Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Alec Matlock's Envy Controllers put a new face on video-game peripherals

Posted By on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 9:00 AM

A Hulk-themed Xbox 360 controller Alec Matlock designed and painted.
  • A Hulk-themed Xbox 360 controller Alec Matlock designed and painted.

Alec Matlock's basement may be the strangest of any student's at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. A corner of the damp, unfinished cellar of this rental house on Rockhill Road is cordoned off with opaque plastic sheeting, which glows from the lights within. A ventilation tube juts upward to a window. It's not a drug lab.

Matlock, a 21-year-old business student at UMKC, toils in the corner, airbrushing colorful custom designs onto Xbox controllers. He started painting controllers while still in high school in West Plains, Missouri. He customized controllers on the weekends.

Matlock designs graphics and works in his living room.
  • Matlock designs graphics and works in his living room.
"I had a huge LAN party," he says, referring to local area network gatherings that allow many people to play video games in one place. "There was, like, 16 of us playing Xbox in one house."

Before the party, Matlock discovered a tutorial on YouTube on how to paint Xbox controllers.

"I thought: That's really neat," he says. "I immediately went to the store and bought some paint to try it."
Matlock's initial paint jobs weren't masterpieces.

"All my friends were there that night, and, of course, it [the paint job] was terrible," he says. "But they had never seen anything like that before. So they were all like, 'Do mine, do mine!' "

Matlock launched Envy in January 2011. When he moved into the Rockhill Road home, his two roommates weren't thrilled with his business venture. In the first-floor dining room, Matlock explains that there were some fume issues before his current studio was built.

"My previous setup, it would ventilate a lot of it out, but not enough of it. Sometimes it would come up here," he says. "Now they're a lot more stoked about it."

The shop is much more professional, too, with proper ventilation, four airbrushes and dozens of cans of paint. He paints controllers in sets of 10 at a time, which takes three hours.

"If I'm not in class, I'm here working," Matlock says. "It's a full-time gig right now. Sales have been consistent for me to be comfortable in college."

Envy's sales have blossomed in the last seven months; the company has sold more than 3,000 controllers and earned more than $100,000. Matlock offers three tiers of controllers: basic controllers with generic colors and designs; others with choices of colors and the customers' gamer tags painted on them; and fully customized controllers with personalized graphics.

"We have a really awesome design team," he says. "So all you have to give us is a theme or something to go off of."
His customer base for personalized controllers is professional and semiprofessional gamers who attend huge competitions with prize pots occasionally topping $1 million.

"They're in a giant convention center with 2,000 other gamers with the exact same controller as them," Matlock says. "So being able to brush shoulders with people and have a product that really stands out and personalizes them, makes them more individualistic, seems to be really popular."

Envy has taken over his house. The living room is filled with supplies and boxes of controllers that he buys from an electronics distributor. He designs logos and graphics in Photoshop and Illustrator at a living-room desk. Then he uses a large vinyl plotter to print off the designs, which he adheres to controller shells before he paints them.

As Envy starts to really take off, Matlock will have to make a significant business pivot. Last week, Microsoft introduced the Xbox One next-generation console, to replace the Xbox 360. It will come with new controllers that have a slightly longer middle section, smaller analog sticks and new buttons.

Matlock has already talked with his supplier about getting them as soon as they're available. He hasn't held one yet, but he likes what he has seen.

"It's a really clean controller," Matlock says. "It's super-flat, and the thumb sticks, the holes are a lot less obtrusive. That gives us more area, too. There's a lot more real estate to do some cool designs."

But there's one problem with the controllers: It appears that Microsoft will make only wireless controllers, and gamers insist on using wired versions in competition. For that reason, Matlock says, Xbox One's future as the console of choice for serious players is "kind of bleak."

"I would speculate right now that the competitive gamers will just stay on the Xbox 360 for as long as possible," he says. And that's good news for Envy, which has already established a strong reputation with the older controllers.
"Honestly, chances are, we're going to be painting Xbox 360 controllers for quite a while," he says.

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