1vs100-logoWhen Microsoft first unveiled their plan for the “live” 1 vs. 100 adaptation of the NBC game show for XBL a year ago, I was a little dubious, as I suspect many were; certainly the announcement was greeted with a wave of relative apathy. I’ve never watched the NBC series, but I gather it’s something like this: One player plays against 100 players in a multiple-choice trivia game. If the single player gets a question wrong, he’s finished. Each time they answer a question, those in the 100 who got it wrong are eliminated. Every 10 people who are eliminated move the single player a rung up the prize ladder, and they’re given the choice of continuing or cashing out. There’s some sort of “Lifelines”, which are de rigeur in these modern game shows – use the 100’s most popular answer, or the player with the highest score’s answer, etc. If you can beat all 100 you win the big prize. If you fail, the prize money is split among the remaining members of the 100. If you cash out, you get to walk away.

Maybe I’m missing some of the subtleties, but that’s the gist; truthfully, I hate these overwrought game shows with their dramatic pauses, and never watch them. But playing them is different, it turns out, and all I learnt about it I gathered today from playing the Canada-only (more on that later) beta of 1 vs. 100 on XBL, and I was absolutely blown away. This is the first thing I’ve really seen that embraces and explores what the modern age of online consoles could bring us that is unlike what we’ve experienced before.

The XBL version of the game is quite unique; it runs at scheduled times a couple times a week for a couple hours at a time, like a show. A live announcer hosts the show and comments on the action; XBL members playing are sometimes interviewed over their headset mics. It provides an astonishingly community-rich experience, and it does it in a simple way; everyone is playing the same game, but not everyone is necessarily on screen or vying for prizes. Because, yes, you can win prizes in the game – and they’re not insignificant, but cold hard cash – or Microsoft Points, which are pretty much the same thing to a gamer. I should point out that in the beta they aren’t actually awarding the prizes (though participating does enter you into a prize draw), but I’ll discuss my experience as if they were, because I can’t see how the experience would be any different other than that minor point.

When you start playing, you have the choice to play in public or private mode. In private mode essentially you’re playing along, but it’s just a trivia game, and misses the point. If you play publicly, you are randomly selected to be either part of the Crowd, who just play along; the Mob, who are the 100 that the single player plays against; or the One, who is centre stage. I was very impressed that it auto-grouped me with other friends that were playing the game, so we could have a little fun competing with each other for points even if we were just in the crowd. Both Lisa and I were playing on the couch together, and we were both selected for the Mob once; one of my online friends was also in the same Mob that I was. I was never selected to be the One, so I can’t speak for what it’s like from that perspective, but the only difference it really made to us gameplay-wise when a part of the Mob was that we were in the running for prizes, and a wrong answer took us out of the running instead of just causing us to fall behind our group in points. But the neat thing (as I saw on Twitter) is that everyone in the crowd is watching the same 1 player vs. the same 100, instead of us all in our own 150-person game rooms having isolated experiences.

The prizes displayed in the beta are significant. When I was a member of the Mob, the player decided to cash out at a paltry 800 MSP (around USD$10), around 45 people left in the Mob; had she instead given a wrong answer, I stood to win the XBL Arcade title of the evening (N+, about a USD$10 value) and 80 MSP along with the other 45 players. I saw a One cash out at about 20 players left in the Mob for a prize of (I’m pretty sure, I’d just entered) 5000 MSP; that number of points will run you USD$72. I never saw it get close to a 1 vs. 1 battle for a big prize, but at this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in win-a-360 territory. And just so the members of the Crowd don’t feel left out, the top 3 points-scorers in the Crowd also win the XBLA title of the evening. This is for every round, and I’d guess they could run 10 rounds in a 2 hour block or so.

The questions themselves were relatively easy on a question-to-question basis; a couple were as easy as “What kind of vehicle would you find a banana seat on?”, and more than a few were an easy process of elimination for a logical person. But some were on remarkably obscure bits of recent scientific news and pop culture; the real trick with the game isn’t answering a lot of hard questions, but scoring maximum points based on reaction speed and keeping a streak of correct answers up. And of course the questions don’t come from a disc-based database but should be entirely different every game, keeping the challenge up.

The funniest part of the evening was watching the Americans who created false accounts to try out the Canadian beta. While I’m minorly miffed that these 0-gamerscore impostors were taking up spaces that Canadians could have used, it was just too funny to see 18 people in a supposedly Canadian-only beta get knocked out of the Mob for being asked which major restaurant chain sells something called “Timbits”. For American readers, that’s akin to nearly one out of five people in a US-only game getting the question “Which restaurant chain sells the Big Mac?” wrong.

As for the gameplay itself, it wasn’t without hitches – I lost the live announcer for about half the game – but this is an early beta, and it was actually pretty remarkably stable and effective for an early beta based on past experiences. A friend had a tough time getting in but no problems once she did; we arrived to the game about 15 minutes late and had no problem getting or staying in, more than I can say about several XBLA games which I’ve bought in full release.

The best thing about it is the thing hardest to explain; how exciting it was to be part of the Mob, and to be in the running to win real prizes and have my (beautifully integrated) XBL avatar slowly become more visible to thousands as the number in the Mob dwindled, and the possibility that I’d be centre-stage if chosen as the One. It’s a totally different experience than any I’ve had on a game console; I quite felt like I was on the stage of a game show and not sitting in my living room with the flu.

I can’t wait for the full release of the game and plan on making every beta game possible. It’s extremely accessible to players of almost all ages; though they do caution that there’s a bit of raunchiness which may be inappropriate for the very young, the very old can love this game and its simple three-button gameplay. I’m more excited for this game to hit full release than almost any other this year, and that’s saying quite a lot.