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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

How QuizUp took over the world's cell phones

Disclaimer: we were paid to provide roughly a third of the questions QuizUp used in its initial launch, and we also provided paid content for Qrank, also mentioned in this article.

You're a tiny company in a small country, but your app hits #1 on the iTunes store within days of its launch and every trivia fan in the English-speaking world is obsessed with it. What now?

For Thor Fridriksson, the Icelandic entrepreneur who created QuizUp, it's about turning the world's #1 trivia app into a social network, or, as he puts it, "the sort of place where somebody like me can find a wife."

Why you're hooked on QuizUp

After all, with hundreds of topics, people can not only specialize in playing the categories they are passionate about, but meet other people who share that passion.

The game has features that make it easier to chat with or befriend opponents, and many of them gather in the discussion forums dedicated to each of the trivia topics. While some of the forums are dominated by trolls, others, notably the physics form, have become a hotbed for intellectual exchange. Fridriksson is hoping that the people who now supply questions will also volunteer to moderate and improve the forums.

But the main appeal for QuizUp remains the game play. Until it came along, the closest anybody had come to a dominant trivia app for mobile was Qrank, and that app was long gone by the time QuizUp launched.

As Fridriksson says: "I thought nobody had done trivia well on mobile. You had these super popular games like Words With Friends, which was based on Scrabble, and Draw Something, which was based on Pictionary. But nobody had become this dominant player that had done it well on this new generation of devices. I thought with all the possibilities we could make a killer, real-time competitive quiz app, for players all over the world. This was the dream."

To achieve that dream, he and his team at Plain Vanilla created a game in which you can play random people in real time. Or you can play friends, either in real time or when they are able to get on to the app.

Behind the QuizUp code

One of the secrets of QuizUp is that the question selection is not entirely random. The Plain Vanilla team can track how difficult a question is by seeing how many people answer it correctly the first time they see it, which becomes a powerful tool.

"We are experimenting with the algorithm to make the user experience the best we can," says Fridriksson. "When you're starting a new topic we do an algorithm that starts with easier questions. We had tried putting more easy questions in each game, but we got an instantaneous surge of people with perfect scores."

There was a lot of experimentation with the QuizUp formula, especially in the precursor game that was based on Twilight. "In our earlier days we had a system where you would get stars and for five stars you go up a level, but could you also lose stars if you lost a match. We also looked at a system where the points you would get was based on how good your opponent was, but we decided to make it simple and easy to understand with an XP system."

At key benchmarks, you gain titles. You're a Scout at Level 10 in Explorers, and a Surveyor at Level 20. Although each level requires progressively more and more points, some players have nonetheless achieved stratospheric levels. Fridriksson looked at one player, who was level 496, which is just shy of 16,000 matches. Estimating two minutes a match, that works out to roughly 66 8-hour days of solid play.

The average person, in fact, plays 40 minutes a day. And a new feature will rank players with recent plays, rather than overall, as a way for QuizUp to be less intimidating to new players.

It's no Candy Crush Saga, that's for sure

All of this has represented a hit formula. Although the game did some marketing, that paled compared the viral catnip that came baked into the game itself. "Normally people aren't that eager to share their achievements on social media. You don't really want to share with everybody that you just crushed some candy in Candy Crush Saga. You might even be embarrassed about that. But if you get the title of 'Stark' in Game of Thrones, or if you're the best in Virginia in geography, you'll share that because you have a connection to that content. People were getting achievements and banners and titles in subjects they're passionate about."

Since your friends on social media will have similar interests, they become curious about the game and jump on board as well, especially in the beginning, when it was still relatively easy to be the best in your state or country in a given subject.

As a result, the game exploded. Plain Vanilla had hoped they might reach a million users in two or three months. Instead, they had a million users in just eight days. "We're living in a country with a total population of 300,000," says Fridriksson. "We blasted past the population of our entire country in just a few days."

For a small company in Reykjavik, the sudden growth was exhilarating, but also very stressful. On the third day after the launch, the staff threw a party to watch as they hit 100,000 users in a single day. Instead, one of the servers went down, crashing under the weight of all the traffic. "It sounds crazy," Fridriksson recalls. "Myself personally I'm still getting my feet back on the ground to go forward."

Going forward also means continually finding fresh questions and fresh topics. QuizUp has an editorial board that looks at what people are playing and suggests new topics. "We look at which topics work well. We also listen to our users. We get an enormous amount of player feedback. It's like a semi-democracy."

Niche subjects are preferred to general subjects, because specific subjects have more passionate fans. But it takes 500 questions to launch a viable category, and finding 500 questions about, say, a TV show or a sports team, requires going deep into detail that may seem obscure, but which a true fan will appreciate.

The QuizUp team also tries to stay current. "Every day we look at what's happening. During the NBA playoffs we promote NBA topics."

How QuizUp will cash out

These topics are also QuizUp's path to profitability. Currently, you can pay to double or triple the number of points you earn over a period of time, but QuizUp is counting on sponsors rather than players for most of its revenue.

With so much else designed with player experience uppermost in mind, it's probably not surprising that the game is looking at advertising and sponsor participation very carefully.

"I'm inherently against mobile ads," says Fridriksson. "I don't like these banners and these full-screen interstitials that are always popping up on mobile apps. They all seem to be trying to trick you. I think it's a bad user experience."

Instead, Quiz Up is experimenting with branded categories, the best example of which is Earth from Above, sponsored by Google Maps. Players answer geography questions, with the aid of images from Google Maps. "We think this is a win for our users, a win for us and a win for our advertisers. It's a high quality topic that millions of people are playing. Users are having fun and Google has a high-quality ad."

Up next (and something cool about Iceland)

Other innovations are on the way. QuizUp launched its first questions in German, but German speaking players can play Anglophones, who play along with simultaneous English translations. Versions are planned in other languages as well.

The success of QuizUp shows just how far you can go when you put users front and center, but it also shows what can happen when you have a passion for trivia, as Fridriksson does.

In Iceland, the most fevered high school competition isn't sports, it's trivia, specifically a TV quiz show for high schoolers called Gettu betur. Fridriksson's school, Reykjavik Junior College, is by far the most successful in the show's history, and he even tried out for the team. Although he didn't make the cut then, he is definitely sitting atop the trivia world now.

June 2014