In Search of the Beautiful Game

Jack Kibble-White in conversation with David J Bodycombe examines what it takes to make a perfect 21st century game show

First published May 2001

This would be the perfect Weakest Link-style duplicity with a chance to play along at home. At least that was my reckoning at the start of a long evening. For some reason I had taken it upon myself to try and come up with an original – and winning – format for a new game show. The basic idea was simplicity itself – borne from a conversation in the pub no less. But even the merest expansion of an idea in which members of the public could – from the comfort of their own PC via the internet – screw up someone on the telly’s chances of winning big money proved difficult to distil into a workable format.

A few months after having abandoned my attempts, up popped Dog Eat Dog - the product of someone who – it seemed – had also wrestled and failed with a concept similar to mine (at least I’d had the internet as an extra element). Dog Eat Dog was kind of clever, but it was no Weakest Link or – come to that – Jet Set. However, it did cause me to look again at my discarded beer mat to see how far off my attempt had been and to try and understand what had fuelled my fleeting fancy with devising a game show in the first place. Certainly, the idea had held little appeal in the past. Perhaps it was due to the rising importance of the game show as a sellable product within the battle plans of the BBC and ITV, or the social acceptability and – dare I say it – credibility that the genre had attained in the last five years. Whilst television may bring us works of art in the form of acclaimed dramas, at last it seems that the immense craft required to formulate a really good game show is being recognised and praised. Tellingly, the most successful format of recent times (Who Wants to be a Millionaire) was devised by two writers best known for their work in sketch-based and situation comedy. The discipline of structuring a well-worked farce is very similar – it seems to me – as that required to create a gripping game or game show format. So, yes I suppose it was the intellectual challenge that appealed to me. For what it’s worth my idea was this:

TV contestants would be matched up with members of the public who had applied via the internet. The intention of the TV contestants was simple; they wanted to win the quiz. The motivation of the internet contestant was a little less straightforward. They would have (unbeknown to our TV contestants) declared which contestant they wished to win the quiz before it had even begun. If paired with any other than their chosen one they would work perniciously to feed incorrect answers to their partner in an effort to strengthen their nominated one’s chances of winning.

How would this all work? Well I didn’t really know, perhaps there would be some kind of profile available to the on-line rogue allowing them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their partner’s general knowledge – so they could judge when they could feed them a porky and get away with it and when their assistance was being called upon merely so their on screen partner could assess whether they were for or against them. Perhaps at the end of each round the contestant in last place would be asked if they wanted to swap their internet partner (in an effort to locate their true supporter and presumably fare rather better). Making this thing visually interesting and fast moving would require resolution too. Perhaps I could use a big artificial head and a voice-over to personify the internet contestants. Damn! This was still too difficult – yet now I knew that somewhere in this troublesome format I had the kernel of a good idea (contestants “getting” at each other). Well, I must have – everyone else has used it recently.

In an effort to try and resolve once and for all my own formatting problems I found myself committing to unravelling and identifying the peculiar brew required to concoct a really satisfying game show. It occurred to me that there are many elements required to make your parlour game a national or international hit. Scheduling, production values and presenters all have an important part to play. However, ultimately it is the game show’s ability to produce compulsive viewing that can sustain repetition that really separates the great from the merely good. In need of assistance, I enlisted the help of David Bodycombe. David is a best-selling author who has devised games for The Crystal Maze, Sub Zero and is currently at work on series two of The Mole. Taking it from the top seemed the most sensible idea, so I asked David to begin by outlining the main “types” of game shows.

“Clearly, there are an infinite number of these, but to give some examples:

1. Working as a team and as an individual (Big Brother, Treasure Island, The Mole)
2. Three strikes and you’re out (Fifteen to One, Millionaire lifelines, Pass the Buck)
3. Find the right person (Tell the Truth, The Mole, Whodunit?)
4. Guesstimation (It’s Anybody’s Guess, The Price is Right)
5. Positional tactics (King of the Castle, Blockbusters)
6. Betting (You Bet!, Banzai, Winner Takes All)”

Jeremy Beadle once commented that the only difference between a game show and a quiz show, is that in a game show the contestants are standing up. Regardless of the type of programme you choose to create, a good solid construction is essential. With David’s help, I tried to determine the basic elements required to make a hit. As we started, I quickly began to appreciate how far short my own humble idea fell of satisfying these criteria:

Rule One: Sense of progress – In order to sustain interest and generate drama, there must be some movement within your game show. “In the ’80s formats (Telly Addicts and Krypton Factor being prime examples) this was achieved by keeping the same people but changing the rounds every three minutes” explains Bodycombe. “These days we change the number of players but keep the rounds essentially the same (arguably, they are stronger shows as a result). Now you could add players after each round – in fact, I think there’s probably a game show in that – but it’s just more natural, more usual and easier to follow if there’s less to concentrate on as the programme – or series – progresses.”

