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HQ Trivia lays off ~20% as it preps subscriptions – TechCrunch



HQ Trivia is struggling after a mutiny failed to oust its CEO. Downloads per month are down 92% versus last June according to Sensor Tower. And now four sources confirm that HQ laid off staff members this week. One said about 20% of staff was let go, and another said six to seven employees were departing. That aligns with Digiday reporter Kerry Flynn’s tweet that 7 employees were let go bringing HQ to under 30 (shrinking from 35 to 28 staffers would be a 20% drop).

That will leave the company short-handed as it attempts to diversify revenue with the upcoming launch of monthly subscriptions. “HQ Words Everyday. Coming next month . . .  Bigger prizes . . . More ways to win. $9.99/mo. subscription” the company tweeted from the account for its second game, the Wheel Of Fortune-style HQ Words. The company has been trying to regain momentum with new hosts since the departure of Quiz Daddy aka Scott Rogowsky, HQ Trivia’s original host.

The cuts hit HQ’s HR, marketing, and product engineering teams, according to LinkedIn profiles of employees let go. The cuts could further hamper morale at the startup following a tough first half of the year. HQ Trivia and co-founder Rus Yusupov did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

HQ Trivia employees petitioned to remove co-founder Rus Yusupov from the CEO position

Following the tragic death of co-founder and CEO Colin Kroll, Yusupov retook control. But staff found him difficult to work with as he’d allowed the product to stagnate and popularity to decline. Yusupov was slow to make changes to the app, and “no one wanted to work under Rus” a source told me.

That led 20 of 35 staffers to sign a letter to HQ Trivia’s board asking them to remove Yusupov, though it was never formally sent. Yusupov caught wind of the plot and fired two of the leaders of the petition. That further sunk morale, leading to the exit of HQ Trivia’s SVP of brand partnerships and its marketing manager. The board began a search for a new CEO, though it’s unclear how that’s panned out.

Since then, new games HQ teased in April haven’t materialized as its download rate continued to suffer. It’s dropped to the #731 US game on iOS according to AppAnnie. HQ Trivia saw just 827,000 downloads from January through June 2019, down 92% from the 10.2 million it saw in the same time frame in 2018 according to Sensor Tower. That’s the same percentage drop in downloads from June 2019 versus June 2018, indicating Rogowsky’s replacements that started in April couldn’t turn things around.

Interest in the live game show format seems to be waning as a whole. HQ Trivia fan site shut down this week fearing the end was near for the official game, and the (Business) INSIDER-run clone of the game on Facebook Watch called Confetti stopped airing at the end of June.

Rather than solely monetizing a waning audience via in-app purchases and sponsorships, HQ Words announced it would debut a $9.99 monthly subscription sometime this month that would grant access to winning “bigger prizes”. This could be a smart way to squeeze more dollars out of a smaller but more diehard audience.

While HQ Trivia was an inspiring approach to mobile gaming, its twice-daily games didn’t fit the always-on nature of mobile. It’s failed build a proper onboarding experience that gives users a taste of it games right away rather than forcing them to wait for the next scheduled match as we suggested over a year ago. Gamers are fickle, craving instant gratification, and HQ hasn’t tried to meet them in middle.

Perhaps there’s a future for HQ on cable television, or as a small but steady business on mobile catering to loyalists. But all the unfortunate events and mismanagement may make it difficult to exceed the $100 million valuation it raised money at during its peak.


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Review: Thought-provoking sci-fi drama Bliss works on multiple levels



Enlarge / Greg (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Salma Hayek) find themselves shifting between a beautiful and an “ugly” world—but which is real, and which is the simulation?

A depressed man finds himself questioning the reality of his existence when he meets a free-spirited woman who insists he’s inhabiting a simulation in Bliss, a new film from director Mike Cahill that stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek. Sure, it sounds like an indie riff on The Matrix, and there are a few shared elements, but Bliss is markedly different in theme and tone, and it is very much Cahill’s unique vision.

(Major spoilers below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, Cahill also directed the 2011 indie sci-fi film Another Earth—his first feature—which received a standing ovation at its premiere and won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Cahill’s 2014 followup feature, I Origins, also snagged the Sloan Prize; in fact, he’s the only director to have twice won the award, so he’s got some serious indie sci-fi film street cred.

