Monday, 2 March 2015

%0.000045 of the rest of your life

Unfunny title joke

The low point of the hour was having to register an account on ITV Player.

So, 1000 heartbeats, or, as I would rather you called it: 1k heartbeats.

Tickydowny number titles are hardly an original idea, but they work nicely. As they end, we pan across the studio to see the main stars of the show, the very very live string quartet and conductor. They are not, until mid-game, introduced by host Vernon Kay, but this missed point is compensated by the direction, which frequently gives us shots of them.

About 5 minutes. If you don't get anything wrong.
The geography of the studio is perhaps a little confusing. Contestant initially joins Vernon for a chat at the left of the set, which I shall henceforth call the left zone. After a bit of this, the pair move to the central 'spot' (it might have a proper tv name) where the games take place. The problem is that  there is now some rules&gameplay chat right next to the centre spot - this pattern continues throughout the show. 

It creates an awkward effect: sometimes (between rounds) the contestant is chatting to Vernon in the left zone, sometimes (between questions, or at the start&end of the game) it's next to the spot. During gameplay, Vernon will pace back to the left zone to watch the contestant, then after each round, the contestant must walk to him. This also highlights the fact that the left zone is a bit too far from everything else.

They're over here*
And now they're over here

In fact, during the rounds themselves, we see a lot of cut away shots of Vernon making expressive faces at the game developments. He seems just a little bit gawky and restless, and I couldn't help thinking to myself: give that man a podium.

This reminds me of a show with a quite similar geographical setup, The Cube. (It's a quite similar show in many other ways aswell.) In cube, Philip plays a very similar role to Vernon: introducing the games and managing the contestant, but never in any way running or interacting with the game itself. 

He's not going anywhere

The key difference is that schofe never moves. Unless the unthinkable happens, Phillip is going to remain on his little circle, and you're going to move back-and-forth to him. And the circle is a well defined point: it has impact and it's part of The Cube's DNA. It's a tiny difference, but I think it would really help 1kHb to be more like The Cube: give Vernon a specific place to stay, and keep him there for most if not all of the show.

Anyway, we move on to game 1. Game 1 is always Contrast, which could be annoying, but contrast is in fact sufficiently bland that it isn't: 7 correct A or B questions with the same pair of answers throughout. This can be a little repetitive when the 2 answers restrict the question style too much; when the answers were Rome and Athens, we heard a lot of Ancient history - when the answers were 'sun' and 'moon' we heard questions ranging from newspapers to photosynthesis to transformers films. 7 questions is perhaps slightly too much here. The show sets out a neat, but ultimately pointless, 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 format to the rounds, and ends up having to fudge slightly it at the narrow end. There's a strange shifting in the style of the games, with (what I've seen of) the very late games being very long-playing, low-risk (often) maths games. This is definitely the opposite of the right way and suggests the show hasn't really been designed to generate much spread of results. Which is a shame.

I'm going to return to The Cube analogy for my next problem. I've seen a perfect round 1 done in 86 Hb - perhaps a fast player could do it in slightly less. Regardless, anyone is going to need to budget around 100 Hb per round, just for the time the round takes to happen - the few seconds intoduction, reading questions, answers being processed - it adds up.

I'm very torn by this situation. The positive side is that it really emphasises the heartbeats side of the game: if this were just against the clock then those reading and processing delays would be very annoying, but having a bit of dead time allows an advantage to be awarded to the player who remains calm.

It's also necessary for the round start sequence, which I think is an excellent bit of artificially exciting television. The player is prompted to start by Vernon, all falls silent save the [insert technical music word] of the violin. Then, when the player steps forward, there are 3 beeps accompanied by the lights to the side of the spot, and the music, and clock, start. The player isn't running yet, though, we're still inside this tension-building sequence. The disembodied voice reads out the options (as many as six), and then the category or question. Then, 'play', the round begins. A shaky player can lose 30 heart beats or more here, but worse, can have their heart rate increased significantly by the anticipation, reducing their time for the game. This, although not acknowledged, perhaps not intended, is part of the game, part of the contest proposed by 1000 heartbeats.

