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  • David J Bodycombe

How Not to Give Away a Million - it's all in the format design

Game-show guru David J. Bodycombe reveals techniques for keeping a big money quiz show within its prize budget.


BBC One’s new Saturday night format ‘The Wheel’ joins ‘The Wall’ and ‘Rolling In It’ to continue the trend of game shows built around large props. As these machines are genuinely random, how can a format designer be sure every contestant doesn’t become an overnight millionaire?

The first question to ask yourself is: what pattern of results are you aiming to achieve – and offer a broadcaster – over a run?

Feel-good family shows might be content with most contestants winning a modest prize. Daytime shows like ‘The Chase’ stretch their budgets by offering decent amounts but only to a percentage of players. Primetime games can offer millions, but only if jackpots are rare, and balanced out by enough small wins.

One way of keeping the numbers manageable is: keep the format simple. If a game involves only 10 events (questions or decisions), then there are only 11 possible results to worry about. For instance, there are many ways the balls in ‘The Wall’ can bounce around to land in the middle pockets, but it’s much harder for them to go to the far left or right. In a ‘10 question’ quiz, there are many ways to get 5/10 right but only one way of scoring 0/10 or 10/10, so most games will stay within the central spread of results, with only the occasional outlier. This causes a probability pattern called a ‘bell curve’.

With more complicated formats, office run-throughs can give you a good sense of how the game might play out but they will only take you so far. Spreadsheet simulations, or even rolling ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ dice, can let you play out a game many more times than would otherwise be possible. For example, if your questions are pitched so that they are answered correctly two-thirds of the time by the contestants you cast, this can be replicated by rolling a standard gaming die: numbers 1 to 4 indicate the contestant got the answer right, rolling a 5 or 6 simulates a wrong answer.

For big-money games like ‘Deal or No Deal’ and ‘Press Your Luck’, where the current status of the game depends on knowing the previous events, specialist help may be required.

I’m often asked to assist producers with balancing a game show so that the average pay-out stays within budget. In this circumstance we use computers to run a ‘Monte Carlo’ simulation that plays the game thousands of times. While random at heart, most mechanical props can be modelled by a computer program. As for contestants, we make sensible assumptions to mimic their behaviour in terms of tactics and play/pass decisions.

The output from these simulations is revealing. It can tell you the average pay-out per show, how often jackpots are won, how many people leave empty-handed and how often draws happen. It can also warn you when seemingly minor format tweaks can massively affect the potential win.


One of the pitfalls of designing such a computer program is to forget the human element. In particular, the money you have at stake is not the same as its emotional value (which economists call the Utility). For instance, the increase in someone’s utility from $0 to $1 million is much larger than it is from $1 million to $2 million. That’s why ‘Millionaire’ and other shows offer a double-or-quits gamble to keep the contestant playing. However, as we saw on the Drew Carey show ‘Power of 10’, producers have to be careful that the prize jumps are not so steep as to be unaffordable for the broadcaster.

Despite all these techniques, there remains a tiny probability that every show will have a jackpot winner. However, by now the risks are both quantifiable and small enough that they can be offset using insurance policies.

David J. Bodycombe is MD of media consultancy Labyrinth Games Ltd who works with the Format People.

Picture credit © BBC / Hungry McBear

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