Think about all the quiz show video games you've ever played: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; Deal or No Deal; Who Can Eat The Most Cats?; The Weakest Link. No matter what the license, no matter what the format, one thing is always missing from the action: a real prize. The only games that dispense cash are the ones you find in your local pub - and in most cases the winnings are immediately spent on booze, or perhaps a damp kebab.
It's a problem that has been around for ages. Where is the thrill in answering questions posed by a virtual Chris Tarrant or Noel Edmonds if there's no reward at the end? Well, Microsoft is about to change things - and once they do, it's quite possible that you'll never see a prize-less simulation again. This spring the company is launching a beta trial for 1 vs 100 - a quiz that runs in real-time over Xbox LIVE, with real contestants, a human host and lots of genuine swag to be won. We're talking good stuff too - HDTVs, holiday trips and a chance to go clubbing with Elton John (okay, so I made that last one up. You get the idea.).
In actual fact, there will be two versions of 1 vs 100. During the week you'll be able to jump into something called Extended Play - a sort of secondary edition of the game that will run every 30 minutes, seven days a week. There are no prizes to be won here (boooo!) but the more often that you play and the better you perform, the greater your chance of being picked to take part in the main event (yaaaay!). As a bonus, Extended Play winners will also be entered into a massive prize draw for large prizes that will be given away once per "season" of the show.
As nice as these virtual raffle tickets may be, it's on the main version of the show that you'll have the best shot at actually winning something. The full-blooded incarnation of 1 vs 100 will run twice a week in two hour slots on Friday and Saturday nights and will be hosted by James McCourt (yes, him off the telly). Assuming you're an Xbox LIVE Gold member, you'll be able to set a little reminder on the Dashboard that will prompt you to run the game a few minutes before the show kicks off. Once you've done this you'll enter a virtual lobby where you (or rather your LIVE Avatar) will stand around some of the other participants. At this point you're encouraged to start "amping" - a Pepsi Max Generation-style byword for "going mental". By tapping the Y button your chap or chapette will start to wave, dance and generally act like someone who's overdosed on St John's Wort. The faster you tap the quicker you go, and you can alter your actions by fiddling around with the left analogue stick. It's extremely silly, and is clearly therefore A Good Thing.
Once the show actually kicks off, it's time to cross your digits that you get picked for a decent role. If you've watched 1 vs 100 on TV you'll know that there are two major factions within the game - The One and The Mob. Microsoft have now added a third group, The Crowd, but it's only the first two sides that get a chance nab prizes. In a nutshell the game sees The One attempting to knock out The Mob by answering multiple choice questions, each with three potential answers. Assuming that The One succeeds they progress to the next question, and all the Mobsters who gave incorrect answers are removed from play: if ten people cock-up, the game becomes 1 vs 90, for example.
The One gets bonus points for each Mob member they eliminate, and once they've knocked out 30 or more they'll be offered a prize. At this point the contestant can choose to take what they're offered, or play on and try for something better. If they beat all 100 opponents they get a super-nice prize; if they slip up then the winnings go to everyone left in the mob. In the beta test I got to try, prizes tended to comprise of a mixture of Microsoft Points and a free Arcade game (apparently this will change on a week by week basis).
To help them on their quest, The One gets access to three Millionaire-style lifelines - one of which involves going with whichever answer was most popular with The Crowd. Aside from this brief interaction, The Crowd essentially acts as a play-along audience. You play along, answering questions as quickly as possible, and hope that you get picked for a better role in the next round. If you're in The Mob or The Crowd you'll get bonus marks for answering quickly, but essentially these points merely serve to (slightly) increase your odds of being selected for a good position in the future. There's still an element of randomness to selection, however, so everyone who watches the show has a chance to be chosen; your personal records are also wiped at the start of each week, leaving everyone to improve their odds from a clean slate.
My hands-on with 1 v 100 took the form of the first European beta test of the game, during which I played with a multitude of fellow hacks from around the continent. There was a tongue-in-cheek groan from the press at Microsoft's London office when we were told that there would be no prizes for our demo, but this didn't seem to stop people from getting quite competitive. Most of our questions seemed to be based around UK pop culture - "Who is Tess Daly married to?" "What's the name of the pub in Emmerdale - with the odd bit of politics and general knowledge thrown in for good measure. The difficulty level seemed to be pitched at a relatively fair level, and even if you're clueless you've got a one in three chance of blagging the answer.
Aside from the fact that there's real loot to be had, it's the live factor that makes 1 vs 100 such an interesting proposition. Mr McCourt is the kind of sunny personality we're all used to seeing on the TV, but it's quite odd to have him in the world of videogames. He doesn't scream obscenities at you, call you a noob or question your sexuality; instead he's a friendly host who gives the show a pleasantly sunny exterior - he'll even give shout outs to people who email the studio during a show. Naturally, there's also a touch of that familiar Quiz Show feeling that what you're watching is shallow Entertainment Lite - particularly when the show cuts to an ad break between segments. Our demo merely featured placeholder images, but the final beta will have genuine video commercials to work dark consumer voodoo upon your subtly-weakened subconscious.
Never mind - at least there's shiny stuff and MS Points to be won! To be honest, I think few people could argue that 1 vs 100 is anything other than a very savvy move from Microsoft. The game itself is free (to Gold users) and could easily pick up massive audiences, earning the company plenty of advertising income; at the same time the users won't mind much because it's fun and offers a shot at winning stuff. The only stumbling block I can foresee is that it's probably not that much fun to be stuck in The Crowd, and you'll presumably need to spend a lot of time here to stand any chance of landing a better position. Still, it's a gamble you're getting for gratis. What more could you ask for?
1 vs 100 will launch it first beta on Xbox LIVE in late spring.