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    Trivial Pursuits: The Rise of Chinese Quiz Apps

    Online brainteasers lure new players with big prizes that they have little chance of winning.

    Since the popular game “HQ Trivia” hit app stores last July, copycat developers have sought to roll out similar products in China. The concept is simple: The app gives users a daily test comprising a series of multiple-choice trivia questions. Players have around 10 seconds to answer each question. If they answer correctly, they advance to the next round; if they get a question wrong, they are eliminated from the game. The more questions you answer correctly, the more money you stand to win.

    Chinese venture capitalists, including Prometheus Capital chairman Wang Sicong, Qihoo 360 founder Zhou Hongyi, and Jinri Toutiao founder Zhang Yiming, have launched their own online trivia games. Other companies, including the Quora-like Q&A platform Zhihu, have started hosting similar games on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app. Using interactive models to pit friends against each other, these apps have built up a significant user base.

    Live trivia games have won over investors not with particularly revolutionary business models, but rather because their model is already mature. Developers quickly drew up algorithms to determine the optimum relationship between question difficulty, total prize money, and participant interest, and they use this knowledge to control the risks involved.

    The wide variety of TV quiz shows and call-in radio programs is ample evidence of the enduring popularity of trivia games. In traditional shows, a small prize is usually enough to convince quiz aficionados to participate, while organizers profit from sponsorships and product endorsements. Crucially, the questions must not be too hard, or else they frustrate participants and sap their motivation. But they must still be challenging — otherwise, players will think anyone can win. People enjoy meaningful pursuits, and quiz players derive meaning from knowing interesting nuggets of trivia that the majority of the populace do not.

    The shift from traditional quiz shows to trivia apps hosted on social networks has brought about a number of changes, not least the expansion of the potential player base. In the past, the majority of quiz players could only listen helplessly as a lucky few phoned in or made it onto TV. Today, however, anyone can take part, because the internet and the widespread use of smartphones have greatly lowered the barriers to participation.

    Some skeptics believe online trivia games are unsustainable, and that the frenzied influx of capital will create an economic bubble that will inevitably burst and bring about a wave of bankruptcies. They also argue that trivia apps rely heavily on a gaming model that is fast becoming obsolete. They have a point, but iconic cultural practices are often exceptions to this rule. Franchises like the Star Wars series, the Harry Potter books and movies, and the NBA have long lifespans because rapid commercial success is not the standard by which their sustainability and influence are judged. Similarly, quiz shows like “Jeopardy!” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” are so much a part of the national psyche in other countries that it is difficult to see them ever falling out of favor.

    From an investor’s perspective, the barriers to launching new quiz apps have grown significantly in China. Whereas earlier trivia programs would require five- or six-figure investments, today’s startup cash can run into the hundreds of millions of yuan. This is because as the games’ target audiences have grown, new games must offer even higher sums of prize money as an incentive.

    But to savvy investors, there is little risk involved in a mature product like live trivia games, as almost all the variables are controllable. For these investors, the goal is to build hype, bring in players, and make as much money as they can before cashing out at the right time.

    And it’s easy enough to create hype in China. An endorsement from someone famous, like Wang Sicong — the heir to one of China’s wealthy property conglomerates, Wanda Group — is usually enough to herald hordes of new players. It doesn’t matter if the likelihood of winning the jackpot is vanishingly small; the majority of players will still be willing to play the trivia lottery.

    With each winning of 10 or 20 yuan ($1.50 to $3), gamers only grow more convinced that they will eventually hit the jackpot. But in the background, game designers are constantly adjusting the size of the prize pool and the difficulty of the questions, to control the amount of prize money they actually have to give away. If companies want to boost advertising revenue, they make it easier to win, thereby increasing participation rates; then, if their costs get too high, they dial up the difficulty.

    In a culture that lauds intellectual achievement, trivia games are seen as a meaningful way for players to test their brainpower. But such deep-seated cultural values are insignificant as far as business is concerned. Advertisers bring revenue, marketers create the illusion of meaning, and developers tweak ever-smarter algorithms designed to ensure that the house never has to part with the cash prizes it dangles before credulous players. Humans are, after all, gullible creatures. Although we know deep down that we stand almost no chance of winning, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are the exception to the rule when, time and again, we only reinforce it.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A group of gamers use a quiz app on their smartphones in Shanghai, Jan. 22, 2018. IC)