Friday, February 27, 2009

Are We having Fun Yet?

Many years ago, I turned down my first opportunity to take part in a paintball outing. It was organized by a friend of mine and involved mostly people from his company and others involved with his company. The thought of feeling out of place amongst a bunch of strangers, especially in an environment I knew absolutely nothing about didn’t appeal to me (I’m quite shy by nature). The thought of getting hit with paintballs didn’t help. When he organized another outing again the following year, I turned him down, despite the fact that he insured me I was going to be missing out on a lot of fun. The third year in a row, I accepted his offer.

I had a blast. I was also mad at myself for turning down the two previous invitations. I could hardly wait for the next outing. Another friend ended up organizing an event about 5 or 6 months later and I had no hesitation in accepting the offer. After that, I couldn’t wait for others to organize games and started organizing my own groups of friends. Together with my brother-in-law we started organizing groups of 40 or so players about twice per year. A couple of years later we opened TNT Paintball.

Looking back at those first few outings, I remember having so much fun I can hardly put it into words. The thrill of hunting and being hunted at the same time, with adrenaline pumping about as hard as it could, was just exhilarating. Before we even started our paintball field both my business partner and myself knew to be successful, we needed to make sure our future customers had that same feeling, just like we had on our first paintball outings.

It seems to be working so far. Our customer base has grown steadily since we opened for business. The vast majority of those new customers have come from the general public. These are people who hadn’t played paintball before and had been lured into trying it (usually by their friends just like I had been) and after that continued to come back.

There has been a lot of discussion in the past about how the paintball industry’s growth has declined and how we need to get players back into the woods and stop promoting speedball so much, all for the health of the industry. Although I don’t disagree that it’s probably to the industry’s advantage to do just that, I get the feeling that there are many people out there that feel getting people to play paintball in the woods is going to rekindle the growth of paintball. I’m not suggesting that it won’t help to increase industry growth, but I really feel that many people are ignoring a very basic fundamental fact. That being, we need to make paintball fun. Whether you are playing in the bush on 10 acres or on a ¼ acre field with air filled bunkers is really irrelevant. Whether players are having fun, is the only real important question those running paintball games needs to concern themselves with.

If people are having fun they will want to do it again. If they are not having fun, or not enough fun for the amount of effort and resources they have put into it, they are not going to want to do it again. It’s that simple.

As a paintball field owner, I try to make sure my customers are having fun. Do I always succeed? No. Probably not with everyone, but I think we are getting it right for the majority of our customers.

As an industry as a whole, it’s the same thing. If we want our favourite pastime to grow, we need to constantly be asking ourselves, “Is everyone having fun?”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Billy Ball – First Impressions

OK, I’ve known about Billy Ball for about a week now, so I guess not really first impressions, but the first chance I’ve had to sit down, think and write about it.

For those that haven’t heard anything about Billy Ball, I’ll fill you in on the little that I know about it. First off the name. I don’t like it. Apparently it was nick named Billy Ball by the Smarts Parts staff when they played it on their field with the Gardner brothers, among others. The idea came from Bill Gardner and was devised so his kids (one names Billy Jr.) would have an easy introduction to play paintball. Basically it’s a new mode on the board for the Smart Parts Vibe rental marker (can also be used on the Vibe’s more woodsball counterpart, the SP-1) that sets the ROF (rate of fire) to .5 bps (balls per second) or 1 ball every 2 seconds. Billy Ball has been played at the All American paintball field for a while now and has met with positive feedback from beginners to pro teams using it as a practice tool.

I haven’t played Billy Ball. I’ve played all pump games but even pump markers can shoot faster than .5 bps. I can honestly say that I enjoy playing all pump games much more than I enjoy playing with semis, especially electronic semis capable of high ROF. I have a feeling waiting that 2 seconds for another chance to shoot someone, especially if they are moving, might be very frustrating. On the other hand, the game is supposed to be played with everyone using the same mode, so everyone will be “handicapped” the same. I think it will be a lot of fun and I’ve always held that for paintball to be a real competition, everyone should be equipped alike. But I don’t think we are going to see professional Billy Ball leagues popping up.

I do however think that Billy Ball will be a great tool for field owners interested in growing their sport (and their business). This will be very popular for younger players that are now forced to play with markers capable of shooting 5 or 6 bps, and often grouped with players that have equipment capable of shooting much faster. This will be popular for those kids who are now scrambling to get behind a bunker somewhere near the back of the field when the game starts (we’ve all seen them). It will be popular with the kids who are just plain scared to play paintball the way it is played at virtually all paintball fields in the world today.

I can see Billy Ball becoming very popular as a complete birthday package for 10 to 14 year olds. One of the advantages of Billy Ball will be the fact that far fewer paintballs will be needed and the cost can almost be fixed beforehand. A birthday party of 10 with a case of paintball will most likely be able to have a 3 hour party and mom and dad won’t have to cough up more money for extra paintballs.

