Remember HQ Trivia? It’s trying to make a comeback

In this photo illustration, an HQ Trivia logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(CNN) — HQ Trivia brought joy — and some cash — to millions of people, but despite the game’s virality, the start-up behind it struggled. Now, that company, HQ, is trying to make a comeback with new games and a subscription service.

On Thursday at 8 pm ET, HQ will debut HQX, a new game in which users participate in photo challenges. A host presents a category — like “Best Baby Yoda Impression” — and players have 35 seconds to take and submit a photo. Viewers then have 60 seconds to vote by swiping left or right. The six players who receive the most likes by the end compete in a final challenge and one is declared the winner.

Unlike HQ Trivia, players on HQX won’t initially be awarded cash prizes. But they can earn virtual coins, which can be used in HQ’s other games for a chance to win cash.

In the coming weeks, HQ is launching another show, HQ Drop, where a host demos products and interviews customers. It’s similar to the shopping channel QVC, but viewers can buy instantly through their phones.

Turmoil at HQ

When HQ launched in 2017, its first game HQ Trivia quickly attracted millions of people across the US and Canada who stopped whatever they were doing twice a day to play trivia live on their smartphones. But over the next year, the game’s popularity faded and its parent company was hit with a series of setbacks.

There was internal turmoil, including a dispute among the board of directors over which co-founder should be CEO and then a human resources complaint alleging aggressive behavior by one of those co-founders, Colin Kroll.

The other co-founder, Rus Yusupov, served as CEO at first but Kroll took over for three months before passing away in December 2018 from a drug overdose. In the wake of his death, Yusupov was reinstated as chief executive, a move that prompted a mutiny by employees. In February, Tinder CEO Elie Seidman joined HQ’s board of directors. The board said it would conduct a search for a new CEO. Yusupov, who remains CEO, declined to comment on the search.

And in April, fans revolted over the departure of iconic host Scott Rogowsky. Many members of HQ’s founding team have since left the company. Others were laid off as HQ grappled with declining venture capital funding.

Growing competition

HQ has more competition now than it did when it launched HQ Trivia two years ago. The pool of potential HQ players might well be creating videos for TikTok or watching Disney+ now. Other apps have been experimenting with live interactive video, including dating app Tinder. Facebook, for its part, has seemingly paused its efforts to compete directly with HQ.

This isn’t HQ’s first attempt to break through beyond HQ Trivia. In December 2018, HQ launched HQ Words, a “Wheel of Fortune”-like game. With the launch of HQX and HQ Drop, HQ will have seven shows, four of which are trivia games: HQ Trivia, HQ Sports, HQ Tunes, HQ After Dark.

But none them are reaching the level of viewership HQ saw during its first year and a half. On Wednesday, about 100,000 people played HQ Trivia at 9 p.m., a paltry headcount compared to the millions who played when the game was going viral.

But a smaller audience for a single game doesn’t necessarily spell the end of HQ. Yusupov told CNN Business that HQ plans to launch 20 new shows in 2020 and viewers “should expect to see us experiment with different capabilities.”

“Since Colin and I founded the company, we really set out to develop this network of live interactive shows on mobile phones,” Yusupov said. “We’ve gotten our groove over the past two years and building out these building blocks. We believe that we can grow new audiences and get new types of players through the new formats.”

Indeed, people who love trivia may not be the same ones who enjoy crosswords, and neither of those groups may want to participate in a photo challenge. Yusupov told CNN Business he expects HQX to “appeal to the social media generation.”

As a co-founder of the now-defunct video app Vine, Yusupov is quite familiar with social media and how it has evolved from a space in which people share personal content with a small group of friends to one in which they’re sharing with large, global audiences. “People are now thinking, ‘Why am I sharing to social media?'” Yusupov said.

HQX’s photo challenges are similar to the way some people use the video app TikTokbringing their own creative takes on memes and vying for likes.

“While Instagram is considering removing likes from their platform, we’re embracing it,” Yusupov said about the Facebook-owned photo app’s recent move to hide likes. “With HQX, we’ve created a format that’s all about being rewarded for your creativity and getting that reach and recognition. I don’t know if people will become famous on it, but I’m excited to see where it goes.”

Finding new revenue streams

In addition to launching new games, HQ has been trying to diversify its revenue streams. In-app purchases are HQ’s biggest source of revenue. HQ sells extra lives for its trivia games, and it will sell “boosts” on HQX so players’ photo submissions get shown to more voters. An HQ spokesperson told CNN Business that company has made nearly $6 million from in-app purchases so far, up from $5 million in July.

HQ’s second biggest revenue source is programmatic ads, which it introduced in August. HQ started making money through sponsored shows and still does so with recent promotions for DraftKings and the Netflix show “Magic for Humans.” While those deals require lots of coordination, programmatic ads are an easier way to make money.

HQ plans to introduce a subscription service in 2020 where players can buy extra lives in bulk and get access to other features. Yusupov said HQ originally intended to launch that service sooner but chose to prioritize releasing new games first.

Ben Sheats, HQ’s vice president of engineering, told CNN Business that his team is motivated by which new formats they will support next. HQ Trivia’s original challenge was not just to provide a live stream to millions of people, but to have them interact by answering a question.

“Part of the foundation of this company is that entertainment can be so much more than just a passive experience,” Sheats said. “We have these very fancy devices in our pockets that we use every day and just using them as a display screen seems wasteful.”

Instead, HQ’s team aims to engage audiences through other smartphone capabilities. With HQX, users are prompted to use their smartphone cameras to play the game.

“I’m really interested in the microphone and the types of interactivity that it can unleash,” Yusupov said.

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