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Original article

June 20, 2010

Quiz-game app turns into a company
By: Brian Gaar, (Austin, TX) American-Statesman reporter


Earlier this year, Austin game developer Rodney Gibbs unveiled his new quiz-game app at the South By Southwest Interactive Conference.

The launch was a bit of a marketing stunt; a group of celebrities, including gaming guru Richard Garriott and musician Michael Nesmith of the band The Monkees, squared off (the contest was billed as "an astronaut versus a Monkee.")

It worked.

Shortly afterward, QRANK landed a coveted spot on the Apple App Store's "What's Hot" list, and the player base has grown to "many thousands" of people, Gibbs said.

A group of fans in Bangor, Maine, are holding their own QRANK quiz tournament at a local ice cream parlor today. Others have spread the word through social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, where a version of the game recently launched.

"We had a guy from Phoenix call us, and he was like, ‘I just love it; it's awesome,'?" Gibbs said.

And now, Gibbs' startup company Ricochet Labs is ready to take QRANK to the next level.

While QRANK (pronounced "crank") currently offers a once-a-day game, there will soon be a real-time, location-based option. That means that users will be able to compete against other nearby players simply by using their phones to join an ongoing game.

It's similar to the Buzztime service, which broadcasts trivia and other games to thousands of bars and restaurants nationwide.

"Except ours has a lot of improvements," Gibbs added. "There's not hardware that the bar has to worry about. The consumer is responsible for the hardware, with his or her phone."

Venues like bars and restaurants can host games (for a monthly fee) by signing up on the Web. While Gibbs says his company is initially focusing on North America, that could change.

"We're creating this system where, technically, it could be anywhere," he said. "Say I have a bar in Albuquerque; I can just sign up online and say, ‘Yeah, I want to host this at my bar.'?"

In return, venues will have a new channel for communicating with their customers.

For example, when customers open the QRANK app, a bar owner could let users know about drink specials, trivia nights, etc.

The updated app was approved by Apple and was released over the weekend.

The company will beta-test it at four Austin locations — the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Highball bowling alley/restaurant on South Lamar Boulevard, Home Slice Pizza on South Congress Avenue and the offices of the Texas Tribune web publication.

QRANK's worldwide launch will commence next month, Gibbs predicted.

"Assuming all that goes well, then we're just gonna open up the floodgates and say, ‘We're open for business,'?" he said.

Gibbs has a long history in the Austin gaming scene.

He started a development studio, Fizz Factor, in 2001 that was purchased by Amaze Entertainment a year later. Gibbs continued to run the studio, which developed games for Nintendo DS and Sony's PSP, but it was closed last year by parent company Foundation 9 Entertainment.

Asked about the genesis of Ricochet Labs, Gibbs said, "We set out to build a location-based platform that supports a suite of applications. QRANK is just the first manifestation of that technology."

Gibbs' new team has been working on QRANK for the past 10 months.

And the five-employee company is looking to grow. After receiving money from local angel investors, the company is starting to seek venture capital, he said.

Gibbs wouldn't give specific numbers as to QRANK's player base, but he said it's "climbed really steadily."

Being featured on Apple's App Store and in a write-up from tech site Gizmodo.com caused spikes in downloads, he said. "Every day, there's a bunch more," Gibbs said.

Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith is a big fan.

QRANK is "a great news literacy device, in that it forces me to pay more careful attention to what's going on in the world," Smith said. "It also routinely makes me feel bad about myself."

Most of the Tribune office is converted, he said.

"I knew from the minute I heard about it that we had to be early adopters," he said. "This is perfect for us."

bgaar@statesman.com; 912-5932

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