Wednesday, August 28, 2019

PHOCON 2019: Celebrating Photon and the 35th Anniversary of Laser Tag

35 years after the first laser tag, Photon, opened in Dallas, Texas players are still loving and remembering the game. For the most loyal fans of the original laser tag an annual celebration called Phocon allows them a chance to revisit their memories of laser tag’s early days and once again play using original Photon pods and equipment on a modified Alpha field just like they remember. This event has been hosted several times ever since the game’s 30th anniversary in 2014 at XP Laser Sport in Laurel, Maryland and the 2019 Phocon celebration once again brought players back to be part of the fun and to party like it was 1984!

This year’s three-day Phocon weekend stretched from August 23rd-25th, 2019 and drew players who originally played at Photon locations in Austin, TX, Baltimore, MD, Chicago, IL, Kenilworth and Wildwood, NJ, Louisville, KY, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, OK and more.

When players arrive at XP Laser Sport for the Phocon weekend they are provided with an official passport to track their codename (mine is Tivia) to be able to start logging into games right away.

If you purchased a commemorative t-shirt you receive that when you arrive. This year’s shirt is being sported by the owner of XP Laser Sport, Marc Mueller, and features an iconic image of Photon inventor George Carter III from back when it all started.

When you are ready to join a game the pods in the vesting room are ready to go with the chest packs, helmets and phasers all hanging ready for action.

However, Randall Meding (aka Bhodi Li) who originally played at the Baltimore Photon will be quick to remind you to put the hair cover on to keep the sharing of helmets as sanitary as possible.

Next you’ll connect your power pack (or battery belt) by holding the shorter end in your left hand and connecting it around your waist.

You put the control pod on by lifting the loop strap over your head and wrapping the waist strap around to the snap buckle. Now you can put on the helmet and remove the phaser from the rack.

And when you’re all suited up you’ll be wearing about 13 pounds of Photon equipment before scanning your passport at the phaser station to sign in for the game.

Now it’s time to enter the arena.

When you first step foot onto the Alpha field there is a sense that you are walking into a completely different atmosphere. From the ramps to the brightly lit alien towers there is a unique design to this arena that is intended to be both athletic and immersive. Jeremy (aka Tenser) from the Harvey/Chicago Photon commented about the arena design saying that “It’s amazing. It almost makes you feel like you’re on a different planet.”

There’s also something about the sensory experience that takes you back according to Jason Helton (aka Maestro) of the Baltimore and Ocean City Photon sites. “35 years later there’s something absolutely blissful about being able to be kind of a kid again. Walking in, smelling the fog and seeing the old equipment kind of makes me feel like I’m eight or ten again. It’s really amazing.”

When the game is ready to begin an etherial female computer-like voice greets you by saying “Welcome Photon Warriors. Commence strategic maneuvers at audible command signal. Five…four…three...two…one…begin.”

Red and green teams will have the corresponding color lights flashing on their helmet during the game. You’ll get 10 points for zapping an opponent to deactivate them for five seconds, but the base has significantly more value at 200 points.

Six minutes fly by when you’re in the game exploring all the various points of the arena. At XP Laser Sport some of the areas are named after significant Photon players.

And just about everyone I spoke to agreed that the players and the people are what really made Photon the memorable experience it was that gave attendees enough reason to return to the game during the Phocon weekend. That sentiment was expressed by Jeremy (aka Tenser) who said “It used to be originally all about the game. You were young and you wanted to be ‘the best’…but it’s more than that now. We hang out with people, I know people’s names, I get to know them on a personal basis so it makes it that much better of a time.” He attended with friends from the Chicago site including Terry (aka Blackhawk) who agreed, adding that “Almost every one of my friends I have in this current day stems from Photon.”

The social element of Photon seems to have been as significant to the players today as it was back in the eighties, if not more so. Virginia Beach player Darrell Griffin (aka VA Bhodi) shared “I miss it. It was a great part of my life. A lot of us were alpha types, highly competitive, big egos and yet when we were done playing and duking it out with everything we had we’d go party and have a great time. You realize later it was about the people, not the game itself. The irony is that in the moment back then not many of us really got that because we were busy competing.”

The players who came out for Phocon all shared a great love and appreciation for the game. One such player, Jim Strother (aka Opus) who originally played at the Tulsa, OK Photon, loved it so much that some years back he opened his own site in Broken Arrow, OK where he was able to relive the memories. He recalled one night at his own arena “We had a bunch of Photon folks show up one night, and we played until pretty late, closed it down and then sat down in one of the corners of the arena and just exchanged memories and talked.”

So many of the players look back fondly on their Photon memories. Randall Meding (aka Bhodi Li) has a memento on display at XP Laser Sport that reminds him of a particularly special event.

