Grok, alias Jerry Batten of Santa Ana, emerged from the foggy maze, set his "phaser" aside and wearily removed his green combat helmet. Sweat trailed down his face, and his eyes were a little glazed. It had been another rough outing on planet Photon.
"It was wild out there, but I zapped a bunch of them," he said evenly through gritted teeth. "Man, I was running all over the place out there, gunning at everybody. I got hit a few times, but I was cleaning up on the bad guys, too. I can't wait to see my score."
On Photon, a futuristic arena where players pay to indulge in make-believe space battles, everybody gets a score, sort of a post-skirmish body count. It turned out that Grok (Batten's nom de Photon) had a good day in the war zone, finishing second in points among more than 20 participants in a recent demonstration at Fountain Valley's new Photon center.
"Not bad, not bad at all," Batten said, finally grinning. "I guess I've got an eye for this sort of thing. You know, a steady hand and all that. This could become a habit."
How best to describe Photon? It's a little like being inside an electronic video game featuring sophisticated computers, flashy lazers and pounding martial music. But while the technology is advanced, the premise is simple: Photon takes the basic child's game of War or Capture the Flag and blasts it into the 21st Century.
The Fountain Valley outpost, like the 16 other centers scattered across the country, features a cavernous, two-story bunker filled with ramps, twisting corridors and fog clouds slashed by colorful lights--it's something like the OK Corral on Pluto. Two teams (one red, the other green) fight for control by sniping at each other with phasers that shoot a beam of infrared light and, if accurately aimed, score a hit on an opponent's chest sensor.
Players get 10 points for a hit and lose 10 if shot, which is accompanied by a loud, scolding buzz in the stereophonic helmets. Nobody dies on Photon, but those unlucky or careless enough to get hit are "neutralized" and cannot return fire for five seconds. The entire scenario is controlled by a battery of IBM computers tucked away in a mundane back office.
The goal, beyond accruing points for hunting people, is to assault the other team's "home base" and fire three times into a sparkling orb, sort of a command module. This tallies 200 points and offers the satisfaction of bravely violating the enemy's lair. Pusillanimous photonoids are advised to hide in the protective shadows of their own home base.
"I got in there a couple of times, really blasted it!" boasted Batten, 21. "There was a point when they kept coming back to rescue it, and I just hid behind a wall and picked 'em off."
Photon is the brainchild of George Carter III, an Arizona entrepreneur whose earlier business adventures included the first motorized surfboard and a seaworthy contraption called the "bumper boat." The Photon inspiration, he said, came from watching "Star Wars" and its many shoot-outs between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader's minions.
The first Photon operation opened in Dallas in 1984, followed by franchises in Denver, Toronto, Houston and Kenilworth, N.J. The Fountain Valley center, the first of 16 planned for California (including three in Los Angeles) during the next two years, is "state of the art," stressed Mary Rygiel, Photon Entertainment Inc.'s director of marketing. At about 10,000 square feet, it's also one of the largest.
"It's a process where we learned from some of the other (outlets) and have been able to improve the look of it and general entertainment value," Rygiel said. "At this point, this is about the best we can offer."
What's offered carries a price that may seem a little too futuristic to some. Each 6 1/2-minute game costs $3.50, and players must pay a one-time fee of $7.50 for a "passport," which allows the computers to identify warriors by their aliases and record their scores. True photonoids, those not satisfied with playing only one game at a time, can find they've acquired an expensive hobby. A recent Newsweek article reported that some "addicted" players routinely spend $100 a day at Photon parlors.
Even company representatives concede the charge is steep but point out that the entertainment offered is unique. Furthermore, they say Photon is more than a mini-amusement park for aggressive youngsters who want to realize starry fantasies. The game, which requires a lot of running, ducking and weaving, provides aerobic exercise for older space cadets as well.
"Our target audience is in the 12 to 24 range, but we also find many people 25 to 44 coming in," said Rygiel. "Many of them do it for the workout it provides. You can really burn off the calories, and that makes it worth the money to some. We don't appeal to couch potatoes."