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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Badly Designed Game Shows

I frequently watch game shows, but there's nothing that gets me more annoyed than a poorly written show.

Some people say that game shows and sports are the only "honest" programs. Everything else is scripted and fixed, especially the "news".

1 vs. 100

The show 1 vs. 100 had a lot of potential. However, the implementation is awful. After the first few questions, the player isn't getting the correct odds to continue. A smart player would answer the first 6-7 easy questions and then walk away with an easy $100k. If the player gets the question wrong they lose everything. A correct answer gains $n times the number of people eliminated, where $n is the value of the question. However, the value of the questions really should increase exponentially; instead, the value increases linearly. For example, after 7 questions you have $150k and there are 20 people left. On the next question, you will get $5k per person eliminated, but you probably are only going to eliminate 2-4 people. You're risking $150k to gain at most $20k.

Under the current format, nobody will ever win the grand prize, because you would have to be a fool to go for it. After a certain point, you aren't getting the proper odds to continue. Even with 5 people left, eliminating the rest of the mob is just too unlikely. Unlike "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", you don't get to see the question and answers before deciding if you want to stop, making it risky to continue. In "WWtbaM", the prize increased exponentially, making it worth it to continue.

Another problem with 1 vs. 100 is that the mob players don't win anything unless the main player is a fool. In foreign versions of the show, the next player was always chosen from the surviving mob, giving them an incentive.

If I were dictator at NBC, I would fix the format as follows. Each question is worth $n, where $n increases exponentially. For example, if I had to make a schedule for 10 questions, I would make it something like: $10k, $20k, $30k, $40k, $50k, $75k, $100k, $200k, $300k, $500k. If the player stops, they have to share their winnings with the surviving mob members. For example, if the player and 9 mob members each answer the $100k question correctly, and the player stops, then each gets $10k. This way, the player is always getting the correct odds to continue.

In my implementation of 1 vs. 100, as long as the player thinks they are smarter than the mob, they are getting the correct odds to continue. The later questions are worth more. Plus, as mob members are eliminated, the player's share increases. Being a mob member is very lucrative in my version. The player does have an advantage over a typical mob member, because he gets "helps", more time to choose his answer, and discretion over when to stop.

I would offer the player another help: "Ask the champion". The player gets to directly ask the mob player who has survived the longest about their answer. In the event of a tie, the "mob champion" is chosen randomly.

Deal or no Deal

This show is surprisingly well done. The deal values are usually less than 100% of the fair value. (The fair value is the average of the remaining cases.) I'm always surprised when someone rejects a deal offer higher than the average.

On this show, they could afford to make the top prize larger. For example, if the last two cases were $1 and $5M, the average person would have to accept a deal for $1M. They couldn't afford to risk it.

On 1 vs. 100, it is a statistical impossibility that the grand prize will never be won. On Deal or no Deal, it's theoretically possible to win the grand prize. The player would need several big cases remaining at the end. For example, if the last 3 cases are $500k, $750k, and $1M, then it probably makes sense to play until the end. That is statistically unlikely, but possible.

My only complaint is that, after the player accepts a deal, they show "what would the offer have been". When they display "theoretical offers", they are almost always over the fair value; while playing, offers are almost never above the fair value.

Someone once pointed out that, if you knew you were going to be a contestant on "Deal or no Deal", you should sell shares in your winnings to your friends, reducing your variance.

Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader

When I first saw the advertisements for this show, I thought that the player would be playing *AGAINST* the 5th graders. For the player to lose, they would have to get the question wrong and the 5th grader to get it right, or something like that.

The actual implementation is also good. The 5th graders are used as "lifelines".

Again, it's almost impossible for someone to win the grand prize. It's hard to risk $475k to win an extra $500k without seeing the question first. One person took the gamble and lost.

The host makes the player say "I am not smarter than a 5th grader." when they get a question wrong or decide to drop out of the game. When declining to gamble on the $1M question, technically, the player hasn't proven themselves to be less smart than a 5th grader. They don't usually display the results, but I suspect that the students frequently get less than 50% right on the harder questions.

Also, they sometimes spoil the show at the opening. When they say "Will our player be our first $1M winner!", they ruin the first 45 minutes of the show, because you know they're going to get the first 10 questions right.

Set for Life

This sure was a turd! Watching this show made me feel sorry for Jimmy Kimmel. Again, the player isn't being given the correct odds to go for the grand prize, ensuring it will never be won. This show has so many other problems I'm not going to bother listing all of them.

The Rich List

Actually, this was a decent concept. However, the game moved TOO SLOWLY. If they moved at 2x or 3x the speed, it would have been much better. They didn't even bother airing all the episodes they taped.

Show me the Money!

I liked this show. I was surprised it was canceled. The only "dirty trick" is that the questions were harder when the player had a large balance, and easier when the player had a small balance. Also, the "killer card" was kind of lame.


This was a good show. It was way better than 1 vs. 100. I can't believe that NBC kept 1 vs. 100 and canceled this.

Again, they sometimes spoiled the show in the opening. When they say "Watch our player risk $250k to win $500k!", they ruin the first 45 minutes.

Further, each show was self-contained. It didn't "wrap". (i.e., unfinished games carrying over to the next episode). That meant that if the first player did poorly, you knew that the second player would also do poorly and last only 30 minutes.

My favorite moment was when one of the "New Kids on the Block" went unmatched. I loved the expression on the former teen star's face when he went completely unrecognized.

