Which king was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine? In November 2000, 14 million people stared at their TV screens and held their breath while a 58-year-old garden designer called Judith Keppel tried to answer that question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
I remember watching as a kid and feeling long-distance empathy for the first time. After Keppel gave her answer – Henry II, Aquitaine fans – host Chris Tarrant reminded her she could lose £468,000 before going to an ad break. I didn’t know this woman, but I felt a fraction of her dread as she waited for the gold confetti to fall on her head, and Tarrant to declare her a millionaire.
Seventeen years later, I won a quizshow myself. Unlike Keppel, I played in an office toilet cubicle, sitting with the seat-cover down. The prize wasn’t quite as grand, either: I took home $125 (£95). But the exhilaration was unparalleled.
The show is called HQ Trivia and it has a host, theme music and cash prizes but is broadcast only via livestream on a mobile phone app. Every day, at 3pm and 9pm, a personable woman called Sharon Carpenter asks 12 general knowledge questions. Carpenter has a distinct speaking pattern – a kind of talking-while-thinking style as she fills time without a live audience reaction. Each question has three multiple-choice answers; you just have to select the right one within a 10-second time limit. They start off super-easy – “Which of these places is often referred to as ‘Down Under’?” – and get harder as you progress until question 12, which is essentially a stab in the dark: once it was, “Which of these countries has the highest ratio of women to men?”
After each question, it is revealed how many people got it right. You need to answer every question correctly to stay in; by the final question there are normally fewer than 100 players left. If you get the last question right, your share of the prize is sent to your PayPal account in minutes. Depending on the day, the prize pot can be anywhere from £500 to £300,000.
The key difference between this game and every other quizshow is that everyone watching HQ is also a contestant. In the UK, a game starts with about 125,000 players, although some UK games have had as many as 270,000 join in. HQ also hosts global games, broadcast with US host Scott Rogowsky at more American-friendly times, which average about 1 million viewers, and have peaked at 2.38 million.
Even if you’ve not played HQ before, you might have seen it in your office or at the pub. Because everyone is playing live, there is a Black Mirrorish effect when groups play together, with everyone in thrall to their phones; Carpenter’s face beams out from multiple phones placed on a table, occasionally interrupted by streaming glitches that make her appear almost bot-like. (I was playing in the toilet because it was still early days for HQ, and not yet acceptable to down tools to play. A few weeks later, the entire office seemed to stop what it was doing for 10 minutes, with answers shouted across the room.)
I’ve now been playing for more than six months, since the UK launch in January, so when I meet Carpenter at HQ’s offices in New York, I forget she’s not an old friend and wave her over to the table I’m sitting at as if we’re in a pub garden. She says she often gets this: HQ lets players talk to each other and the host during the quiz, so there is an informality to the relationship. “Obviously us Brits have a very dry, sarcastic sense of humour, and they will not hesitate to lay into me. Once I was a little thirsty before I went on, so I had a mango lassi. People were calling me yellow tongue. It took a while to live that down.”
Carpenter was born in the UK but moved to New York after she left school to do a business degree. She stayed on, working as a producer on various local and financial news shows. Now she juggles a few hosting jobs with the quiz (including a red carpet gig for BBC America) and enjoys the platform HQ has given her. “My background is in journalism, and often my presenting has been pretty strait-laced. There’s only so much room for jokes and that sort of dry humour. I love the fact I can really be myself.”
Carpenter hasn’t been back to the UK since she started working on the show and so has only heard secondhand of how Shazza mania is gripping pubs, offices and common rooms. “I was in Midtown a couple of weeks ago and out of nowhere all I hear is, ‘Shazza, is that you?’ I’m like, nobody in the US knows me as Shazza! This guy comes over saying he’s from the UK for a couple of days and we have to take a selfie.”
