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Information Building vs. Buying .:

By: Peter_MJ

Insights into the market for homemade water guns

Water gun enthusiasts have long promoted homemade water guns as a cost-effective and fun way to avoid some of the pitfalls of the market in its current state, where stock guns are not meeting the requirements of this particular group. The benefits of such an approach appears clear at first glance, as homemade water cannons will tend to be more powerful in comparison to (modded) stock guns; and often can be constructed at a fraction of the cost of guns both in stores or online auctions. The reason for this difference in performance is straightforward as every stock gun was shaped in a certain form to comply with the design specifications laid out when the gun was originally envisioned. Already on the drawing board, certain limits are placed on range and distance, mostly based on expected list price, materials used in the construction of the soaker and of course safety concerns and this in term will impact how much extra power can be added tot the gun. With homemades, the builder can set his or her own limits through better materials and sturdier construction, and is not at all hampered by limiting factors, such as the strength of the materials used for the base gun (whether it be a CPS2000 or other gun). Budget constraints and availability of suitable parts will thus be the biggest limits.

However, this particular art has not become commonplace; the truth of the matter is that many people are spending a considerable amount of money to obtain some of the more “legendary” guns from the past, with the CPS line (and especially the CPS2000, considered by most observers to be the most powerful stock gun around) being the most highly sought after. To homemade enthusiasts, spending over US$300,- to what amounts to nothing more than 10 year old plastic, screws and rubber, often seems like a complete folly, as their constructions often outgun and outlast these older water guns. Still, even with better alternatives around, these guns are reaching all-time highs in the amounts of money offered for them on auction sites like eBay.com, especially in the summer months. A large group of people seems to be completely unaffected by these (often better) alternatives in their decision to buy, rather than build, their guns. This article looks at the different concerns and interests that determines in the end if an individual ends up choosing the path of buying a stock gun over the option of creating one themselves.

To understand this behavior, a closer look at some of the apparent characteristics of homemades needs to be made. The following arguments will explain in part of people’s reluctance to build their own guns, but rather go for a stock solution.

  1. Building a successful homemade water gun requires a certain amount of skill, patience and knowledge of the processes involved in pressurizing water. Most of the people on this site that are involved in homemades have a lot of interest in the subject and years of experience. That makes it easy to forget that the majority of people out there have barely enough skill to fix a broken gun. Building one from scrap that functions well is way beyond the possibilities of many “ordinary” people. Unless extensive guides featuring step-by-step instructions are published (possibly included with a do-it-yourself kit with all the necessary parts so people do not have to go to a shop to get them themselves), building a homemade water gun is not going to become extremely popular.
  2. Materials required for homemades can be a bit difficult to obtain. It is therefore a lot easier for most people to buy a stock gun.
  3. Homemades can be overkill in many situations. These guns are generally made by people that know the power of what they are making and are taking precautions when using them. As the CPS2000 already can be quite dangerous when used by novices (shooting in the face), duels by irresponsible children, using homemade guns that do not include safety limits, need to be avoided at all costs. If there is one way of bringing negative publicity to water guns, that is it. Parents are therefore likely to be skeptical of such technologies, which will restrict the access of children to the required building materials.
  4. Homemades, even though they feature interesting technology, generally do not score that high in the looks department. Few homemades rival for example a CPS2000 in sleekness. Given the choice, many people would opt for the CPS2000 instead of a comparably priced homemade.
  5. The CPS2000 has become a collector’s item. This alone is enough to drive the price up. People who buy a $250 gun are not going to jeopardize it in a down and dirty water war (unless they have too much money). It therefore does not really matter how powerful the gun is. It is not likely to see much action anyhow.

Subconscious preferences and marketing

The above-mentioned arguments, however, are not enough to explain some of the deeper subconscious preference that people display for one solution (homemades) or the other (buying on eBay). In a consumption-oriented society, people are more likely to go for instant gratification rather than do it themselves (the truth is that most people are comfort-seeking and not willing to invest energy in such endeavors). As buying and consuming items is at the core of most Western societies, this attitude is constantly being stimulated and reinforced by those that have most to lose if people were to build their own equipment en mass. Consumers are subjected to a 24-hour a day barrage of commercial messages and their minds constantly steered towards wanting “the next big thing”. Part of this is desirable, as it drives the necessary innovation that is the foundation of our daily lives, however it creates a restless class of consumers, constantly on the move and never completely satisfied with their current belongings, as they are constantly being told that “better things” are on the horizon. These “better things” can be theirs, if they are willing to pay the price for them. This is the reason that these popular/notorious soakers reach such high prices. Some people are made crazy by all sorts of dubious reports of the CPS2000 or Monster XL being “must-have” soakers with “ultimate” power and a high “intimidation” factor. In a way, these reports create the same subconscious desire to “own” such a “must-have” gun as normal advertisement does for items like new electronic gadgets.