Rule Two: Keep it simple, stupid – “You need to be able to describe the rules within 30 seconds or it’s too complicated. If you do have more complicated set-ups (such as The Mole or Big Brother) these need to be carefully explained as you go along.”

“Well bang goes my rather convoluted format then” I thought.

Millionaire and Weakest Link are really extremely easy to understand. What’s more you are able at any point to work out what stage in the game’s cycle we are at. The visual cues of totalizers are ever present whilst the rounds are being played out, and of course with The Weakest Link one need only observe how many contestants remain in order to determine how close we are to that episode’s climax. Even the duplicity is straightforward with contestants offered only one simple choice. Whilst strategies may be borne out of the nomination process, this element adds only an additional frisson to the programme, and the casual viewer need not engage with contestant’s motivations in order to understand and enjoy what is going on. This is a simple programme – at the end of each episode there must be a winner – no other result is possible.

Rule Three: Tension – “To my eyes” Bodycombe says, “it’s amazing how shows such as Catchphrase keep going because there’s hardly ever a close finish. Making people care is a very difficult thing to capture. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve found myself caring about the winners and losers on Jet Set even though the end game is as bog standard as they come. Equally, the reactions on Brucie’s The Price is Right were usually very good even though the prizes weren’t that different – perhaps this was because the expectations of the contestants entering the studio was £zero, so winning a car was a major surprise”. By concentrating on inducing tension alone (perhaps to the exclusion of any other factors) one can create a smash hit game show. Who Wants to be a Millionaire is perhaps (again) the best ever example of this, with a number of factors carefully working together to induce the maddening suspense that has made the programme rightly famous. Scheduling is certainly important, and running Millionaire on consecutive nights not only highlights the programme as some kind of event, but also ensures the tension generated in a particular episode is not dissipated by a protracted gap between programmes. The imposing lighting and music also have an obvious part to play in this process and they heighten the atmosphere very effectively. However, for me the key element to the programme is the decision making process that faces the contestant before each question. Within the confines of a relatively straightforward round-based quiz show, here is a subversion that affords contestants the opportunity to exercise an element of free will. Whilst the options remain relatively restrictive, Millionaire crucially calls upon characteristics of the contestant that are not usually placed under scrutiny in an ordinary game show. Unlike the relative pot luck decision making criteria of “what’s in the box or take the money and run”, Millionaire furnishes the contestant with all the facts which means there can be no abdication of responsibility should they fail to answer the question correctly. The tension is palpable as the responsibility for success lies wholly with the contestant (as opposed to “in the lap of the gods” as with many other game shows).

Rule Four: Empowerment of TV – “With game shows, it’s good to add in elements where you get to see ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they are ‘on the telly’. You Bet!, Stars in Their Eyes, The Crystal Maze and The Mole are good examples of this” cites Bodycombe. Examining my own reactions to watching a game show, I guess there is a natural tendency to place one’s self into the shoes of the contestant, typically thinking “I wish that was me”, or (more often) “I’m glad that’s not me.” Ultimately, as there is a prize at stake, the game show experience is an aspirational one. As such the desire to be something you are not can be represented by more than just the attainment of first prize. Part of the daydream is to watch those competing live out an exciting “life” in front of you. Certainly, it is seldom that contestants are tasked with completing ordinary or comical objectives when there is really big money at stake. To do so would be to undermine the value of the prize, and therefore the objective of the game show.

Bodycombe identifies what happens when big stakes occasionally are settled by a mundane game: “One of the places where I think Friends Like These falls down is that some of the games are too simple – threading needles may be a good way of testing tension but it’s not my idea of a spectacular image.” More recently, moves to produce game shows in which the contestants are given (seemingly) greater control over proceedings achieves the same results for far less expense. As much as we would like to see ourselves as the contestant battering the hell out of the Gladiators with a Pugil stick, we also aspire to be Paul Darrow subverting The Adventure Game (OK, bad example because he was famous and not a member of the public but you know what I mean), or indeed one of the contestants on Treasure Island getting one over the rival team by out manoeuvring them at the bartering table. How many times have you watched a particular “reality” game show and thought to yourself “I could do that. I could outthink all of the other contestants”? This is as aspirational in its own way as the secret pang of jealously that may reside in your heart as you watch Stars in Their Eyes.