The plot of Another Earth centered on the discovery of a mirror Earth planet, where everyone has a doppelgänger. Clearly, Cahill is interested in exploring themes of duality, because he has returned to that rich vein for Bliss (not to be confused with the 2019 Fantastic Fest selection of the same name).

Per the official premise: “An unfulfilled man (Wilson) and a mysterious woman (Hayek) believe they are living in a simulated reality, but when their newfound ‘Bliss’ world begins to bleed into the ‘ugly’ world, they must decide what’s real and where they truly belong.”

Wilson plays Greg Whittle, a divorcée who is stuck in a dead-end job. He spends most of his work time not answering calls as he daydreams of an idyllic world and sketches out his mental pictures of that world. “I don’t know if it’s real,” he muses. “But it has a feeling, and the feeling’s real.”  Not surprisingly, his employer, Bjorn (Steve Zissis), takes a dim view of this behavior: despite firing Greg, the two get into a shoving match and Bjorn hits his head on a table and is killed.

Greg flees the office before the body is discovered and heads to the bar across the street. That’s where he meets Hayek’s Isabel. “You’re real,” she says, telling him that all the people he sees outside aren’t real—the two of them are just in a simulation. To prove it, she demonstrates how she can manipulate people and objects in this “ugly simulation.”

Isabel invites him to stay in her encampment under a traffic bridge, and she introduces him to a crushed yellow crystal hallucinogen. The unnamed drug allows Greg to also manipulate his physical “reality,” convincing him that Isabel is right and this really is a simulation. But then his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) tracks him down—he missed her graduation—and Isabel feels threatened by this strong emotional tie. She insists Emily is also part of the simulation and, hence, not real. So she introduces Greg to a second, stronger drug: a blue crystal administered via a nasal injection device. Taking it ejects them both from the “ugly” world and into the idyllic world of Greg’s daydreams.

(Warning: Major spoilers below. Stop reading if you haven’t yet watched the film.)

Specifically, Greg wakes up in a laboratory. He’s attached to a giant computer called the Brain Box. Isabel invented it to plug people into “ugly simulated worlds to generate appreciation for the real world.” Greg doesn’t remember much about this “real” Brain Box world he’s now experiencing, but he soon settles in, as romance blooms with Isabel. But eventually, aspects of the “ugly” world start seeping through, including a ghostly figure of Emily, imploring Greg to come back to her.

It’s the onscreen chemistry between Wilson and Hayek, and the way they flesh out their respective roles, that anchors the film, bolstered by a solid script and some inventive VFX. Those effects are based more on actual photography than CGI (although there is definitely some CGI). Take, for example, the holograms of people projecting themselves onto the streets of the Brain Box world. According to VFX supervisor Luke DiTommasso, Cahill was adamant that these should not resemble the famous Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars: A New Hope. Instead, the look was grounded in photography, exploiting rainbow prism lens flares to achieve a natural chromatic aberration, giving the figures a ghost-like quality.

Particularly when the worlds start to blend together, it might have been easier to simply use CGI. Instead, DiTomasso’s team made good use of the creative (and consistent) set design and Cahill’s long tracking shots to create the illusion of blending realties, augmented here and there with CG elements as needed. Not only did this help rein in production costs, the end result felt more realistic—and both worlds need to feel reasonably realistic in order for the film’s central conceit to work. “If you can shoot something, shoot something,” DiTommasso told Ars about his philosophy regarding CGI. “It you need a duck crossing a street, let’s shoot a duck crossing a street. If you need a duck to tap dance and sing, then we need CGI.” (There are no tap-dancing singing ducks in Bliss.)

So, which world is real and which is the simulation? That is the question. Cahill opts for ambiguity on that score; one can interpret the ending in several different ways. On the most literal level, Greg is an addict whose drug use has estranged his family and gets him fired, sending him spiraling into a hallucinogenic drug spree with Isabel, a homeless fellow addict living under the traffic bridge. Their shared experience manipulating elements of the “ugly” world, and of being in the Brain Box paradise, are part of a drug-induced folie a deux. But the high wears off, and the two worlds start to collide, forcing Greg to make a choice: remain with Isabel in their shared dream world, or stop “chasing bliss” and choose to stay with his daughter in the “ugly” world.


There’s strong evidence for that interpretation. Isabel becomes increasingly unhinged, exhibiting classic addict behaviors, and there’s a strong whiff of wish-fulfillment fantasy in the Brain Box world. In the end, Greg gives up the fantasy and chooses the “ugly,” “real” world, even attending his first 12-step meeting. He’s attempting to rebuild his life and relationships, having learned to see beauty even in the “ugly” world.