Indeed the value of remaining calm is a much underplayed aspect of the programme: Vernon does a token nod to the peak (less significant than average) heart rate after most rounds, but that, along with a routine "so try to stay calm this round" is the most we get. It should be made more important, it's the game's USP and it does impact the result a lot.

Now, the downside to the that high minimum cost to completing a round: that it impacts on the overgame quite a bit. A contestant might face one tricky decision between cashout and continuing, say around 200-300 Hb, but that's all, too often their hand is forced by a lack of Hb from an earlier bad round - big recoveries are totally impossible. This also works to reduce the spread of results, which is long-term boring.

I've yet to see the scenario where a player does badly on a game, so finishes with too few Hb to feasibly stand any chance at the cashout, but has to play into the start of that final round anyway, but statistically it will happen, quite often, and that's going to be poor television.

Compare this to The Cube, where a player with four or even three lives might play on and manage to ace a series of games, so can still win big.

The solution? Round outcomes need more variance, and specifically it needs to be possible to complete a round really well and loose almost no heartbeats. For me, the obvious solution, and one we've seen once before but certainly not too often is the clock-starts-upon-first-wrong-answer mechanic. I think a rule where sometimes heartbeats aren't lost until the first wrong answer in a round would have made the overgame and the show more exciting. Although it's too late now, I like to imagine a future series might introduce this as a one-time lifeline, perhaps, or a special rule for the cashout round.

The games in the show provide a good-ish variety: more would be a bit better. Maths and wordplay make appearances, but these appearances are slightly tokenish. More pleasing is the very wide range of questions: although generally billed as general knowledge, there are plenty of lateral thinking, recall, and unconventional style questions included in the mix. The general knowledge organise/categorise things for a category style appears a little too often, for most players the second and the fourth game.

A contestant who doesn't like their question can 'step-off' (simply having them stay 'stop' would seem more natural), for a new topic and -50 Hb. This is more of a factor on the knowledge than thinking rounds, but works well as a strategic option. 50 Hb seems a fair price for avoiding a terrible round, but combined with the ~20 for a new question to be read, it's too much.

What also feels a bit strange is that in the new question, progress is conserved: for a round such as contrast, or unscramble, where each question is mostly independent, this is not so bad, but with reorder, it seems a bit strange that a player can half-complete a list, give up, and then only need half a list. With identify, it's even stranger, if a player gets 3/4, they can step off, and guess easily on the new set. Is there an answer to this? Yes: reset the rounds and reduce the penalty, the time spent reading the new question is practically enough on its own.

The game's final, the cashout round, is straight general knowledge, which works well enough. The 5-in-a-row rule makes this round appropriately tough (without it the round would be winnable by exhaustion in about 350 Hb, so at least someone spotted that), but does sometimes lead to the 'Avanti' problem of the contestant able to see they don't have long enough left to win, before they have lost. A 'final chance' when the clock reaches zero (possibly combined with an increase in the number of questions for balance) is the obvious solution.

Overall, One thousand heartbeats is a programme with a strange feel to it. A lot of ITV's daytime offerings over the last couple of years have been well-made, polished shows, but weak on the game side. (A few have been awful, and weak on the game side.) 1kHb, then, stands out as quite an exception: for me, the core DNA of the show: the game against the 1000 heartbeats, is solid and that means this show has serious potential.

A lot of low-level improvements could be made, and many might be if a recommission is found. By far the most easy to implement would be changes to the set of possible round games, I hope to see more games with a clever thinking element, and less games just about categories. The show also dearly needs a bit more personality and quirk, but this is something most programmes can develop given the chance.

I'm not sure about 1kHb, it really is a noticeably long way from perfect, but - we have seen in the daytime quiz arena over the past few years shows which are good at heart (hoho) being given chances to grow and refine; none of Pointless, The Chase, nor Tipping Point were as good in their first series as they are now. Even BBC2's Two Tribes recently returned with refinements. Right now, 1kHb has more issues than most of these shows did on launch, but I think it does have the potential, with serious improvements, to be in their league.

*Credit: @jkisbycarroll

No comments:

Post a Comment