Anatomy of a Game: The MTV Challenges
by Shannon Appelcline
Christopher & I are still working on our next collective choice articles, a two-parter on Reputations. I think we're going to have the first of those ready for posting in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime I'm offering up a normal TT&T article, looking at the gameplay of yet another reality TV show.
I've talked before about watching reality TV shows. This week, however, I'm going to admit to scraping almost the bottom of the barrel. No, not The Fear Factor or American Idol. Instead I watch the MTV adolescent-would-be-celebrity-dramas called The Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
They're broadcast about twice a year in sets of 16 episodes of so. Over each season two teams compete against each other for cash prizes. Every week or two one or two people get booted out of the game. In the end the people who stuck around get to share any money their team won.
Honestly, I mainly watch these shows because it's interesting seeing the same people appear multiple times, and to learn how their lives have progressed since last we saw them. It's the same reason that I enjoyed the British 21 up series. However as a game designer I find the shows entirely interesting for some totally different reasons.
First, all of the shows have some type of voting in their elimination process, and thus it's an interesting, high-stakes, real-world example of the collective choice systems that we've been talking about recently in this column.
Second, the game has evolved from season-to-season, which has shown us in fast-forward the decisions that game designers might need to make to correct a game, and also has given us that much more opportunity to see how different voting systems can be used and abused.
So this week I'm going to take a look at the last six seasons of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, running from January 2003 to the present. I'll be looking at the voting systems used and will offer some discussions of why they've changed.
Battle of the Sexes 1 (season 6, 2003)
I actually didn't see this season of the show, but it fits in well with the other five seasons that I'm going to examine here, so I've decided to include it, with my notes based on summaries that I read online.
BotS1 outlines the core gameplay present throughout these Challenges. The participants in the show are divided into two teams (here, men and women). Each week there's a challenge, and one team wins a check for $10,000. Afterward each team votes for a team member to be (potentially) eliminated. After many weeks of play the survivors of the two teams compete in a final mission worth $100,000, and then each team divides their winnings among all the remaining team members.
BotS1 decided upon a simple meritocracy for voting. A score board kept track of the top finishers over the course of the show, and each week the top finishers from each team formed an Inner Circle that choose who was voted out from their team. That person would then go home at the end of the day. As a small catch, there was also an "Ion Life Saver" that went to a top finisher from an individual week, and which can be used to save someone from elimination.
The biggest flaw of the system turned out to be its meritocracy basis.
First of all, since it measured cumulative standings, it was easier for a group of players to stay in control, remain protected, and vote of the people that they didn't like.
Second, because there were these handy standing lists, it was easy to pick the lowest rated player to vote off at any time--and the teams often did. Now, these choices might have made sense for a show trying to ensure that the best of the best compete at the end, but they also have the possibility of killing drama in a televised show, and you always have to keep track of who your audience is when you're making this sort of choice.
Gauntlet 1 (season 7, 2003)
Later in 2003, the Challenge tried a slightly different formula. This time after a mission each team would vote one of their players into the "Gauntlet". These two people would then compete, and only the loser would be sent home.
Everyone on each team got to participate in the vote this time. One team (the Road Rulers) choose via secret, point-based votes. Their idea was that people would be voted out based on failing at challenges, but by making the votes secret, they totally undercut that idea, because anyone could do anything with their vote. The other team (the Real Worlders) instead had open conversations.
This show saw a slight solidifying of alliances, with people protecting each other on their teams, as can happen with any voting system of this type. It was marred more, however, by a single Road Ruler who kept getting sent to the Gauntlet by her team and kept winning (which should have proved that she wasn't a weak competitor). In any case, all we viewers felt sorry for that poor girl.
The other issue with this voting system was that the first challenge of the evening had no direct affect on the later Gauntlet challenge. As unfair as it seemed, you could be on a winning team, earn $10,000 for your team bank account, then get sent to the gauntlet, lose, and get sent home the same night.
I saw some reviewers suggest that a "winning" player sent to the Gauntlet should at least get to select what Gauntlet contest would occur (since it was always selected from a small set of 5 or 6 contests), but instead that was determined by a random die roll. The "winner" got to roll the dice. Woohoo.
