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The Game Design of Survivor

Zonk posted more than 8 years ago | from the never-watched-that-game dept.

Television 40

Wired has an article looking at a game designer working in a fairly unique space: reality television. Clive Thompson discusses the game design of the show Survivor , done mostly by the show's creator Mark Burnett. From the article: "While tweaking Survivor, he closely studied John Nash's game theory in order to better engineer the hysteria and emotional blowouts of each season's finale. 'What Nash's theory predicts is that whenever you have a group of people competing, they collude to squeeze one guy out, again and again, until there's only two guys left,' Burnett notes. 'Yet when there are only two of us left, we're surprised when one of us [screws] each other over. That's the fun part. It surprised John Nash himself, but it happens every time.'"

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I preferred... (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910080)

...the old Eco-challenge (pre-playboy bunny), where there were real challeneges.

Not related (3, Informative)

andrewman327 (635952) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910151)

The Eco Challenge [wikipedia.org] does not have anything to do with TFA. The Challenge did not have people voted off thus it does not implement Nash's Theories.


Anyway, back on topic. Nash created ways of describing so many behaviors but he did it so simply. In addition to his mind, his theories are beautiful. Whether competing in an outdoor gameshow or trying to pick up ladies at the club, game theory works wonders. (And no, I am not suggesting that you walk up to a girl and start talking to her about math. It doesn't work so well. Trust me.)

Re:Not related (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910247)

And, in a way, that was the beauty of it. The time marks elimated the slow groups; the all-four-must-finish elimated a lot of the groups that (c)wouldn't work together. Clearly Mark has gone where the money is, but I really prefered his eco-challenge setups. Well, the real ones, before he thought that (random group of otherwise unfit competitors) should be inserted for better TV play.

math (2, Funny)

ajrs (186276) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911260)

(And no, I am not suggesting that you walk up to a girl and start talking to her about math. It doesn't work so well. Trust me.)

Stay away from girls who don't like to talk about math, or whatever it is your into. The ones who like the same things are less likely to intoduce you to fractions like (1/2) down the road.

Re:Not related (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15912541)

Whether competing in an outdoor gameshow or trying to pick up ladies at the club, game theory works wonders. (And no, I am not suggesting that you walk up to a girl and start talking to her about math. It doesn't work so well. Trust me.)

You have potentially two problems: [a] you suck at conversation (impossible to verify here so I'll be nice and assume that you are actually okay) or, [b] you approach the wrong women.

To elaborate on exceptions related to [b]:
  • 1. The woman may be a great listener, which results in any topic being a good one.
  • 2. The woman may work in math theory and/or programming and is generally familiar with the subject, or at least not intimidated.
  • 2a. Remember though, even if they work in the field, many poor souls don't like their specific jobs and those people won't want to talk about it anyway.
  • 3. The topic of conversation is sometimes important: I had an indepth conversation once on encryption key lengths, which was related to her expertise & a hobby of mine. BTW, that was a random bar encounter and not at a geek event which made it better because outsiders didn't interfere with their opinions (we unintentionally intimidated them).
  • 3a. A bad thing to discuss is your example: relating game theory to your chances of scoring with her that night. Then again, you never know how much fun she truly is but (being a cautious type) I'd still advise against it. :)

Although being a math professional or good listener are not mutually exclusive, the good listener is a better choice because the range of decent topics aren't limited to one field.

Re:Not related (1)

Monkeyboy4 (789832) | more than 8 years ago | (#15916219)

But Eco-Challenge does have to do with the subject. Burnett was the producer for the televised event, and I believe managed the overall event as well. The GP was harkening back to mark burnett days when competition was about physical skill and strategy, not economic cunning and general ass-baggery.

