On Saturday night at 9 p.m. EST, on the weekend before Halloween, more than 20,000 people pulled out their phones to play a live trivia app called HQ. By Sunday night at the same time, it was up to 30,000.
The app, launched this month, comes from Colin Kroll and Rus Yusupov, the founders of six-second video app Vine, which Twitter shut down last year. Every day at 9 p.m. (and every weekday at 3 p.m.) the app goes live with a multiple-choice trivia game, free to play, hosted live from a studio in New York City.
HQ is fun and addictive—if it actually works without a hitch. (See the above video, in which Yahoo Finance tried to play it live.) In these early days, as the app experiences exponential user growth, it is experiencing serious technical difficulties.
Each game has only 12 questions; as you progress, you can see exactly how many participants are left, and after all 12 questions, multiple winners (often more than 200 people) split the prize money evenly. The prize pool is typically $250 at 3 p.m., $500 at 9 p.m., and gets as high as $1500 on weekends. Users can cash out their winnings via PayPal.
The questions vary in topic, from science to pop culture to language, but HQ also knows its audience is heavy with media and tech people. Over the weekend, there were questions about the HBO show Silicon Valley, Final Cut Pro, and Justin.tv, the service that became Twitch.
For now, the app experience is brilliantly simple: the only thing you ever see on the app are the host, the questions, the answers, and along the bottom during games, a live chat thread that moves dizzyingly fast (a sign of strong engagement) that you can, thankfully, swipe to hide.
The game is very winnable — there are always two or three tough questions, but it’s not at all impossible or unfair. And since it’s multiple choice, you could conceivably slip through to the end having randomly guessed on a couple. The app only gives you 10 seconds to answer from when the host begins reading, so it wouldn’t be possible to cheat by searching for the answers on a separate device.
You can certainly envision HQ adding more bells and whistles (as well as, surely, bonus games for a fee/membership), but it would be wise to keep the interface clean and sparse. It’s only available right now on Apple iOS.
Addictive content + live video
At a time when every tech company is doubling down on short-form live video, from social networking platforms to media brands, HQ is an example of doing it right: in a sense, each game is a live video experience. The experience is, for now, uninterrupted by ads, just the right length (each entire game lasts about 12 minutes), and unobtrusive (viewers have opted in). As Yahoo Finance’s Ethan Wolff-Mann puts it, “This is the game show for the 21st century attention span.”
The game is addictive enough that people are setting alarms to make sure they don’t forget to play. And it can be a group activity: I was at a small house party Monday night, before I had ever heard of the app, and at 8:55 p.m. everyone pulled out their phones to play. Even though each person was on their own phone, we all frantically shouted and argued about the answers, so we were experiencing it together. (If that scene sounds chaotic, it was, but it was also a lot of fun.)
It’s also sticky. The app keeps you coming back, and even when people have been eliminated, they stay to watch the rest of the game (the display shows you how many people are still in but also how many people are watching the game overall), partially because there are occasional “gift drops” where they hand out free “lives” which allow you to keep playing after a wrong answer.
The host cracks corny jokes, attempting to make it a little bit of a comedy routine, but not enough to be obnoxious. For the most part, the host’s banter is goofy and likable.
And HQ, for now (until it inevitably adds more games per day), doesn’t carry the same addictive dangers of other pick-up-and-play smartphone games like Angry Birds or Pokémon Go, because it only happens twice a day at set times.
When there’s no game in progress, there is nothing to see or do on the app. That makes it a relatively manageable guilty pleasure as far as smartphone activities go.
— Mark Cersosimo (@markinhifi) September 26, 2017
On Oct. 30, HQ’s 3 p.m. game never happened. At 3:04, HQ tweeted out that there would be a “slight delay” in the game. At 3:12, it tweeted, “We’re live!” but it was not. By 3:15, it tweeted, “technical difficulties again.” Finally, 40 minutes later, HQ tweeted, “You blew the lid off. HQ is over capacity. See you tonight at 9p EDT for a $500 game.”
If the app continues to fail to meet server demand, it could get crippled by its own popularity. Co-founder Rus Yusupov referenced the failure on his personal account:
Building an app is nothing like using one
— Rus (@rus) October 30, 2017
Short-lived virality: Ello, Peach
As the daily number of HQ participants rapidly grows in this early hockey-stick phase, you might reasonably think of other recent mobile flameouts that went viral for a brief moment before fading.
Ello promised to be an ad-free alternative to Facebook, but became a quiet, artsy community; Peach was a quick-post, bare-bones social network that was hot among media types for a week or two before everyone stopped using it; Yo was an app for saying “yo” to someone; Shots, a selfies-only app that Floyd Mayweather and Justin Bieber each invested $1 million in, is still around but you don’t hear about it much these days.
But those were social networks. HQ, so far, does not make any attempt to be a social experience apart from the moment in which you play it. A better comparison would be Words With Friends, but even that was more of a 1-to-1 experience with a friend, and allowed for chatting. So far, HQ is a single, public, group experience. HQ hasn’t added social features like adding friends and tracking their scores, though such features are easy to imagine.
First, expect HQ to focus on user growth, then expect it to add more features. And then, at some point down the road, expect the app to start monetizing.
Daniel Roberts covers tech and media at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.