Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Survivor and Game Design

A lot of people look at Survivor as just another reality TV show, and the progenitor of all crappy reality TV shows. But I'm going to tell you why, as a game designer you should be watching it.  Survivor is one of the most complex human game shows on television right now.  

Here's the premise for Survivor: 16-20 people from different genders, races and walks of life are stranded on an island and made to compete for one million dollars. The main goal is to be the last one standing after 39 days and win the money.  In order to do that, you have to get people voted out.  And after a certain point, the people you vote out are the same people you have to convince to vote for you. Now you could just try winning every single challenge, but that's rarely a viable option considering the huge variety of challenges, and considering half of them can only be won with teamwork. You have to make alliances and work with the same people you're trying to bump off!

There are three main phases of the game: surviving in the environment, winning challenges, and voting people out in tribal council.  In order to best get through these, players have four main categories of abilities: strength, intelligence, endurance, and being sociable.  Most players have a combination of those, but very few players have mastered them all. The idea is that the one who wins is a master of all of these abilities, but that's not always the case. Let's talk about these abilities, that are almost like character classes.

Strong players can take on more physical challenges, which help especially in the beginning on team based challenges, and they're also better at catching food and building shelter.  Intelligent players will be able to get through puzzles, lead other players, and find idols.  They also might know certain tasks of survival, or be able to figure out the specifics of the social game. Players with endurance will be able to get through endurance challenges, ones that may have you standing on a log for an extended period of time, but endurance players also have an easier time making it through the harsh environment.  Social players may not be smart with puzzles or great at physical challenges, but they're easier to make friends and form alliances. They can better manipulate people, and get votes on the jury.  Plus it's much easier to live with someone who's likable rather than someone who's a dick.

These don't even take into account each character's individual personality, which usually vary greatly. One character might not be great at challenges, but he's so fun to watch you just hope he makes it far. It's similar to the Hunger Games. The first season I really got into included Russell, a pure evil manipulative mastermind who I couldn't help but root for. Everyone has their favorite character from a certain season.

Then there's the mini-game of finding the hidden immunity idol somewhere on the island, and what to do with it.  When it was first introduced, they'd give you clues, but since so many people have been finding it without clues, they've done away with it.  There's only one per camp, and once you find it, do you wave it around and use it as power? Or do you hide it and save it for a last ditch effort? I'm sure everyone thinks the best way is to NEVER TELL ANYONE ANYTHING but as we learned from Colton this season, if you use it right, you can hold a huge amount of power.  Or, if you use it secretly like Troyzan, you can use it to get people on your side if you need votes.  There's even a technique of faking other players out and making believe you have it!

There's this amazing dynamic of sometimes needing certain players on your team or alliance, but at the same time needing to get them out.  This is most apparent near the end of the game when both teams have merged and they're all going for individual immunity.  You might make an alliance with a strong player so you can both get another player out, but at the same time you don't want to keep the strong player around for too long or else they might get more votes than you at the end.  You have to vote people out, but you also have to worry about getting their votes, so you have to vote them out in the nicest way possible.  This is never more apparent than with Russell, who is a great conniving player, but never gets any votes because no one likes him.

And then there are the challenges which are a mastery of game design and engineering themselves!  Some of these are huge and elaborate, like a giant maze you have to navigate through blindfolded while looking for puzzle pieces, or incredibly simple, like balancing three balls on a plate for hours on end.  It's amazing to see these in action and I have to wonder who thinks these up.  Though they look hard, a lot of them look like giant jungle gyms you'd play on as a kid.

And survivor is a game that's constantly rethinking itself, coming out with new versions and expansion packs.  The last couple of years have seen Redemption Island, in which players who get voted off have to then battle each other for a chance to come back, and One World, in which both tribes are stationed on the same island a few hundred feet away.   

Doesn't that sound like something you'd want to play?  It's this incredibly intricate game of human  interaction that can go so many different places.  It's like the most intricate boardgame in which people are the pieces and you constantly have to rethink your strategy.  Even if it is highly edited or played up with drama, the game itself is a mastery of game design ingenuity, and more people should really check it out.

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