Halo: Reach, Laser Tag and the Law of Convenience

Last week more than a million people logged in to their Xbox 360s, plopped down and got a taste of upcoming first-person shooter Halo: Reach. And that was just on the first day.

I spent a bit of time checking out the beta for the upcoming shooter from developer Bungie. But later that week I tried my hands at a shooter far more exciting, interesting and fun than any Halo: Reach or Modern Warfare 2: The laser tag at my local bowling alley.

My 9-year-old son, my wife, my mother and I ran around for 15 minutes inside a neon lit maze of carpeted walls wearing loose fitting vests and toting over-sized plastic guns trying to score points by shooting each other. By the end of the match all four of us were laughing and tired, but we were the only ones there.

Later, I took a little informal poll of the 8,000 or so people who follow me on Twitter: Which is more fun, I asked, Halo: Reach or laser tag? Everyone answered Laser Tag.

So why are video games like Modern Warfare 2 and Halo: Reach drawing in audiences of more than a million each, while laser tag as anything but an amusing oddity is slowly dying?

Convenience.

It's the same reason people are willing to pay twice as much for a bar of soap at a 7-Eleven or put up with bad service at a local restaurant: It's convenient.

And in gaming convenience isn't just impacting laser tag.

Plenty of games thrive on the principals of convenience.

Look at computer and console role-playing games. These fantasy adventure games can serve as a surrogate to the once far more popular pen, paper and dice table top games like Dungeons and Dragons. But the experience can't hold a candle to gathering a group of friends around a table and spending a night imaging a world and its adventures together.

E.J. Moreland, design lead for upcoming massively multiplayer online game APB, blames the exodus from table top gaming to computer gaming on 1999's Everquest.

"When Everquest came out I had a regular D and D group that had been going for years and it died because it wasn't as convenient," Moreland told me. "Both Everquest and World of Warcraft are fun, not as fun as playing with people you know, but those games have a broader audience and it's easier to get a game going.

"I stopped playing paper games because it was too much of a time commitment. Massively multiplayer online games are popular because they are a huge blend of convenience and low commitment."

That could also explain Apple's recent and phenomenal success with gaming on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.

No one is going to argue that the games found on this three portable devices are as good as what you'd find on a console or a computer, and yet people still buy them.

Why?

Because those purchases can often happen as your standing in a line waiting, bored at an airport or looking for something to kill five minutes with.

You don't have to plan ahead to play an iPhone game, for many the iPhone is always with you when you're out and about. Unlike typical portable gaming, which requires a bit of planning - deciding to bring the PSP or the DS with you and choosing which games you want to take - gaming on the iPhone is a matter of slipping the device out of your pocket, perhaps paying less than $5 for a game and playing.

If I had to go into a store, or plan ahead to play a game on my iPhone, I can't imagine I'd ever pick it over the PSP or DS. But I don't. That convenience is why a device not built for gaming is seeing such success against devices that are meant for playing games on.

If they're not careful, Nintendo and Sony could find their portable consoles becoming the laser tag of this generation: Fun relics that weren't convenient enough to succeed.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.