Although it seemed somewhat unfair, this new voting system could instead be seen as a change in the basis of the game. It became less about winning the main challenges and more about managing friendships within your team. Any game could similarly be changed by a change in any internal game system.
Inferno 1 (season 8, 2004)
Next up the Challenge tried yet another major iteration of its voting rules, which it called "The Inferno". This new style of play introduced a two-episode elimination cycle. In the first episode a member of each team would get selected for the Inferno. In the second episode they'd have a chance to get off the chopping block by winning an Aztec Life Saver (and then placing someone of their choice back on that chopping block). Afterward an Inferno would be fought, this time with a new challenge every time rather than contests from a set list, and eventually a loser would go home.
Again a different method was used from voting. Each team would select two participants to "sacrifice to the Inferno", then the other team would select one person from those two possibilities as the actual Inferno choice.
I'm very fond of this selection method, where, given a large set of options, one person chooses a smaller set, then his opponent makes a final selection from that set. It gives two different participants real choice without giving either all power. I used a similar mechanism for selecting battle fields in a CCG I designed last summer.
For the producers of the Challenge, this new method resolved the problem of the previous season where a single unliked player kept getting sent to the Gauntlet again and again. Here, they could continue to be put up for selection, but the other team would ultimately choose whether they went in or not.
This also introduced a new strategic basis for the game, previously unseen. Before a team could select whether to send a strong player who might win or a weak player that they could afford to lose; but, there was sufficient variation in the Gauntlets, some of which actually favored weaker players, that a team never actually gambled with their strong players. In the Inferno, however, you instead got to make final selection of an opponent's players. Did you keep someone who you thought you could beat, or someone who would hurt their team more if they lost?
One other thing notably changed in this edition of the Challenge: now on alternating weeks men or women were eliminated. This kept all the women from being eliminated, as had largely happened in the previous season. It also made the Inferno battles better balanced and more interesting. This was an innovation that would be kept through all the rest of the Gauntlets and Infernos (to date).
The fact that the Aztec Life Saver was won in a separate challenge dramatically increased its importance. In the Battle of the Sexes, the Ion Life Saver was of questionable importance because the winner was unlikely to need it himself (since he was a top finisher) and these types of immunity awards have rarely been used to save other people due to the dangers to yourself and the community problems it could create. (For example in Survivor, since season 5 or 6 winners of the immunity idol have been given the opportunity to give it to someone else before voting, but this has never been done.) Now, however, there was an opportunity for the person who faced elimination to take his fate into his own hand, and a lot of endangered people did manage to win these Life Savers, against all odds. Overall, this simple change in gameplay shows pretty clearly how an underutilized gaming system can suddenly be made all-important.
The special Aztec Life Saver missions also introduced one of the more interesting "cheats" into the game. In one notable Aztec Life Saver mission an entire team threw the mission because they wanted to do worse than the person up for elimination. This ensured that he could win the mission and then sacrifice a less liked team-member to the Inferno. All he had to do was beat that one other player. Throwing the mission cost the team $10,000 to do, but it was a dramatic and interesting manipulation of the system (and exactly the sort of thing that we game designers have to watch for).
Battle of the Sexes 2 (season 9, 2004)
At this point the Challenge start recycling some of their ideas, and so we returned to Battle of the Sexes gameplay. It worked much the same as the original, except in the way that the Inner Circles were choosen.
This time each challenge began with three team captains being selected. For the winning team, the team captains formed the Inner Circle, and they got to vote out of a member of their team who hadn't been a captain. For the losing team, the rest of the team formed the Inner Circle, and they voted out a captain.
Any game system ultimately succeeds or fails based upon how interesting its decision points are. This game system offered one new decision point: whether to step up as captain or not, based upon whether you thought your team would win or lose a challenge.
It also offered one interesting new "cheat": throwing a challenge to ensure that a team captain got voted out, rather than you (if you weren't a captain).
Beyond that the second Battle of the Sexes was an interesting example of how to "fix" a game. It kept all of the core elements of the previous show, including meritocracy based voters and double evictions, but it got rid of the main problem of the previous show--that votes could be too obvious and undramatic--by basing the meritocracy upon a singular challenge and not giving the contestants long term standings as a basis for their voting.
