Where did it all go wrong with Laser Quest?

Martin vents his spleen, 6th October 2005, in response to a forum question by the Guildford team captain.

Phil asks: where has it all gone wrong at Guildford?

Interesting question, but the wrong one, in my opinion. The right question is - where has it all gone wrong for Laser Quest in general? I don't think Guildford is really any different from any Laser Quest site in the UK. The only reason it's stayed as good as it has for so long was the dedication of a hardcore few - such as Phil himself - who wanted the members' scene to survive, and even to thrive.

When Laser Quest was created back at the end of the 1980's, laser tag was still the Next Big Thing. Laser Tag as a genre had been going for about five years or so, inspired by the first trilogy of Star Wars films and fuelled by the increasing capability of computers and electronics. Photon, when it started everything off, was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced before. Even just before the turn of the 90's, when the original Laser Quest systems were introduced, they themselves were cutting edge and, although the concept of laser tag by that point was a few years old, the innovation of the various new companies coming to market meant that each new system incorporated new features, new ideas designed into them, in order to make it a better game.

Back at this point in the game's history, the players were normally about our (or probably more accurately, your) age: teenagers through to early twenties. About 80% of customers at most of the sites in America fitted this category. Then two things happened. Photon brought out a toy version of laser tag, which it marketed at kids around the 5- and 6-year-old age bracket, and laser tag venues globally suddenly realised how much of a quick win they could make, financially speaking, from kids' birthday parties.

These two things have subsequently driven the laser tag industry down a very narrow path. These days, it's rare to have a Laser Quest centre that doesn't make 80% of it's game revenue from birthday party bookings. That's no bad thing though, surely? Well, maybe it is.

Your average party child is going to be between 8 and 12 years old, which means that they're small and are seemingly incapable of following any instructions anyone gives them (no offence intended to anyone with children or siblings of around that age of course!). This means that the main driving force on the development of the equipment now is to make it tough, light and very simple to use.

Providers who have looked to provide more complex and capable systems, such as DarkLight and LaserForce, have been marginalised because of the impact that a complex system has on running birthday parties. It takes much longer to kit everyone up and explain all the nuances of the system, the power ups mean that people who understand the game find it even easier to leave the birthday kid with a negative score, and the added complexity almost always comes with an added purchase cost and increased maintenance requirements. In some cases operators have decided that advanced game components complicate things so much that they won't even install the most common, such as bases and replenishers - even if the system supports them. Any operators who choose to go out on a limb and source newer equipment from smaller providers based overseas face massive delays in getting replacement parts shipped or waiting for repairs to be completed.

But here's the crunch - very few operators are choosing to develop and improve their game. DarkLight claims that Laser Tag is only the start of something much bigger; interactive, virtual environments where people can play out all sorts of different scenarios. The aim is to create something approaching a holodeck simulation, or many of the different variations on this theme that have appeared througout science fiction for many many years now.

But the reality couldn't be further from the truth. Their latest equipment can barely do anything more than the v2 kit that introduced me to laser tag a decade ago. Granted, at the time it was in a completely different league to anything else on the market, but the other systems have caught up and surpassed DarkLight particularly in terms of the weight and fit of equipment, and it's reliability. There are some vendors who are investing, such as P&C Micros, and LaserForce. But largely, the innovation these days is geared towards making the packs lighter and speeding up the turnaround between games, so that operators can consistently hit the magic "3 games per hour" mark including kit-up talks and a decent amount of game time.

Infineon, from P&C Micros, is probably one of the best examples of this kind of "innovation". The only feature it adds over standard Zone System T is live radio polling, which as far as i can see has two main benefits. First, it allows them to show a real-time log of everything happening in the game on a monitor in reception (so Mum and Dad can see how little Jimmy is doing in the game, who he's shooting, who's shooting him). Secondly, it allows much faster energise and game over sequences, so the packs can be turned around and sent into the next game quicker. In any case, it's not real innovation, as these features were present in LaserForce for some time before they became available as an upgraded Zone System T.

And what of Laser Quest? Well, ignoring the change to surface mount, and to RJ45 connections within the packs themselves, it's very much the same system that was released about 12 years ago. It has all the good things that we love, the multiple sensors, the combined IR/laser unit, the focussed IR beam that is so integral to the game of Laser Quest. It also has pretty much all the faults and bugs that plagued LQX when it was first released. You still reset the hits against a target if you hit them more than 99 times in a game. You still have pack communications problems because the RJ45 connectors and cables aren't up to the task. You still have about 3 score updates during the game, it still takes an age to energise the packs and to download them at the end of the game. One example of the poor planning that could easily have been rectified is that roughly 15% of the white adult male population are colour blind, and of these, the vast majority are red-green colour blind. This means that our lovely red, green and mixed pack colours are no more than a mish mash of blobs to a sizeable chunk of the traditional target audience. It's why many other systems use red, yellow and blue.

