New technology enables thousands of people to play simultaneously using the Xbox Live online gaming network.
The future of video games is starting to look like the past of television.
Microsoft this week is launching an interactive version of the game show "1 vs. 100," which aired on NBC from 2006-08. But it doesn't resemble any other video game on the market.
There's an affable, wise-cracking host telling cheesy jokes in real time. A camera swoops over the cheering audience toward an anxious contestant hoping to win a prize. There are annoying commercial breaks. And it airs twice a week, at 7 p.m. Fridays and 5 p.m. Saturdays for a 13-week season.
At a time when more and more television viewers are watching programs using DVRs and Hulu, Microsoft's new game embraces the old-fashioned TV model of scheduled, advertiser-supported live events.
1 vs 100, like its televised namesake, is a trivia contest in which a single contestant, the 1, tries to eliminate as many of the 100 as possible by correctly answering questions they get wrong. But the video game version isn't made for 101 people. It enables hundreds of thousands to play together simultaneously via the Xbox Live online gaming network.
And unlike all the other games on display at the E3 conference this week, where 1 vs 100 is being shown, it's free. Revenue comes from sponsorships and 30-second commercials.
"Gaming is usually a premeditated experience where you know what you want to play ahead of time," said Manuel Bronstein, director of 1 vs 100. "We wanted to create an impulsive experience that players might discover in the same way they flip on the TV and browse the channels."
The game is designed in part to attract women and older participants who aren't interested in chart-topping games like Grand Theft Auto IV. If they like it, they might see the Xbox 360 less as a game console and more, Microsoft is hoping, as an entertainment device anyone can enjoy.
Bronstein said that Microsoft chose 1 vs 100's time slot just like a television executive would: by analyzing when people use Xbox 360s most often and what the competition would be on the networks.
Though it's not the first video game to include paid advertising or enable thousands of people to play simultaneously, 1 vs 100 is the first major console title to rely exclusively on sponsorships, including commercials, for revenue and the first to bring together up to several hundred thousand people at once for a scheduled event.
Its many differences from traditional video games were apparent in a recent Canadian beta test. During a two-hour episode on a Saturday evening, approximately 10,000 people were playing simultaneously. While traditional games make the player the star, 99% of 1 vs 100 participants were in the virtual audience watching the 1 and 100 answer multiple-choice questions such as "Who of the following has Johnny Depp not been engaged to?"
Though they weren't available in the beta test, prizes are mainly downloadable games and videos from Xbox Live.
It was like watching a game show, except instead of shouting out an answer, "viewers" participated. If they answered enough questions correctly and quickly, they won a prize. If they played long and well enough as part of the twice weekly audience or in practice sessions Sunday through Thursday, they could earn a virtual spot on the stage.
For now though, they were watching players with online handles like "RookT12," "mgarcia 28," and "keybored," whose cartoon-like digital avatars were sweating in the spotlight.
During breaks, the live host provided commentary and conducted phone interviews with
contestants. Though his avatar resembled a generic slick game show host in a suit, he's actually stand-up comedian Chris Cashman, who was speaking from Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., surrounded by the production crew that runs 1 vs 100 and writes up-to-date questions.
"We see this as a replication of the show on another platform," said Joerg Bachmaier, senior VP of digital media for Endemol, which owns 1 vs. 100. "Except now it's more active. Nobody is just sitting back and watching."
Microsoft's Bronstein said that after deciding they wanted to use a game show as a regular event on Xbox Live, he and a team met with Hollywood production companies including "American Idol" maker FremantleMedia and "Survivor's" Mark Burnett Productions before settling on Endemol and "1 vs. 100" because of its social elements.
Building the game took more than a year, partially because of unique technical hurdles. While 1 vs 100 isn't as massive or expensive as titles like Halo 3, many of the systems necessary to support it are entirely new.
"Making sure hundreds of thousands of people see the host and answer the questions at the exact same time and handling prizes and all the things associated with cheating made for an interesting technical challenge," Bronstein explained.
Making money from the game was another hurdle. Microsoft initially considered charging players, but eventually committed to advertising. Two major sponsors, Sprint and Honda, agreed to pay around $1 million each for regular ads and in-game placements of their brands. Microsoft is also trying to sell other marketers single or occasional commercial spots.
It's not just like TV, though --
1 vs 100
has seven or eight minutes of ads per two-hour episode, the same number networks runs in a half-hour sitcom.
With lower rates and fewer ads, 1 vs 100 likely won't earn as much in its entire season as a single episode of "CSI." But as a programmer, Microsoft is still in start-up phase. Think of it as Fox in 1986.
With Season 1 launching this week in the U.S. and Canada, and versions for the United Kingdom, France and Germany coming soon, Microsoft is trying to build an audience not just for its show, but a general concept called "Xbox Primetime."
"We started with 'Primetime' as a vision for programmatic interactive experiences and now we're focusing our efforts on making 1 vs 100 successful," Bronstein said. "As we learn from it, we might have the opportunity to bring a lot of other things together."
In other words, one day Microsoft might not be showing off its latest Xbox project at E3, but at the TV upfronts.