The new rental Vibe with Billy Ball mode won’t fit into every fieldowner’s business plan. Not every fieldowner will think Billy Ball is a good thing. I know some think letting people play Billy Ball will give people an unrealistic picture of paintball and they will be overwhelmed when they step onto a field where “real” paintball is played. To that I say, that may be true, but those same people are already overwhelmed stepping onto a “real” paintball field. Billy Ball will give some people a chance to experience paintball in an atmosphere where they will actually have fun and will want to come back a second time. If they continue to come back and continue to have fun, eventually those people are going to move to regular paintball. And if they don’t and end up wanting to play Billy Ball for their whole paintball life, let them. Who are we to judge how people should enjoy their paintball? I enjoy paintball best at about 1 or 2 bps playing with pumps. Why shouldn’t others enjoy paintball at .5 bps?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Are New Players Tougher Today?

Anyone that knows me understands that I’m an advocate for low volume shooting while playing our beloved game. Therefore, I get into a lot of discussions with people about ROF (Rate of Fire), in person and on paintball forums. Much to the dismay of some, most of my writing has in some way to do with lowering the amount of paintballs shot.

ROF has obviously changed over the years. It took a fair amount of talent to shoot even 1 bps (ball per second) with one of paintball’s original markers. Due to advances in technology the ROF has been increased to astonishingly fast rates (astonishing to me anyway). I don’t really know at what point technology is at now and honestly I don’t really care, but I believe it somewhere about 30 bps.

When I started playing paintball years ago, pump markers were still the norm, but semi-autos had been invented, they just weren’t seen very often at the paintball fields I frequented. When one did show up and the owner blasted of half a dozen balls at what was probably about 6 or 7 bps, it was quite mesmerizing. As a fairly new player still using rental gear, the thought of going up against the guy shooting that fast was very intimidating. I avoided those guys like the plague. I was scared. I’m not ashamed to admit it. If I had not started playing paintball when pump markers wee still the norm, I probably would not be here today writing about paintball, a game I am still quite passionate about.

But I often wonder what the new players coming out to play today think about this game? The first time player, standing in the Safe Zone, hearing strings of paintballs being rattled off by multiple players, what is he/she thinking? Sure I tell them it’s fun. I tell them it doesn’t hurt that much. But looking back and remembering my first paintball experience, I probably wouldn’t believe the stuff I’m telling my own customers these days.

Am I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. I truly believe those people will have fun and I know that getting hit with a paintball is not all that bad; that the fun outweighs the potential pain. But that doesn’t change the fact that some of these new players are probably scared out of their wits.

When I look back and think about how the prospect of someone shooting 6 or 7 bps at me was absolutely horrific, what do today’s new players feel about the prospect of someone shooting 10,12, or 15 bps at them? These rates are all relatively easily achievable today. With ramping mode, they are very easily achievable, even by a first time player. Although not that common at our field (we don’t allow any ramping), those rates are commonplace at many field across the world.

Many have started playing the sport with those speeds. For them, they are normal. When you ask someone that plays at 15 bps (or higher) regularly, what the ROF should be when playing with new players, so they are not so intimidated, they’ll often say something like, we shouldn’t go higher than uncapped semi-auto. Uncapped semi-auto for many players is probably around 10 or 12 bps. Some will consider really handicapping themselves and say that gravity feed hoppers should only be used. Gravity feeds paintballs at approximately 12 bps. Sure, without agitating the hopper you will only shoot about 4 balls in a row, then need to shake for ½ a second before you can shoot another 4 balls in a row, but is that really slow enough for a new player? I am quite sure it would not have been slow enough for me when I first started playing.

Yet we expect it to be slow enough for today’s new player. They must be a lot tougher than I was. Or are we just keeping the ones that aren’t tougher than I was at home? That’s a sad thing for me to think about. Because if that’s the case, there are lots of people sitting at home who will never fall in love with this sport as I have done.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Had a Crier Today

I had a woman sobbing at the field today. She wasn’t sobbing because she had been hit or hurt though. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t even started playing and she was sobbing almost uncontrollably.

She came up to the field today with her boyfriend, who was accompanying a couple of regular customers. They are all in their mid-late twenties, so not young for paintball standards. The boyfriend was renting and had played paintball a few times. His girlfriend had never played and was intending to only watch from the Safe Zone.

One of the regulars came up to me during one of the breaks and asked if I could give this girl a break on the cost. Seems they were working on her to give paintball a try, but she was very, very hesitant. That coupled with the cost was turning her off (she figured she would probably only try it for one game, if at all). I obliged and told her if she decided to play, I would waive the field fees for her.