Inferno 2 (season 10, 2005)
The second Inferno returned to the idea of a two-episode eviction cycle. It again rotated men and women in the eviction spots, just as the first Inferno had. Its main change, however, was in its selection method for the INferno. This time each team just made a single selection as to who would go into the Inferno from the opposite team.
This totally removed the politics of whether someone was liked from the voting process, and instead dropped it down to a singular choice of we-can-beat-them or their-team-gets-hurt-if-they-lose-them.
However, it also put an interesting quirk on alliances. Before you could form alliances within your team, and keep yourself safe. Now you only could keep yourself safe if you formed an alliance with the opposite team. There was some suspicious of this within the season; people felt like it was disloyal and backstabbing in a way that hadn't been true of the intra-team alliances. However there was never any clear evidence that inter-team alliances had actually occurred.
This time around the "good guys" team came across an interesting manipulation of the voting system. Inferno selections were held live, with first one team announcing their candidate for the Inferno, then the other. In episode 7 the Good Guys decided to shake things up by secretly deciding (before the live selection) that the person going to the Inferno got to pick who they faced. So, the Bad Asses selected first, and then Jodi, the girl that they'd selected, picked who she wanted to compete against. It ended up not helping her, but it was an interesting manipulation of the rules.
As with the first Inferno, there was the possibility of throwing an Aztec Life Saver challenge to keep someone in the game. However, the producers planned for it this time. One contest seemed particularly easy to throw: each team was gathering money, and you could thus give money to another participant. However at the end of the money-gathering phase of the game it was revealed that each person was going to have to count their money within a tight time limit. The two people who had been given money to keep them out of the Inferno weren't able to count their money in time, and thus lost everything.
This was an interesting out-of-bounds solution to the problem. It specifically penalized people who had done better in the challenge than it should have been possible to do on their own, yet didn't actually flag them as cheaters. This correction was all done within the system with no administrative intervention.
Gauntlet 2 (season 11, 2006)
Currently MTV is broadcasting the eleventh season of the Challenge, a second iteration of the Gauntlet.
As with the earlier Gauntlet, each episode includes a main challenge, then a Gauntlet fight. As with other recent Challenges, those Gauntlets iterate between men and women. However, unlike every other Challenge, the only people fighting in the Gauntlet are the losers, thus finally rewarding winning the main challenge with something more than just the money.
Each team was assigned two captains: one for the men and one for the women. In each week if a team loses, then the appropriate losing captain (male or female) is sent to the Gauntlet, along with someone from his own team, who the team selects by a vote.
In many ways this seemed like an ideal solution because it helped tie the whole show together more, with winning being much more important. However it's revealed two serious flaws as the show has gone on.
First of all, the participants in the Gauntlet often don't really want to fight. A few people now (most of them women) have gone to the Gauntlet with no intention of winning; they're happy to go home for the sake of making their team better.
Second, due to the combination of the new Gauntlet rules and the male/female turn rules inherited from the Inferno, this second Gauntlet opened itself up to a particularly nefarious new form of attack.
In this new setup each team knows that they're utterly safe from the Gauntlet if their team wins. And, individual team members also know they're utterly safe from the Gauntlet if their team loses on an opposite sex day.
Thus a sufficiently large group of female players from Team A can get together with a sufficiently large group of male players from Team B. Each offers to throw alternate challenges, so that the males throw the challenges on female Gauntlet days and vice versa. Each team thus ends up winning half the money before the final challenge, which is about how it tends to work out anyway, and more importantly the allied groups were never in any danger of going home.
This attack method is generally what I'd called a game-breaker. It could have destroyed their entire season of television. Fortunately for the producers the Challenges, running as they do twice a year, have formed a community of people who know each other well and consider each other friends. Thus a game-breaking strategy that would have worked if a game was played by strangers, instead failed due to the bonds of loyalty among the cast members.
Still, I bet we won't see this particular combination of game elements again.
The Road Rules/Real World Challenge has offered interesting, and evolving gameplay over the last six seasons, as we've seen how voting & competitive systems have been attacked, revised, and attacked again. Overall, they provide interesting examples of the exact sort of issues that we as game designers need to consider as well.