The building vs. buying argument, however, would probably have remained hidden for the general public, if not for changing market conditions. As mentioned above, two completely different solutions to one deeper problem are preferred by people with completely different views regarding the amount of energy, effort and resources they wish to commit.
The first “type” of users will look to their own creativity and interests to “create” a solution that completely covers their needs and denounce to a degree the "overuse" of financial resources to achieve their ends. Depending on the requirements or demands placed on the equipment, the choice between upgrading (modding) existing equipment or create complete new guns from scratch, will most likely depend on the level of skill, personal preferences and financial resources present. These users are generally well informed, however, about the capabilities of the equipment they use and of past and present of-the-shelf soakers, and tend to rely more on logic and common sense regarding the actual worth of the gun than marketing/peer pressure.

On the other side of the divide are generally either:

  1. Less informed people, whose limited knowledge of equipment they wish to acquire has been deeply influenced by peer and media “stories” of “wonder weapons”. These people generally do not have any knowledge of, or firsthand experience with, homemade guns and often dismiss them outright as being “inferior” in terms of perceived quality instead of actual merit.
  2. People who wish to acquire a particular gun or brand (most often a CPS2000 or Monster XL) to acquire some form of status among peers. The performance of the gun will actually become subordinate to the expected increase in standing in the group. A homemade, though more powerful, will generally not command such respect, unless the outward design (or power) of the gun is so unique as to become a class in its own right. The “cool” factor is probably one of the least understood phenomena of Marketing, but one that has an enormous influence on what people “desire” and are willing to pay for. The fact that the powerful CPS soakers are no longer available in stores only adds to their mystique.
  3. People for whom a lack of time and possibly interest curtails any desire to acquire a deeper understanding of the underlying principles of water gun design. These people are generally aware of the various options with respect to building a homemade water gun, but decided after looking into the matter that pursuing it would not be in their best interest. They are more likely to try and obtain a ready-to-use, instant solution to add to their armory and are willing to pay for the convenience.
  4. Collectors/older users who are interested in rarer soakers for a myriad of reasons, including showpieces, childhood memories, investments (with soaker prices hitting new highs every time, buying soakers to later resell them is not a bad business) and possible use on a few occasions.
  5. People whose intellectual capabilities simply aren’t sufficient to design anything by themselves. Many people on this forum have been involved with soaker design for quite some time. When one is so familiar with a subject, this can cloud one’s mind as to believe that everyone should be capable of building the same thing. This unfortunately is not true. What may seem like a simple construction plan to one person, may be completely incomprehensible for another. There are unfortunately many people out there that have a lot of difficulty following even the simple instructions of IKEA. The majority of the population is simply unable to truly move outside the box and make the information presented to them theirs. In other words, they SEE the diagrams, are able to FOLLOW the instructions, but they do not COMPREHEND them. They can build a gun when all the different pieces are clearly marked, and all the separate steps are properly displayed in the manuals. As soon as they have to depend on their own creativity to solve a problem, the system breaks down. Any instruction for the general market will have to take the route pioneered by computer hardware companies, who began color-coding the various connections on their computers to assist customers in connecting the computer properly. This lack of creativity and adaptability are big issues any promoter of homemades will have to overcome.

Both schools of thought have been born out of the same problem though. The fact is that water guns, after reaching a high point in around the year 2000, have declined rapidly in both quality and output. This has not been lost on the general market. Also, surely and steadily, there has been a general decline in the (worldwide) market for soakers. This has been going on for years now. When the first Super Soakers were released in 1989-1990, every kid had one and Super Soakers quickly became the most popular toy around. Looking at the toy market now, water guns have become an afterthought, and they are rarely spotted in the streets nowadays. The same actually goes for more outdoor sports/games. It is no coincidence that the decline coincides with the rise of video games as a mass entertainment medium. What is left in the water gun market is a very vocal group of hardcore enthusiasts that desire a better gun than is currently being sold by any of the major manufacturers. Hasbro and Buzz Bee Toys can make tear drawing statements all they want regarding the loss of the high margin market, but the fact remains that there is still an enthusiast market out there that is currently being served by no one. And this is exactly where the divide starts between homemade creators/builders and eBay buyers. Both are seeking a solution to the problem of no available powerful retail guns, yet go in different directions. Who is right in the end? Is that really a question that can be answered? It all comes down to what one is comfortable with. We may find it strange that people are paying 5 times the original selling price for a ten year old item, but those same people might in turn frown upon the enthusiast market as being too high-end or technologically complex in their solutions as not to suit their taste for an immediate fix for their problem. As shown above, in the end, all want the same; people just take different paths to achieve that end based on their respective worldviews and capabilities.

The (theoretical) cost of homemades.

