Perhaps you’ve noticed your friends or coworkers looking at their phones intently this past week, at about mid-afternoon or late into the evening. Maybe they’ve been yelling out questions like, “Who won last year’s Premier League?” or scrambling to confirm the tallest mountain in the Solar System or gawking at the prospect of knowing which multinational conglomerate was founded in the Netherlands.
If you keep on an eye on new, viral mobile apps, you might have heard of HQ. If not, you should probably go download it right now — if you have an iPhone that is. (The Android version is coming soon.)
HQ is a new live mobile trivia game for iOS from the creators of the late short-form video app Vine. Rus Yusupov and fellow co-founder Colin Kroll combined the classic game show elements of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Jeopardy! with the breakneck speed and scale of mobile gaming and live streaming technology. Each day, at 3PM and 9PM ET, the app comes to life for around 13 minutes. A well-dressed host — either New York-based comedian Scott Rogowsky or British on-air personality Sharon Carpenter — then rattles off 12 multiple choice questions live on camera, while a blisteringly busy live text chat flows at the bottom of the screen.
The questions range in difficulty and jump around in topic, similar to your standard modern trivia game. One question could about early 20th century musicals or current and past members of AC/DC, while the next could concern a recent Vice Media site launch, the Gawker vs. Hulk Hogan trial, or the origins of the JPEG acronym. Get one wrong and you’re knocked out. Answer every question correctly and you’ll be one of a small handful of around seven to 15 people, usually, that splits a $250 prize pool.
There are a number of ingenious concepts baked into HQ, and they’re the types of innovations you might of have thought had long been exhausted. In the era of Silicon Valley corporate dominance, tired pivots to video, and the unending hunger for original content, nothing feels original, genuine, or enticing. Yet playing just one round of HQ is enough to make you wonder why it hasn’t been done before.
Most important is that HQ is giving out real money. For the price of around one tech industry software engineer’s annual salary, HQ can give away up to $500 per day every day of the year and feel but a tiny dent in its cash flow. And by making it free to enter, the app has grown from around 4,000 users per game to more than 16,000 in a single week, with everyone vying for a slice of the pool.
The concept is also simple: multiple choice questions give even the least trivia-savvy people a jolt of confidence that, in the heat of the moment, maybe they could guess their way to victory. The fact that the timer is only 10 seconds from the start of the question, and that the answers don’t show up immediately, makes it very difficult to Google your way to the right choice. From start to finish, the experience just works. It’s well thought out and addictive, and you’ll immediately feel the urge to tell all your friends about it.
In a grander sense, HQ looks a lot like the future promised by “original video content,” the one every tech and media company under the sun has been desperately searching in the dark for. The app is simultaneously a TV show, a mobile game, and an advertising and product giveaway platform. It has the ephemerality of live television, the reach of an iOS app, and the universal draw of a game show trivia contest. It’s precisely the type of video product tech companies like Facebook and Snapchat and media conglomerates like Verizon have been looking for. And it arrived seemingly out of nowhere and blew up pretty much overnight.
If you’ve at all followed the work of Vine founders Yusupov and Kroll, you’d recognize that they were clearly onto something. Vine succeeded not necessarily because it let you share six-second clips to a small network of friends, but because its constraints created an art form for emerging writers, actors, and comedians to experiment with. The best Vine’s were created by strangers, virally catapulted around the internet because they were hilarious and creative. It was a democratized entertainment platform. After selling Vine to Twitter in 2012 and hopelessly watching it wither, Yusupov and Kroll tried their hand a few different video apps, including a live streaming video mash-up app called Hype and a music video making app called Bounce. Neither caught on.
“We love working in video. That’s our thing. We just wanted to make something that people play . . . with their friends and family,” Yusupov told TechCrunch earlier this week, when HQ first started picking up serious steam. So they came up with the idea of a game show. “We all grew up watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. That’s our basis for this kind of stuff.”
The app would incorporate live video, of course, and it would be modeled like classic programs. Yet what makes HQ really stand out in our crowded world of screens is the draw of what’s come to be known as “appointment gaming.” The phrase refers to when game developers give players a concrete day and time to show up for the opportunity to earn something rare.
In the modern shooter title Destiny 2, every Friday a virtual merchant shows up to sell you the game’s most coveted guns and armor. In the AR game Pokémon Go, Niantic’s legendary pokémon events get players to show up in droves to participate in a mass collective battle. And in HQ, you have to drop what you’re doing, mute your phone notifications, and make sure you’re ready to play every day at 3 or 9PM. Appointment gaming is not only a smart trick to get players to show up. It doubles as a clear revenue strategy too.
For HQ, it seems like there are endless possibilities in that department. It’s not at all hard to imagine the advertising opportunities for a bite-sized live streamed show happening twice every 24 hours at the same exact time — all with a reliable stream of viewers that keeps ticking upward with each passing day. In the midday game this past Thursday, which started around 30 minutes late because HQ can barely maintain its server uptime under crushing demand, Carpenter convinced more than 10,000 people to stick around until the end of the game. Only 300 people were playing at that point, yet Carpenter teased a surprise giveaway for only a tiny subset of players after the 10th question.
Brands could sponsor that giveaway, or HQ could toss a mid-game video ad into the mix. The tolerance level of users to withstand advertising in this settling could be alarmingly high, because of the money on the table and the lure of the competition. HQ could get brands to sponsor questions, as Jeopardy! does. It could also add video questions with an advertising bent, social media personality guest hosts, or any number of other product or brand tie-ins that have made their way from traditional TV to YouTube and beyond.
More than anything, though, HQ feels fresh and new. It could just be a momentary blip on on the mobile radar, catching fire only to burn out in a few short weeks time. Game shows tend to do that these days, using wacky concepts or celebrity hosts to try and make something go viral, only to fizzle when the concept is proven shallow and uninteresting. But something tells me HQ is only going to get bigger and more dynamic before any of that happens. And if some players do end up dropping off or forgetting to tune in, there’s a bit of good news — it means more money for the rest of us.
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