Oddly enough, the first thing that tends to be discarded in the ever present hunt for quick profits is the maintenance of both the site and the equipment. I say oddly enough not because I'm trying to be ironic, but because the whole lifeblood of such an organisation is the experience that the players have. That's what a laser tag operator is selling - the experience. It's all about the suspension of reality - about believing for 15 minutes that you're on an alien world or inside a great big star ship or something, fighting to stay alive or to protect a colony or something. But that only works while everything is believable, and things have to be pretty good to be believable.

The second the pack lights stop working, lasers stop working, speakers go funny, gun screens go dark or have lines of pixels missing, all of that starts to unravel. A bad arena can be fine for a while, but as soon as lights start to blow, the disco ball stops spinning, and the scanner starts making a horrible noise because all the smoke machine fluid has got to the mechanicals, it starts to fall apart even more. Big splotches of black paint hide damage and repairs to the walls where the owners decided not to ask the original artists back to patch the artwork up, because it cost too much. But the damage is only there because they scrimped on good quality materials when putting the place together.

But then the illusion gets shattered for good. "My gun's stopped working" squeals the birthday child. So the marshal changes the battery. Suddenly we're using the same kind of battery packs he uses in his radio-controlled car. Suddenly we're back to reality. Suddenly it's just a game again, and strangely it's no longer quite as much fun. Then, to add insult to injury, at the end of the game the member of staff turns on the house lights so that everyone can see their way out, exposing all the gaffer tape on the packs, the chicken wire, plastic tubing, wiring and cable ties holding the arena illusion together. It ends up being a pale shadow of the experience it should (and really could) be, and the beeps coming out of the Laser Quest gun really start to sound like they were designed in the days of the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Microcomputer.

"It doesn't matter, does it? The punters are still coming, they're still paying their money."

Yes they are. But that's not the point - more punters would pay more money more often for a better experience! No operator understands, or wants to understand, this. Operators are living on their own press, the good word of mouth from years ago when their site was new and the equipment wasn't obsolete, and on the need that parents feel to give their child at least as good a birthday party as his friend had last month. But they go there, and the parents aren't that impressed with the attitude of the staff, they're not impressed by the way the place looks like it's been painted by birthday boy's 5-year-old sister, and they're even less impressed that birthday boy is complaining that his pack broke and "they had to change the battery".

Parents add this to the attitude of the staff, their general feeling about the place and so on, and resolve that OK, we've tried Laser Quest, and next year we'll see what else there is to do. We'll look for the next Next Big Thing. Or play it safe, and go to a bowling centre (the vast majority of which are far better presented and have a much more pleasant family atmosphere - there's a lesson right there). They'll still get treated like they are on a production line, where the staff want to get them in the building, onto the lanes and out of the way as quick as possible, but the whole environment is much nicer and they tend to overlook such things. I'm not having a go at Laser Quest staff in particular, but if you're honest about it, with a few notable (and very hard working) exceptions, you get what you're prepared to pay for.

The big issue here is what's going on in the background. The people who play at birthday parties aren't going to join up to become members if they don't really, fully enjoy what they are doing. They don't have the money anyway, so they have to get their parents to pay for membership for them, and so they have to convince their parents that it's a good idea to join up. "You save 50p a game, Mum!" Mum thinks, and asks "Are you going to come here 20 times in the next year, to make that £10 back?" She has already decided what the answer is, and it's "No", because she thinks it'll be a fad, just like all the other fads.

The trouble is, that's where the biggest customer base is at the moment, and therefore that's the biggest potential source of new members. But we really haven't got it right when it comes to selling this stuff as a "club" to people of that age. Never mind that the members' nights start at 7pm and go on until 11pm, on a night before a school day. Never mind that the kids are never going to be allowed to go on the trips to other sites when they're that age, or to the tournaments that are advertised; all the things that sound so glamorous to the kids who might want to join are in effect totally out of their reach. So all they have is a few games now and again, on their keytag, in the forlorn hope that they might manage to make the next league up, even though it's going to take them 8 months to work their way all the way to the top league.

