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HQ Trivia launches HQ Words tonight under reinstalled CEO – TechCrunch

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HQ’s expansion beyond trivia emerges from beta tonight, but the question is whether it’s different and accessible enough to revive the startup’s growth. HQ Words opens to everyone with today’s 6:30pm pacific broadcast within the HQ Trivia app after several weeks of closed beta testing of the Wheel Of Fortune-style game. The launch will be the first big move of Rus Yusupov now that’s been officially renamed CEO a week after the tragic death of fellow co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll, HQ confirms to TechCrunch.

“Intermedia Labs introduced the world to a category defining product, HQ Trivia. Once again, with HQ Words, Intermedia Labs is poised to captivate the world with a revolutionary experience that will bring people together in new ways around live mobile video” Yusupov tells us. “HQ Words is the most interactive experience we’ve ever made.”

Kroll’s passing comes at a tough time for HQ. Its daily player count has declined since it became a phenomenon a year ago. The novelty has begun to wear off, and with so many experienced trivia whizzes, cash jackpots are often split between enough people that winners only get a few bucks. Interrupting your days or nights to play at a particular time can be inconvenient compared to the legions of always-available other games. Yusupov, who was HQ’s CEO until Kroll took over in September, will have to figure out what will attract casual crosswords players and those who flocked to Zynga’s Words With Friends — the kind of disruptive thinking Kroll excelled at.

“Colin and I shared many incredible life moments over the last 7 years. We embarked on an incredible journey co-founding two breakthrough companies together – and the lessons we learned at Vine and HQ will continue to have a big impact on me. Like many relationships, we’ve also had our challenges – but it was during these challenging times that Colin’s kind soul and big heart would truly shine” Yusupov wrote in a statement about his co-founder that was originally published by Digiday in a touching memorial post. Between building Vine and HQ together, the pair have reimagined mobile entertainment, giving millions a chance to show off their wits and creativity. “He had this incredible ability to make everyone feel special. He listened well. He thought deeply. But above all, he cared about people more than work. The driving force behind his innovations was the positive impact they would have on people and world. Colin’s innovations and inventions have changed many people’s lives for the better and will continue to impact the world for years to come.”

HQ Trivia’s co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll passed away earlier this month

How To Play HQ Words

In HQ Words, players compete live to solve word puzzles by correctly choosing what letters are hidden. You can find the game inside the existing HQ Trivia iOS and Android apps. Host Anna Roisman pluckily provides a clue and then dispenses hints as the 25-second timer for each puzzle counts down. If the clue is “gemstone” and you’re shown “_ _ _ m _ _ _”, you’ll have to tap D, I, A, O, and N in any order. Choose three wrong letters or fail to fill out the words and you lose. You’ll spin a wheel before the game starts to get one letter that’s automatically revealed each round.

Make it through ten rounds and you and other winners get a cut of the cash prize, with the three who solved the puzzles fastest scoring a bigger chunk of the jackpot. The startup earns money through selling you extra lives inside Words, though it will probably feature sponsored games and product placement like Trivia does to pull in marketing dollars. Words will go live daily at 6:30pm pacific after Trivia’s 6:00 game, so you can turn it into HQ hour with family and friends.

HQ Words is much more frenetic than Trivia. Rather than picking a single answer, you have to rapidly tap letters through a combination of educated and uneducated guesses. That means it really does feel more interactive since you’re not sitting for minutes with just a sole answer tap to keep you awake. And because it doesn’t require deep and broad trivia knowledge, Words could appeal to a wider audience. The spinner also adds an element of pure luck, as a weaker player who gets to auto-reveal a vowel might fare better than a wiser player who gets stuck with a “Z” like I always seem to.

Fill In The Blank

The concern is that at its core, Words is still quite similar to Trivia. They’re both real-time, elimination round-based knowledge games played against everyone for money. Both at times feel like they use cheap tricks to eliminate you. A recent Words puzzle asked you to name a noisy instrument, but the answer wasn’t “kazoo” but “buzzing kazoo” — something I’m not sure anyone has ever formally called it. Given the faster pace of interaction, even tiny glitches or moments of lag can be enough to make you lose a round. An HQ Words beta game earlier this week failed to show some users the keyboard, causing mass elimination. The pressure to get HQ’s engineering working flawlessly has never been higher.

