Anatomy of a Game: The Amazing Evolving Race
by Shannon Appelcline
In the past, I've written several times about reality TV shows, the best of which give an opportunity to look at game design philosophies writ large. Generally, I've centered on three core ideas when discussing these games:
I find the last item a particularly interesting point, because it's a way in which reality TV show games vastly differ from most other types of game design.
In a traditional board game design, the core game play gets changed very infrequently. Maybe if you have a game that's really successful, it'll get published through a few different editions. However, that's still a pretty limited number of rules changes. Only MMORPGs have really allowed for really wide-scale updates of gameplay, and even then it can't be wholesale, because existing players will complain loudly if too much of their game changes.
Contrariwise, from season to season in a reality TV show, you can change a lot, because you're effectively publishing a new edition every six months (overcoming the limitations that prevent board games from releasing new rules) and you don't have an implicit contract with the new season's players, saying you won't be changing notable things (overcoming the limitations that prevent MMORPGs from doing total overhauls).
This week I'm going to explore that unique ability of reality TV shows by looking at one of the more long-running reality games, The Amazing Race. Since I first wrote about the game two years ago in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #181, Anatomy of a Game: The Amazing Race, they've made a few notable extensions to gameplay. As game designers, its fun to look at what they are, and why the changes have been made.
I'll be covering three innovations: Intersections, U-turns, and new non-elimination rules. As we'll see, a lot of these changes are purely about creating good television, though they all seem to have some game design purpose too.
The most minor of the three innovations is probably the "Intersection", which appeared in The Amazing Race 10. When a team arrives at the Intersection, it must wait for the next team to arrive, then they'll do the next task together.
From the game design point of view, it acts as a binary funnel. Every other team gets bunched up with the one next to it. This ensures that you don't have the situation where a leading team is the guaranteed winner or the trailing team is the guaranteed loser--depending on course design, which is a final issue I'll hit in this article.
It offers the potential for some strategic play, but it's pretty minor. In a situation where a strong team that was "marked for elimination" (which I'll return to) was intersected with another strong team, the non-marked team could purposefully throw the Intersection to eliminate their strong competitor. However this type of strategic play has almost never occurred in The Amazing Race, even when the game design allows for it.
The Intersection also allows the possibility for strategic alliance. If you work well with a team in an Intersection, why not form a longer term alliance with them, another type of strategic play which is usually light in the show? Unfortunately, the use of the Intersection thus far has been pretty late in the season; an episode 2 Intersection might do a lot more to create interesting alliances that could last a game.
Really, though, I suspect the main purpose for the Intersection is making good TV. If two teams that really hate each other are forced to team up, then the fur might fly, creating some fun television.
Traditionally The Amazing Race has had a "Yield" where a front-running team could cause a team running behind them to be delayed for a set amount of time. It's very rarely been used strategically, and in fact many teams seem to find it akin to "cheating", talking about how they're going to win the game fairly and wouldn't resort to the means of a Yield just to win.
This a pity, because used well a Yield could win you the game. The best strategic use would be to Yield a strong team that was trailing, because doing so might push them into last place, cost them the game, and thus give the Yielder a better chance at the end of the competition.
However, even when a Yield has been used, it's almost never been used in a strategic way like this. A team is more likely to Yield someone running just behind them, or someone they dislike.
In The Amazing Race 12 the "U-Turn" replaced the Yield. It was placed right after a Detour--which is an event in The Amazing Race where a team must decide among two tasks, and carry out one of them. As with a Yield, a U-Turn allows a team to penalize someone behind them. However rather than instituting a set time penalty, the U-Turn instead forces the penalized team to go back and do the other half of the Detour.
Again, one of the main purposes is probably good television. Watching someone sit around isn't that interesting, while watching them do another task probably results in a couple of minutes of additional, good-quality footage.
However, there might have been a game design reason as well. By replacing the stigmatized Yield, the producers might have hoped to create a new course object that could live up to the strategic possibility of the original. If so, they failed, because the first use of the U-Turn caused an argument between team members over its fairness and scorn from other teams.
A perennial problem in The Amazing Race is that it runs more episodes (usually, 11) than the number of eliminations that it has (usually, 8). This has resulted in non-elimination legs.
In the earliest seasons there was no penalty for coming in last, which entirely destroyed the tension of an episode. In more recent seasons, last-place finishers were penalized by having all their money and goods taken away, which seemed like a terrible penalty, but really just resulted in a lot of unsightly begging and not too much slow-down in the actual race.
The Amazing Race 10 changed this up by saying that a last-place team was "marked for elimination". This means that if they didn't come in first on the next leg of the race, they instead were given a 30-minute penalty at the finishing mat, which could be a game-losing penalty in many cases.
The result turned out to be an excellent game design decision. Whereas previously last-place teams were either unpenalized or lightly penalized, now they faced a serious but not overwhelming penalty (again, based on course design). If they could come in first--or at least get 30 minutes ahead of another team that--then all was forgiven, but they were definitely the most likely to be eliminated on the next leg. It was sort of a half-an-elimination, which was exactly what was needed for the non-elimination legs.
Sadly, executive producer Jonathan Littman was unimpressed with the results, and with The Amazing Race 12 he's instead moved over to "to be continued" two-part legs, which are about the same thing as a no-penalty non-elimination round. For either to work there needs to be a lack of funnels right after the non-elimination round, which again goes back to that perennial problem of course design.
I've said previously that there wasn't a whole lot of core game design in The Amazing Race. Without the voting of games like Survivor, you don't have to constantly try to balance out problems like the tyranny of the majority. However there is a place where game design is entirely crucial, and that's in course design.
If a course is bad, an episode can be entirely ruined, and sadly that's occurred more than once in the last two years. Generally, the largest problems in course design center around the producers' use of funnels--those locations like airports that bring the entire group back together. Sometimes the problem is with using a funnel, and sometimes it's with neglecting to do so in an appropriate place.
One of the "marked for elimination" episodes in a recent season was immediately followed up by an episode without any notable funnel and without any challenges which could really produce much differentiation in time. There was opportunity for close teams to exchange places, but there was no way for a last-place team to gain more than 30 minutes on anyone else, barring major catastrophe. The team marked for elimination was summarily eliminated--and this time they really had no chance.
A few different times in recent seasons (though not yet in The Amazing Race 12, suggesting they've learned from their mistakes), the producers placed detour and/or roadblocks very early in an episode, before a funnel. As a result the players did these challenges which improved and reduced their standing, but it all ended up being for naught. In the worse cases it felt like 30 minutes of wasted TV, since players ended up in a bunch halfway into the show.
Why did the producers place these challenges before their funnel? They probably let what they thought was good TV overcome good design--and it was ultimately to the deficit of that selfsame good TV. They wanted to show off cool things before players left a county, but by doing so they undercut the core ideas of their show.
Looking beyond game design, you find a higher ideal in reality TV shows: creating good television. Sometimes you'll make decisions for pure TV reasons. However, good game design remains critically important because it creates good television too. In fact ignoring it, or betraying its ideals, can result in exactly the opposite effect of what you were looking for.
The Amazing Race has generally done quite well in this balance, thanks to the strength of its core ideas, but it hits turbulence sometimes too.