One thing one has to take into consideration though… many people on the various forums are stating that it is a lot cheaper to buy a homemade and provide some figure that is than compared to retail soaker prices. While this is understandable (as one would generally only compare direct costs, the amount one has to pay up front), economically speaking it is not correct as you are comparing list prices to material costs. I suspect the bill of materials for companies like Hasbro or Buzz bee Toys is not extremely high either, and probably lower than a person building a single homemade due to economies of scale. The final list price for a retail soaker not only includes this bill of materials, but also the added cost per unit calculated from fixed and variable costs, among others write-offs for company facilities, rent for buildings, maintenance costs for machineries (providing they own any production facilities, otherwise transport costs from any facility in China/Taiwan will need to be paid), investments in R&D, salaries of the employees, energy costs and marketing costs and finally a profit mark-up (they are in the business of making money). This in the end will determine the final list price. If one were to add something similar to homemades, the final cost price picture would more resemble that of retail soakers. There are very few people that are going to pay themselves for the time spent on building a homemade, but if one were to start-up a business selling homemades, this would come into play. This is the reason that “doing it yourself” will generally beat any retail purchase, unless economies of scale push the material costs to such levels that even with all the added costs they are able to offer the product below your material costs (assuming the materials are even available). Of course, with homemades, one gets to design the final product to one’s own liking (without any regards to rules, regulations and possible lawsuits), which is a really big plus.

Improving homemade/watergun popularity

Many ideas have already been put forward on the issue of improving the popularity of homemade guns. Popularity can however only be achieved by gradually introducing people that are unfamiliar to the subject and that might have an interest in constructing them to them in an easy to understand way. The main problem is, as this an art still in its infancy, that there are no companies offering either: a) Do-it-yourself kits or b) special parts (such as bodywork, tanks or valves that would assist in easily creating a properly functioning homemade) aimed specifically at this market. This unfortunately is not going to change anytime soon, unless the market picks up and companies are become convinced that there is any money to be made.  The fact that the market is flat or shrinking (as many people are put off by the horrible quality of stock soakers), the market is actually moving back to the same situation it was in before Larami first released the SS50 in 1989, as it were the original Super Soakers with their mass market appeal that invigorated the market and created a broad base of support for water warfare. Prior to that, the main target markets were kids and groups of enthusiasts blasting each others with small toy guns. And it is exactly there that the current policies of large corporations will take us again, unless a small upstart company, like Larami once was before merging completely with Hasbro, will have the strength and vision to challenge entrenched corporate believes as what a water gun should be. Till that time, the only alternative will be to build the guns ourselves.

Some ideas on how to introduce more people to homemades:

  • Build more comprehensive guides! As a rule, it is better to have one step to many in a construction guide, than one to few.
  • Post more pictures, not only of the finished product, but also of the various stages of construction.
  • Try to use standardized parts that are easily available, and mention explicitly where they came from. Any design should easily replicable.
  • Explain in easy language the basic principles behind each design, why it works, the expected range/output and what the basic philosophy is behind it is, as well as its expected use in a battlefield.
  • Do not just build homemades that are "extreme", but design a range of guns, going from extremely simple to more complex. This will allow people to learn the basics first, and move to more extensive designs later.
  • Focus more effort on building something that not only shoots great, but also has a nice outward appearance. Most homemades I've seen look like someone raided a plumbers' convention. One might even consider starting a contest on who can produce the best "case mod" for homemades. Right now, a CPS2000 / CPS2500 with its clean lines beats anything else around (even stock soakers that came after it).
  • Keep in mind that soakers do appeal to younger audiences. Even though you do not have to abide by the strict rules and regulations that big companies have to follow, I would not feel that comfortable if I saw young children running around with potentially dangerous homemades designed by me. Keeping construction plans of more powerful weapons in a members-only area might solve that problem.
  • Be creative! Do not just design something that only blasts x meters/feet, but focus also on more radical designs (perhaps a short range riot blast, like that new Buzz Bee Toys gimmick, only done right). A good multi-barrel weapon might also be interesting. Something that might also prove nice would be some sort of water mortar. I tested a CPS2000 Mk2 for that (the stream breaks up in quite big “balls” of water if one shoots it in a steep angle with a really nice bombard effect). A purposely-designed weapon might improve upon that…

In any case, unless someone has a complete change of heart, stock soakers are going to remain low power for the foreseeable future. Personally I can’t help but feel indifferent towards any company that kills its own market (Super Soaker never had any problems selling higher priced big guns before) by releasing lower grade guns, and then defend its decision to releases these soakers by stating that people are not willing to pay for bigger guns. It sounds like a solution in search of a problem that never existed in the first place. A well-balanced line-up of properly designed guns (without second rate technologies like Max-D, or a reliable version of it), properly marketed, with good availability online and in brick-and-mortar stores (and not just in the United States) would go a long way towards restoring the market.

Posted: 20060527