The phrasing of some HQ Words answers seems like a stretch

HQ originally agreed to let TechCrunch interview Kroll about what makes Words different enough to change the startup’s momentum. Yusupov was supposed to fill in after Kroll was sadly found dead last Friday of an apparent drug overdose. He later declined to talk or provide written responses. That’s understandable during this time of mourning and transition. But HQ will still need to build an answer into its app. Meanwhile, Chinese clones and US competitors have begun co-opting the live video quiz idea. Facebook has even built a game show platform for content makers to create their own.

HQ could benefit from a better onboarding experience that lets people play a sample game solo to get them hooked and tide them over until the next scheduled broadcast. Mini-games or ways to play along after you’re eliminated could boost total view time and the value of brand sponsorships. A “quiet mode” that silences the between-round chatter and distills HQ to just the questions and puzzles might make it easier to play while multi-tasking. Head-to-head versions of Trivia and Words might help HQ feel more intimate, and there’s an opportunity to integrate peer-to-peer gambling like ProveIt trivia.  And branching out beyond knowledge games into more social or arcade-style titles would counter the idea that HQ is just for brainiacs.

Around the height of HQ’s popularity it raised a $15 million funding round at a $100 million valuation. That seems justified given HQ will reportedly earn around $10 million in revenue this year. Gamers are fickle, though, and today’s Fortnite can wind up tomorrow’s Pokemon Go — a flash in the pan that fizzles out. Words is a great bridge to a world outside of Trivia, but HQ must evolve not just iterate.

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WoW: Lich King player hits level 80 just 9 hours after “Classic” server launch

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Naowh explains how he got to level 80 in Wrath of the Lich King Classic in just a few hours.

When it comes to World of Warcraft‘s long-demanded “Classic” servers, players understandably want an experience that’s identical to the MMO experience they remember from years ago. At least one player has taken that concept to an extreme this week, using years-old exploits to reach the level 80 cap on Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King Classic (aka Wrath Classic) servers mere hours after they launched.

Streamer Naowh and his compatriots at Echo Guild announced their level 80 speedrun achievement on Twitter early Tuesday morning. As Naowh explains in an accompanying video, the rapid leveling takes advantage of a bugged Icecrown boss that continually spawns mobs of undead zombies. A player can “tag” those zombies with a single attack, then get full experience for defeating all the zombies when the next mob spawns in.

Naowh said he practiced this method in the live retail version of World of Warcraft before the launch of Wrath Classic servers Monday. “It’s still the same to this day in retail,” Naowh said. “I’m surprised no one has noticed this.”

Naowh combined this exploit with another that makes use of four dead level-one characters in his group. Since these low-level players can’t receive experience from the high-level mob, all the group experience from the fight goes to Naowh. Together, these exploits let Naowh gain experience points at an astounding rate of 1.8 million XP per hour, letting him make the usually grueling run from level 71 to 80 in just under nine hours.

The more things change…

Naowh’s exploit-driven push to level 80 brings to mind similar methods used when Wrath of the Lich King came out in 2008. Back then, a popular player named Athene was banned from the game after hitting level 79 during a 13-hour post-launch marathon play session.

Athene’s strategy wasn’t exactly the same as Naowh’s but made use of a similar mob-tagging bug that let players get full “solo” experience points for mobs that are actually destroyed by an entire high-powered group. Athene loudly claimed that the mob-tagging method they were using was not a bug, saying its use “was confirmed by Blizzard GM Aegeoth to be perfectly legal in the game.”

Enlarge / Back in 2008, Athene claimed they got pre-approval for a similar mob-tagging exploit before being banned.

Hours after Athene’s ban, a player named Nymh became the first fully confirmed player to hit level 80, an achievement we wrote about on Ars Technica at the time. That led to widespread community discussion of whether Athene’s ban was justified and whether mob-tagging abuse really counted as exploit abuse.

Blizzard, for its part, seems to have recently implemented a “stopgap fix” to prevent Athene-style mob-tagging in Wrath Classic. Perhaps recognizing this history a bit, Naowh acknowledged the possibility that Blizzard might revoke his own record and reset his character for using other exploits to power-level.

