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The "Deal" World

Game On


Published January 24, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.

As much as we like to talk about games as an interactive medium, the fact is that plenty of us enjoy just sitting there and watching.

How else to explain the popularity of prime-time game shows such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "The Weakest Link" and "Deal or No Deal?" As with sports, sometimes it's just as much fun to sit on the sidelines and cheer and jeer. Sooner or later, though, anything worth watching on television seems to bleed into the world of interactive digital entertainment.

The idea of repurposing cheesy television for gaming content might not light up the eyes of hardcore gamers who are used to original content and blockbuster production values. But it sure sells games. In the week before Christmas, the "Deal" video game was near the top of the sales charts, trailing only "The Sims 2 Pets Expansion Pack" and "World of Warcraft."

So what's the allure? Much like its big brother on the tube, the "Deal or No Deal" game carves the show's formula down to its bare essentials - a contest of nerves and the ability to assess risk. The contestant must select one of 25 briefcases as his or her prize. The case contains an amount of money ranging between one penny and a cool million dollars. Before revealing the prize, the player selects sets of cases to open in order to see what's inside. Whatever shows up in the cases on the stage logically does not appear in the player's prize case. As the mix of possible winnings changes based on the revealed amounts, a mysterious "banker" calls in to offer cash to the contestant to buy out his or her case. The more likely it is that the prize case holds a lot of money, the more the banker offers.

The show's drama revolves around rooting for a contestant to risk more than he or she should, and to let greed drive otherwise sensible choices. Add into the mix a cool, calm and collected Howie Mandel as host, and you have the formula for television gold.

The question is, "Does this dynamic work on the computer screen as well as it does on the big plasma television in the living room?"

While the allure remains, the video game loses much of its excitement. Even with a virtual Howie chattering on about your prospects to take home big money, the game lacks real prizes and the social tension that comes from watching something with friends.

The game's designers have seen this potential problem and have cooked up mini-games and multiplayer options to help keep the format from growing dull. A feature allowing you to load the cases with your own prizes - whether it's foot rubs or hours spent cleaning the house - promises to add back some dramatic tension.

In the end, though, it turns out that while video games and game shows share essential DNA, they remain distant evolutionary cousins. You can move content from the television to the game machine, but that doesn't mean it's more than a novelty.

If you never miss a chance to catch Howie staring glassily at contestants, then this is a deal. For everyone else, "No deal."

If You Like This, Try That: "Family Feud" offers more of the timeless guessing of what "the survey says." You can even create your own virtual family to play along. Silly, for sure. But enjoyable in its simplicity.

Best Part: In a desperate effort to spice up the proceedings and mimic the show, host Howie Mandel makes sure to tell you the name of the (simulated) model opening each case.