Her clothes have also become something of a focal point: unlike the male hosts, Carpenter wears a different outfit for every show and says styling and hair and makeup occupy a huge chunk of her day. When we speak, she is wearing a red strapless dress with a white belt, most likely a nod to the special World Cup-themed game she has just recorded; HQ sent out the push notification to people’s phones just as Harry Kane won that late header against Tunisia. “We had our fingers crossed because it would obviously kill the mood a little bit going into our World Cup-centric game,” she says. “In the end, England killed it and we had a special shoutout from Jesse Lingard.” Lingard, a fan of the game, had sent a pre-recorded message from Russia which appeared during the show. HQ had already secured some high-level celebrity cameos: Robert De Niro, Jimmy Kimmel and Sting have all come into the studio to ask questions.
Winners of the game can also get a taste of viral fame; videos of extreme reactions to getting question 12 right are widely shared. In the most watched, a woman seems close to hyperventilating as she screams and cries on the floor. She won $11.
“People have sent me pictures playing on Eurostar, at a football match or 30,000ft up on a plane,” Carpenter says. “This may be too much information, but we had one big winner in the US who was on the toilet and wasn’t afraid to admit it.” She looks a bit repulsed. I don’t mention the location of my first win.
Perhaps the most surprising part of HQ’s success is that it’s an appointment-to-watch live show, a format we are often told has fallen out of favour, particularly with young people who prefer on-demand services. That captive, live audience is extremely attractive to brands. When it started, the HQ business model focused on raising venture capital investment, then giving it away as prizes; the show now has regular sponsored games, with brands including Nike (it gave away free Air Max), Nickelodeon (Rogowsky got “slimed”) and Warner Bros, which saw stars from its summer films give away huge jackpots.
HQ Trivia was started by Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, two of the co-founders of Vine, a video-sharing app that was bought by Twitter for a reported $30m in 2012. When Vine launched, most social media postings were still text or photos, and Vine’s six-second video loops felt revolutionary, immediately creating a new kind of moving-image format. But the app quickly faced competition from Instagram and Snapchat, and after four years Twitter shut it down. Yusupov appeared bitter, tweeting, “Don’t sell your company!” on the day the news was announced in October 2016.
By that point, the pair had already started a new company, Intermedia Labs. They had piloted a few apps, but nothing that had really taken off. Then they had an idea for an interactive quizshow and started trying out formats in the office, using their small team as guinea pigs.
At the HQ offices, they are oddly secretive, refusing to let me watch a game being filmed in the studio next door. I’m shown the obligatory startup snack room filled with free crisps and cereal bars, then ushered into the conference room. When Yusupov arrives, I try to get a sense from him of what those early months were like – was there a buzz as they realised they were on to something? But he sits with sheets of prepared notes in front of him and two publicists in the room, and seems unable to engage with his own success.
It must have been thrilling, I attempt, after Vine’s demise, to see a new company grow so quickly. “This is very different from Vine,” Yusupov tells me. “Vines were six-second looping formats with sound, they would auto play in the feed. An HQ Trivia show is 10 minutes long, it’s 12 questions… ” He goes on to list the technical similarities, followed by the differences.
I’m surprised that Yusupov is a little algorithmic because HQ bursts with personality from the moment you open it. The push notifications talk to you as if you’re a mate, the graphics recall 90s MTV, and the questions are far from straightforward. You have standard ones where the majority will go for the right answer (“Which of these rivers run through Baghdad – Rhine, Tigris or Nile?”), or where there’s a roughly even split. Then there are questions where the majority will go for the wrong answer, a necessary step to get rid of big swathes of players. On HQ they call them “savage questions”. I’ve called them a few other things when I’m getting close to the jackpot.
When I speak with HQ’s heads of content, it is immediately apparent where the personality comes from. In the US there is Nick Gallo, formerly of The Onion and Adult Swim, the late-night comedy on Cartoon Network. Paul Hurley, a veteran quiz question writer in the UK, heads the UK operation. Both are spiky, enthusiastic and obsessed with perfecting the format.
