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Is HQ Trivia a modern reinvention of the game show or a glitch-filled scam?

HQ Trivia will never, ever, ever give most players any money. But hundreds of thousands are diving in anyway.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It’s nearly 9 pm, and if you’re like the one million other avid users of HQ Trivia, the new live trivia app from the creators of Vine, you’re itching to grab your phone and play along with all the other “HQ-ties.”

Will you reach the end and walk away with a mildly life-changing sum of money (or even $11)? Almost certainly not — but that hasn’t stopped people from flocking to this curious app-based trivia show. And controversy and confusion over its business model hasn’t stopped venture capitalists from lining up to invest in the game — or rather, it’s only stopped some of them.

There’s no question that HQ Trivia is a hit. But if you’re wary about an app that gives you money (or withholds your money, depending on how you look at it) without asking for anything in return, you’re not alone. From its founders’ history of shady behavior to where the money comes from, HQ is sometimes short on answers.

HQ Trivia took the classic TV game show and turned it into the perfect game for the internet: a group activity you can enjoy alone

HQ Trivia

The concept of HQ Trivia, a twice-daily quiz show that usually airs at 3 pm and 9 pm Eastern, is simple: A friendly host livestreams to you 12 multiple-choice trivia questions. Each round, the questions get harder, winnowing down the participants. If you make it to the end, you and any other winners split that game’s cash prize, which can vary from $2,000 to $10,000, and once even $20,000.

The app appeared to great fanfare in October 2017 from two of the former co-creators of Vine, Colin Kroll, and Rus Yusupov. It’s currently available only for the iPhone; earlier this month a beta version for Android appeared, but there’s no official release date for the full Android version.

HQ Trivia is an elaborate modern-day spin on the traditional televised game show, borrowing from that format the use of live hosts — HQ has several rotating hosts, though the most famous by far is prime-time host Scott Rogowsky — and the anything-could-happen excitement of live programming.

But the show also has to juggle the difficulties of livestreaming in a mobile app format, delivering the instant interactivity that makes the game actually playable. This isn’t always smooth sailing: If the game glitches mid-stream, as it often does, hosts have to vamp their hearts out, in hopes of keeping frustrated players from bailing while the technical difficulties are resolved.

That doesn’t happen very often in televised game shows, but HQ’s frequent technical difficulties do at least heighten the immediacy of the environment and the sense that we’re all in this together.

The game’s connectivity is, so far, its chief selling point. A frequent image touted in media stories about HQ is that of a generic group of co-workers taking a break from the daily grind every afternoon to play the game — a 15-minute diversion enjoyed by all, the modern-day corporate equivalent of “fun for the whole family.”

The stalwart trivia-based game show has been launched and re-launched in every conceivable way, from The $64,000 Question in the 1950s to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the early aughts — and, of course, Jeopardy, the longest-running trivia game show of all. But those shows, as fun as they are to watch, are still passive experiences for the viewer.

HQ Trivia lets you play along at home while connecting with everyone else who’s playing along at home. Because HQ Trivia is a live app with a chat, you can instantly see hundreds of thousands of other players joining, leaving, or reacting to the game (and just as easily make them disappear with a swipe that hides the app’s chat function).

This heady atmosphere is intensified further by the 10-second time limit to answer a question. Anyone who’s played the game has had the experience of Jimmy Kimmel’s aunt, watching the clock wind down while they’re still trying to weigh in with the correct answer — and most of us have probably responded as she did: “Is that it? This is bullshit!”

It all feels not totally unlike a frenzied dystopian reality show, except that instead of winning a ticket to paradise, you just get a tiny amount of cash with nebulous origins and a shower of colorful digital confetti. And, if you lose, instead of getting killed, you just get a vague sense of annoyance and the consolation of knowing that up to tens of thousands of people just lost at the same time you did.

HQ’s breakout star is known for being likably chill. Its founders, less so.

HQ Trivia

The game’s other biggest selling point is its most popular host, Scott Rogowsky. Typically, the game’s hosts rotate through a few regulars, including Sharon Carpenter, Sarah Pribis, and Casey Jost, with occasional guest turns from stars like Jimmy Kimmel. Rogowsky usually hosts the 9 pm slot, drawing the biggest crowds — which has led to him becoming a minor celebrity.

He’s known for his dapper suits, his gallant stalling tactics when the game inevitably glitches, and for this Daily Beast article, in which HQ co-founder Yusupov showed a bizarre, megalomaniacal overreaction to Rogowsky’s attempt to do a basic, get-to-know-you sort interview.

Yusupov threatened to fire Rogowsky for doing the interview, even though both the questions and his responses were about as light and pedestrian as you’d expect from a game show host. (He mentioned liking Sweetgreen salads.)

Rogowsky, by contrast, came across like a pretty chill, nice, cool guy — an image he’s successfully maintained even as his app’s founders have been milkshake ducking it right and left. While Yusupov later apologized for his bizarre freakout over the Daily Beast article, a December investigation by Recode would turn up even more reason to be wary of Yusupov and Kroll.

