Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #210:

Anatomy of a Game: Project Runway

by Shannon Appelcline

Anatomy of a Game: Project Runway

There are all sorts of reality shows on TV nowadays. I've written about many of the true game shows here, including Big Brother, The Mole, The MTV Challenges, the short-lived Pirate Master and (of course) Survivor.

These reality game shows offer a dead-on look at game design on a large canvas: you have game designers planning games and you have players engaging in strategic and tactical play to try and optimize their chances within the game.

However, there's another category of reality show that I call the "reality contest", where game design is implicit in the setup of the game, but where the contestants themselves need to rely more on natural talent than any strategy. I think The Amazing Race fits into this category--though it has so much game design in its setup, gameplay isn't necessarily required by the players. Shows like American Idol fit into this category too, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, where there's very little game design involved in the setup (and thus the show is of very little of interest to us).

This week I'm going to talk about a show that falls somewhere in between: Project Runway. It's a reality contest about a fashion design that's gotten a lot of kudos throughout its run. It centers on pure creativity, but there's at least a little game design implicit in how it's put together.

Thus far I've seen the first season of Project Runway and most of the second; this article is based on those episodes.

The Power of Drama

The game design of Project Runway is, as you'd expect, mostly lodged within the elimination part of the show. Designers show off their fashions, which judges rate. Then the judges talk about the the designs they rated highest, and choose one as a winner. Similarly they talk about the designs which they rated lowest, and choose one as a loser. The designer of the losing fashion goes home.

What's particularly notable about this elimination ceremony is how it's staged. After the judges deliberate, all of the designers are brought back out. At least for the first half of the season, about half of these designers are then told that their designs were good enough to qualify them for the next week of the show. The other half are told (more or less), "Your designs represent the best and the worst."

The trick here is, particularly in the very subjective world of fashion design, no one necessarily knows whether they are the best or the worst. I've been surprised more than once when what I thought was a beautiful design was ripped apart (and vice-versa). I suspect the designers sometimes are surprised as well.

This all goes to create a lot of drama, which translates to tension, and thus to an enjoyable game design. I think it's something that would be interesting to implement in other sorts of games. The main question is: how?

For computer games, I think the answer is pretty obvious. For anything where there's a numerical value or some sort (be it a rating, a vote, or a bid), it's pretty easy to have your impartial computer moderator pick out a mix of the best and the worst. For a tabletop game, the answer's a lot tougher--unless you have one of the players act as a temporary arbiter.

I can imagine an auction game, where all the players make a blind-bid to a player who's acting as a temporary auctioneer (or to a computer; anything you could do with a player arbiter, you could clearly do with a computer as well). The arbiter could then look at the bids and select the "best" and the "worst". This would be a great opportunity to offer some brinkmanship. If a player is confident that he's the best, he could go "all in", decreasing the cost of his bid if he's right and increasing it if he's wrong. Alternatively, there might be a penalty if the last-place player didn't recognize the fact that he's last.

Though this first-and-last mechanism is a pretty close match for Project Runway, there are likely other ways you could increase drama in a game, by accentuating an already-decided unknown--and perhaps by asking players to make choices based upon it.

Lessons Learned: Drama can improve the visceral experience of a game.

Surprise, Suprise, Surprise!

This isn't the only the situation where Project Runway uses drama. It also constantly dumps its participants into totally unexpected situations. The core idea of the show is designing outfits, either for fashion models or for specific sponsors like Banana Republic or the US Postal Service. However, the producers delight in really throwing their contestants off, by occasionally having them design for Barbie or for each other, or by using really unusual materials, like what you can buy at a grocery store or at a florist.

Dumping the players into the deep end, then seeing how they struggle to get out is a lot of fun to watch.

This is probably even more difficult to model in a strategic game because most of them depend on being "fair" to the players. For a computer game you could probably get away with having sudden events which shake things up. In a board game, it's a lot harder, because someone has inevitably read all the rules--and probably all the cards and anything else you might package as well. One of the few ways to get around this is to have sealed special twists that are opened during a game. This could be a lot of fun, but would also limit the replayability of your game.

Lessons Learned: Surprising the players can create nice drama too, if you can pull it off in a "fair" way.

Selecting a Model

The other gameplay in Project Runway comes through selecting the clothing models. There are initially as many models as there are designers, and they must be eliminated as the designers are, to maintain parity.

Over the course of the two seasons I've seen, two different mechanics have been used for this elimination.