Bodycombe’s final rule is the most simple, but most difficult to execute: Break one rule - “Think of one thing that either contradicts ‘standard practice’ or traditional expectations. In Millionaire it’s ‘win £1 million’. In Weakest Link it’s ‘be nasty to the contestants’. Once you have your memorable hook, the rest of the format can be surprisingly ordinary.” If you consider other game shows so many follow a simple format of question based rounds with one simple twist. Whilst Today’s the Day simply bases questions around a particular date, The Syndicate adds in all sorts of hi-jinks regarding the elimination of certain opposition team members. The result is that the Martyn Lewis vehicle is relatively easy to follow, whereas Nick Ross’ is too confusing, because it subverts one too many conventions. Even such seemingly convention defying programmes as Lose a Million in reality deviate very little from the standard format (okay so the contestants’ scores go down instead of up, but what else is new?)

Having outlined these five basic rules, it becomes obvious that producing a winning format is about correctly balancing a number of disparate and often conflicting requirements. Tension can be created by the introduction of several factors designed to destabilise the contestants or provoke a situation of uncertainty; yet the format needs to be simple and easy to follow, so if there’s too much going on the whole thing becomes unwatchable. Looking again at my own idea it is perhaps telling that I seem to have (subconsciously) at least attempted to address the need to combine and correctly balance these requisite elements, and whilst that might be comforting, it is clear too that there would be significant issues entailed to “bring alive” those contestants participating from home. Unwittingly, as I quiz Bodycombe on the state of current game shows, he provides an accurate assessment of my own idea’s failings. “The treachery thing is just a fad. In television, there are always groundswells of certain themes that are popular. Just you watch, in a few years there’ll be a different skew on things – I predict play-along-at-home games will be a safe bet. Once one format cracks the technological problems, several others will follow. As for ordinary game shows, there is always room for standard Q&A shows. For people reading this article wanting an insight in how to write a game show, the important thing is to realise that standard Q&A formats can be cranked out at a rate of knots by internal development teams. It’s the offbeat formats that are the hardest to come up with. Sadly, it’s the Q&A formats that the general public seem to tout around themselves.”

Bodycombe’s unintentional demolition of my idea is then completed as he highlights the game show designers propensity to recycle old formats: “If two shows seem very similar, people will suss you out and it’s unlikely that the second version will outperform the first one. Just look at the travesty that was The People Versus, for instance. One senior ITV boss was secretly furious that this show got to air because he thought it was weakening the brand of Millionaire. From what I’ve seen of Dog Eat Dog, it has better games than Friends Like These. After all, it’s difficult to do anything impressive when you only have one studio to do everything, unlike the film set of The Crystal Maze. The reason why I don’t like Dog Eat Dog as much is that it’s clearly just Friends Like These version 3.0. The Beeb made the same mistake with Your Kids Are in Charge – instead of reinventing the wheel they may have been better calling it With Kids Like These. Basically, people aren’t stupid.”

OK, so if I am to come up with something that would sell perhaps I need to concentrate more on including the most modern subversions to the standard format. By introducing further elements in which contestant are able to progress through strategic or creative thinking, modern game shows have taken an essentially “on rails” format (to use a computer gaming term) and introduced into it moments of free will. Crudely labelled as “reality game shows” these programmes provide an extra thrill of unpredictability, and introduce an emotional element previously missing. Whereas before contestants would effuse that they had had a “lovely day out” at the end of Strike It Lucky, now we encourage them to moan about what a terrible time it’s been (Boot Camp currently screening on Sky One might well be the apotheosis of this). Typically such programmes rely on pitting the contestant against a different type of obstacle to the old fashioned studio-bound grand finale. “The dénouement these days is ‘people versus people’” explains Bodycombe. “Whereas in the ’80s, it was ‘people versus the computer’”. The human opponent would seem to make for a more complex and emotionally engaging challenge for the modern contestant, allowing the programme maker to exploit personal (or manufactured) grievances between contestants. Yet, even these programmes, still rely on maintaining the correct balance of movement, simplicity and tension so essential in creating a successful game show. The format (whatever it may be) still needs to be as tightly controlled as that well scripted farce I mentioned back at the beginning. Aside from my own rather imbalanced concept, how do other “reality game shows” fare when assessed in this context?

