gaming brand laptops we recommend here are typically:
Clevo (Sager), Asus and MSI
Alternatives would be Dell alienware and Toshiba Qosmio series, since they do come with gaming GPUs.
In regard to i5 vs i7, for now, I think you'll be fine with i5, but say in 4 years you might not be.
SSD, well it all depends on the size of the ssd, 128 gb is around $200. So if you find a decent model for $1100 going with an ssd upgrade DYI solution is the cheapest option.
regarding what people prefer, well thats personal preference, so I don't see why you are asking other person's preferences without expressing yours. Some people like backlit keyboard and shiny lights, they go with Alienware/MSI, so people like sturdy bland look because it looks solid, those people pick Asus or Sager. Other people base their preferences on other features different manufacturers/vendors provide, it's up to you to do the research and figure out what matters to YOU.
As far as recommendations,
Asus G54/74 are 15" and 17" gaming laptops (if I recall correctly there were G74 on sale for around $1200)
Sager NP8150/8170 - same thing 15" and 17" models from Clevo can be picked up for about $1k depending on features.
Here's a good reference website, you can get pricing idea and component options: www.xoticpc.com