Brett Lovelady started Astro Studios in 1994 with the objective to bring more of a consumer product perspective to technology. But after stints at Frog and Lunar, Lovelady wanted to make "anything that wasn’t technology"—toys, soft goods, sporting goods. They began royalty relationships, translating the value of design into real equity.
Their breakthrough came when they designed Nike’s Triax 250 sportswatches, earning $300 million over five years. The studio got involved with Nike’s concept team, designing the company’s first line of golf clubs and eye wear, then began applying those skills to video games with a redesign of Alienware and the Xbox 360, which remains one of their most visible products.
In 2006, Lovelady spun off Astro Gaming to make actual products. In short order, it has become the Rolls Royce of professional gaming gear. The A40 Headphones, which also make up the A40 wireless system, is where professional-grade gaming meets professional-grade design applied to the marketplace—with headphones that mix voice and game sounds in 7.1 surround simulation and connected with a MixAmp digital decoder. "I was tired of doing this for someone else and making them tons of money," Lovelady tells Co.Design. "I was going to walk the walk." One of the biggest lessons, however, was personal. "When you’re a designer, you work with the client, get it as close as you can, and then say good luck," he says. "When you own the company, you have to stay with those products, you make improvements, get customer feedback, and have a dialogue with the industry. That affects the next product you design. You wake up every day totally focused on keeping the customer happy as opposed to keeping your client happy." Here, he tells us six other lessons.
"As a design studio, we were fortunate to sit in the front row of a lot of things," Lovelady says. He launched Astro Gaming in 2006, the same year the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live were released. And although the Wii, Kinect, and Rock Band hadn’t even come out yet, you could still see how important interaction and communication was becoming. "You could connect the dots," he says. "We wanted to be like what Nike was to basketball or Burton to snowboarding. Astro would be that for video gaming."
Astro had credibility from their work in the action sports arena, but gaming is much more of a team sport—a sports model that brands hadn’t really applied. "If you go to a Major League Gaming event [the professional circuit for videogames]," Lovelady says, "it’s a cross section of every type of person—it’s kids, young adults, and a lot of women now too." By targeting the premium accessories market, Astro Gaming gave people of all stripes a brand identity that they could authentically relate to and rally around. And across all the products, from the MixAmp to the headphones to the backpacks, the design vocabulary is familiar, and consistent across all models and products. If you look at the backpack above, for example, you can see curves and proportions that are echoed in the headphones as well.
When the Astro designers realized that professional gamers wore headsets for hours to days at a time, they made them extra comfortable. And since today’s games are developed in high-fidelity, like movies, the headsets solve a real problem by helping gamers hear what the developers wanted them to hear, including audio cues that help you win the games. And like all sports, Lovelady says, "We started with the pros because the best athletes get the best product and if they win, you get that halo effect."
"When we were with the pros," Lovelady recalls, "they would have one set of headphones around their necks so they could talk to each other and another for game sounds, because TV muddies out the game sound. So we solved a problem." Astro also built customization into the product from beginning to end, putting pivot points to alleviate discomfort, and adding printing options so that teams could add their logos and own identities to the product for competitions.
"Even if you’re making products on your own, you have to learn to make the changes necessary to self-edit to make products accessible," Lovelady says. In fact, Astro’s first attempt packed in too much technology and they ended up being too complex and expensive. They had to decide which materials were not too cheap but also not too expensive. "We were not heavily editing ourselves at first," Lovelady says. "We were like, 'This is the optimum solution, let’s go get this made.' But we had to go back and make it all work and not be $1,000." They ended up going with a single driver, and eliminated some experimental tougher materials because they were so much more expensive than ABS or polypropylene.
As accessories go, Astro’s system is expensive. But it was a conscious decision, Lovelady says. The average price for headsets when they started was $35. Astro’s system was $250, nearly as much as the system itself. But most of the accessories were toy models and were very low-end. The gaming community consists largely of gear-focused and tech-minded players who want the best experience possible. "We had to break the model out of what people expected out of video gaming accessories."
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