“People are doing all crazy type of mob-tagging… and shit, and they’re allowing that,” Naowh said. “If they want to set an example and roll me back because I did something sneaky, I’m not gonna be mad about it… It’s really pushing the limits. If Blizzard feels like it’s too much, I’ll take it…. It’s up to them.”

For now, though, Naowh can revel in having the first level 80 character on the Wrath Classic servers at a time when countless other players are still patiently waiting in queues to log in. And if that achievement reset happens, Naowh says he’ll simply see it as another achievement. “Imagine if we get world’s first [level] 80 rollback as well,” he said. “Then we’d get two world’s firsts in one day!”

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HBO Max drops first teaser for The Last of Us adaptation

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Pedro Pascal stars as a hardened survivor in HBO’s new series, The Last of Us.

A traumatized survivor of a zombie apocalypse must face hordes of the “Infected” to protect a teenage girl who might hold the key to a cure in The Last of Us, a new HBO series based on the blockbuster action/adventure game of the same name. HBO just dropped the first official teaser, giving gaming fans their first look at this long-awaited TV adaptation.

(Some spoilers from the game below.)

The Last of Us game from Naughty Dog debuted in 2013 to pretty much universal acclaim for its narrative, gameplay, visuals, and sound design. Ars senior gaming editor Kyle Orland called it “a thrilling, beautiful, exceptionally human zombie apocalypse story” in his 2013 review. The game sold more than 1 million units in the first week of its release and won multiple gaming awards. It’s still often cited as among the greatest video games ever made. Co-showrunner Craig Mazin called it the “Lawrence of Arabia of video game narratives.” Naughty Dog co-President Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed the original game, co-wrote the first season of the TV series with Mazin.

The game is set in 2013 in the 20-year aftermath of a deadly outbreak of mutant fungus that turns humans into monstrous zombie-like creatures (the Infected, or Clickers). The world has become a series of separate totalitarian quarantine zones and independent settlements, with a thriving black market and a rebel militia known as the Fireflies making life complicated for the survivors. A hardened smuggler named Joel is tasked with escorting a teenage girl named Ellie across the devastated US, battling hostile forces and hordes of zombies, to a Fireflies unit outside the quarantine zone. Ellie is special: She is immune to the deadly fungus, and the hope is that her immunity holds the key to beating the disease.

There were a couple of failed attempts to adapt The Last of Us for a film before HBO Max announced its TV adaptation, which purportedly covers the events of the game as well as some aspects of the sequel, The Last of Us Part II (2020). Unlike the recent film adaptation of another Naughty Dog game, Uncharted—which told a new story within the game world—Mazin said that any changes for The Last of Us TV series are “designed to fill things out and expand, not to undo, but to enhance.” He also said that some content cut from the game will be included in the series and that some of the dialogue will be drawn directly from the game. The show’s score was created by original game composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

Enlarge / Pedro Pascal watched his nephew playing the beginning of The Last of Us to prepare for his role as Joel.

YouTube/HBO Max

Per the official premise:

The Last of Us story takes place twenty years after modern civilization has been destroyed. Joel, a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, out of an oppressive quarantine zone. What starts as a small job soon becomes a brutal, heartbreaking journey, as they both must traverse the U.S. and depend on each other for survival.

Pedro Pascal was cast as Joel, while Bella Ramsey—so memorable as the fierce Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones—plays Ellie. Gabriel Luna plays Joel’s younger brother, Tommy, a former soldier, while Merle Dandridge reprises her role in the game as Marlene, head of the Fireflies. Anna Torv plays Joel’s smuggling partner, Tess, and Nico Parker has a guest role as Joel’s daughter, Sarah. Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett play survivalists, while Storm Reid plays an orphaned girl named Riley Abel, a character who appeared in a DLC packet for first game (The Last of Us: Left Behind).

Other actors from the game also appear in the series: Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy in the game) plays a rebel in the quarantine zone named Perry, while Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson (who played Joel and Ellie, respectively, in the game) have been cast in as-yet-undisclosed roles. There are also a handful of new characters: Marlon (Graham Greene), who lives in the Wyoming wilderness with his wife, Florence (Elaine Miles), and Melanie Lynskey as a revolutionary leader in Kansas City named Kathleen.

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E3 confirms 2023 schedule, split between industry, public—but questions remain

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Enlarge / It’s baaaaaaack!