“That is my Ninth Platoon jersey. When we originally opened the facility here in Laurel, Maryland we held a tournament and that particular jersey was from a team that I coached. The story is all based on the Photon book series where I got my name. That tournament I coached an up and coming team and we went all the way to second place in the tournament with a bunch of people who really hadn’t played before. So that is the Bhodi Li jersey from the Ninth Platoon.”

He went on to share his memories of a pinnacle moment…his first Photon experience, saying “In 1987 the facility opened in Ocean City, Maryland. People say that there are pivotal moments in their life where you just KNOW without a doubt that this is something pivotal. I’ve never had more clarity in my life than the day my friend invited me and said ‘they’ve got a new facility, an indoor laser tag, let’s go play.’ We were out on the boardwalk because the line was so long. I didn’t know what I was getting into, I had no idea. But the second I reached the top of the steps, I hadn’t even played yet, and I said out loud ‘I will be doing this the rest of my life.’ That was 1987 and it’s 2019 now.”

And today the experience has turned into more than just memories for some. It’s turned into opportunities for bonding as some players brought their kids out to experience Photon.

David Barron (aka Starshadow) came to Phocon this year with his son Nicholas (aka Red) from Houston, TX. Nicholas noted “It’s different from other laser tags. Less kids, so more competition.” And David observed “I was wondering if it would live up to the memories and I think it did.”

Jason Helton (aka Maestro) was glad to play alongside his children as well. “Being able to bring them here for an event like Phocon, seeing my daughter strap on the equipment and run around the same kind of arena that I did when I was her age, it just sort of feels like it’s gone full circle and I won’t forget this. I think Photon reminds me of a time where things were a lot simpler, where things were a lot more innocent. It reminds me of my youth…of pure, blissful, unadulterated childhood.”

He went on to comment that “Hopefully for at least a little longer the light shines.” And that sentiment appears to be echoed by all who attended the fifth Phocon event at XP Laser Sport in Laurel, MD.

Many thanks and appreciation go out to all the staff and volunteers who helped to make Phocon 2019 a memorable event and allow players to play the original laser tag game once again. In the words of Joel (aka Slappy) from Harvey/Chicago Photon “It’s Photon. It was the first and the best!” And 35 years later the light indeed still shines.

Comments or Questions?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Mobile Tag at the Firemen's Fair

When I heard there was going to be laser tag at a local firemen’s fair I was enthused about it and on opening night I was ready to go play some tag. We arrived to find that the mobile operation that had been brought in for the event would be using Battle Company equipment. Wow…this is the third time in less than a month I’ve gotten a chance to play using this particular brand of tactical tag!

We arrived to find that nobody else had yet signed up and the owner of the company suggested waiting about ten minutes until some other players arrived. That was fine. Ten minutes later there was still nobody else there so we waited another ten minutes before deciding that a 1v1 game would be fine.

I’m going to speculate that part of the reason nobody else was playing might have to do with this outfit overpricing their games. There was a sign out front that said “$5.00 for 5 minutes”…however they were running 20 minute games and charging proportionately. In my opinion $20 per player, per game is not a price point that people in this particular area would be likely to go for, particular as many would likely be experiencing laser tag here for the first time. That’s unfortunate because I really hoped that this new addition to the event would be successful. It’s not that this is unreasonable for session pricing in some settings, but for this kind of event I think shorter games would have been in their best interest. But nobody asked me, so I guess for now it would just be two of us going down to the field to play. A young woman showed us to the open field area across from the park.

Paul and I were each given a BRX phaser and headset.

Then we headed out for twenty minutes of…me tagging him consistently and very few tags coming back my way. By the time we were about halfway through the twenty-minute session he asked “what are you aiming at?” I said I was aiming the green dot in the scope at the sensors on his headband (even though the phaser itself can be targeted as well). At this point he says he has no green dot (sheesh!) and we stop long enough for one of the employees to come out, say “yeah, that must be one of the bad ones”, take a few minutes to reset something and send us back out on the field. OK, he now had a green dot to aim. I concede that tactical is much harder without that key component. And he did get a few shots off on me after that. However, the settings for this game require you to hit a player five times before they are deactivated for the point and that never happened when he tried tagging me. Meanwhile I got plenty of hits and the final score was 12-0. So…we’ll blame a LITTLE bit of that on the equipment.

But at least I got to try the system in a new setting and support the firemen’s fair in the process. As I mentioned, I think the price point would be a hinderance to a casual customer so I hope they considered adjusting that as the week of the fair went on. Laser tag was a new attraction to the fair this year and the only way for something new to be successful is for people to try it, like it and spread the word/return to play more. Since all I can speak to is the first night, I will just hope that this took place because I would really like to see laser tag return to this event next year.

