Outdoor Laser Tag...A Threat?

by Jason Bock

Outdoor laser tag is becoming increasingly popular in North America. For years, outdoor laser tag, based on the Worlds of Wonder Laser Tag home set, has been popular in Europe and elsewhere. Europeans have typically used the equipment to relive science fiction movies in a massive, live action role-playing style.

Here in the United States, most of the players treat outdoor laser tag as a substitution for the pain, mess and cost of paintball. Outdoor equipment has become sophisticated in the last three years, with several manufacturers offering $500+ gun/sensor sets.

What does outdoor laser tag mean for the indoor arena laser tag industry?

Probably not much, at least initially. The players attracted to outdoor laser tag tend to have different outlooks than the core arena market. Individual players tend to be hobbyists, interested in their own equipment and the underlying technology. They are often college age or older.

Most of the inexpensive equipment enjoyed by younger players currently available is a far cry from arena equipment. Laser Challenge, probably the best known brand of home laser tag equipment, has been around for more than five years and has not significantly effected sales at arenas. The equipment is fragile and very much a short-term children's toy for most players.

There are several notable trends in outdoor equipment that ought to give the indoor laser tag arena operator cause for thought.

Large Outdoor Fields

There is a growing movement towards high-end outdoor laser tag fields in the United States. Laser tag solves some of the problems of paintball by allowing almost any age to play, reducing waste and avoiding laws barring paintball equipment.

High-end outdoor gear also puts field simulation game operators back in the driver's seat. A long time ago, if you played paintball at a field, you used their rental guns and purchased their paint. In the age of readily available paintball guns, paintball operators no longer have a lock on this market. With the new laser tag gear, few players readily have compatible equipment (although this will change as the industry matures).

Outdoor fields are typically not major competitors because they cannot provide a similar experience to arena laser tag. They typically won't have exceptional birthday party offerings or the opportunity to drop in and play a quick game.

Many of these outdoor arenas are located well outside the entertainment hub of a city. Their business will be during the weekend days, not the evening hours popular for most arenas.

Still, outdoor fields can compete against arenas for group business, with a higher perceived value (many charge $20-35 dollars for 4-6 hours of play!). Groups that have been unable or unwilling to try paintball might consider outdoor laser tag an excellent substitute and bypass an arena.

If you are an arena operator with an outdoor laser tag field in your area, you should investigate your competition. While they may not be a threat to you at this time, an outdoor field's operating costs are probably much lower than an indoor center.

Mobile Operations

Mobile operations, using inflatables and other portable arenas have been in operation for years around the world. Such operations have typically purchased commercial laser tag gear used in indoor arenas. They provide a laser tag experience "to go" for company picnics, parties, fairs, festivals, etc.

There are some very well-run mobile laser tag operations out there. In many cases, this may not be business that is attracted to an arena. Unless you have a large FEC facility, you are probably not on the radar screen for company picnics. Your center could probably not easily operate in a festival style environment.

For the most part, competition with mobile operators is short-term and does not have a tremendous effect on a solid arena operation. Recently, some mobile operations have begun purchasing high-end outdoor gear rather than arena gear, offering a slightly different experience.

There are some mobile operators, however, that are attempting to turn a hobby into a business. While they are unlikely to take significant business from your center, these operators are a threat to your arena business and the industry as a whole.

Why?

Many of these operators may be running their business on such a shoestring, they do not have proper liability insurance of a regular base of operations. They may run games and events in public parks or other areas accessible to the general public.

Also, some of these operators have built laser tag equipment that looks like modern assault weaponry. Gun shells are readily available for many modern weapons, including M-16, H&K Assault Rifles, Desert Eagle pistols, etc. Some of these operators are using these shells to hold the electronics for laser tag equipment. Although many of these shells still come with a obligatory "orange plastic tip," the tip can easily be removed or painted.

I have in my hands a 2003 catalog from such a small operation, offering to put laser tag gear inside military weapon shells for play. The same operator offers to rent equipment to run military strategy games.

Replica laser tag equipment is not appropriate for public play, except under very tightly controlled circumstances. The risks of a misunderstanding resulting in serious injury or death is high. The danger to your arena business is measured in bad publicity the moment someone gets injured or killed using such equipment.

The simple fact is, the public will not easily distinguish between the safety of indoor arena laser tag and these rogue mobile operations. Laser tag business in an entire region-- possibly even the entire country could be effected by this bad publicity.

Assess the risk of local mobile operators. Remember, most mobile operators run safe, legitimate businesses. Legitimate operators should:

  • Carry appropriate liability insurance, just like arenas do.
  • Play only on private property or within an obviously designated area (such as an inflatable arena).
  • Notify authorities when appropriate about the nature of their activity.
  • Use equipment that is difficult to mistake for a real firearm.
  • Discuss safety concerns with participants.
  • Have a fail-safe "stop the game" notification process for all players.
  • Never play military style games in public areas or where someone will mistake them for the real thing.

If you find an operation in your area that does not adhere to these basic guidelines, I recommend discreetly reporting them to local authorities as a potential hazard. Your local government may have laws already on the books to discourage or eliminate such dangerous businesses.

Author's Note:If you operate an outdoor or mobile event, don't think that I'm picking on you. I enjoy outdoor tag and think it's a great opportunity. I would enjoy working with outdoor centers. Most outdoor and mobile laser tag operations are legitimate entertainment businesses. Unfortunately, one unprofessional business making a big mistake can effect the entire industry.

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