Gold Rush (3, Funny)

neonprimetime (528653) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910122)

Next month, we'll see if Burnett can top these tricks, because he's launching his next game -- Gold Rush. He has hidden a dozen $100,000 stashes of gold (and one $1 million one) around the country, and sprinkled clues to their location inside various Time-Warner and CBS media properties such as Entertainment Weekly, the Netscape homepage, The Opie and Anthony Show and, of course, CBS' Survivor. Playing the game thus forces you to engage in a level of media synergy that leaves advertisers thrilled and me kind of dizzy.

This doesn't sound like a bright idea. If there is literally $1 million just laying around somewhere, I think we're going to end up with a few arrests for damage to property, plus some homicides before the game ends.

Re:Gold Rush (1)

AcidLacedPenguiN (835552) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910231)

it my not be a bright idea, but it will be fun!
Hell I was damaging property BEFORE I knew there was money to be found in "them there floorboards"!

Re:Gold Rush (1)

Achoi77 (669484) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910545)

This doesn't sound like a bright idea. If there is literally $1 million just laying around somewhere, I think we're going to end up with a few arrests for damage to property, plus some homicides before the game ends.

Homocides and arrests? Awesome! Now that you mentioned that, Gold Rush is going to be an enormous hit!

Any kind of PR is good PR. Screw the flack, how much advertising $$ does flack bring in? :-)

Jewel^WGold Rush (2, Insightful)

Tired_Blood (582679) | more than 8 years ago | (#15913007)

He has hidden a dozen $100,000 stashes of gold (and one $1 million one) around the country, and sprinkled clues to their location inside various ... media properties.
Sounds familiar [atreasurestrove.com] ...

Realistically, they will have to implement the same policy - using tokens instead of leaving the actual prize on site. Given that this is purely a publicity promotion, they lose much of its value if nobody ever publicly claims a prize. If they force the participants to accept the prize at a network studio, they have the added opportunity to effectively promote the remainder of the game (which indirectly promotes the actual products).

This also prevents a huge problem: the chance that someone randomly finds the prize, without knowing its purpose (leaving the company at an even bigger loss).

There's no way they're burying all that gold.

Re:Jewel^WGold Rush (1)

yarbo (626329) | more than 8 years ago | (#15914674)

The example they gave was a specific hotel room. You could have a camera crew hanging out there until someone shows up. You're going to have only a tiny chance someone will go to that room without knowing its purpose.

Re:Jewel^WGold Rush (1)

Grab (126025) | more than 8 years ago | (#15918156)

"Hallo, cleaning. Hey, is all that gold for me...?"

Rubbish (2, Insightful)

zalle (637380) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910228)

The article is written by a clueless engineer-journalist who thinks game theory and Survivor design have anything to do with video games. Think again. The whole point of game theory is that you have more than 1 person interacting strategically, it has nothing to do with how to make Quake or World of Warcraft fun. And as is seen very often on Slashdot, just because you're fairly smart and can write code or design electronics or study micro-organisms, you don't have a clue about anything else.

Re:Rubbish (4, Informative)

Mongoose Disciple (722373) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910276)

Here's a link [sirlin.net] to one of a series of interesting articles written by someone who would disagree with that.

Re:Rubbish (1)

zalle (637380) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911996)

I'd say your post is a case study of what I was talking about. Unfortunately you and most of the people reading probably won't figure out why.

Re:Rubbish (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15912945)

...and I'd say your posts in this thread are a case-study of a /. troll. First of all, the "clueless engineer-journalist" isn't comparing Survivor to a video game. He makes a comment about a common problem in developing a game: getting the difficulty/fun balance right. Then he says he studied Game Theory while developing the idea. This is a /.-worthy topic, as I have seen many stories appear here in games.slashdot.org (notice it's not videogames.slashdot.org?).

I've seen in your posting history that you have on several occasions entered a discussion with an air of intellectual superiority, and then got pwn3d by others who point out obvious mistakes. Get out of your parents' basement and learn to read for comprehension. Someone with mod points please help out here... "insightful" my hairy, dimpled arse.

More detail would've been interesting. (3, Interesting)

Mongoose Disciple (722373) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910237)

This interview mostly seems to be to promote Gold Rush, not that we should be surprised by that.

