|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #74:
Anatomy of a Game: Survivor!
May 23, 2002 It's been two years now since the first episode of Survivor came on the air. At first I like many people in my circle dismissed it fairly out-of-hand. Reality TV. Pfah! But, after my wife decided to watch the fourth or so episode of Survivor I, I realized there was more to the show than just sheer voyeurism.
At heart, the show is about sixteen people coming together in a remote location and voting each other out one by one, until only one remains. As a writer I was intrigued almost at once by the larger-than-life characters and how they would react to their changing situation. On the other hand, as a game designer I was fascinated by the complex interactions created by a very simple set of game rules.
With the season finale of Survivor IV now a few days in the past, I feel like I really have enough information to finally talk about the game design of Survivor in depth, and so that's what I'll be doing this week discussing a specific game (Survivor) and how its game design influences its gameplay.
The Game Is What the Game Is
For those of you who have been living in a cave, I should probably take a moment to explain the basic game design of Survivor. There have been some quirks and changes from season to season, and there are some additional details that don't affect the dynamics that much, but overall it goes something like this:
16 people are stranded in a remote locale. They are initially divided into two teams (tribes) of 8 members each. These two tribes are separated from one other and each begins to form its own community out in the wild.
As you may recall, back in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #38, The Game Is What the Game Is, I offered one of the most integral rules of game design. Paraphrasing the title of that article: You encourage specific styles of play in a game through the systems that you design to run that game. Few places is that as clear as in the television game of Survivor.
Indeed, based on the simple game design I outlined above, a specific style of gameplay has evolved. It goes something like this:
At least, that's the theory that's how the game dynamics of Survivor generally suggest that the game play of Survivor should go. But, watchers of the television show already know... it doesn't always work out like that.
One of the strengths of Survivor is that its simple game mechanics can allow for complex game play which can change and evolve. Or, to look at it from the game designer's perspective: when you're building game systems to try and influence game play, you need to think about them very carefully, because players will do all kinds of wacky things.
As the players of Survivor have.
Modifying the Game I: Token Look-Ahead
Here's the first game design corollary suggested by Survivor: Players will sometimes think one step ahead.
Although the outline above suggests the most obvious gameplay based upon the game mechanics at the core of Survivor, in actuality it's a fairly naive structure. It presumes that players will never look ahead that they will always act upon the needs of the moment. That isn't always the best long-term strategy in Survivor, as can be seen when examining an ideal (though abstract) optimum strategy for Survivor. It goes something like this:
At start an individual player of Survivor finds himself in a tribe of 8 members. He can immediately assure himself that he will reach the merge (10-member) point by forming an alliance with 4 other tribe members. His 5-member alliance will have clear majority in an 8-member tribe.
Although there were some glitches along the way, this isn't a bad description of Richard Hatch's strategy in Survivor I. He:
Tina did much the same in Survivor II, though in her case she let other players believe they were the alliance leaders.
However, looking carefully at the strategy outlined above, it becomes clear that it doesn't fit perfectly with the "obvious" gameplay I described in the previous section. Most obviously a player might actually decide to vote out either a strong player or a charismatic player very early in the game, if he thought doing so would help solidify his own alliance despite the fact that the game mechanics seem to indicate that's a dumb move.
In addition, because a player needs to fool between two and four of his alliance members into thinking that they're more valuable than they actually are, a manipulative player may decide to purposefully gather the weakest members (who he can fool) around him as the members of his alliance another strike against the strong, even early in the game.
The bottom line is, quite simply, that the players of Survivor (or any game) will adopt different gameplay than is immediately obvious based on the game mechanics at a specific time, because of the fact that they're going to be looking ahead at how the entire game will be played.
Modifying the Game II: Evolution
Here's a second game design corollary suggested by Survivor: Game play will evolve as a game continues to be played.
In a poorly designed game, one strategy will eventually arise as the clear winner, and at that point all future iterations of the game will be simple mechanical exercises to see who can best (and most quickly) use that strategy. In Survivor, we've instead seen strategies evolve from one season to the next. It's sort of like rock-scissors-paper. No strategy is the best one, simply the best against what else is being offered at the time.
Overall the evolution of survivor shows us three things: first, that over time strategies will change, with new ones rising to the forefront and often defeating old ones; second, that much of this evolution is based upon knowledge of other strategies; and third, that this knowledge can even turn losing strategies into winning ones.
Modifying the Game III: Losing Victories
Here's a third game design corollary suggested by Survivor: Winning strategies will change based upon how people play the game.
Much of this corollary has already been suggested by the above description of game evolution. In Survivor IV, forming an alliance was not a winning strategy exactly because of the fact that it had been in previous shows. However, the converse of this rule is also true: a losing strategy can become a winning one based on different game play.
In Survivor I, Survivor II, and Survivor III, it was considered the kiss of death to betray an alliance or break your word primarily because of the jury vote at the end. If you lied or broke your word, people would be less likely to vote for you as the ultimate winner, and thus you would discover that you'd been playing for second place.
In Survivor IV, something unique happened: both of the players in the final two had broken alliances and betrayed their word; thus it became less of a stigma. The winner of the show was actually the player who had broken at least two alliances (Vecepia) rather than the one who had broken only one (Neleh).