Reassuringly mixed is the answer. Treasure Island is an example of a programme that gets it right more often than not. The scenario contestants find themselves in attains an illusion of free will without actually allowing anyone to wander too far from the narrative of the game. Bodycombe observes that “tactics in game shows rarely get more complicated than this kind of ‘take the money or open the box’-style two-way choice, since they are very difficult to televise. You wouldn’t, for example, be able to make a successful war game-style show (cf. the 1997 Channel 4 programme Game of War)”. This is certainly the case with Treasure Island. Contestants are split into two teams and are forced to complete daily tasks in order to secure food and gain vital sections of a treasure map that will ultimately allow one of their number to win the “grand prize”. The tasks, however, are generally straightforward supporting only one possible solution. This activity takes up the dominant part of each episode. There is some time spent watching the contestants’ engaged in peripheral activities, but this serves only to support one of the two main drivers that underpins Treasure Island: the search for food or the attempt to acquire those tools that will prove most useful in completing the next objective. Laid bare the format appears restrictive and relatively linear, but I think Treasure Island is a lesson for the would-be game show designer in how to keep things simple whilst attaining the illusion of complexity and “free will”. Each day the two teams barter for tools or information. The manner in which the contestants broker a deal is unrestrictive, yet at all times their motivation remains clear. This is pretty simple stuff, dressed up to look complicated.

Bodycombe believes he can account for the different methodologies at play in Treasure Island, identifying the construction of the programme’s rules as a process borne less of the intellectual pursuit to produce an elegant format, and more from the desire to produce a programme likely to be a hit. “I think it’s a reasonable show” he says, “although for some reason Australian programmes tend to be much less subtle than their UK counterparts, particularly the commentary that adds very little to what you can already see onscreen. Treasure Island is the sort of show that happens when producers hear various stories of what’s selling on the international formats market then try to come up with their own versions of it without ripping it off per se. I think Dog Eat Dog is a very good example of this. There isn’t a single thing in that format which hasn’t been done by the BBC before in Weakest Link or Friends Like These, but because it’s building on two strong programmes it’s not going to go too far wrong.” Predictably, though, Treasure Island – although performing pretty well – has failed to outperform its more illustrious predecessors.

“This is the kind of method that ITV usually uses for their programming. Because they have advertising data for past programmes (but obviously not for future ones) everything is built upon variations of what’s gone before. Arguably, you could say Channel 4 have started to behave a bit like this, leaving Channel 5 to take risks (both good and bad) with shows like The Mole, Fort Boyard, Touch the Truck and the upcoming Desert Forges. “Such programmes are obviously extremely difficult to get right. Channel 5′s Jailbreak (broadcast last year) offered perhaps the most ambitious and non-linear format yet, bringing us live broadcasts from a purpose built prison in which contestants were challenged to break out. On paper this looked to be a sensational programme. “Jailbreak was interesting for a number of reasons” agrees Bodycombe. “Effectively it was the Great Escape on the telly. However, therein lay a problem. If you show people how to escape from a prison, then half of Parkhurst could empty overnight. So some element of artificiality had to enter the format, which is why they stupidly introduced the codes and clues.”

“Another problem was the location. In entertainment terms, you’d want the teams to be cooped up in a camera-friendly location, such as a castle. You could see that they’d tried to jazz up the jail with some showbizzy lighting and polished aluminium but it still didn’t look particularly inviting. (Notice how they got this right with Bare Necessities – it was a miserable week for the contestants, but you could still have your shots of awe-inspiring locations).

“The main killer, though, was that the climax happened several days before the series finished. Instead of going out on a crescendo, it went out with a whimper. Compare this with The Mole, which pulled in pretty much the same kind of ratings (about one million viewers per showing) but left people wanting more and was recommissioned halfway through its run. The producers were fairly slow on picking up Jailbreak‘s problems – the eventual programme wasn’t anything like the original idea pitched to Channel 5. Princess Productions changed it when they realised it would be more difficult to practically accomplish the “big idea” they started with. I also detected a few last-minute changes where it was evident they had short-circuited some steps of the solution to speed up the progress. In entertainment terms, what they should have done is a show where they make a breakout for it every single night, rather than chipping away at one long problem.”

Jailbreak suffered from a concept that looked great “down the pub” but failed to work when put into practice. Bodycombe seems to be saying that the introduction of cryptic clues diluted the original premise and over complicated things, and the failure to conclude on a big finish short circuited any tension that had been built up throughout the programme’s run. Jailbreak was a Game of War type failure – just too conceptually ambitious. Its unofficial successor – The Mole – worked precisely because although it looked ambitious, it was actually rather conservative. “The main thing that was clever about The Mole is that it appears to be a big budget production when in fact only one of the three stunts in each programme was particularly big” begins Bodycombe. “However, because everything was done in a cod spy-esque fashion, it felt more exciting than perhaps it really was. The play-along factor of looking for the Mole helped make the programme engaging, although equally it can put off viewers from joining the show halfway along. I also thought the camera direction showed innovation, the music was good, and the sequence of elimination provided a natural and suitable sense of progression. If there was one criticism I would make, it’s that the nasty games either went too far or were introduced too early in the series run.”

