Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Power Of Carey

I have a theory about game shows, specifically game shows with an escalating prize fund – they shouldn't be too easy. Being easy is what seems to have killed Identity, the show which featured Penn Jillette as host. In a total of twelve episodes, three people won the top prize of $500,000, and one came close by winning $250,000. The first person to win $500,000 on Identity did it on the first night. Considering how long it took for someone to win $1,000,000 on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The hope and expectation that someone would win the show's big prize helped to build tensions and make the show a big success – at least for a time. The same can probably be said for Deal Or No Deal. People are watching, in the hopes of being able to say that they saw someone win a million on the show. After watching the first episode of The Power Of Ten I have to wonder if the game is too easy.

Certainly the premise of the show is fairly simple. To start, two contestants face off in an elimination round. They are asked up to five questions based on a survey of Americans. The person to guess the closest percentage of Americans who gave the answer that host Drew Carey asked about wins that question. For example, the first question asked was "What percentage of Americans said they have a better relationship with their parents as an adult than they did as a child?" Jamie answered 74% while Maureen answered 56%. Jamie won because the correct answer was 89%. In fact Jamie won the first three questions asked and won the elimination round.

Once the elimination round was complete, the winner of the round gets five questions, again based on surveys of Americans. The first question is worth $1,000 with the prize value increasing by 10 times the previous prize. The question wrong their prize drops by a power of 10. I believe that the reduction is from the prize level that the player currently has rather than the level he is trying to win – in other words if the player has won at the $100,000 and answers incorrectly at the $1 million level the prize received will be $10,000 rather than $100,000. The player can walk away with what they have at any time before they lock in their answer for the next level. The questions are of relatively equal difficulty the modifier for each level is the range in which the correct answer has to fall – the range for the $1,000 question is 40% and it drops by 10% so the million dollar question has a range of 10%. But a million dollars isn't the highest level. The show's biggest prize is $10 million. It is also the toughest level to win. Instead of being asked a survey question at that level the player has to state the exact percentage of Americans who answered the million dollar question from the 10% range. In other words if the answer is 32% and the player correctly guessed that the answer fell between 25% and 35% at the million dollar level, the player has to answer 32% to win $10 million.

There are some nice bits of what we used to call "chrome" in the wargaming community. Instead of a number pad for players to enter percentages they use a handle to adjust their predictions. There are no "helps" but the player has a friend or family member sitting nearby who can give them suggestions of what they feel the answer should be. They also show the contestant what the audience thinks is the correct answer. The audience poll results are presented as a rather nifty combined Column and Line chart – well it's nifty if you're into charts and I sort of am. I also like the way that the graphic showing the actual percentage moves up and down the range before finally settling at the actual answer. Okay, so it really doesn't take much to impress me, but it is fun to watch the contestants in the elimination round grow elated when the "bouncing ball" is closer to their answer than the other players and become crestfallen when it moves the other way. It's a simple pleasure, but it's mine.

The math in this game is rather interesting. In Poker there is an idea known as "pot odds." Essentially you compare the amount of money you have to wager with the odds of you winning the hand based on what you know about the cards you have and the "outs" that will allow you to improve your hand to a winning hand. If the return on your bet is greater than the odds of you winning the hand you should call the bet. In virtually all of the situations in The Power Of Ten the odds favour the player continuing. At the $1,000 level (where of course the player has literally nothing to lose) the 40 point margin of error means that the odds are 1.5-1 (or 3-2) against the player winning, but then the answer to the question is usually so obvious that player is virtually guaranteed to win. At the $10,000 level and a 30 point range, the odds are 3.33-1 (or 10-3) against, while at the $100,000 level and a 20 point range the odds are 4-1 against. Now I'm not sure what happens if a player loses at the $10,000 dollar level but at the $100,000 level, where a wrong answer drops the player down to a $1,000 prize, the player is wagering $9,000 (the difference between what the person "has" and what they'd walk away with if they lose) so the return on the bet would either be 11.1-1 (because the $100,000 is the pot before you put in your wager) or 10.1-10, which makes it a good bet. This also holds true at the $1 million level, where you're risking $90,000 to win a million. The pot odds remain the same, but because the range is now 10 points the odds of winning have slipped to 9-1 against. Even then it is still a good bet. The $10 million level is the really tricky one because I think the producers are playing a trick here. It seems as though there are actually eleven possible answers meaning that the odds are so close to the expected return as to make no real difference. The producers add pressure of course by emphasising that the answer had to be exactly right but in fact it isn't that much different from choosing the correct 10% range from 100 – the odds of getting the right range are exactly the same.

Of course, no one outside of the contestants' families was really watching the show for the actual game, and certainly they weren't watching for the whole business of odds and expectation of return on bets. Virtually everyone watched hoping to figure out just how good Drew Carey would be as a game show host and whether he was the right person to take up Bob Barker's skinny microphone. I'm not great expert, but I'd say that he's likely to do reasonably well. He works well with the contestants and obviously has a good sense of humour. More to the point he seems to be on the player's side. He'll even say when he thinks the player's guess might be a bit high or a bit low – fortunately he doesn't know the actual polling results so he cna only give his opinions. There are a few week points. Carey sometimes seems a bit dependent on the teleprompter, and I find his laugh more than a little annoying. Still, based on his performance on Power Of Ten he shouldn't do to badly when he goes on the big show.

I held off on completing this review until the second episode of Power Of Ten aired so that I could see a bigger sample of the game. In the first episode the first contestant on the show, Jamie Sadler a student at Florida University, won a million dollars. Drew Carey actually joked that the producers never expected anyone to get that high. The two contestants on the second episode seemed to bear this out. Both contestants busted out at either the $10,000 or $100,000 levels (CBS is doing a poor job of updating the show's website so I don't have details that I can refer to). The show is a good platform for Carey to reintroduce himself to the public as a game show host prior to taking over at The Price Is Right. As for the game itstelf I think that you will continue to see people taking the risk to go for the million dollar prize. The odds are not outrageous as far as what you're putting up to potential return. It also wouldn't surprise me to see one or more people trying for the $10 million prize and actually locking in an answer. I am concerned that the fact that it may be too easy to reach that level might hurt viewership. People might get bored if it is too easy for someone to win a million dollar prize.

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