The bit about Survivor was interesting, but I would have liked to see more discussion about how they tried to change the game over the years to keep up with players who understood its nature.

The most fascinating thing about the first season of Survivor, for me, was that some of the players clearly understood what it would take to win, but many didn't. Starting with the second season and players having seen the game played out once, the game had a very different feel. Reading more about the things they tried to keep it still a thinking game yet unpredictable, what worked and what didn't, would have been cool.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

bigbigbison (104532) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911486)

The key though, is that they pick people who will, in fact, play the game the way they want it played. Once Richard Hatch on the first season embodied the backstabbing and laying style of playing, a great number of people adopted that playing style and the producers of the show have, I can only assume, people that will play that way.

There is nothing about game that requires that you have to be dishonest or backstab. I have thought it would be facinating if once a group of players realized this and said, "look, we are going to be honest with each other. Here are our aliances and here is who we are going to vote out." Of course the flaw of that would be if someone lied about being honest, but at least it would be interesting in that for a while there would be no drama and no secrecy about the vote.
Of course I also think it would be great if the contestants revolted and just said, "No. We aren't going to do your game. We are here. You've spent millions of dollars on setting this up so you can't just kick us all out. We're poor so you aren't going to get anywhere suing us. So we are taking control for the remained of the show."
Neither of these things will ever happen because they screen out people who don't want to play the game the "right" way.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (2, Insightful)

Mongoose Disciple (722373) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911794)

There is nothing about game that requires that you have to be dishonest or backstab.

Requires, no. However, you're kidding yourself if you think selective (and that part is crucial) dishonesty is not key to optimal play of the game.

Backstabbing at a crucial moment isn't the only tool in a Survivor player's arsenal. It isn't the only factor in whether you'd win or lose. It is possible to win Survivor without ever lying or backstabbing. But, all that said, if you are unwilling or unable to use that tool, you're choosing to handicap yourself for no good reason. It's like choosing to never run out of bounds or never to punt in (American) football.

Ultimately, I don't think the producers screen out people who won't backstab, because they don't have to. Survivor isn't the Prisoner's Dilemma; everybody can't win by cooperating. You'll get one or two people each season who are just there to hang out and have fun, but because most of the players genuinely want to win the money, they'll play the game as best they can.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

bigbigbison (104532) | more than 8 years ago | (#15913254)

This is all a moot point, but I'm not entirely convinced that dishonesty is the key to winning. What would be lost if you told everyone before the vote exactly what you were going to do? You could still switch sides and still vote off firends but you could be honest about it and tell them ahead of time. There is still always the chance that this could result in the person you were voting out backstabbing you. However, isn't that always a possibility regardless?

So I don't know that being totally honest about what you were donig would decrease your chances of winning. Of course I don't think it would change you chances of loosing either.

All of this is to say that I'm bored formula of Survivor and all the variations that the show creators have made have not been intersting enough for me.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

Mongoose Disciple (722373) | more than 8 years ago | (#15913686)

What would be lost if you told everyone before the vote exactly what you were going to do? You could still switch sides and still vote off firends but you could be honest about it and tell them ahead of time. There is still always the chance that this could result in the person you were voting out backstabbing you. However, isn't that always a possibility regardless?

There've been at least a few cases over the many seasons of Survivor wherein someone basically did this, and then got voted out due to the reactive actions of someone they let know they were going to vote against. So, yes, it's always a possibility, but in these cases being honest is like buying a whole bunch more tickets for the getting-screwed raffle.

I'd argue that the optimal strategy seems to be to be honest and be seen as honest as long as possible, and then to stick the knife in someone's back only when absolutely necessary to preserve yourself, either directly or indirectly.

It's strange, I find pondering the best strategies for Survivor more interesting than actually watching the show most of the time. Maybe I finally understand art critics.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

mgblst (80109) | more than 8 years ago | (#15917600)

There is still always the chance that this could result in the person you were voting out backstabbing you. However, isn't that always a possibility regardless?
 
