a PC will integrate at least a quad-core Phenom X4 9650 CPU, an AMD 770 chipset as well as a Radeon HD 3870 graphics card.   

These minimum specifications show that AMD has set the bar pretty high at least in terms of the graphics capability. While the 3650 model is AMD’s mainstream discrete graphics part, the 3870 is typically aimed at enthusiast. AMD representatives told us that the 780G integrated graphics chipset, hybrid graphics solutions as well as Radeon HD 3450-series graphics cards are not part of the Game! Experience program since these products are not able to deliver a “decent quality” in demanding games. So, there is no cheating here and in contrast to a lot of other labels you have on your average retail PC today, there may be a real information value: AMD claims that two thirds of all PCs sold today are not able to run those high-end games (since most of these PCs use integrated graphics) and leave one or the other user frustrated. If you consider yourself a mainstream gamer, you may actually be grateful for a simple way to spot a game-capable PC right away.

On the other hand, you could ask the question why there are two different labels if AMD wants to simplify the mainstream PC purchase and knows that these customers are confused by the variety of processor and graphics card options that are offered. If you are looking for a game-capable PC, do you buy a “Game! Experience” PC or do you buy a “Game! Ultra PC”? What extra do I get for my extra dollars if I buy that Ultra PC? Or can I live with the disadvantage of the “Experience” PC that will cost me a few hundred dollars less?    

Don’t expect a Best Buy sales assistant to be able to give you a plausible explanation what the difference between these two labels is. Even after an extensive call with AMD’s PR and marketing staff, I am not convinced that two labels are necessarily a good idea and guide a typical mainstream customer looking for a game-capable PC in the best possible way.

The best explanation of AMD’s approach may be analogy taken from the car industry. Godfrey Cheng, Director of Product Marketing in the Platform and Gaming Technologies division at AMD, said that BMW offers several performance cars within one product family – like the very capable 335i and the even more capable M3 model. Somehow consumers are able to differentiate between the two and appreciate the fact that they have a choice between two cars which essentially can deliver on the same basic expectations.
I am not totally convinced, but will have to believe Cheng for now.

But it seems that, after a seemingly endless stream of bad decisions, AMD has finally got something right. At least in this market segment, AMD has a real opportunity to claim the lead. Without doubt, this is the right strategy for the company at this time.