This unlikely condition was the result of a reverse Prisoner's Dilemma puzzle. As long as no one had broken their word, it was disadvantageous to do so because the oath breaker dramatically decreased their chance of achieving a final victory. However, as soon as one person did break their word, it became more advantageous to do so, because the second oath breaker would know there was one person who he would have a fair chance to defeat in the jury vote. In actuality, this could create an avalanche: the more people who broke their words, the less disadvantageous it was to do so (from a game play perspective at least).
Within Survivor IV, four people all broke their words (including both of the players who made it to the final two) by jumping alliances at the exact same time, thus demonstrating a way that a previously losing strategy could clearly be turned around in a simple, repeatable manner.
Modifying the Game IV: Different Victories
Here's a fourth game design corollary suggested by survivor: People will invent their own victory conditions, and each individual's victory conditions will affect their individual game play.
It's fairly standard for a game designer to presume that all the players will be playing for the victory he has defined bankrupting the other players, getting three X's in a row, winning a million dollars, or whatever. However human beings tend to make up their own victory conditions. They'll then play the game in a way which might seem bizarre, because their goal is different from every one else's.
This has been seen in every season of Survivor:
The Pagongers never should have ignored the game; Jerri never should have been obnoxious; Frank never should have been honorable; and Gabe shouldn't have tried to build a community. At least, not if they were trying to win the game by the victory conditions that most other people were using.
Modifying the Game V: Irrational Humans
Here's a fifth game design corollary suggested by Survivor: People will not always follow the best strategies, because they're irrational humans.
In the heat of the moment players often do things that look irrational to pundits looking on from outside (in the case of Survivor, us, the viewers). It's human nature, and it's shown itself many times in Survivor. Just to offer a few examples:
It's interesting to note that the irrationality of human beings can cause some of the other basic game play modifications noted here, through a very Darwinian process. Irrational human responses to game design stimuli mimic the mutation process in biological organisms. In turn, some of these new, accidental strategies prove themselves to be more fit than their predecessors, and thus strategies evolve losing strategies win, and winning strategies lose.
Manipulating the Game
I've spent much of this article identifying a basic system of game play suggested by the game design of Survivor, then showing how it can change, evolve, and mutate. However, before I close up I'd like to note one final thing. My basic rule, that The Game Is What the Game Is, is really stronger than I'd previously suggested. In other words, the designer of a game can carefully manipulate the game at a very detailed level in order to produce the exact results (game play) that he desires.
Two Survivor examples spring immediately to mind.
By the time he was filming Survivor II, producer Mark Burnett clearly knew it was boring for the audience to watch an alliance form, then cut its opposition down, one member at a time, week after week. Thus, in Survivor II, we started seeing challenges which involved players specifically knocking opponents out of that challenge (thus, making them illegible for immunity that week).
This didn't really pay off until Survivor IV. Prior to the 9-player tribal council, an immunity challenge took place which involved cutting down opponents' coconuts. At the time there was a 4-player alliance and 5 individual voters, at least 2 of whom had been brought into the 4-player alliance as 5th and 6th wheels. However, during the coconut challenge the 4-player alliance worked as a team, knocking their opponents out of the challenge one by one in the exact order that they planned to vote them out at tribal councils.
All of the individuals, including the extra wheels, saw their fates laid out for them. They caught on, banded together, and then destroyed the alliance (one by one).
By seeding this directly oppositional challenge at an appropriate time, Mark Burnett had encouraged a specific type of game play: unifying against the dominant alliance. And it worked beautifully. (Parenthetically it's worth noting that this tactic hadn't offered any sparks in the past, as with the sling challenge in Survivor II, but then players won't always react the way you'd like, for all the reasons already noted.)
Another good example of how Mark Burnett has manipulated game play at a fairly low level can be seen in the immunity challenge before the 12-person tribal council in Survivor II. At the time, the Ogakor tribe was at a severe disadvantage, only having 5 members to the other team's 7. It seemed likely they'd face a disadvantageous merge and then be voted out of existence.
But the 12-person immunity challenge involved a maze. The members had to stay together while collecting idols and returning them to the maze's center. Because of the complexity of coordinating a larger group of people for this task, the 7-person tribe was actually at a disadvantage, and thus the smaller tribe won.
This type of challenge, which disadvantages a larger tribe, has been seen at other times in Survivor. In addition other late challenges are often either creative or mental the exact type of thing that a tired, disadvantaged, or discouraged tribe would be more likely to win.
Some people accuse Mark Burnett of quickly preparing challenges of this sort when one tribe is getting behind, but a good game designer actually doesn't need to do that. Knowing that the game will be most interesting if tribes are balanced, Mark Burnett can ensure that the last few challenges before a merge are the exact type that will always give the advantage to a smaller or more discouraged team. Thus far it looks like he's done exactly this and that this strategy has worked well because out of four Survivors, three of them included a balanced merge.
Shape your game play and its results through game design that's what the axiom that I started this column off with is all about.
I've got some other things I'm tempted to write about the game design of Survivor how winning challenges can actually be beneficial or detrimental at different times, how different levels of assertiveness can be effective, how reward challenges affect the overall results in minor ways, etc but I've pretty much decided that what remains is about me being a fan-boy rather than a game designer, so I've decided to let them rest. I hope what I've laid out thus far, however, will prove generally useful in demonstrating how a simple game design can shape game play and how many things can modify that game play.
Next week I'm back to the topic I started a month ago: mythology. I want to turn the generalities of previous weeks into specifics, building on the work of Campbell, Jung, and others.
I'll see you then.