The story of Zaunkoenig

, by
Patrick Schmalzried

Back in 1998 I was fifteen years old and obsessed with two things: StarCraft and mice. StarCraft is an insanely demanding game when it comes to mechanics. Just moving your army across the map is harder than most eSports, as Artosis likes to say. I quickly realized: the mouse was the most important piece of equipment for StarCraft. This realization pretty quickly developed into my second obsession: mice. And it ultimately resulted in the founding of Zaunkoenig, together with my brother Dominik, over a decade later.

Gaming mice in 1998

In 1998 gaming mice were just becoming a thing. Also optical mice were starting to replace ball mice. It was an exciting time for mouse enthusiasts. But also a difficult one: mice in the 1990s started getting bigger and bigger, so that one could rest his whole hand on the mouse. The result: heavier mice. The problem being: in StarCraft you do not want to rest your hand on a mouse curved like a relax chair: you want to barely touch your mouse and frantically move it around with your fingers (this is called the Fingertip Grip). The big and heavy pseudo-ergonomic mice of the 1990s were horrible for StarCraft.

In the end I played StarCraft (my account: IPS.Blue), and later its expansion Brood War, with a mouse that was too big and too heavy. Since the mouse was so big it limited my range of movements. And since the mouse was heavy it reacted more slowly to each of my movements. Despite my heavy mouse I got into Germany’s national team for Brood War. I never stopped looking for a better mouse though.

Heavy mice got even heavier

When I stopped playing Brood War and started studying economics I thought that it probably only was a question of time until gaming mouse companies realized that they had to make mice as light as possible. And that huge mice looking like relax chairs for your hand were not actually ergonomic.

After my studies I realized I could not have been more wrong. The overwhelming majority of self-proclaimed gaming mice had become huge and heavy: ever more buttons, LEDs for purely cosmetic reasons and weight tuning systems. Some mice even had integrated displays. It felt like gaming mice were trying to be keyboards and monitors as well. Instead of focussing on bringing the weight of the mouse down, gaming mouse companies increased the weight by adding gimmicky features. Imagine a Formula One car with a large trunk, an entertainment system and cup holders for your hot coffee.

Additionally most mice were developed for Palm Grip first, Claw Grip second and Fingertip Grip third. The result of such a development of course is a gaming mouse that is a living compromise. Just imagine an off-road vehicle that also is designed to be a racing car. For optimal performance you have to design a thing to be just one thing. Be it a racing car or a Fingertip Grip mouse.

I realized that, if I wanted the perfect Fingertip Grip mouse, the one I had been looking for since 1998, waiting for it was hopeless. I had to make it myself. And for that I needed help.

On tennis rackets and wrens

This is where my brother Dominik comes into the picture. His favorite sport is tennis. He was always fascinated by the design of tennis rackets in particular. The amount of thought and money that has gone into the optimization of tennis rackets is mind-boggling. And when he compared these tennis rackets to so-called gaming mice, with their blinking LEDs and deadly sniper buttons, it was not hard at all to convince him that these mice could be improved upon.

Development of the first prototypes started in 2012. A few years after that we founded Zaunkoenig in Stuttgart, Germany. In order to manage the complexity of designing a mouse we soon had to distribute responsibilities. Dominik focussed on 3D printing while I focussed on the electronics.

We named ourselves after a very small and light bird: The wren. Or in German: Der Zaunkönig. We spelled it Zaunkoenig as to not break the internet. The wren is the third smallest bird in Europe and it is often confused with a mouse, because it likes to run through the undergrowth like a mouse. Its weight is between 7.5 and 11.0 grams. Our first mouse, the M1K, is at 23 grams. It is our goal to one day reach a weight of 11.0 grams.

The wren is also known as the king of birds; I guess that is cool as well.

Frankenstein mice and vertical integration

Our first prototype was a veritable Frankenstein mouse. We soldered together electronic parts ripped out of a few of our competitors mice and 3D printed a custom shell around it. We removed every non-essential feature of our competitors mice: we view side buttons and the wheel as remnants of 1990s office mice. In StarCraft all I ever needed were left click and right click. Those two buttons are what we kept. Our first prototype did not look like much, but we were blown away by how fast we could move it. Accelerating or stopping it felt almost instantaneously. We knew we were on the right track.

We soon realized that the electronics we used were way too big (and crappy), so we started designing our own electronics. And of course that led to the realization that we now had to make our own firmware as well. Also we decided the cables of our competitors mice that we used felt way to stiff on our light prototypes, so we started making our own cables as well. By now we already had our own 3D printer of course, as we were making dozens of prototypes per month.

With our prototypes becoming lighter and lighter we realized more and more that the optimal weight of a gaming mouse is zero grams. This is when we decided that to make the lightest mouse possible, just using a plastic shell was not going to cut it. Therefore we switched to carbon fiber. Which meant we now needed our own CNC machine, a curing oven and a vacuum pump, to name just a small portion of the special equipment required for making carbon fiber parts.

In the end Zaunkoenig makes more parts themselves than your regular mouse company. Economically speaking: few mouse companies are vertically integrated as much as Zaunkoenig is. Most mouse companies consist of mainly a marketing department that brain storms about which gimmicky feature a fourteen year old might like. Then they send their genius ideas to a factory that makes a mouse out of it.

The disadvantage of vertical integration is of course that it took us years to master the processes. The advantage however is that we now have control over every major aspect of the mouse. Because in order to make the lightest gaming mouse of all time, we had to improve upon every component: be it the shell, the electronics or the cable.

Zaunkoenig Newsletter

The Zaunkoenig M1K is the lighest gaming mouse in the world: it weighs just 23 grams. It is also the first carbon fiber gaming mouse and the first dedicated Fingertip Grip gaming mouse.