But there are other elements that cannot easily be explained away, such as what, ultimately, happens to Isabel, last seen facing down several armed cops as she snorts the last dose of blue crystal. Was she shot? Or was she right about the “ugly” world being a simulation, and she returned to the Brian Box world in the nick of time? In that alternate interpretation, Greg chooses to remain in the “ugly” simulation to be with his daughter—willing to make that sacrifice because his love for her is real, even if she is not.

Or maybe reality is determined by whichever world we ultimately choose. In that case, both the “ugly” and Brian Box realms are “real.” How could you ever really be sure? The director’s willingness to let his audience soak in all that uncertainty makes Bliss Cahill’s strongest, most ambitious film to date.

Bliss is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Valve has to provide some Steam sales data to Apple, judge says



A US magistrate judge has ordered Valve to provide sales data to Apple in response to a subpoena issued amid Apple’s continuing legal fight with Epic Games.

In addition to some aggregate sales data for the entirety of Steam, Valve will only have to provide specific, per-title pricing and sales data for “436 specific apps that are available on both Steam and the Epic Games Store,” according to the order. That’s a significant decrease from the 30,000+ titles Apple for which Apple originally requested data.

In resisting the subpoena, Valve argued that its Steam sales data was irrelevant to questions about the purely mobile app marketplaces at issue in the case. Refocusing the request only on games available on both Steam and the Epic Games Store makes it more directly relevant to the questions of mobile competition in the case, Judge Thomas Hixson writes in his order.

“Recall that in these related cases, [Epic] allege that Apple’s 30% commission on sales through its App Store is anti-competitive and that allowing iOS apps to be sold through other stores would force Apple to reduce its commission to a more competitive level,” Hixson writes in the order. “By focusing… on 436 specific games that are sold in both Steam and Epic’s store, Apple seeks to take discovery into whether the availability of other stores does in fact affect commissions in the way [Epic] allege.”

Just hand it over

Valve lawyer Gavin Skok also argued that responding to the subpoena would be overly burdensome to the company, requiring multiple full-time employees performing hours of work to compile data from multiple sources for each game (as reported by Law360). In his order, Judge Hixson said that the data collection “did not sound that burdensome.” That said, Hixson did agree to limit the response to data starting in 2017 (rather than 2015, as Apple requested) because the Epic Games Store didn’t exist until 2018.

Hixson also rejected arguments that Apple should subpoena individual developers for their pricing and sales data, saying that potential effort would represent an “undue burden” on Apple. The judge added that this sales information is not confidential to the developers involved and that “Valve is running a store, and how much it sells of what is its own information.”

Back in 2018, Valve decided to effectively block services like Steam Spy or Ars’ own Steam Gauge from creating public estimates of Steam game sales based on samples of individual public user account data. Valve said in July 2018 that it was working on a “more accurate” replacement for that Steam Spy data but has only released sporadic and incomplete summaries of the Steam marketplace in the years since.

“Valve’s decision to stay private means that it avoids the public company disclosure and reporting requirements, but it does not immunize the company from [legal] discovery,” Hixson continued. “The protective orders in these actions allow Valve to designate its documents confidential or highly confidential to address competitive concerns, and that protection is sufficient.”

Valve will have 30 days to provide the requested data to Apple.

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Report: BioWare wrests Dragon Age 4 away from EA’s online-multiplayer mandate



Enlarge / Some good Dragon Age news, at least from our perspective. (credit: EA / Sam Machkovech)

As it turns out, EA’s recent bloodbath over online BioWare multiplayer games was larger than we thought. And in today’s case, a behind-the-scenes report seems to offer good news on that front.

After yesterday’s official confirmation from EA that “Anthem Next” was no more, Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier has arrived with news about another dramatic change to a BioWare game: the unnamed Dragon Age sequel (which we’ll call Dragon Age 4 for convenience’s sake) will be a single-player game.

Uh, what?

The way Schreier tells it, EA as a publisher is now “allowing” the Dragon Age 4 team to “remove all planned multiplayer components from the game”—and that use of “allowing” implies that this was a butting-of-heads between who wanted online components in this famously single-player RPG series (EA) and who didn’t (BioWare).

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