This is where you go wrong. The chance of someone betraying you, is a lot higher if they know that you are going to betray them. If you have a large enough group of people, then nobody is sure who is going to be betrayed (you only need to vote one person of) - it is best if everybody thinks that someone else will be voted of. Then they don't feel the need to do anything like forming an alliance.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

Grab (126025) | more than 8 years ago | (#15918179)

The first set of Big Brother contestants in Holland apparently did just that. They kicked back, had a good time and hung out with each other. Come voting time, they deliberately rigged it so that they all got the same, and it was just down to the audience to choose who to send off.

I strongly suspect it was better viewing than the current Big Brother lot in the UK, who bring tedium to new levels.

Grab.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

bigbigbison (104532) | more than 8 years ago | (#15920714)

The first season of the US Big Brother was similar. They did the challenges, but they didn't backstab or anything.
Of course now they've changed it so that the audience doesn't vote but the house guests making it basically just Survivor in a house.

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

funpaul (198404) | more than 8 years ago | (#15922259)

Except that Richard Hatch DIDN'T win by backstabbing and lying.

He won by building the one and only stable coalition in the game, while the rest of the players bounced around randomly, never thinking to build voting blocs.

The only significant lying was that he denied the existance of the coalition, as did every other member of it. He didn't even deny it that vociferously.

In fact, Hatch was one of the most HONEST players of the game ever -- precisely because a pure coalition building strategy was possible in the first season in a way it was not so much as seasons progressed (in part because of tribe swaps and other twists).

Can anyone tell of even ONE incident of lying or ONE incident of backstabbing that Richard was responsible for during the game?

Re:More detail would've been interesting. (1)

CyberPack (577178) | more than 8 years ago | (#15916459)

Shannon Appelcline wrote an article about game design issues in survivor: http://www.skotos.net/articles/TTnT_74.shtml [skotos.net] which might supply some of that missing analytical detail.
There's also a followup article, much briefer, though: http://www.skotos.net/articles/TTnT_135.phtml [skotos.net]

Why Survivor Works (5, Interesting)

GrayCalx (597428) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910523)

Survivor is the one reality show I really like, and have consistently since the first season.

It works so well, in my opinion, because of the length of the "season" and the isolation of the players. It starts out, I assume, like any other reality show; with everyone acting awkward. The loud obnoxious person making an ass of him/her-self. The shy ones hiding out in the background. But over the weeks (the show lasts 39 days i think) as the field whittles down, more of eveyone's true personality comes out and eventually I think it gets as "real" as reality tv can get.

Add to that the fact that it requires a combination of physical and mental strength to win. Winning all of the challenges will certainly get you there, so will aligning with the proper people and really manipulating them. What comes off as bitchy/asshole-ish in other reality shows, really could win you the game in Survivor.

Unfortunately I still hear a lot of people lump Survivor in with any other reality show: The Bachelor, Big Brother, American Idol. But whatever, we don't all have to like the same stuff.

Re:Why Survivor Works (1)

osgeek (239988) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911029)

The way that Survivor is set up, it too often promotes purely selfish back-stabbing behavior. It really brings out the worst in people, and more often than not when there are finally repercussions at the end of the game when the ousted contestants get to vote for the real winner... it's too late. They're stuck with two assholes and having to choose from the lesser of two evils.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer a show like "The Apprentice", where merit is the constant driving force in the game, rather than subterfuge.

During the last episodes of Survivor, I'm normally repulsed at what keeps those people in the game. During the final weeks of The Apprentice, I'm usually rooting for several people and happy to see any of them get their just rewards.

Re:Why Survivor Works (3, Insightful)

MarkGriz (520778) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911359)

"They're stuck with two assholes and having to choose from the lesser of two evils."

Based on that description, and the popularity of the show,
you'd think more people would be interested in politics.