Good games were central to the success of The Mole. As intriguing as its format might be, it would stand or fall on the quality of the challenges set out for the contestants. As I considered this, it struck me that if I really didn’t have a winning game show format on my hand perhaps my talents would lie in constructing rip snorting rounds à la Mr Bodycombe. He himself points out that there has been a shift in focus in modern game shows with many of the most recent offerings providing but one game and either changing or whittling down the players. The Mole and Dog Eat Dog each contain a central challenge that runs through each episode (i.e. remove your competition) yet the games played within each round provide the fuel that drives the programme on. Drawing specifically from his own experience, I asked David to outline the factors that made a good game for an episode of The Mole.

“From what I can make out, the key ingredients of a Mole game are:

1. Clear opportunities for the Mole to sabotage the game, either secretly or completely overtly.
2. Plenty of scope for arguments.
3. Touches of black humour.
4. Possibilities for adding a ‘d’oh’-inducing lateral thinking solution.
5. Doing something fairly ordinary in an exciting way (as mentioned before).

“When designing games generally, a number of things need to be taken into account. In rough order, they are:

1. Originality – No point doing it if it’s been done before. If it has been done before, it has to be well disguised (an oft-used trick on The Crystal Maze).
2. Simplicity – Again, the rules have to be explained within 30 seconds, although an unexpected twist at the end can be good too.
3. Progress – We need to be able to see that the contestant chips away at the problem over time. This enables us to play a guessing game as to whether they will complete the game within the time limit.
4. Cost – Anything’s possible, but the cost has to be justified. For some action-adventure series where several countries use the same locations, the cost of the stunts can be shared.
5. Safety – Normally needs to be borne in mind by the games devisor, but not usually the number one concern because the people that eventually build the games will concentrate on this.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are obvious similarities between devising a good game show format and creating a good game. How the audience will interact with what’s happening is key and – once again – Bodycombe is quick to encompass this perspective when devising a game: “The more you can make the audience feel superior, the better” he says. “In The Crystal Maze, this was achieved by the director spoon-feeding us with certain shots (e.g. shot of numbers, shot of combination lock, shot of crystal) so that within the first 15 seconds it was obvious to us what the game involved. The maze game on The Mole has been the best individual game I’ve seen. Firstly, it just looked cool. The real masterstroke was playing it at night, which introduces automatic fears and phobias, as does the fear of being chased by the other two people in the maze.” Clearly this works so well because it evokes particular emotions in the participants and the viewers. The fact that all the action of this physical based task could be encapsulated in one overhead shot helped too. It ensured that the audience in their omnipotent position, could take in the whole spectacle with ease. For me, the best “action” rounds in game shows are often nothing more than sporting events designed specifically for TV.

By now I was feeling that my initial unreconstructed admiration for the game show genre had been replaced with something approaching conscious incompetence for what it takes to construct a really good format. As I prepared to bid my leave of David I asked him to recount to me his most treasured game show moment. “Well, it wouldn’t be the over-hyped Millionaire win or the somewhat cheesy reveal on The Mole” he explained. “I would say the one that I remember clearest is the winner of the first ever Ultra Quiz, and the way his prize money was wheeled on in the new £1 coins. It’s still going in Japan. The thing that was really great about the show was its black humour – in one of the recent Japanese series the winner received an island, the problem being that it was underwater for 23 hours of the day. If I limit myself to the last 12 months, it would be the end game on Jet Set – particularly if someone’s been winning three weeks in a row.”

And then just to demonstrate how difficult this business can be David left me with the following anecdote. “One of the major US producers did an ‘office pilot’ at the network offices with a new format of theirs. They went the whole hog, using dummy contestants and real celebrities. The idea of the game was for the contestant to list as many items of one category (e.g. things you do in a dentist’s waiting room) within 60 seconds. The celebrity – who was wearing headphones until that point – would do the same. Money would be won for each ‘match’ they would make. What happened was that the contestant said ‘read the magazines’ immediately then stood silent for the remaining 57 seconds. The same happened with the celebrity. Basically, they hadn’t tested the game enough before taking it to show the network people. The story had a happy ending though, the format was revised so that two families were used instead of individuals. It eventually became Family Feud (Family Fortunes to us), one of the most successful game shows ever”.