The mob has many heads, but no brains
-- Thomas Fuller
My evenings usually consist of low-key, routine activities: I rush home from work to catch Jeopardy at 7:00, play a game, catch a movie or some TV with dinner, read, then turn in. Truly, my nights are filled with a kind of excitement that would cause the majority of CBS’s audience to faint. But while most of the night is hopelessly interchangeable, I absolutely must get my 30 minutes’ worth of answering random trivia questions.
When Microsoft launched the New Xbox Experience last November, I was completely on board. The new focus towards Avatars, image-laden menu screens and community-based experiences was certainly a change of pace, but it also marked a willingness to transcend the perception that a gaming console (no matter how robust its media offerings could be) was a game-box, and not an entertainment portal. Crucial to this reimagining was the inclusion of a weekly trivia show which would promote an all-new vision of gaming participation: the Primetime Game.
1 vs 100 was, unfortunately, delayed past the launch of the NXE. But having played the public Beta, I can wholeheartedly say that the affair is a faithful, fun and even nerve-wracking adaptation of a trivia-gaming experience –- one that comes right close to achieving Microsoft’s vision for the console.
Approximately five minutes before the 7:30 show went live, I was allowed to load into the game’s lobby where the host, Chris Cashman, made small-talk and quipped about current events while my avatar cycled through a number of the game’s cheering animations. While bumping my groove-thing, I was paired with 3 other players, forming an impromptu game party. This added an extra layer of competition to the game, as the party vied for the bragging rights associated with the top score. Voice-chat is enabled, so the smack-talk that can be spread amongst friends will no doubt add some comedy to the show. Since I’m a miserly, misanthropic wretch, I did not participate in any reindeer games. I don’t play Jeopardy co-op, and this wasn’t a time to start socializing.
Out of the total number of players present (some 30,000+, as per the host’s count), 100 were chosen to be part of the game’s Mob, and one lucky individual was The One. The rest of the unwashed masses played along to earn sweepstakes vouchers good for Zunes, cash, or some other sort of delayed Microsoft-branded gratifier. The One holds no power over the virtual realm, nor is he given a bitching trenchcoat or glasses. The One is, however, pitted against the Mob’s collective intelligence for a prize bag full of Microsoft moon-money. The more Mobbers eliminated, the higher the purse – up to 10,000 M-dollars, which is roughly $125. At various stages, studio breaks interrupted the flow of questions. Game stats, advertisements, and the host were on hand to give the audience a short breather. The One was eventually asked if he or she would like to stop playing and keep the current prize money. If the Mob managed to best The One, the winnings were divvied up amongst the remaining players, leaving the unfortunate star of the game with nothing to show for his efforts.
I imagine the game takes on a new life when you’re a part of the Mob. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Questions ranged from a variety of topics, from sports to game-centric trivia (Michael Phelps’ favorite NES game is Legend of Zelda, by the way), though it seemed the batch used for that night was a bit on the too-timely, too pop-culture side. Players lock in an answer using the X, A, and B buttons, with extra points awarded to particularly fast responses. The window to chime in is measured in scant seconds, so there's no room for Wikicheating. Once the answer is in, it’s immutable, so there were occasional moments of remorse or head-slapping idiocy when I failed to read the answer thoroughly.
As it turns out, the Little Green Hornet is not the same as Little Jack Horner.
For the one or two curve-balls tossed towards the players, it was surprisingly engaging to see just how much of the crowd gets eliminated. Dejected avatars are backlit by a scarlet light and the anonymous portraits used to enumerate the crowd are ticked off the screen as the tally works its way up the ranks towards the grand prize. On particularly impressive errors, the count will pause for a moment before rapidly nixing a number of players. The effect can be awe-inspiring and exciting, if a little telegraphed. Flourishes like that make it clear that the game-show psyche is being tapped into on a bestial level.
Even though I was at no point part of the lucky 101 on stage, there was still a modest amount of fun to be had seeing how far I could go without breaking an answer streak and playing against my party-mates. In later rounds, the excitement wrenched up as The One inched closer to the 10,000 prize and the Mob dwindled to the single-digits. In the hour and a half that I played, I witnessed a One-on-1 fight that ended with a double-disqualification, and one that saw The One triumphant over his hundred peers.
But this being a Beta, no actual prizes were awarded. Bummer.
Still, the essence of good entertainment –- drama, tension, tragic loss -- was there. For something that’s being sold as a perk to Gold membership, it’s not half bad. The experience is meant to draw people to the 360 in a new manner. It’s a Wii-like social lubricant meant to lighten the image of gaming, and in the process, make It so that families turn to the 360 semi-regularly as a staple of fun.
But Primetime gaming is essentially gaming-by-appointment. In an era where TV viewing habits are becoming increasingly streamed, time-shifted and DVRed, it would seem contradictory to launch a game service that requires a person to plan ahead to participate.
That it’s doing so in the guise of trivia gaming is, frankly, an enlightened move. As results flow across the screen, as the boxes housing players gradually blink out to show that they’ve selected the wrong answer, as colored lights sweep the stage, we’re reminded of the neo-trivia shows shepherded in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? These are shows that rely upon meticulously coordinated lighting and audio cues to enhance the event’s tension, shows that rely on a nameless, massive audience hanging on the results of the last question, muttering answers at the distant competitor. The line between game and show blurs with all the technical pomp and flash, and it’s captured accurately here. And if you want to be a part of it, you have to make time for it.
The game isn’t without its hitches, though. The much-touted Live Host hardly provided any color commentary during the game or the increasingly boring breaks, reducing his presence to something like an occasional improv commercial. Upon resetting every round, a voiceless avatar introduces the game mechanics for all the viewers at home. Prime opportunity from some comedic riffs from the host, no? Nope, sadly. There’s also a bit to be said about the wording of some of the items. One answer, centered around an upcoming film, noted that the protagonist was formerly employed as “a porn actress.”
Call me a prude, but that’s a bit of an oversight for something that’s supposed to usher in a primetime, family mode of gaming. I can almost hear Rabbit and Elysium being confronted with “what’s a 'porn,' daddy?”
But the flaws in execution are mercifully few so far, and there are worse ways to play with strangers online. The stories trickling out of E3 suggest that Microsoft is positioning the 360 as a kind of go-to for all kinds of techie needs. In that respect, it’s a bit of a downer that 1 vs. 100 wasn’t around with NXE last winter to cultivate the kind of public interest in these expanded social networking capabilities. Still, 1 vs. 100 seems like it has the potential to be one of the Xbox’s more entertaining features to come along, and it appears to be a lock for the kind of party-game/couch-surfer status of hits like Rock Band or Wii Sports.
I'm not sure that it'll knock Jeopardy off of my evening checklist just yet, but rooting for the 10,000 MS Points was an admirable substitute for the nightly quiz show, and a pretty effective debut for the Primetime brand.