The Super Bowl halftime show is the most watched TV event in America. This year, an estimated 106.6 million people watched Justin Timberlake try to squeeze his entire back catalogue into 10 minutes.
That number might have been higher still if it wasn’t for the fact that, during the break in play, 2 million Americans turned away from their TVs and towards their phones, to watch a man called Scott Rogowsky ask trivia questions. The game was free to play, but they were all competing to win a slice of $20,000 (£14,480) – and all they had to do was get 12 general knowledge questions correct.
If you aren’t already playing it, HQ Trivia is an app that feels both terrifyingly futuristic and like something that’s been done 1,000 times before. Available globally, but with separate games aimed specifically aimed at North American and British audiences, it’s basically a game show where everyone watching is also a contestant.
As a UK user, once you’ve downloaded the app it sends you notifications at 3PM and 9PM, when the UK games begin. A woman named Sharon Carpenter then appears on your phone and starts asking questions, each with three multiple-choice answers. They start off super easy – “What are Google’s daily illustrations called?” – and get harder quickly: “Which of these composers only wrote one opera?” “Which Apple product was originally going to be called the tripod?” etc.
With each question, more and more people drop out, until there’s – normally – between ten to 100 people on question 12. However many people get it right split the prize money, which gets sent straight to your Paypal. It’s basically like those pub quiz machines, except you don’t have to put in 50p to play.
I know the HQ system works, because – I am extremely proud to say – that I have won twice. First, $150 (£109) during a lunchtime game I played hiding in the toilets at work. Then, $75 (£54) during a joint effort with VICE magazine editor Bruno Bayley, whose knowledge of boring things about Roman history coupled well with my expertise on which band is responsible for the Gogglebox theme tune (it’s Kodaline, in case you’re wondering).
Already, HQ has become one those weird app phenomena – like Draw Something or Pokemon Go before it – where, as soon as you start playing, you want to tell people about it. Videos have surfaced online of whole classrooms playing HQ, as well as this otherwise sane woman becoming ecstatic when she realises she’s won $11.
It’s so simple that it seems almost bizarre no one had come up with the idea already.
“To say that I saw it coming would be an understatement,” says Tom McDonnell, CEO of Monterosa – the company that invented the popular app that let viewers play along with the Channel 4 gameshow Million Pound Drop, as well as the interactive apps for Love Island and X Factor. “It was just one of those things that, at some point, somebody was going to do, in exactly that format. They’ve executed it in a very impressive way, but I think what’s interesting about it is that everything and nothing has changed. As all gameshow makers always say, people love a good quiz. It’s one of those pursuits that has become ingrained into people, across cultures, all over the world.”
Indeed, HQ has added very little to the traditional pub quiz format. One of the most exciting things about the game, I think, is how crap it is. The graphics are kind of budget; they look a bit like when there’s a chart show on MTV Hits. The format is quite dull – just multiple choice questions, no gambling or double-or-nothing risk-taking. And it’s relatively cheap, a mere presenter in front of a blue screen, although McDonnell assures me the technology and manpower involved will cost more than you might think.
Yet, despite its shonkiness, HQ still feels extremely exciting: I’m in multiple threads about it, I regularly see people interrupting dinners and nights out for it. And if that’s what it’s like now – at its earliest, shittiest incarnation – imagine where this technology can go.
“I think it will be less than five years ’til we have a participatory gameshow on a big network like ABC, that’s for sure,” says Adi Sideman, the CEO of YouNow, a major video streaming network, kind of like the YouTube of live-streaming. “But in terms of the longer term, we’re talking about a virtual reality-type situation where the illusion of participation and the simulation of real life is even stronger. The possibilities there are huge.”
It’s totally possible to imagine popping on an Oculus Rift and feeling like you’re in, let’s say, the Eggheads studio, competing against Kevin and the gang, but with a real prize on the table if you beat not only the Eggheads but all of your fellow competitors. Or a Saturday night gameshow hosted by Ant and Dec, but with no contestants, just everyone playing along at home until it’s been whittled down to just one winner.
HQ is still in its nascent stages in the UK; Tom is quick to point out the Million Pound Drop app was far more popular than HQ currently is, but he agrees that this is the start of something new.
“I think what they’ve done is created the potential for a stream of, well, I wouldn’t call them imitators, because this in itself is not the first attempt at doing this, but I would say they are setting the pace for scheduled live interaction,” he says. “My hope is that this behaviour is something that can be replicated and extended into something more fun. There’s a strong chance that it leads to its own genre: interactive game shows.”
Tom says the big challenge for HQ will be to keep things interesting in the face of new competition. Like Farmville, Fruit Ninja and Draw Something before it, its popularity could shoot up before quickly waning. “How long can you see yourself playing with it? That’s the challenge. Does it need seasons? Do you need to reinvent the interaction?” he asks. “There’s all these questions. Perhaps the reality is, a lot like Quiz Up, it will wane. Perhaps we need to look at these things as periodic: you’re going to get a year out of one of these ideas, and that’s just how life is now.”
Adi is already searching for that next format: he’s recently made it so that developers on the YouNow platform are able to introduce logic and rules-based features into live-streams. He’s hoping that by making the tools available, the next great quiz idea might emerge within the ecosystem he looks after.
“I’ve been doing interactive and participatory video since before the internet,” he tells me. “On CD-ROMs, we’d do [a] Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails create-your-own music video, or create-your-own audio mix and download it to your desktop. When the internet came it was all things like create-your-own MTV music video or create-your-own Super Bowl commercial, things like that. I co-founded the world’s first online karaoke, which we sold to Myspace, and that became Myspace Karaoke. But live-streaming has always been a holy grail of sorts in my circles. At a click of a button you’re already sharing. So we’ve been developing game logic within YouNow, long before HQ, because we always had the vision for participation within the social environment – and within a game designed framework the possibilities are endless.”
For now, there is still a lot of life in HQ itself – with the number of people playing each show nudging up and up. If anything, the greatest danger it faces is that it becomes too popular to make the prize money exciting. Right now on the UK game, most people are still winning $150 (£108) or so if they get all the questions right. On the US game, there are now so many people playing each game (normally over 1 million) that they’re often left to share just a few dollars.
Sometimes, though – just like you get an exciting episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Deal Or No Deal, where a contestant looks like they’re going to go all the way – HQ delivers. In an incredibly tense game on Sunday night, just seven players won $2,142 (£1,549) each. With that kind of money on offer, and that kind of suspense for those who make it to question 12, it’s hard to see people ever reverting to watching traditional TV quiz shows.
Follow Sam Wolfson on Twitter or use his HQ extra lives code: samwolfson