In the first season a simple schoolyard pick was used each week. The winner of the last round got first pick, then the rest of the designers got to pick in a random order. Each week there was one model unpicked, who was eliminated.

This method wasn't bad, though the randomness introduced a big luck factor. If you won the last competition, you get assured of having one of the best models, but everyone else got a model of random quality. The pool of models did slowly improve, but before the final competition, the worst designer managed to pull out a lucky win and picked the clearly best model. Because the final fate of the models were tied with their designers, she lost when her (poor) designer did.

I'm not entirely sure why the producers felt the need to change this process. It did have quirks, but they weren't show stoppers. In any case, they totally revamped things for the next season.

In the second season the 16 designers picked 16 models in a random schoolyard pick on the first week. After that they had to keep their models unless a change was made by a winner.

After winning a contest, a designer could either keep his model, take the loser's model, or take any model from anyone else. Unless selected the losing model went home, otherwise the winning model did.

Based on the results through most of season 2, this mechanism was a disaster. Take a second and see if you can guess where it broke down.

The problem was that the producers didn't understand the strong bonds of loyalty that giving a designer a "permanent" model would have. The vast majority of the designers refused to ever change out their model, even though they couldn't have each believed that they had the "best" model. There was a little bit of this loyalty evident in the previous season, but it was grossly accentuated now. As a result, the selection method hasn't really improved the model pool.

It also creates really terrible elimination choices. In the old setup, you could usually expect that when someone had to choose between the last two models, he was choosing between two of the less desirable models. Now, however, a designer could easily be picking between two of the best models, which if anything pushes quality of the models toward the norm instead of toward the top (because, if designers continue to push loyalty, then there's an equal chance of a good model or a bad model being eliminated each week, perhaps biased a little bit toward bad models, if you presume that the good models help their designers win competitions).

I'm fairly certain they won't use this mechanism again in season 3, as it just doesn't work.

Lessons Learned: Mechanism changes can have dramatically unexpected results when you introduce the human factor.

The Problems of Gameplay

One of the interesting problems that the reality contest raises is whether players are "allowed" to participate in gameplay.

We've actually seen this from the start of the reality boom. Back on the first season of Survivor, when Rich Hatch started bringing together alliances to control the game, the Pagong Tribe thought he was "cheating". However, gameplay was so important to Survivor that it didn't matter what they thought. Rich rolled right over them (and everyone else in the game). Ever since, when a participant has tried to discourage gameplay in a reality game show, it's been mainly a personal decision, and it's usually resulted in that person's ouster.

But now let's return to the reality contests like The Amazing Race and Project Runway. They're a different beast because gameplay has a much smaller influence on winning. It's not irrelevant, as good alliances and strategic backstabbing can increase your chance of victory. But, it's just one factor in many.

In contrast with that, you have a player base who--even moreso than Pagong--is pretty violently opposed to gameplaying. As I've written in some of my other articles, players in The Amazing Race often get very angry when a Yield/U-Turn is used, even though it's an official part of the game. There was just as strong of a prejudice against gameplay in the first season of Project Runway.

There, one of the participants, Wendy, was very open with the cameras about how she was playing a game, and that she'd strategize to win. As the game went on, she proceeded to try and knock strong contestants out of the game in group-oriented tasks by claiming they were poor leaders. By the end of the season, the other players were giving her the cold shoulder because of her actions. By the time of the reunion show, the other players--who had by this time seen all the broadcast footage--were furious with her, madly exclaiming that she'd been playing a game while the rest had been simply depending on their skills.

Thus in reality contests we have two factors: a small advantage for gameplay and a large backlash against it. Depending on how these two factors balance, the social factors of the game can actually discourage the gameplay. And, I think that's what happens in Project Runway. There's sufficiently friendliness and help among the participants that if a player is ostracized he's likely to be penalized more than the benefits he actually accrued from his gameplay.

Lessons Learned: Don't assume your game will actually encourage gameplay, as that can be affected by social factors.


Any sort of contest has game design implicit in it, and that design can teach us lessons as well. Perhaps these lessons aren't as ubiquitous as in a true game, but in contrast they could be more far-flung than some of the lessons you'd learn from more traditional designs, and thus can be intriguing to consider.

[ <— #209: Games & The Law, Part Seven: The D&D Dilemma | #211: Testing Characters, with a Look at Battlestar Galactica —> ]

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