It’s easy to feel that a strange new future has arrived upon opening the free app for the first time. The game — currently available only on Apple devices, though an Android version is scheduled to arrive around Christmas — features a counter in the corner of the screen that ticks up as people log on to play at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern Time on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends. (Its highest number of concurrent viewers was 240,000 on Nov. 26. For comparison, the exploding watermelon that BuzzFeed live-streamed on Facebook last year reached just over 800,000 concurrent viewers at its peak.)
The show, which can be glitchy, is typically hosted by an energetic comedian, Scott Rogowsky, who cracks jokes as he asks a dozen multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty. Players use their touch screens to respond in less than 10 seconds, and the app shows how many people are eliminated after each round. Players can also share their reactions via a rapid-fire chat function at the bottom of the screen.
It can make one cringe to see what questions lead to a “savage” (translation: major) elimination of players. For example, at least 20,000 people were unable to identify the correct spelling of “embarrassed.” But the app tests a range of knowledge: Carson Daly, the former MTV host, posted on Instagram that he was excited to be an option for “Who co-hosted the first season of American Idol with Ryan Seacrest in 2002?”
Early questions tend to be on the easier side, like: “Which president is featured on the U.S. one dollar bill?” Those who answer all the questions correctly share in a prize that has fluctuated between hundreds and thousands of dollars and is distributed via PayPal.
Mr. Kroll, a Twitch fan, said that much of what people knew as live video from apps like Twitter’s Periscope lacked a sense of urgency and participation.
“There’s a point-of-view live, where you’re experiencing something through someone else’s phone, and then there’s this idea of interactive video, where the audience is actually a key component of driving the content,” he said. “I became really interested in the latter and saw there was a real absence in the market of that sort of experience.”
It’s of note that for all the investment Silicon Valley has made into live video — a bid for the billions of ad dollars that remain locked in TV — HQ is a New York product. Mr. Yusupov said HQ could “only be built in New York or L.A.,” because the inspiration comes from Hollywood-style production values, not software. (Their start-up is called Intermedia Labs in a nod to interactivity and media.)
“We schedule our lives, but the apps on our phones have been designed to make content available anytime, anywhere,” Mr. Yusupov said. “We suffer from the paradox of choice ultimately — you search Netflix for 20 minutes and end up watching nothing.”
Mr. Kroll added that HQ’s schedule was inspiring people to play with co-workers in the afternoon and again with family and friends in the evening, making it more akin to a broadcast TV program.
“It’s a little bit trite to say, but things grow because they’re fun,” said Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners. “This is way more fun than playing a quiz game on your phone and way more fun than watching ‘Jeopardy!’ on TV.”
Still, whether HQ can turn its sudden popularity into a long-term business is an open question. Could it ultimately serve as a blueprint for bigger tech companies that have been looking for ways to drum up interest in live video content? Mr. Kroll and Mr. Yusupov were hesitant to share details around how they produce the show and what, if any, parts of HQ could be patented. They also declined to disclose the number of people they employ.
Such guardedness is perhaps understandable in a landscape where companies like Facebook are quick to replicate good ideas from competitors on a massive scale. (See, for example, Instagram Stories.) But the lack of transparency caused some trouble for HQ recently, when Mr. Yusupov told The Daily Beast that it was “completely unauthorized” to write a profile of Mr. Rogowsky, even threatening to fire the host if the article was published.
“I learned what I do know, and that’s apps and engineers and designers, and I learned what I don’t know, which is how to work with talent and celebrities,” Mr. Yusupov said. He added that the company had since hired a public relations representative and a person to manage talent.
The men said that HQ had been approached by a bevy of ad agencies and chief marketing officers but that they were still determining how sponsorships could be worked into the app. Mr. Yusupov said brands could potentially fund the prizes, adding that a goal was offering a $1 million prize.
Mr. Liew said he was confident in the start-up and its eventual business plan even as he expected other companies to mimic what HQ Trivia had done.
“You have to let time talk and figure out how people are interacting and using something before you have clarity with a business model,” he said. More important, he added, “if you can become part of popular culture, you can figure out a way to make money.”