Thinking App

Locally developed brain game 'Qrank' gets competitive

(l-r) Scott Laing, Max Pozderac, Michael Baird, Rodney Gibbs, and Jacqueline Hughes of Ricochet Labs
(l-r) Scott Laing, Max Pozderac, Michael Baird, Rodney Gibbs, and Jacqueline Hughes of Ricochet Labs (Photo by John Anderson)

Sports and games might push the human animal to its greatest physical and mental feats, but they also tend to bring out the worst interpersonal tendencies of players. Head-butting, board-upending, tantrum-throwing, and vitriolic Twittering are all part and parcel of real, American competition of varying modes. When it comes to quiz games, it's arguably most important to make sure that the person next to you knows who is mentally superior.

What's stopped many electronic quiz games from capitalizing on the Trivial Pursuit crowd is the inability to let others understand just how completely familiar you are with the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, baseball pitchers of the Seventies, or obscure Academy Award winners. These days, thanks to the fine folks at Austin-based Ricochet Labs and their Facebook/iPhone app Qrank (pronounced like the slang word for illegal amphetamines), you can post your score on Facebook for all your friends to see or, for the classier ilk, let the leaderboards speak for themselves.

To understand Qrank and why it's rocketed from an Austinite to an American obsession in mere months, first you'll need to download the free app to your Facebook page or iPhone (other smart phones will receive Qrank support in the coming months). Choose 15 of the 20 questions separated into such categories as entertainment, sports, literature, and politics, with material often ripped from the previous day's headlines. Harder questions are worth more points, so, for truly impressive scores, stay away from the easy ones. They're beneath you anyway. Each question has four options, and the sooner you choose the right answer, the more points you get. Finger warm-ups are recommended. Use the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-inspired power-ups to help you along the way. Now, the score is tallied up and placed in the hierarchy of intelligentsia, wherein a sense of self-worth will be either bolstered or dashed. Taking the top spot on the leaderboard is no mean feat, considering there are 200,000 users clawing their way up the ranks. After that there's waiting until the next daily game, where you can defend your crown, redeem yourself, or solidify your residence in Idiotopolis.

"There's something about going head-to-head with someone you admire or respect or hate," says Rodney Gibbs, CEO of Ricochet Labs. "I've had five dozen people say, 'I play every day because I want to beat [Texas Tribune CEO and Editor] Evan Smith.'" The desire to outsmart local notables and national personalities is something that struck Gibbs at the game's release during South by Southwest 2010. The release party was called "The Astronaut vs. the Monkey" and pitted local gaming legend and rocketman Richard Garriott against Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. Gibbs also called in a favor to old college pal and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League to participate.

Qrank's creation owes an even greater debt to the Drafthouse in that the movie-house's short-lived trivia game Mondo Trivia – complete with buttons between seats to input answers – was instructive in terms of what works and what doesn't work. As in: Event- and location-specific trivia works. Hard-wiring individual seats and trying to get questions from a third party not accustomed to such high demand does not work. Other lessons Gibbs learned: Trivia heads are hardcore. They will attend every night if the questions are fresh. This led directly to the daily updates that set Qrank apart from most other quiz apps, which come preloaded with questions. That means when they run out of questions, you're out of luck. With Qrank, you just cool your heels for 24 hours.

Thinking App

Believe it or not, there are those who don't want to use quiz games solely to humiliate the people they love. Various organizations have contacted Ricochet Labs hoping to use Qrank for their own unique purposes. Test prep companies want it to engage their clients, universities are looking to take rivalries to the next level by pitting whole schools against one another, and even researchers working for the U.S. Department of Education want Ricochet Labs to help make an anti-drug quiz. (The irony of a game called Qrank being used to deter drug use is not lost on Gibbs.)

But what if the person next to you is waxing intelligent and you want to put them in their place right then and there? Qrank is the app for that, too. Sync with nearby folks and challenge them to one of the quizzes that start every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Find a Qrank spot around town, or just create your own wherever you are and start insulting the brain capacities of strangers to encourage other players to join. And just like that, you've made your very own quiz contest in the break room at work or in line at the DMV.

If strangers and co-workers aren't giving you a challenge, the real trivia-minded come out to places and businesses that host quiz nights using Qrank. Home Slice Pizza has weekly games, and the Texas Tribune hosts a monthly event that draws 80 to 100 people (likely all looking to put the mental smackdown on Evan Smith).

The overlord of Qrank questions is Daily Content Editor Max Pozderac. The brain-burners come from three places: a trivia warehouse for the general questions; Pozderac, who writes the current-event questions; and the suggestions of players. Questions can be submitted online, but please remember, as Pozderac puts it so eloquently, "There's a difference between a trivia question and a trivial question." In other words, keep the Harry Potter minutiae to yourself. Gibbs recalls how Pozderac worked his way from star Qrank player to king of questions: "He was just a player and a trivia nut. He plays trivia all over town. He started submitting questions unsolicited. He said he was looking for an internship, so we said come on in." After a few month on the job, Pozderac got a feel for what players don't like. For one, theme games. People like their trivia general and not all about sharks (as Ricochet Labs did for Shark Week). Turns out that sports earns the title of most contentious category, with people either complaining about its inclusion or bemoaning the absence of a category that gives enthusiasts an edge.

Gibbs is looking into adding channels to the game through partnerships with the media. A sports quiz brought to you by Sports Illustrated? Entertainment Weekly presents an all-movie quiz? Nothing is certain, but the possibilities are there, and Gibbs is exploring them all.

Unlike so many apps that ingratiate themselves onto your phone or Facebook page with the goal of doing nothing more than trying to keep you playing for as long as possible, Qrank requires just a few minutes a day and players (hopefully) finish feeling smarter than when they started. If you don't, prepare to hear the heckling tomorrow.

Max's Tips for Better Qranking

Thinking App

Daily Content Editor Max Pozderac shares a portion of his seemingly endless tricks of the quizzing trade.

It's Better To Be Right Than Quick: "Read the question and read the answer choices instead of just picking the one that feels right."

"Read a Fucking Paper": "It's the easiest thing to be moderately informed."

Check the Hints: "You don't have to friend us. You don't have to follow us. You don't even have to be on Twitter. Just Google Qrank and Twitter, and we give away two hints." To be clear, find one clue on Facebook and one on Twitter.

Know Your Difficulty: "Realize that the obvious answer to a hard question could possibly be wrong. If it's an easy question, it will likely be the most obvious."

Don't Pick All the Easy Questions: "That's a sucker's bet."

Don't Wuss Out: "There are so many people who start the game and don't finish. They get to question 14 and say, 'Oh no, I can't let my friends see my score on a game that means nothing and that will be gone by tomorrow.' You need to lighten up."

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Qrank, Richochet Labs, Rodney Gibbs, Max Pozderac, Tim League, Richard Garriott

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