Learning from Game Shows

Posted: December 21, 2009 in Life, School/Work

So a few months ago I started work on a game show inspired game at work, to do research for this game I watched a bunch of game shows. As I was watching the game shows I started to notice little things in the shows that I have always pushed for in game design. Is this because every night my mom used to watch Jeopardy! and the tail end of Wheel of Fortune? Is this because every time I was sick I would watch the legendary Bob Barker host The Price is Right? Probably, but anyways as I was watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! for work I decided to make a list of ten things game designers can take from game show design.

I used these three shows, Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune and The Price is right; because they are some of the longest running most loved game shows on american television (fun fact The Price is Right is the longest continues running american game show at over 7,000 episodes). If a games show can run as long as these shows they must be doing something right to hold the attention of players and viewers. Somethings may be very obvious but I still wanted to leave them on the list. So here is my list of ten things.

Visual and Auditory Feedback: This is one that I think we do fairly well in the video games industry because, well we have to. I think the key thing to learn though is that there is a visual AND auditory response to EVERYTHING on the show. An example is the negative sound on WoF this is coupled with the positive responses of Pat Sajak “Great job” for good things.

Positive Reinforcement: This one kind of pulls off of the last one, but the amount of positive reinforcement on game shows is fantastic. Look at something as simple as spinning the wheel in WoF. On a good spin everyone cheers, Pat reinforces the good move by saying something positive and if you get a letter you get MONEY! So maybe we don’t have all of the tools to reinforce good play that game shows have, especially that money part, but we do have other things to award, EXP, achievements, gear etc.

Diversify Locations: So this is one that I find really interesting about the shows, they diversify their locations, and I’m not just talking about the show traveling around the world, though this is awesome, but the movement on set (this one doesn’t really apply to Jeopardy!). The movement around a stage like that of TPiR helps keep the audience engaged in what is happening and also lets them know when there is about to be a change in the game. Note that all of these shows also use a “Central Hub” design where there is one location where the show always goes back to i.e. the Contestants’ Row on TPiR, this location is used like a chorus in a song to reset for the next game and bring in more contestants. 

Simple Rules: One thing that must be one of the rules of game show design is simplicity of design and rules, keep in mind that both the player and the viewer must be able to figure out how to play the game right away. This is something we try to do at my company, we are a casual studio that focus on games being played in a bar where groups of people watch the player playing the game; so we must have simple rules that the user can figure out while playing and someone can figure out just by watching. I think this is a real challenge for the video game industry because a lot of times our games are incredibly hard for someone watching to know how to play.

Risk and Reward: One of the greatest things about game shows is the huge risk and reward. Lets look at Final Jeopardy, here the user must bet a certain amount of their money on answering a question correctly the player is only given the category to help with the amount they should bet. Now the risk reward here is simple, bet a lot win/win more money, bet a little maybe win but win less. But if you bet a lot and lose you could end up losing the game or at least losing a huge chunk of your cash, if you bet a little there is a chance that if you miss the question you could still win. Risk reward is one of the best ways that I know of to really engage a player in the game, and game shows do a great job at this.

Pacing: The pacing for game shows is almost hypnotic, like all TV shows they must fit into a time slot so they have to pack as much punch into that slot as possible. Lets look at WoF again, this show has about 22 minutes to play with and they do a fantastic job of getting in a lot of content in that time. They start with a toss-up round and some short introductions then get right into the game. For the rest of the 22 minutes, that aren’t commercials, it is nothing but game playing. As soon as a round ends they keep you wanting more. This is something that we really look for in video games, the draw to keep people playing our games for longer and longer. The pacing along with risk and reward are great ways to accomplish that.

Bonuses: Bonuses as well as bonus rounds are really common in game shows. A good example of bonuses are in WoF every round more bonuses will be added to the wheel, these reward a player even more for getting a letter. The way that the bonuses work in WoF though adds an extra dimension, the player must win the puzzle to get the bonus. In video games we should use bonuses to reinforce players who play the game really well. Bonuses can also be used to have players explore more of the game, i.e. exploration bonuses or bonuses for trying random things.

Set Design: The sets on game shows are extremely well thought out, everything serves a purpose, be it to reinforce the current theme or to serve a gameplay purpose. One of the most interesting things about game show set design is the way that they are used to both enhance the gameplay but also to draw in viewers visually. The set designs also alert people to what is about to happen. For example people know it is time for the Show Case Showdown on TPiR when the players move to the Showdown area. This is interesting for game developers, obviously set design is extremely important and sometimes we do use it to alert players of gameplay elements that are arising. The most interesting to me though is for drawing viewers of the game into it, for example the recent Uncharted 2 PS3 commercial; the interesting thing about this is I found it to be true. I was playing Uncharted 2 and my roommate walked in and just set and watched the game, partly because of how fantastic the set designs were.

Gameplay Progression: This may seem like a pretty obvious one for game developers but I was really intrigued by the gameplay progression in games like Jeopardy! and WoF. Both shows do a fantastic job of increasing the difficulty and the reward as time goes on. This is something I always try to strive for in my games, keep progressing the difficulty but at the same time increase the reward.

Diversification of Gameplay: So this is one that doesn’t really apply to Jeopardy! because it is pretty much the same for the whole game, but both WoF and TPiR have gameplay variety as the show goes on. The diversification is used to keep both the players and viewers engaged in the show. This is something that can be taken and applied to games, break up your game with different gameplay challenges or new gameplay all together. Keep it fresh and engaging but still centered on your main theme.

So there is my little list, let me know what you think.

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  2. Video Gamers says:

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  3. Ray Cullen says:

    I think that that was really interesting. Good post!

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  5. James Melton says:

    Great post with lots of great advice! Thanks..

    Regards, James

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