Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Edge: Hints of something better

Those big letters at the back of the set: stolen from reflex.

We start with titles. They are, as with 1khb last time, really, very impressive technically well-created titles, and suggest a level of both quality and excitement which will not be realised by the programme proper. 

Incorrectly suggests the show will be outdoors. Shame.

Host Mark Benton is playing Host Mark Williams. Actually, that's a little unfair: we know that the edge was recorded just a few weeks after The Link began, we know from his previous work Mark Benton has a similarly jolly nature to Mark Williams. Mark does a reasonable job, although I sometimes feel his "spontaneity" isn't all too spontaneous.

His introduction is the same every episode, and makes reference to the show's title noun and hence, Thing That Needs To Be Made Important Regardless. This introduction is met with an impressive audio sting and an underwhelming visual sting: the effect falls flat and for a second we notice that this is well-masked timewasting. 

The Edge. Woo, look at it. Isn't it impressive?

The contestants are self-introduced and there is no chatter, the getting to know them will come through the show: this is a good idea (copied from pointless) but is lessened a bit by the fact that the 'getting to know you' chatter inbetween rounds is usually based on the interesting fact the contestant reveals in the introduction. To have your researcher provide a second fact for the chatter to run from is probably not too difficult.

We move straight into round 1. Ironically, given the critisisms that are to come, The Edge wastes no time in getting into its first question, usually starting around 2 minutes into the run time. In round 1 the questions are normal questions, in later rounds we'll be seeing more than one answer requested per question.

And now we come to a real highlight of The Edge, the questions themselves. It's very rare that a gameshow review actually pauses to consider the level of the questions, but for The Edge, they are excellent. In round 1, we see normal questions: almost all are designed to be interruptible, generally quite easy to answer given the whole thing, but with a challenge for the quick thinking to answer earlier. There is also a slight movement away from traditional general knowledge towards more lateral thinking and everyday knowledge questions, for example: "Name the colour of the room that accommodates showbiz performers..." (Green), or "Names the number of days in nine weeks" (63).

In the later rounds the questions are name [2/3/4] things. Often, the answers are two objects that come as a pair (or trio, etc.), rather than two conceptually different answers. Indeed, the pair questions feel very different to the (more intentionally mismatched) pair questions on break the safe. The later questions are, naturally harder, but not that much harder in terms of knowledge, often they require the player to index more about a fact (which is hard under pressure), rather than know more facts, which is a nice way to make the later questions more difficult to answer, but not simply more inaccessible.

Players who give a wrong answer are locked out and the question is not reoffered. There is a nice audio-visual sting for this with the podium's lights changing in time with the sound, which emphasises how awkward the 'The Edge' sting is. The choice not to reoffer the question and to mildly penalise wrong answers makes early buzzing very viable, and this is what we see on the show: a good decision, creating faster, more aggressive buzzer use, which is more engaging for the audience.

The net result of this: 4 excellent buzzer quiz rounds, the best I have seen on daytime for some time. The questions are very play-along-able, whilst still being challenging enough to differentiate players by skill and thinking speed rather than buzzer speed. The 1234 progression of the quiz rounds makes sense, and is actually a very good way to have a variety of quiz types, whilst feeling like your rounds are progressive, rather than just 4 distinct rounds, one advantage The Edge has over it's rival, Tipping Point.

Quiz performance gives a player an earlier choice of 'lane'. (Note the word bowling is curiously, rarely used on The Edge). The shorter lanes give the player a closer target, but longer lanes give them the advantage of playing last, so knowing better the target to beat. (this is particularly advantageous in round 1, where there is only one ball). Having these two advantages go against each other makes for a more interesting choice (and more varied games) but reduces the advantage for the strong quizzer. In practice, we've seen a slight, but not overwhelming bias toward the shorter lanes being chosen earlier: this makes the setup feel about right.

