If you’d asked me two weeks ago how I felt about the live trivia app HQ, I would’ve told you I loved it. I like trivia generally, because I like puzzles and I like to win. Before HQ launched in October, most of the trivia games I played took place at dark bars with big groups of friends, everyone trying whisper the answers just loud enough to be heard over 90 decibels of music, but not so loud that competing teams could eavesdrop. If we won, the prize was usually a gift card to the bar we were already sitting at, or a pitcher of beer.
When HQ came along, with live games every day at 3PM and 9PM ET, I thought it’d be the perfect way to play trivia without having to wrangle together a group and stop at an ATM. At first, it was. Each game, composed of 12 questions, only lasted around 10 minutes. The host, Scott Rogowsky, looked like an adult Cabbage Patch doll: wide-eyed and energized by the mere mention of trivia. And the fact that HQ offered a small cash prize (in the beginning, it was around $100 to $250, split among the winners) was a nice bonus.
The app, the latest release from the creators of Vine, has managed to grow quickly despite some early bad publicity, with hundreds of thousands of users logging on to the online trivia game show every day. The startup is currently looking to raise venture capital money, and is seeking a valuation anywhere from $80 to $100 million, according to a recent report from Recode. But as HQ’s popularity has grown, so have its cash prizes, ruining much of the game’s original appeal. What used to be a strange, joyful, and sometimes dumb live game, has turned into a place where users battle for entry into a venture capital firm’s wallet.
This past Sunday night, HQ offered its biggest prize yet: $10,000. Around 400,000 people joined the game, a number the app clearly wasn’t equipped to handle. The game never loaded for me, or for the friend I was with. HQ has been glitchy and laggy since the beginning, but with a prize this large, the technical problems felt more like a taunt. An hour later, I received another notification from HQ: in an unprecedented move, there was going to be a second game that night, also with a $10,000 prize attached. HQ, the live trivia app that sometimes feels duct-taped together, was giving away $20,000 in a single night, and ignoring the game felt like turning down an amount of money that could change my month, if not my year.
Winning HQ at first was largely a matter of luck, because it’s a one-strike game, and the questions eventually get arcane or esoteric enough to bump most people out. Because you only get 10 seconds from the start of each question to choose your multiple-choice answer, Googling often felt like more trouble than it was worth. But now that winning a game of HQ could net you something like $500, cheating feels almost compulsory because your competitors are doing it, too. A friend recently told me he Googled his way through 11 of the 12 questions, making HQ seem more like a search engine literacy game than anything else. HQ hasn’t addressed how it will deal with cheating or bots as its user base grows, maybe because it might be impossible to eliminate anyone who tries to game the system.
If HQ were still fun, cheating wouldn’t seem like that big of a deal. But it’s not fun. It’s people with a lot of money luring people — teenagers and adults — to their product by graciously allowing them to compete for some of that money. From the start people have compared HQ to something out of Black Mirror, but the ballooning prizes make it feel particularly dark: a VC firm tossing down dollar bills at hundreds of thousands of people, many of them likely trying to Google their way to a small financial cushion.
It’s like a deranged version of scratch-off lottery tickets, where you have to tune in at the same time each day, or you won’t win. There’s a guilt that can come from ignoring a $10,000 prize: it could be so easy, the app seems to say, to just have a little more.
The purpose of HQ is to make money (Vine died because it couldn’t figure out how to monetize), but HQ’s bonus structure encourages users to only open the app during the high money points of the week. A $1,000 bonus on a Tuesday will draw far fewer players than a big Sunday night bonus would, because the game doesn’t matter as much as the money. Stabilizing the daily prize would let players focus more on the game, and, at the very least, wouldn’t force me to think about how Silicon Valley has more money than it knows what to do with as I’m falling asleep at night.