ESA / ReedPOP

The annual gaming expo once known as E3 is finally crawling toward a rebirth as a physical event. While information about the next iteration of E3 remains scarce, this week’s big news suggests a crucial change in how the decades-old event will work: a split between audience types.

The expo’s new showrunners at ReedPOP, an agency responsible for regional gaming and comic expos like PAX, EGX, and Star Wars Celebration, confirmed on Monday that E3 2023 has locked down its location and date range. Both should sound familiar to E3 fans: a week-long span in mid-June (specifically, June 13–16) at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

This time around, E3 will better resemble overseas game-industry showcases like Gamescom and Tokyo Games Show. The event’s first two days, dubbed “E3 Business Days,” will exclusively host “registered industry personnel,” which ReedPOP says will include game makers, distributors, licensors, and members of the press. E3 2023’s third day will function as a hybrid industry/public day, and the fourth will be exclusively open to public ticket purchases. During this two-day span of “E3 Gamer Days,” the event will host a theater full of “deep-dive looks at highly anticipated titles.”

Maybe this one will be fun for average showgoers

Based on our years of E3 coverage, we imagine this structure will be a net positive for anyone who attends. In the expo’s pre-COVID state, E3 primarily connected game publishers and developers with the industry’s logistics side: your Targets, Amazons, and Best Buys, along with global distribution partners, digital services, and other firms that get video games into players’ hands one way or another. At the E3 of old, those people were the priority, not average consumer attendees or even members of the press.

Yet the ESA’s version of E3 sold tickets to a fanbase that had come to expect gaming expos to be fun. Typically, that wasn’t the case, thanks largely to brutal waits in lines for limited numbers of gameplay kiosks—all while industry professionals waltzed past velvet ropes to skip those lines. Splitting those audiences should clear out more space and bandwidth for fans to actually play demos of hotly anticipated games once it’s their turn. ReedPOP’s announcement about a theater portion also suggests that it wants to streamline public access to “exclusive” game presentations at the show—instead of making fans wait in E3 lines just to watch behind-closed-door videos.

As of press time, we still have questions about how the show will operate. Will the attendance split between industry members and public consumers be reflected by a show floor change once E3 Business Days give way to E3 Gamer Days? Meaning, will the show’s third and fourth days add more public gameplay kiosks for unreleased games? Also, ReedPOP’s other expos are largely marked by third-party merch booths (i.e. clothing, “mystery boxes,” and retro game resellers). Will that ReedPOP status quo spill over into their version of E3, despite those booths arguably missing the point of E3’s industry-exclusive days? (Representatives for ReedPOP did not immediately answer Ars Technica’s questions on these matters.)

But who will actually be at E3 2023?

Most of all, E3 is defined by the video game developers and publishers who present there, but even before COVID forced the show’s physical incarnation to halt, major publishers had begun bowing out of the show to emphasize their own physical and digital events. Without formal confirmation of participating publishers at this point, we’re left reading a variety of industry-event tea leaves.

On the console side, this summer’s Gamescom saw the return of Xbox at physical events, but that console family’s handlers at Microsoft didn’t participate at ReedPOP’s PAX West 2022, just minutes down the road from its Seattle-area headquarters. Nintendo, to its credit, had formal presences at both recent expos. Sony has been the most expo-reluctant company since it pulled out of E3 2019, as its PlayStation arm has been happy to alternate between YouTube presentations and limited hands-on events for members of the press.

The most recent PAX West was telling as far as ReedPOP’s relationships with potential participating game makers; in addition to Nintendo, the September event’s show floor had a scattershot selection of recognizable game publishers, including Bandai Namco, Devolver, and various Embracer-owned subsidiaries. But Gamescom 2022, which is not affiliated with ReedPOP, shot a little higher with its inclusion of Xbox, Sega, and Ubisoft at its events.

What’s more, Game Awards and Summer Game Fest organizer Geoff Keighley, who was affiliated with some of this year’s Gamescom events, is moving forward with a physical version of Summer Game Fest 2023. As a longtime behind-the-scenes organizer of E3-adjacent events, Keighley may flex his savviness with major game publishers to fill out his own show floor in June 2023—and leave the new version of E3 starved for content. SGF 2023’s dates, venue, and participating game makers are still unknown as of press time, but already, we are anticipating a showdown in one way or another for fans’ June 2023 game-preview bandwidth, both online and in person.

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