Re:Why Survivor Works (1)

GrayCalx (597428) | more than 8 years ago | (#15912203)

Yeah I guess I agree in a sense. I'm not so sure the show promotes selfish behavior so much as thats been a proven technique to win, but who knows what they're editting out ya know?

And it seems like so far the winner of the show is either the most selfish/backstabbingist person OR someone who made no moves what-so-ever and just squeeked in by not being noticed. Those situations actually tick me off more, I'd rather some jerk who played win over someone who was just there for fun.

But to add to that, something i didn't mention in my first post, was that kind of adds to my intrigue of the show. Some people really pride themselves on playing an ethical game. Others don't, they'll lie, swear on their children, whatever they possibly can to win. It makes it more like a real society in my eyes. And looking at the past winners, there hasn't been one proven method that works. (Though I think you're probably right, in that lying and backstabbing will get you further on average).

Re:Why Survivor Works (1)

mgblst (80109) | more than 8 years ago | (#15917605)

You must be talking about the US version of the Apprentice. They have a version in the UK, full of incompetent buffoons, each trying to talk themselves up while proving that they have no business ability at all. I end up rooting (you must be an ozzie as well) for the least incompetent of a pretty pathetic bunch of fools.

And, at least in the UK version, there is still a lot of backstabbing and blame passing.

Re:Why Survivor Works (1)

mgblst (80109) | more than 8 years ago | (#15917611)

Survivor is a great show, it gets a bunch of people, and puts them in a very difficult situation. That would be enough for a show right there, but forcing allegiances and betrayals adds a whole other dimension. I really wish they showed it here in the UK.

Funny thing is, I know they had an Australian version, and there were probably others, but they were just not as good. Something about Americans being entertainers (or backstabbing bastards - depends how you see thigns)

Wow (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15910621)

What a remarkably crappy article, and what an incredibly poor treatment of game theory, which really is an academic topic.

Oh well.

Survivor is not an original idea (3, Informative)

bigmouth_strikes (224629) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910705)

The concept and the format was created by a British production company. Mark Burnett simply purchased a license to it. The first show produced using this format was the Swedish Expedition Robinson [wikipedia.org] .

Re:Survivor is not an original idea (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15916927)

In one of the Survivor books, it says that Burnett invented the format. He then licensed it in Europe (for Expedition Robinson) when no U.S. network would buy the concept. Once the show worked on Swedish TV, he was able to finally get it on the air in the States.

John Nash's Game Theory (3, Interesting)

AnotherAaron (995504) | more than 8 years ago | (#15910757)

...describes my cube farm almost perfectly. The boss at any one time has one "favorite" and one "target." Every time the "target" gets fired or laid off, the rest of the work group gangs up on one individual and ensures that the individual ends up as the new "target."

I've been here two years and have seen this happen over and over again like clockwork.....I haven't been able to decide whether the boss, who is a big fan of Survivor, is creating this environment on purpose (through knowledge of Nash's theory) or if it's just a product of her being a crank.

God, I so need a new job.

Re:John Nash's Game Theory (1)

spun (1352) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911094)

Oh. My. Lord. I would go completely, Columbine style insane in an environment like that. Two years? You've got thicker skin than me, I wouldn't have lasted two months. I feel for you, man, I really do.

Re:John Nash's Game Theory (1)

AnotherAaron (995504) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911144)

The only reason I've lasted this long is because I get in at 10:30 every day and they all get in around 7. That means I get about 4 hours without any of them in the office.....usually with most of my work for the day done.... If it wasn't for that, I would have gone insane within a month.

Re:John Nash's Game Theory (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#15923736)

Maybe it's on purpose, like in Ender's game, and he WANTS to cultivate some super-machiavellian henchman.

Survivor PC Game... Sucks... (1)

creimer (824291) | more than 8 years ago | (#15911430)

I did some testing on the Survivor PC video game when I was working at Atari. That game sucks big time. There was a lot of QA testers who wanted to be "voted" off that title.
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