After another little while, the regular (also female, come us to the Registration window with her friend and informs me that she is willing to give it a try. She introduced me to the young woman (names will kept anonymous to protect the innocent). The girl was shaking. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to try playing paintball and she quietly said yes. By this time her boyfriend was standing beside her.

I said. “OK”, and handed her a waiver to fill out. She started to fill it out and by the time she was finished she was crying a and shaking even more. Again I asked her if she was sure she wanted to do this. Again she said yes.

I went to get her rental equipment and when I got back she was talking to her boyfriend and between sobs was saying things like, “I am so stressed right now”, and “If anything happens I’m going to blame you”. She was joking, but crying all at the same time.

I gave her the rental gear, and a free 100 paintballs and told her she could use those to shoot her boyfriend. She smiled at that, still with tears running down her cheeks. I then gave her the safety speech and made sure she understood all the rules (her friends had already given her tons of information while trying to talk her into going, so I just made sure the safety stuff was drilled home.

The group sat out the next game as it was on Grog’s Nest, one of our smaller, more intense fields. When it was time to Urban Assault (there’s a wooded section on the field besides the “urban” part, they hopped into the game. I wasn’t on the field reffing, so I lost track of them at that point.

After about 15 minutes, the two regulars came back from the playing field. They had both been marked out before the game timed out. I asked where their friend was and if everything was OK. They smiled and said yes, everything was just fine. Their friend was on the ridge being a rambat. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but had a feeling she was having fun.

I didn’t see her return as I got distracted helping other customers. Apparently she ended up playing a few more games until the group had to leave. I did see our new player while she was handing in her rental gear and asked if it was as bad as she thought it was going to be.

“No, It was a lot of fun”, she said.

“Will you come back and play again?”

“You bet I will”.

That made my day.

By the way, the tears were all gone and I have a felling they are gone for good (at least at the paintball field).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Equipment Does not the Player Make

We had a slow day at the field last Sunday. I didn’t realize until Sunday morning when the crowd was much thinner than usual, that it was Super Bowl Sunday. I forget this every year, as I’m not a Football fan and every year I get caught by surprise at how many less customers we have. Maybe next year I’ll clue in beforehand.

At the height of the day we had 11 customers. We lost money that day, but that’s not why I’m writing this. This has to do with the diversity of the group. We had only two renters who were about 13 years old, the youngest players there. They told me that they had been up the week before, but once we started playing, I very quickly realized that they were very inexperienced. We had two pump players who ref at the field occasionally, and then a variety of other semi-auto gear owners.

Since it was a slow day and we were over staffed, I decided to jump in on some games. I call it quality control research, but in reality, mostly I just do it every once in a while cause it’s fun. The extra person also bumped the numbers up to 12, which made it easier to divide the teams up, sort of. The two renters wanted to play together on the same team. We try to accommodate our customers in this regard as much as we can, although in this case it “weakened” the team quite a bit (don’t tell them I said that, they were actually really good kids).

We divided teams up as evenly as we thought we could. Our team took the two younger renters. One of the players on our team was obviously into the Milsim look. I don’t really know exactly what he was shooting other than the fact that it was big, black, looked heavy, and made a loud fast rat-tat-tat sound when he shot. Anyway, we were standing at our starting base on our Grog’s Nest field, just about to start the game when he wandered over and asked if anyone was going up into the tower. The tower is a strategic point as it can slow down the other team’s progress quite a bit. I said that I was intending to go into the tower. He looked at me, then looked at my phantom and asked, “You got a Pump? as if it wasn’t obvious.

I said, “Yes I do”.

He said, “I better go with you”.

I said, “Sure”.

Moments later, the game started. I sprinted up the ramp and heard that he wasn’t far behind. Once in the tower, I stepped to the left to take a look out the first window. He went past me and went to the next window. The other team was advancing as far as they could off the break and I was snap shooting to either eliminate them or at least slow their progress. My teammate in the tower with me (I’m embarrassed that I didn’t ask him his name) was hailing paintballs down at the other team with a fierce rat-tat-tat. He wasn’t really even making an effort to use the wall to protect him. Within about 15 seconds he raises his arm, turns around and starts heading towards the tower exit. On the middle of his lens was a single fresh orange splat. Now I know that the only other person other than myself shooting the X-Ball Gold with orange fill that day was one of the other pump players.

I dueled it out that game with the other pump players pretty much oblivious to anything else. Eventually one of them shot me and they ended up winning the game. After the game was over, I strolled over to the sidelines and found my former tower mate on his way into the staging area. I said to him, “You didn’t have much luck up in the tower this game.”

“No” he said. “I don’t even have a clue where that shot came from”.

I informed him that it was Dale, one of the pump players on the other team.

“Oh”, was all he said after that.

The moral of the story? Equipment doesn’t make the player. The best players will be the best players, regardless of equipment. Don’t make the mistake of writing other players off just because you think they have inferior equipment.