After about 8 minutes of programme, Mark declares "let's take to the lanes". This amount of time is very important to the show: it feels like longer, because a lot has happened. It is longer than tipping point needs to drop its first counter, but it's also about the time it takes Pointless to have its first run down the column, or Deal or No Deal to open its first box. 

The cash zones being activated?
It takes another 1 minute to introduce and explain the rules for this side of the game; time that by now, really feels grating to a so-far patient audience, because it is clearly filler. Mark telling us that "The Cash zones are now activated" is a pointless declaration, and the announcement of the value of The Edge does not need to be applauded, it's the same every show.

How much is the edge worth? Tell me, please, I've never seen the show before.

The lanes themselves are introduced by another cool effect, but this reviewer finds them a bit visually problematic: first, the screens that they consist of are too low-resolution, this makes them unpleasant to read, especially in close-ups, and the ">>>" effect along the Edge is much less cool than it could have been. Second, although the colour variation between lanes is good, the red lane, which will be the most used, is too dark and doesn't contrast well with the black text.

Red lane, does not look nice.

 Most players have an effective or explicit 'target to beat' when rolling, especially in round 1. The edge mentions this verbally, and has the technology to highlight this on the floor, as pointless does with its column, but disappointingly does not.

And here we hit on a key point of the edge: when a roll is roughly 'just right' and heading for the Edge, that's exciting, we will see the ball slowly progress, and then eventually either teeter over, or come up short. The suspense is all leading into that final moment.  It's sibling Tipping Point does the same thing with counters bouncing, landing, shoving, going over the first edge, then shoving again, and -maybe- going over into the win-zone.

But few, very few rolls are 'just right'. Most are either too-little or too-much, and then the outcome is obvious right from the moment of release. The Edge's director will try to tease us every time, with one or two tension-adding shots of the player or host while the ball is in motion, but it's futile, because we the audience are better than that: humans are very good at judging velocities, this is something the language of television cannot defeat.

(Compare to The now-often-mentioned-on-this-blog Cube, which can fool the audience into thinking any shot/roll/drop is a close thing by slowing down the film. Indeed, although the edge does not need full slow motion, that would be infuriating, a little bit of half- or quarter- motion, might remove this problem entirely.)

Winnings from previous rounds are not carried over (but count for the final), this means that there is little incentive to do more than best your worst opponent (and hence a rather boring £500/£0/£1/£1 first round is conceivable), but avoids a big weakness of Tipping Point, which is that players can have such a lead after the early rounds that the middle round or rounds become trivial. Overall, I think this was the right decision.

In rounds 2 and 3, danger zones appear: based on various things, they will block out a section of the lane, reducing its total to £1. These are annoying, because of all the ways the bowling game could be modified to have a twist, they are so very inconsequential. They affect 1/21 or 2/21 of the scoring area; if players ignored them they would affect around this faction of all rolls (less given some rolls fail to score), given players often avoid them, it is probably less still.

The problem isn't so much with the futility of this, but with the amount of air time and air effort that goes into it, given that it's so inconsequential. Stopping to discuss the DZ location 3 times during round 3 seems like obvious stalling. Trying to suggest it has major strategic significance is quite obvious bluffage.

There are many more interesting things one could do here, a simple option is to have the DZs cover 3 or 4 adjacent spaces, a more complicated might be to proportionally shorten the whole scoring zone, or (my preference) turn a large (say, 8 tiles) section into a zone equal to its lowest value.

The titular edge is worth £1000 in round 1, in keeping with the grid's sequence. In the second and third rounds, £2000 and £3000 are offered, this offers a potential impressive comeback to players who are otherwise far behind, and makes 'going for the edge' an alternative strategy.

The first of these is a Definitely Good feature. The second, with multiple rolls offered in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, would be interesting to see a player fully commit to, but sadly, the lanes seem to be too long and the edge too small for anyone to have been tempted so far, and this reviewer doubts that that will change.

Perhaps a more achievable edge would have created a balance issue, perhaps it would have tested the prize budget - but it seems like players hitting the edge is rarer even than a Pointless answer - and that seems a bit wrong.