Family Feud

The problem with the current implementation is that the triple round is the only round that matters. Originally, the progression of the show was something like single-single-double-double-triple, which meant that every round mattered. I hate it when my old favorite game shows are remade and ruined.

Power of 10

This is a mostly well-done show. However, the gain/loss for each question is too severe. For the $10k and $100k questions, you're obviously getting the correct odds to continue. For the $1M question, you get $1M if you're right and $10k if you're wrong. You have a 10 point range, endpoints inclusive, out of 100. That's an 11/100 chance if you're making a random guess, and typically you can narrow it down to a 30-40 point range or less. Actually, the $1M prize is paid as an annuity, but the $100k is cash, so you aren't technically getting odds for a pure random guess.

Power of 10 is another game show where the grand prize will never be awarded. If you get your $1M question right, you now have to guess the exact answer from a 10 point range, endpoints inclusive. You get $10M if you're right and $100k if you're wrong, which is slightly insufficient odds for what's sure to be a 1-in-11 random guess. Further, $1M is a lot of money for most people. It's probably too much to risk.

If Power of 10 ever wants to give away the grand prize, they have to either raise the grand prize or decrease the penalty for trying and losing. For example, they could raise the grand prize by $100k for every game where it goes unawarded. Or, they could raise the payoff for a failed guess on the $10M question. If they raised the payoff for a failed $10M question to $250k, then people would be getting the correct odds to go for it. Even in that case, a lot of people would be unwilling to risk $750k for an extra $9M.

I'm annoyed by gameshows where the grand prize will never be awarded if the contestants play rationally.

On Power of 10, a contestant playing rationally should continue to the $1M question and stop with $1M. Even if you're making a random guess, you're getting the correct odds to continue. However, that means that most players will leave with $1k or $10k, plus the occasional $1M win. Recently, a few contestants have stopped at $100k.

Merv Griffin's Crosswords

The "spoiler" gimmick is lame. It's too easy to replace one of the main players. If you build up a big lead, you're practically guaranteed to lose, because one of the spoilers will replace you. It's possible to win the game even though you answered one clue correctly the entire show.

Temptation: The New Sale of the Century

I liked the original many years ago. I hate it when they remake game shows poorly. I read on the Internet that this was another bastardization of a classic, and I only watched small parts.


I liked the new "Duel" game show from ABC. Other game shows like "Deal or No Deal", "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", and "Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader?" feature "player vs. house" competition. Duel is the only recent game show to feature "player vs. player" competition. "Power of 10" features "player vs. player" competition only for the qualifying game; the main game is still "player vs. house"

Duel's format guarantees that its grand prize will be awarded to someone. Other game shows feature a grand price which is rarely awarded or almost impossible to attain. ABC's prize budget is around $300k/episode, which is comparable to other prime time game shows. On "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", you need a contestant who knows a lot and happens to get questions that suit his knowledge. On "Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader?", the average contestant can't afford to risk $475k to gain $500k without seeing the question in advance; this guarantees that the grand prize will practically never be won. On "Deal or no Deal", you would need very lucky case selection to be able to afford holding out for opening the $1M case; someone can only attempt to open the $1M case if their last two cases are the $1M and the $750k or $500k, because otherwise they're risking too much. On "Power of 10", you aren't getting the correct odds to go for the $10M jackpot for what is a 1 in 11 random guess.

Duel's theme is "Get one question wrong and you're eliminated." However, the "sudden death tiebreaker" is inconsistent with this theme. IMHO, if both players get the question wrong, they should BOTH be eliminated and the next Duel should feature two new players. The "sudden death tiebreaker" should only be used during the playoff for the jackpot.

The "choose your opponent" gimmick is not featured in any other game shows. It struck me as unfair. Maybe I'm biased because nobody wanted to Duel against the software engineer. It seemed that the optimal opponent choice strategy was to pick the opponent most similar to yourself. This led to men wanting to Duel men and women wanting to Duel women. I'd prefer to see this feature scrapped if Duel were picked up as a regular series.

There was one nice touch that shows the producers planned ahead. If the winner of the final qualifying Duel isn't on the leaderboard, he gets to play the 4th place qualifier for the final spot. This ensures that the last Duel matters even if the challenger can't make the leaderboard by winning.

It seemed that the outcome of the Duels were too random. Very few players won 2 or more Duels in a row, which is less than I would have expected.

There was one strategy point the players seemed to be missing. If you are behind in the Duel, and don't know the answer, you should consider covering only 3/4 or 2/4 answers, conserving chips. When you're down to a single chip, it becomes too hard to survive.

I thought the "press" feature was nice. There were some questions where I could have figured out the answer, if only I had unlimited time. There seemed to be 2 situations where you should press. If you know the answer AND the question is hard, you answer immediately and press. If you have no clue about the answer, you should cover all 4 answers immediately and press. If I knew the answer and thought it was easy, I might answer and delay locking in my answer, hoping my opponent will squander a press.

I found the repeated use of the "Screen up!" phrase annoying. The other repeated phrase "You two are juicing the jackpot" is reasonable. That refers to the situation where both players cover all 4 answers, ensuring that the maximum of $30k is added to the progressive jackpot for that question.

Overall, I like Duel and hope it gets picked up as a regular series. When you consider the writers' strike, it is very likely that ABC will pick up the series for the first half of 2008.

I like watching game shows because they're one of the few "honest" forms of entertainment. There was a scandal about "fixed" game shows decades ago. In the present, I expect that all game shows are conducted honestly.

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