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.

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