Comments or Questions?

And then there were five...and four...

My main reason for taking this route through Canada was to visit a couple more Laser Quests in my continuing “quest” to visit all their sites in both the U.S. and Canada. After this trip I am down to only five more in Canada and four more in the United States.

I arrived at Laser Quest London early in the day.

John showed me around and took me down the stairs (yep, downstairs!) to the briefing room and vesting area.

And then we proceeded into the arena that had a unique aesthetic and very cool layout.

Because of the timeframe between London and my next stop in Kitchener I opted not to wait for their first group, but instead enjoyed playing a 1v1 game where I took the opportunity to get a few suggestions from John who was clearly an experienced player (and going off to a staff tournament later that night in Whitby). His advice included standing more sideways and covering the speaker at the base of the phaser with my hand. Not certain if the speaker tip is usable in tournaments, but it certainly made a difference to how I held and controlled the phaser, so I think I’ll experiment with this hold for awhile.

I had a great time and got more out of this kind of game than I usually do playing with the public, so it was well worth the trip to London.

Then I was off to Kitchener. I knew there was a large group playing in an hour and a half, so I left London allowing myself just enough time to get there for the ga

(photo in front of Kitchener)

Well…almost. I actually got there while the game was in progress. The staff member at mission control said there were only eight minutes left in the game. I asked him to please put me in anyway. So, I didn’t slow down long enough to take pics (sorry Og) and had to play harder to catch up for the half the game I missed. :) I pulled 7th out of 32, so I figure that was reasonable considering I had half the time, but it was fun. Two things I noticed about Kitchener…I’m not sure if it’s because I hurried in and didn’t allow my eyes enough time to adjust in the vesting area, but that felt like one of the darkest arenas I’ve ever been in. I also had a phaser (#32) with a much tighter trigger than I am used to so after those eight minutes my hand was aching! However it was a great time as always and I promised to return sometime when I could meet up with friends. This is the home site for one of my Armageddon teammates, so at the counter I mentioned “I have a friend who plays here a lot.” And with no more information than that the guy said “You mean Dave?” He’s an icon here! And yes, next time I’ll try to plan it to play against Dave, but in the meantime I’ll take away great memories of LQ Kitchener and their “moonlit garden” theme which includes this little guy…

Dave, when you see this guy on the arena wall from now on I have named him Leon! Lol.

And before returning home to the states I had one more important mission in Canada…to stock up on my David’s Teas!

Fifteen hours later (because of a two hour delay at the border) I was home again with great memories and a couple more Laser Quests checked off my list. So now I’m down to five…and four…so yeah, nine more in total. Time to plan some more travels!

Comments or Questions?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Crossing Through Canada

Sometimes truth sounds stranger than fiction…at least that’s how it felt as I was leaving Detroit and explaining to the customs official at the Canadian border that, yes, I really was just crossing through Canada to play a couple of games of laser tag and then proceed home to New York (which meant at least 13 hours of travel involved). You see, when he asked me where I was going (London and Kitchener) and what I was doing there I told him exactly where I was headed (Palasad South and two Laser Quests) so he then asked what special thing was going on at Laser Quest? Well to me, the special thing was just to check off a couple more sites and hopefully bring back a couple more magnets for my collection. Certainly it’s clear that this is the face of someone who needs no special reason to go play tag, right?

He skeptically looked at me and said “you travelled all this way just to play a game of laser tag?” LOL, if only he knew just how far I have frequently travelled “just to play a game of laser tag!” But clearly my enthusiasm translated that this was indeed enough reason for me to cross through Canada, so he sent me on my way and I proceeded towards my first stop in London, Ontario which was to play a game at Palasad South.

This is a really nice facility with bowling, bar and grill and more. A party group was just arriving when I approached the laser tag counter and signed up for the next game of Delta Strike.

There were a few minutes before the game was to start, so staff member Josh showed me around their 5500 square foot, two level arena.

The space had a CW design aesthetic, but one feature I notices was there were several mirrors placed throughout that were cut into the unique window shape, which gave some additional reflective surfaces for bouncing the beams (which I always like) and yet because they were the same shape and size it made you take a split second to decide whether the opponent you saw was on the other side of a window or just your own reflection!

This was an enjoyable game, though I played lightly considering the 17 players joining me were mostly party kids. Still, it was a chance to get in a game, so I put on my pack. I smiled when one of the moms asked if I was the laser tag police, lol.

And that was the start of my day playing at Palasad South in London, ON.

Before I left I ordered a pizza for the road. If you ever stop by there let me highly recommend the “Athena” pizza…delicious! Then I proceeded across town to my next stop on my Canadian day trip.

Comments or Questions?