Recode’s article followed news that the duo was attempting to achieve a valuation of $100 million in a round of venture capital funding for HQ Trivia. Initially, plenty of VC investors seemed eager to sign on board; but Recode spoke to several who confessed they were wary because of the pair’s history.

At Vine and subsequently at Twitter, Kroll gained a reputation for exhibiting “creepy” behavior around women, as well as being a bad manager with an “abrasive” and “abusive” temperament. Kroll only lasted 18 months at Twitter after the platform acquired Vine; he was fired in 2014. Yusupov, who was never given managerial responsibilities at Twitter, was laid off in 2015. Numerous anonymous sources told Recode they were worried Kroll’s reputation might mask instances of sexual harassment — an increased concern for potential investors in the #MeToo era.

Despite this worry, Recode reported in February that HQ Trivia had indeed moved ahead with its $100 million valuation and was vying for a new $15 million round of funding. The round reportedly kicked off with an infusion from a firm founded by notorious billionaire and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Thiel’s affiliation with Donald Trump and his ongoing pursuit of the destruction of Gawker Media has made him a frequently loathed public figure, and the news that he’s now involved in HQ Trivia led to a backlash among some users, resulting in the hashtag #DeleteHQ — though it didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the app’s number of daily players.

Is HQ Trivia a kind of scammy app? Signs point to yes.

This is what the game usually looks like for most of us. Note the half-hour delay in start time, too.

There are other reasons to be wary of HQ Trivia beyond the conduct of its founders — most notably, ongoing questions about where the prize money is coming from, and how the app can make money when so far all it’s doing is purportedly giving money away without advertising or pursuing any visible revenue streams. Yusupov has handwaved away this question by implying that the game’s investors just want to make something fun for now, and aren’t worried about revenue.

“I can’t really speak to it — they’ve got a strategy and they’re figuring it out,” Rogowsky said when asked recently about the app’s financial vision. The app seems to thrive on this breezy uncertainty; it won’t even confirm what the “HQ” stands for. So far, it seems most people are content to play along — literally — with this cavalier disregard for sustainability.

But increasingly, it seems the shine is wearing off. “The hottest trivia game around is a laggy app,” Pajiba recently declared. Indeed, HQ’s constant glitches, lags, and unreliability make winning an unlikelihood, stacking the odds against the player in a game that feels increasingly more like a scam than a good time.

“HQ isn’t fun anymore,” opined the Verge after the game “started to feel gross” when it ratcheted up the prize money despite still having the same unwieldy technical difficulties it had when just a few thousand people were playing.

The Atlantic went even further: “HQ Trivia Is a Harbinger of Dystopia,” it announced, pointing out that the game’s unreal presentation, paired with its ability to pit thousands of users against one another in a frenzied quest for “table scraps,” smacked of a classic cyberpunk-esque society on the verge of collapse.

The coup de grace of the app’s minuscule award handouts: Even if you win, you’ll likely find it very difficult to claim your payout.

This is because until very recently the game had a loophole that prevented you from cashing out until you’d made at least $20 — a catch-22 that ensured people have to keep returning and battling the incredibly small odds of winning a few dollars.

Not only that, but a sneaky clause in HQ’s terms of service mandates that you only have 90 days to claim your winnings — or else you forfeit your entire prize, and HQ can “choose not to award the Prize at all.”

On January 26, seemingly in response to backlash over these stipulations, HQ Trivia announced that it would no longer be enforcing the $20 minimum threshold before allowing players to cash out. The 90-day window to claim your prize remains, however, so if you do manage to eke some money out of the game, don’t sleep on cashing out.

(Vox has reached out to HQ Trivia for comment on this clause in its terms of service — a feat that was made difficult by the undeliverable email addresses strewn across the scant web presence of its parent company, Intermedia Labs. We have not received a response.)

To be fair to HQ Trivia, one argument for the game not being a scam is the fact that the cash pool keeps climbing higher, while the questions keep getting more advanced and the game glitchier.

That means more people exiting the player pool — through either user error or technical glitch — which means those who do make it through to the end have a chance of winning larger sums of money. For instance, on Friday, January 19, just 21 winners split a $2,000 prize, so they each walked away with a smooth, ready-to-claim $95. That’s not too shabby — but given that the game began with nearly 800,000 contestants, it’s not exactly a guarantor of future high payouts.

It’s significant that the lead-in to most stories about HQ Trivia isn’t, “This laggy app run by sketchy founders won’t tell you about its monetization plans, and probably won’t let you take home whatever tiny amount of money you manage to win.”

Instead, the media presentation of HQ Trivia has fallen more in line with TechCrunch’s initial breathless assessment. “It’s simple, but feels extraordinarily fresh and urgent,” Josh Constine wrote in October. “I’ve played just once, and it’s already craveable.”

In other words, HQ Trivia lies at the complicated intersection of technology and sociopolitical dysfunction that seems to sum up much of the modern internet. You say craveable, I say dystopian; let’s call the whole thing app.

This article has been updated to include HQ’s removal of the $20 cashout minimum and additional information about HQ Trivia’s funding.