Formats Unpacked: Game Changer

Why the ultimate game show format is one that changes format every episode

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This week, Matt is unpacking a format that is all about formats - a meta or super-format, perhaps. If you don’t know about it, you’re going to love it. On to the unpacking!

What’s it called?

Game Changer (TV show)

What’s the format?

Game Changer is pretty much the perfect format for us to unpack, as it’s a format about formats. It looks like an ordinary, even cliched, game show, with deliberately retro production design and theme music. But there’s a really important twist - the contestants don’t have any idea what game they’re playing. They have to start playing to learn the rules of the game format for each episode, and every episode has a completely different format.

As host Sam Reich says at the top of every show; “The only way to learn is by playing, the only way to win is by learning, and the only way to begin is by beginning.”

What’s the magic that makes it special?

If you’re a fan of formats, puzzles, game culture, or comedy, there’s a lot you’re going to love about Game Changer. It’s nerd heaven. But there are three things I love about it that I want to unpack.

Firstly, the way it understands and plays with our knowledge of formats is sublime. We often say at Storythings that formats are like heuristics for our attention - we understand and remember the formats we like, and if we recognise them in new formats, it makes it more likely we’ll give them our attention. Game Changer uses our internal format memory bank as the core mechanic in the show. The first third of each episode sees the players react to the clues around them- the set design, props, questions, and the enigmatic host Sam Reich - as they struggle to understand the rules of that episode’s games. As the audience, we don’t have much more information than the players, so it’s a joint discovery process and we share in the many little ‘aha!’ moments as the game reveals itself.

This ‘learning by playing’ structure is fundamental to video game design, and the early part of each show is like being dropped into the first level of a console game, with the players exploring and probing the landscape to discover the rules and goals. I don’t think Game Changer would have worked in the late 20th century peak game show era it visually resembles - both the players and the audience need to have the shared experience of sandbox video games for the format to work, and that is something that has only become part of mass culture in the last few decades.

Secondly, the dynamic between the host and the players is balanced beautifully between frustration and support. Sam Reich is the only one who understands the rules of the game, and the players are often driven to extreme behaviours as they try and work out what is going on. But he is also quick to recognise and share in their successes or improvisations, so it never feels like an antagonistic relationship. Again, the model for this relationship comes not from traditional TV formats, but from games.

Game Changer is part of Dropout.TV, a spinout from the failing College Humour network that has become a rare success story for indie media startups. The contestants on Game Changer are all part of the growing, inclusive community that Reich has built around Dropout since he took it over in 2020. They all share backgrounds in improv comedy and game-playing; some of Dropout’s other shows, like Dimension 20, are recordings of Dungeons and Dragons style role-playing game sessions. In those games, the DM, or Dungeon Master, plays an important role in revealing the game to the players as they explore the world, something echoed in how Sam Reich hosts this game show. Game Changer is the format you get when a bunch of D&D playing comedy nerds decide to reinvent the game show, bringing to it their deep understanding of game structure, improv and play.

Finally, the show is just very, very funny, and this has been critical to its success. The players are all from Dropout’s collective of improv comedians, so the way they play and test the boundaries of each game show format creates hilarious and, crucially, shareable moments. Dropout made the decision to base their business model on subscriptions to their own VOD service, not to rely on advertising from bigger social platforms. This means they have to constantly attract new audiences and convert them to paying subscribers. Game Changer has been a big part of this, using TikTok, Instagram and other vertical video formats to share bizarre and hilarious clips that drive new subscribers. This is a great example of what Ryan Broderick from Garbage Day has called superformats, a way of breaking down formats into a constellation of elements that can be shared across platforms to drive new subscribers. Superformats are quickly emerging as one of the most viable growth models in our post Traffic-era web, and Game Changer is a great example of how to do it.


Favourite Episode

There are six seasons of Game Changer so far, and as the show has developed, the games have become more devious and convoluted, breaking out of the studio to make the real world part of the game. Season 2’s Sleeper Agents had the contestants running around outside the studio asking random members of the public questions to try and trigger a code that would awaken them as sleeper agents. Season 5’s Escape The Greenroom didn’t even let the players get as far as the studio, locking them in the green room until they realised they were already in that episode’s game. In the most recent season, Deja Vú is a brilliant format that showcases their complex game design, with the players repeating a series of seemingly random rounds of questions in a kind of time travel loop, until the whole structure of the show threatens to collapse. It’s format nerdery at it’s finest, and we at Storythings whole-heartedly approve.

Similar formats?

The mix of comedy and game playing makes Game Changer an obvious companion show to Taskmaster, and Sam Reich has talked about his admiration for the show and his fellow host/game designer Alex Horne. Both shows share a love of all things nerdy and silly, and they both reach their heights when players do things in situations that are weirder than even the games designers themselves could have imagined. They are both, in the end, about the sheer joy of creativity, improvisation and absurdity, and that is why I love them both.

Thanks for reading,

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format get in touch. Or if you’d like to talk to us about content strategy and production, we’d love to hear from you.

See you all next time,

Hugh

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