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“You’re on Notice, HQ”

Episode 7 of our documentary podcast series, ‘Boom/Bust: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia,’ examines the beginning of the end for HQ Trivia 

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The live trivia app HQ Trivia was once the obsession of the internet, garnering millions of players and an international spotlight. But then it all went wrong. Boom/Bust: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia tells the story of the once-viral trivia app and examines vagaries of the attention economy.

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Robert Martin is what you might call an HQ influencer. Shortly after the game launched in 2017, he created an HQ fan account on Twitter. A bunch of HQ-ties began following it, and his audience grew to almost 17 thousand people.

Pretty soon he became the default source of information for the latest news about the game. HQ employees followed him and would tip him off about future updates. Rus Yusupov even once arranged a call with him to advise against being too publicly critical of HQ.

But aside from occasional complaints about confusing questions or glitching, the whole reason Robert started the account was to cheer on the thing he loved.

“It’s just a perfect mesh of entertainment and game,” Martin says.

Robert’s attitude began to change around the spring of 2019. From the inside, HQ Trivia was more chaotic than ever. Of course, the staff was still grappling with the fact that Colin was gone. But also, an office mutiny was launched and shut down within the span of two months. The company had recently gone through its very first round of layoffs. And now its remaining employees waited nervously as the search for a new replacement CEO began. In the meantime, they were being managed by a new “executive committee” made up of Rus and the heads of production and engineering.

And perhaps most importantly to fans like Robert, HQ Trivia’s star host, Scott Rogowsky, had recently left the company. Pretty soon, Robert’s role in running the HQ Trivia fan account took on a more cynical tone.

“Once Scott left, that was kind of a final straw for me in terms of being a superfan,” Martin says. “The conditions around how he left, and he didn’t get a proper goodbye show … I didn’t feel like HQ really properly addressed why the face of the show is now gone, and once I kind of learned more about it, it just seemed really—I don’t know—kind of shitty, how they went about it.”

His complaints about HQ Trivia didn’t stop at the loss of his favorite host. He was hearing more and more about players who wanted to cash out their winnings but, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t. (Which was actually a persistent issue that has left the company with an F rating from the Better Business Bureau.) And he noticed that the experience of playing HQ—this exhilarating thing that inspired him to fandom and helped him build such a huge following in the first place—was slowly but surely being cheapened.

First, the jackpots were dwindling.

“Cash prizes were not always the same,” says Martin. “It used to be the same amount at the same time every day, and they were offering lower prizes.”

Then HQ premiered a new feature where you could pay for points to reach a certain level and then skip questions.

“Now, players who are more willing to throw down money on this app are gonna have a better time and better chance of winning than the rest of us,” Martin continues.

After that, HQ began handing out something it called “coins” in lieu of money altogether.

“That, to me, I was like, ‘Wow, are they running out of money or something? Why are they not giving away cash anymore?’” Martin says. “That was a big part of why a lot of people got into the game in the first place. The community hated that, and there was no good messaging from HQ around why they’re not doing cash prizes anymore, and I think everybody just immediately jumped to: ‘You’re running out of money, or there’s something wrong.’”

In Robert’s mind, HQ was now an unrecognizable version of a game he once enjoyed. One that was optimized to encourage players to spend as much money as possible, all while the actual cash returns it offered shrunk. It all felt a little unfair, like the game was rigged.

“Now, with this kind of pay-to-win structure, especially a game where you’re winning money, I don’t know,” Martin says. “It really rubbed me the wrong way.”

Scott’s departure, plus all of these changes, turned fans against the company. And, at a certain point, Robert traded his role as cheerleader for that of watchdog.

“Just like, ‘You’re on notice, HQ,’” Martin recalls. “You used to be so great, and now you’re not doing amazing things to your community.”