This is where Laser Quest has totally missed the whole point. This is not their ideal target market. It's just the easiest market. In their ideal target market they would be generating tons of repeat business. In their ideal target market, they would be attracting the kind of people who are starting to get independent, want to go out of an evening, have some disposable income that they don't mind donating to the site owner's retirement fund and in some cases have their own means of transport. And people with a decent attention span, too. The sort of people who are going to play the game, enjoy it, but see that there is more to it than that. The kind of people like you and me and most of the rest of the Laser Quest members' scene, who enjoy competition, learning new stuff, trying to improve their game. Trying to improve themselves, in fact.

Unfortunately, from an operator's point of view, these people are harder to please. They want variation, they want a challenge, they want reward for their achievement, and at the same time they want a level playing field. The long and the short of it is that older players need a more realistic environment to play in before they suspend their reality and immerse themselves into the experience, and they also demand even and reliable equipment. But this takes up-front investment and an ongoing budget for decent maintenance. Many operators are not willing to stump up the cash in order to please these people, when they can make their profits from the birthday parties without having to worry about keeping people happy.

The trouble is, by their very nature, birthday parties only happen once a year for each child, and in a circle of friends once about two or three birthday parties have been held at Laser Quest it's a bit boring, and they're looking for something different to do for the next party. Operators only get one opportunity a year to impress the parents; if they haven't been impressed one year, they won't come back the year after, and it will take a lot of persuasion to get them to return. Luckily for the operators, there's always new kids coming into the Laser Quest Birthday Party age bracket, and new parents who haven't been dissuaded yet.

But, if the operators were prepared to invest at in the first instance, prepared to try to create an "ultimate" experience, and prepared to try to maintain that experience, through hard work or shrewd disguise, then greater profits surely await. Study after study has shown that getting a current customer to give you repeat business is many times cheaper than attracting new business, and if you start to target a more mature, independent and competitive market, you are tapping into a segment that has much more money behind it. Money that could end up in your fruit machines, vending machines, arcade machines and ultimately your till.

It's not just the operators, though. The Providers need to up their game as well. They need to produce systems which are more capable of fuelling this illusion; systems that are more interactive, more believable, that look better and sound better and work better and last better. Systems that don't need battery changes in the middle of a game, that can allow more diverse and complicated game setups, and that can register how many times you were hit without losing count. But they don't do this, and won't do this, because there's no market for such things; "We've consulted our operators and their primary interest is in working in the birthday party market - there's no mileage in us investing money in this kind of thing, they're happy with what they've got."

Laser Quest GB have actually said this to my face and there were other people there who will verify this.

So in the end, it all comes back to membership. Members, and that associated age bracket, should be a major factor in any operation's planning. However, nobody is prepared to recognise this fact, and the reasons behind it, and consequently everyone is trudging along playing the birthday party tune. Older people don't go to Laser Quest, because "It's what kids do for their birthdays". Any who do actually go can see through the gaffer tape, the bodged repairs, the broken packs and cheap lighting effects. They notice that the walls wobble and the arena is made from quarter-inch MDF. They're brought up on the latest games consoles and ultra-realistic computer games, with CD-quality sampled voiceovers and authentic representations of the sound of an MP5K, and the bleeps and bloops of Laser Quest start to sound pathetic. They notice all of this, and they decide that "It's what kids do for their birthdays". And don't come back.

The trouble is, the bleeps and bloops from a Laser Quest gun are starting to sound pathetic to even the 8-year old party kids now, and Versent have long since missed the boat on bringing out an upgraded system. Their intentions on this are fairly obvious when you consider that, even in 2005, they still sanction R16 sites around the country. While the operator is still in business, Laser Quest are happy, and hell, if they do go bankrupt there'll be some fool who wants to take this kit on and make a go of it at a new centre.

Which leaves the hardcore members in a bit of a state really. You know, the ones who've been doing this for years. The ones who've invested massive amounts of time and money into learning to play, mostly without their usual mates who've long since given up playing. The ones who are trying their hardest to get new members to join, to teach them how to play, to get more money flowing into the operators' coffers. The ones who are desperately hoping against all reason that Versent are going to come up with an updated system, one that has a true three-colour system, one that can count to a hundred and above, one that doesn't sound like it belongs in a 1980's retro museum. The people who, despite all that I've laid out above, see past the failings, past the fact that the place is falling apart, and just want to compete, to play, and to win, and need some decent people to play against.

The exceptions to the rule. Us.

We play a few games, whine about the packs, and the operators decide we're too much trouble. "Have the place at 7pm on a Sunday, now stop bitching about the packs and don't scare off the birthday parties".

So the future is bleak. The future, it seems, is Veqtor. After all, it's cheap, it's cheerful, it's light, it'll suit the party kids down to the ground ... and it's not going to appeal to those bloody members, who keep complaining and generally being a pain in the ass.

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