“There’s a little thing in incorrect answers, I would call them sexy negs,” says Gallo, smitten with the cheekiness of his own phrase. “Negs” are the two incorrect multiple choice answers out of the three options available. “Sexy negs”, he explains, are wrong answers that seem especially plausible. “They make you think, ‘I kinda wanna tap that’, especially when you’ve got three seconds to process, so you spin yourself out.” A sexy neg, he says, is key to a savage question: “One of those could get 80% of the people knocked out.”
There are other rules, too. No questions about events from the past 100 days, no Google-able questions (10 seconds is barely long enough to Google anyway, but just to make sure, all answers after question six do not come up in autocomplete or on the first page of results). There’s also the triple D rule: “We don’t talk about death, disease or dates,” Gallo says. “Numbers are boring, nobody wants to tap a bunch of dates, what year did this happen? Who cares!”
I want to see the magic in action, so I ask Gallo to come up with a new question to show me how it’s done. He barely skips a beat. “OK, so La Croix,” he says, pointing to a can of the flavoured sparkling water on the conference table. “This is very relatable, people understand it,” he says. (La Croix has become extremely popular in the US in the last few years, particularly with the health-conscious California crowd.) “I know one thing is, it was canned in Minnesota but also it’s very popular in Los Angeles, so if we were to write a question like ‘Where did it originate from?’, we’d give you two California negs and Minnesota. I think one of those negs might be a little sexy for you to tap and then might drive you that way.” He’s slightly salivating at the prospect of the imagined player going for a sexy neg, though his La Croix knowledge is not spot-on: it was actually founded in neighbouring Wisconsin.
The question setting is inventive, but in other ways HQ is quite a conservative format. The host dresses smartly, there are no twists or special levels, no opportunities to gamble money you’ve already won. Game apps such as this have a tendency to garner huge buzz and attention, then quickly be forgotten – think of Draw Something, a forgotten online version of Pictionary that was sold for close to $200m, or Pokémon Go, which launched amid a wave of hype about changing the way we interact with the world before everyone realised it was quite boring. How long before people lose interest in HQ, too?
“We’re almost a year in and we’re not slowing down any time soon. We’re seeing steady growth in the UK and the prizes are getting bigger, the shows are getting more exciting, we’re working on lots of new creative features that are going to enhance the experience,” Yusupov says in his PR-speak.
He is tight-lipped about what those changes might be. HQ won’t release demographic data, but Hurley, when we speak on the phone, says he believes the audience skews young. When I ask if HQ might harness this huge audience of millennials in ways beyond the quiz format, Yusupov is more talkative: “Absolutely. We’re able to harness the attention of millions of people every day for 15 minutes at a time and that’s incredibly more powerful than having those same people passively engage with many things throughout the day. We’re interested in talk, reality, news… Gameshows is the focus now, but this type of live interactive format could be adapted to many verticals.”
I think HQ could go down two big potential avenues: a live news show, and a reinvention of the prime-time quizshow. The game they held during half-time of the Super Bowl this year attracted an impressive two million players; but if a version was broadcast on ITV on Saturday nights, with a huge cash prize and Carpenter hosting alongside Ant and Dec, 20 million could be possible. Imagine a TV quizshow, with no contestants, everyone playing at home.
The Americans don’t seem that excited by my suggestion, as they already have a captive audience on their own channel. But Hurley, who wrote for the original Millionaire series as well as The Weakest Link and Eggheads, has a sense of what that would mean in Britain. “That’s what the powers that be are going to make a call on,” he says. “But I can’t see why there aren’t going to be developments that could be very interesting.”
As Yusupov puts it: “We believe, ultimately, content should be interactive and people get more out of content when they’re engaging directly and interacting with their friends.” Unlike other social media technology that claims to bring people together, HQ acts as a genuine catalyst to get people working together. Its future could look radically different, but for now, the best way to enjoy HQ isn’t alone in a toilet cubicle, but with others, everyone screaming at their phones.
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