The show's final follows a rhythm we're quite used to: first, a round of quickfire questions (which require 4 answers, a good way to make a fast, long, easy-to-play-along-with, quickfire round which is not actually easy to do well at), followed by the dramatic payoff sequence.

Each question answered expands the win zone from just The Edge by 2 sections. This seems conceptually awkward: the show has been working with these sections all day, and now suddenly, for no real reason, it seems like it wanted them to be twice as large. There was no real reason they couldn't have been twice as large the whole time: units of £100 rather than £50 would work fine, and it would make the danger zones a little more significant.

The choice of 1, 2, or 3 balls for 100, 50, or 33 % of the prize fund is reminiscent of the 3 difficulties formula which we've seen work very well on The Chase. It is also suited for a mathematical discussion, and that may yet come on this blog or another, but for now suffice to say that it's quite interesting, and in practice, presents quite a good trilemma (a word this author endorses) which has generated a mix of decisions on the shows we've seen so far.

This final, though, seems a bit lazy. The show has so far 'mixed up' the bowling action in only a small number of ways, one of which was utterly inconsequential (we're also slightly confused that the set seems to have been designed to allow for completely variable starting positions on each lane, but this feature is never used), it feels, from a game design perspective, boring  not to have more happen, and a bit wasteful of the quite nice set to have 3 of the lanes going unused.

Having the contestant roll for the smallest target in the final - like playing for a pointless answer - seems sensible, it also generates the most dramatic shots, as now contestants are forced to try to land their shot on the edge. What's strange then, is when a contestant does well on the questions (fair play, they deserve an advantage), they end up playing with an absolutely massive win zone, which drains the drama right out of the rolling shot. But, then, this is still difficult because the contestant is obliged to bowl from the longest distance: we're back to the earlier problem of many bowls being obviously too weak or strong straight away.

You got 8 questions, so you are rolling at x17

It also seems off that in order to win the most money, the contestant must commit to rolling just once - again, there's a reason everyone gets 3 chances at making a pointless answer: the audience want to see more action with the big money on the line, not less.

We'd do it like this: give the contestant 3 rolls regardless and the choice of a shorter lane for less money, then have each question add a single section (perhaps less) to the win zone. But the point is, while there are a thousand ways to combine all the potential ideas in this final, and every armchair-critic is going to have their own preference: the one chosen is just a bit underwhelming.

Overall then, the show gets some plus points from the quality of questions. It gets minor, but only minor minus points from... pretty much everything else? It's difficult to find a point to explicitly criticise, but The Edge feels elegant and clever and yet simple and well thought through, but just not quite 'meaty' enough to make it a compelling watch.

The Edge is an obvious consequence of ITV's Tipping Point. I'm not going to list similarities, look for yourself. Is it an improvement? Depends. An immediate plus for me is that The Edge's stunt is skill-based, whereas no matter what Ben tries to suggest, TP will always be a game of luck. I mentioned some other points already: The Edge's quizes are better and flow more naturally; but TP has a more impressive stunt. The Edge is always exciting up to the end of round 3 (TP isn't); but TP gets going quicker at the start of the show. TP has more consistent action: I would rather watch 5 minutes of TP than of The Edge, but The Edge is a better journey: I would rather watch an episode of The Edge than Tipping Point.

The Edge could do with more action (although not less quizzing, instead, cut out a bit of the timewasting, especially the danger zones) and could do with better distributed action: put some bowling at the top of the show, or find a way to break up the bowling to have more quizzing in-between. In fact, I would claim that whilst the developers clearly have watched their share of Tipping point, and Pointless, they ought to have dug out the tapes for Take on the Twisters. It's got exactly the same flaw.

It deserves credit for good questions, for being a BBC show without a Jackpot, and for making its final-round gamble well-balanced. It's not an awful show; in fact, I quite like it. But it's not offering a lot that audiences haven't seen done better, or at least, as well, elsewhere, and so it may struggle.

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