By Joanna Ireland
The countdown begins. Three. Two. One. The doors open, and players scatter throughout the arena, searching for cover before they take aim at their enemies. Red and green beams shoot across open spaces while players scurry from obstacle to obstacle. One team’s players band together in groups; the other team goes it alone.
A successful hit renders someone powerless for six seconds. Her vest lights up again and she’s off, running up the ramp to the second floor. She targets a friend in the lower level, takes aim, fires and pumps her fist at success.
Many laser tag games last 14 minutes or longer—plenty of time to rack up many “kills” while trying to avoid the enemy. As technology advances, more arenas are investing in fancier setups to create a fully-immersive experience for players. Based on the numbers that have consistently trended up for the past several years, that expense has paid dividends.
“We updated our arena maybe a year and a half or two years ago,” said Jim VanderAarde, manager of Grand Slam Sports and Entertainment Center in Burnsville, Minn. “Our arena features a Lasertron theme, and we recently added murals with a city theme. We built this facility 10 years ago specifically for laser tag, and the two levels allow up to 40 players at a time. We have ramps instead of stairs connecting the two levels, it’s temperature-controlled, and features cool music and blacklights.
“The obstacles here include pylons for players to hide behind, and it’s a maze setup—like a mouse inside a maze,” he said. “We can change up the game configuration to Manhunt (every man for himself, where the vests keep track of the points and the highest score wins) to team play.”
The arena is ADA compliant with wide hallways that are handicapped accessible. “We also try to keep our prices reasonable and I think that’s one reason people keep coming back,” said VanderAarde. “Our numbers are up because of the specials we run on weekends. We get a lot of repeat visitors, and in fact we know a lot of our players by name. We really do get to know the parents and kids who come back week after week.”
The theme of Laser Quest in Las Vegas, Nev., features an Aztec jungle. “[The corporation] has been around for about 20 years,” said General Manager Missy Lombardo. “We have a team that comes in to make each arena unique, and the feedback we get from customers is that they love the black lights and fog machines. People say they love feeling like they’re in a different world.
“Our arena features a lot of mirrors and a two-floor format, so people can go upstairs and downstairs to tag each other. I think it’s important that an arena is a good size—ours is 10,000 square feet—and has plenty of places to hide. You want to create areas where you can sneak up on people and surprise them,” Lombardo said. “We’ve had about 15,000 plays since last year, and so our numbers are up.”
Sandy Petitto, owner of Lazer Rush in Newport News, Va., said they updated their arena about three years ago. “We have a jungle theme that dates back about 11 years. At the time, it was new, and it looked more exciting with all the plants and color. I felt we had a lot more options to decorate and make it look cool. Three years ago, we updated the walls and changed the flow of the jungle. We updated the paint and turned what had been an Egyptian-type temple into a volcano.
“People were amazed—and many of our repeat customers didn’t recognize it because it was profoundly different to them; and that was just by changing the paint scheme. We’re going to update and rearrange again in another year to keep things fresh for our repeat customers,” she said. “We live in a high market area and also get a lot of new customers. We’ve added onto Lazer Rush four times with different attractions—we want to keep it from looking dingy and run-down, because then we’ll lose customers.”
Pettito recommended putting thought into creating a good layout that provides plenty of hiding spots for players. “You want a good flow, too,” she said, “and the flow and paint scheme should complement each other so people feel that it’s more of an immersive adventure game rather than just random sporadic things.
“We’ve got bases for team games, extra slide boxes on the wall for additional points, and we’ve added newer technology and laser blast equipment which increases the elements and makes the game more interesting than just tagging other players,” she said. “We vary games all the time. Many laser tag places only have a couple routines, but we change it up regularly. Laser Blast has many different settings and games programmed: solo, solo fire, team, team fire, for example. There are games that are elimination games so if you have larger group games or walk-ins and need to get people through games quickly, you can.
“But if you have an hour-long game, our system has 15 – 20 variations so we can change them up. If we’re offering an unlimited play or a Friday night special with customers who’ve played here before, we change up the games to make it more challenging for the players.”
Petitto said, “Our visitation is generally up; however, another two facilities have opened near us in recent months, so we are probably down a little. But what we’re finding is that people have tried the franchise and don’t like it, so they come back to us and tell us we’re better. Even though customers are trying a new place, they’re still coming back to me. We have great customer service, and they like what we offer in our 18,000 square feet of space. We’ve stayed fresh, updated events over time, consistently keep the arena and facility clean, and everyone has a good time.”
Ryan Burke, owner of iCombat in Montgomery, Ill., said, “We’re a themed arena that’s like a military combat zone. It has a jail, town, and guard towers. We use the iCombat software and guns, so it fits and the game plays well. The games are very Call of Duty-based, so that’s why we went with a combat theme. Our arena’s always changing because we’re constantly renovating and updating it.
“We offer a very tactical style of play that’s geared more toward older teens and adults. We’ve added more details, especially because we’re also part of a haunted house attraction in the fall. So, we’ve made more improvements to enhance the haunted house element, adding mezzanines and ramp areas and other things players want,” he said.
“It’s important to have different camping spots, hiding and tactical areas,” said Burke. In fact, the police come in here to train. We have real cars, a real airplane, and real jail cell doors—the realism just adds to the experience, and it really sells itself. Our annual visitation is flat or possibly a little up—nothing drastic. Chicago isn’t a major laser tag market, so we stay about the same year over year.”
“Themes add to the power of the imagination,” said Brian Herbert, general manager of Lost Worlds Laser Tag in City of Industry, Calif. “This arena features the lost world of Atlantis. Although we don’t change the theme, we constantly update elements, adding special effects, changing the paint scheme and overall décor. Our customers are definitely happy with the design.”
Herbert said that the core elements of a well-designed arena require a multifaceted approach. “If you fail on any key ingredient,” he said, “the overall effect is diminished. If you have a bad physical layout, you’ll have major problems—you want a well-thought out floor plan that eliminates bad spots and keeps people from finding that one position from which they can dominate the arena.
“With today’s audiences, you need to integrate multiple special effects and elements of role play. We have beacons from our manufacturer that give players superpowers or help them level up and promote team play. Bases integrate fog machines so when a base is tagged and destroyed, smoke jets out and music plays. I think it’s important to integrate all the senses,” he said.
“What we’re working on here as time passes,” said Herbert, “is reducing and breaking up the cookie cutter silhouette of partitions the arena uses. I think the biggest failure in off-the-shelf designs is the palette of four or five elements that are reused over and over. That approach works well in a sci-fie themed arena where you’re onboard a spaceship, for example, but if you want to create a more natural or city setting, people want variety. When you see the same silhouette over and over, it becomes a less interesting 2D environment.
“Our visitation has increased year over year since we opened, but there’s tremendous competition for entertainment dollars here, and a lot of choice. That’s why we’re constantly updating.”
Photos provided by Lazer Rush in Newport News, Va.