Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Keep It Simple Stupid

Any new field owner with no previous experience operating a paintball field has a learning curve to overcome. I freely admit that before my business partner and I opened our field back in 2001, neither one of us had a lick of experience when it came to running a paintball field. Neither one of us had worked at or been involved in any way with paintball fields, other than being players. I had no business management experience at all. My business partner had been a manager of a small chain line footwear store twenty years earlier, for a year or so. The chain mapped out how to manage the store and he was basically a glorified babysitter (for the employees) and whipping boy when quotas weren’t met.

As far as running a paintball field went, we only knew what we wanted the field to be like from a player’s perspective. I think that holds true for many field owners out there. Most of us were players who one day had a light bulb go off in their brains and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to open a paintball field and run it exactly like a player would want a field run? We would be the most popular because we would be providing exactly what players want.” (This line of thinking is one of the problems plaguing our industry, but that’s a topic for another day)

The fact that almost every other paintball field owner had started with those same thoughts, most likely including our very own competitors, didn’t find its way into our heads. We figured we would be the first to build and operate a field exactly the way players would want it. We couldn’t help but be successful.

We always enjoyed ourselves playing games like Capture the Flag and Attack and Defend at our local fields. But after years of playing the same simple games, we thought it would be cool to play some games that were a little more complicated; games that took a little more planning and strategy. We knew we would find them more interesting and fun to play so it just made sense to us that our customers would as well. Therefore, not long after we opened our doors and had gotten our feet wet, we tried some games that were a little more complicated with our customers.

Now, our customers were mostly renters then. People who were playing for the first time or had played only once or twice before with very few gear owners thrown into the mix that had just a little more experience. Very few of these players had ever played with one another so there was very little well greased teamwork going on. We were, and still are, a paintball field where players of all sizes, ages, genders, and ability come out for a day of shooting others with paintballs and not much else is worried about.

It didn’t take long at all to realize that very few of our customers really cared about the more complicated missions and storylines. For the most part they came to shoot paintballs at one another and avoid being shot by paintballs. The more complicated we made the games, the less people cared about trying to accomplish the missions. I remember going over the rules, looking around and seeing most player’s eyes glazed over. They couldn’t wait for me to shut up and blow the horn to start the game. We very quickly dropped all the complicated scenarios and missions and stuck to the simple games. We still get the odd player coming up with ideas they share with us for “great games”. I’m always open for suggestions and politely listen to the suggestions, but almost all of them are too complicated for our mixed bag of paintball players. I know from experience now that to keep the games flowing and have players even remotely interested in accomplishing the objective of the game, we need to keep it simple

I guess that’s why I have a bit of a tough time with the concept of big, long-winded scenario games. I am one of the many (I think the majority) of players at scenario games who just go to shoots people on the other team. The only reason at all that scenario games are as successful as they are, is that they draw a much higher ratio of “regular” players. If it were not for this, they would fail, just as more complicated games fail at local recreational paintball fields, such as ours. Renters or players that play occasionally for fun, have no desire to get involved in complicated plots and technical multi step missions. They just want to shoot the opposition with paintballs.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against scenario games. I think they have their place just as Star Trek conventions have their place. As long as there are people attending, all is good. Just as Klingons and Vulcans have a place to gather with their kind, so should paintball players who like to roll play as something other than paintball players. But at our field, I’m keeping it simple, stupid.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Doom and Gloom?

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years, you have probably heard that the paintball industry is hurting. Gone are the days when anyone involved with paintball was teling their friends that paintball is the fastest growing extreme sport in North America. But just how bad is it?

Well, according to SGMA, sales (wholesale dollars basedon shipments from manufacturers) dropped 20% in 2008 from the previous year ($300M to $240M). The average for sporting goods in the same period was a 3.2% decline.

So what happened in 2008? Apparently the same thing that happened in 2007. Sales dropped from $370M in 2006 to $300M in 2007 (a 19% decrease). Almost all other sports saw a modest increase in sales during that same year. Not paintball.

The drop from $370M in 2006 to $240M in 2008 equates to an approximate 35% drop. That's a 35% drop in just two years. That's huge. No wonder manufacturers are freaking out (those that are still in business).

This is based on sales of paintball goods, not participation rates. I do not have the information for participation available to me for those time periods. One can only assume that participation rates have also decreased. If anyone cares to share those rates with me, it would be much appreciated.

I do know the participation statistics for our own field. In 2008, participation held even with what it was in 2007. In 2007 we saw an increase of approximately 40% over 2006. That's a far cry from the 19% decrease the industry as a whole had.

The interesting thing for me is that first, in 2008, paintball sales dropped much more than the sporting goods average and second, that the 19% drop in 2007 shows us that the drop in paintball sales probably has very little to do with the decline in the economy in general. In 2007, things were pretty good for the average North American. The economy was strong, but paintball sales still dropped 19%.

Why? Aren't people having fun playing paintball anymore?

It certainly can't be high costs. Equipment and paintballs at most fields (and stores) were near record low prices in 2007. The argument I hear from some that paintball is too expensive doesn't cut it. It's been cheaper the last few years than it has ever been, by quite a margin and yet sales are way down.

My Micro Economics classes taught me that sales are supposed to increase when prices go down, not decrease, especially when the economy is stong. Obviously there is something else at work here. I'm just glad it's not affecting our business. But then again, we didn't drop our prices to record lows. I think I'll keep it that way.