What killed QRANK? One suspect: Content trouble.

Yesterday, the best trivia app for iOS stopped publishing their daily quiz. After a three-year run, Ricochet Labs pulled the plug on QRANK.

As of now, there are almost 400 comments on QRANK’s Facebook page. Fans are unhappy that QRANK is ending. And many want to know why.

I have no insider knowledge, but I know content and I know trivia. And I suspect QRANK’s doom was spelled out in two of their key promises:

QRANK: New trivia every day! On iPhone & Facebook. Play against your friends. Free! Won't cost a dime!

 

• New trivia every day!

• Free! Won’t cost a dime!

Here’s the key point: Producing an endless stream of content will never stop costing you money. If you’re not covering that expense, you’re doomed.

Let’s break it down further.

QRANK published at least one quiz a day. Each quiz was made up of 20 questions, though players could only answer 15.

Writing 20 good, solid trivia questions every day is a lot of work. In QRANK’s format, you have to pick a topic, figure out an entertaining way to write it, make sure it’s factually accurate, come up with three plausible alternate answers, and add a followup detail that shows up after the player answers the question. A good writer could probably average 10 minutes per question.

So: 20 questions, 10 minutes each, gives us 200 minutes. Call it three hours to be generous. Call it four hours if it’s a tough day.

You can crowdsource, and QRANK did. I probably had between 20 and 40 questions published in the game over the past couple of years. But someone still needs to decide which submissions to use, edit them, and enter them into the game.

Every day. All year.

So you’re probably paying someone to do that work. (Please don’t let someone do that for free.) A three-quarter-time writer and editor (every day! weekends included!) who specializes in trivia — and an app that costs nothing to download to your iPhone or play on Facebook.

No revenue coming in for the app. And really, if it cost 99¢, or even $4.99, that initial fee is not paying for an endless supply of trivia questions. Good content costs money.

Especially with trivia questions. Because you can only ask a trivia question once. There’s no replay value. Once you’ve established that someone knows Lady Gaga took her stage name from a Queen song, it’s no good trying to ask about that same fact again.

Also, QRANK based a lot of their trivia on current events, which is a topic with a short half life. You might rememember that some bees were making blue honey if you read it two days ago, but come next month, that’s a brutal piece of info to expect people to recall. Next year? Forget about it, unless you really craft a clever question that doesn’t rely on pure recall. Again: Good writing costs.

QRANK tried parnerships and sponsorships and advertising. For a while, they worked with Kirkus Review and The New Yorker, and I assume that brought some revenue. They also tried in-game ads, which I remember loathing at the time — I never hated Thor as much as when the preview was running between playing and finding out my final score — and eventually QRANK gave that up. Whether that was because of player feedback or poor performance, I don’t know, but it’s become clear overall that mobile ads are not a bonanza for anyone.

QRANK was the best trivia app for iOS, but there were signs over the past few months that the writing was on the wall. A major update a while ago introduced hints from Twitter. They were faithfully updated for a few months, then stopped appearing. Copyediting, which had never been perfect, got notably lackluster. The variety of quizzes dwindled to just the one daily game (though the app optimistically referred to other “channels” with more quizzes, which remained unfilled). The questions lost some snap.

In June, I (perhaps unkindly) called them out on that on Twitter, and they didn’t exactly deny their problems:

I kept playing. But fewer and fewer people were playing along. At the game’s height, I’d compete against up to 8 “friends,” but the last few months it’s almost never been more than 2. Many days, I was the only person I knew playing the game. (One post on Facebook revealed that m_faustus, who I remembered as a regular contributor, had started writing all the questions a few months ago. I’d guess QRANK got a few extra months of life thanks to one person’s enthusiasm.)

None of which takes away from QRANK’s achievement. I’ve played other apps, but none of them combined good design, strong game mechanics, and quality content as effectively as QRANK, even as it declined.

Game designers who want to tackle trivia should read it as a big flashing warning sign, though: Good content is expensive. And a trivia game lives or dies on good content. Bad questions, uninteresting questions, rote questions, wrong answers, incorrect info — they’ll kill you, no matter how good the tech side of things is.

What’s the answer? Two major ideas come to mind:

1. Subscriptions. Come up with the platform, and get people to subscribe to the questions. 99¢ a week shouldn’t be unreasonable, though I know people would complain.

2. Contained games. Whether or not you charge for the app up front, load it with a finite set of questions. Once people play through them all, the game is done. It’s like Trivial Pursuit: Once you’ve played through a set of cards, you need to buy more.