Saturday, January 20, 2018

How is HQ Trivia NOT going to become a total cheatfest, especially for Android geeks?

Who knows what the future will bring, but at this stage HQ Trivia's popularity is actually a good thing for our product, Quizcover (product website, App Store page with preview video, preview of upcoming playable ad). HQ Trivia has reignited many people's interest in trivia gaming, but lets them play only once or twice a day, while the average Quizcover gamer plays about 40-50 questions a day, whenever and wherever convenient. And HQ Trivia doesn't innovate core gameplay: it's just another PickOne quiz (one answer is right, the others are wrong). By contrast, we focus on question type diversity and differentiated scoring (being half-right also earns you some points).

I expect HQ Trivia to continue to gain popularity over the next 6 to 12 months (which is fine), but it won't take too long before cheating will take its toll (which isn't going to be my problem). All I want to do here is explain the technical reasons for which I believe cash prizes in online trivia games are bound to result in a whole lot of cheating that can't be prevented, at least not without dramatically degrading the user experience. This has been my belief for a long time. I don't mean eSports tournaments (after all, my name is in the credits of the game that started the whole eSports movement 20 years ago). If everyone had to go to a particular place and use only devices provided by the organizer of such an event, and if it was ensured that no "helper" in the audience could communicate with the player (electronically, visually or acoustically), that would be fine.

Internet reports of cheating in HQ Trivia abound. The 10-second window to answer an HQ Trivia question is extremely short, but some say (quite credibly) they've used Google voice search while others say that if you type fast and select the right keywords, possibly with help from friends, then you can also cheat with a keyboard. Some more advanced cheating strategies, however, involve optical character recognition (OCR). One YouTube video that demonstrates the suitability-to-task of that approach has already been viewed almost 80,000 times.

HQ's popular host, Scott Rogowsky, said in an interview this week he stood "by the fact that it isn't possible to win by Googling" as there isn't "enough time." A "fact?" Actually, the opposite is a fact, as the links in the previous paragraph show. It does work.

In that same interview, he suggests that using Google wouldn't make sense because it's no "fun" unless one gets "a rush out of cheating." With respect to most games, I would agree: only a small minority of people would really do it. Not so when there's money involved.

HQ Trivia won't keep hundreds of thousands or (possibly) millions of people engaged at scheduled times without offering ever more prize money. They've already said that it could even reach $1 million. But the more money there is involved, the more widespread cheating will be. And it won't just be rampant. It will be an organized effort, just like the kind of "farming" that some people (especially, but not only, in Asia) have been doing for games like World of Warcraft and Hay Day (I admit I bought some building material from a Chinese guy two years ago) for years. In those games the "farmers" can merely collect items and sell them (such as on eBay). In HQ Trivia, they even get paid directly.

Prize money attracts professional, organized cheating, and it makes honest players feel even worse. It's bad enough that someone may beat you by unfair means. It's far worse when you're among the winners but have to share the total reward with legions of cheaters--some of whom will talk about it on YouTube.

For the remainder of this posting, I'll just focus on what cheaters are already doing or will soon be doing, especially now that HQ Trivia is available on Android, an open-source operating system that cheaters can modify (the necessary programming skills provided, but it's not hard to find skilled Linux coders)--and on what the makers of HQ Trivia may or may not do to combat cheating, and what effects some of it will have on honest users.

Part I (Input): Get the question text and answer options

OCR software can easily read what HQ Trivia displays. An iPhone screen can be shown on a Mac, and with Android there's even greater flexibility since the operating system itself can be modified.

It has been suggested by a successful cheater (who wanted to give HQ Trivia unsolicited advice) that they could make things harder for OCR software by means of some background graphics. However, if HQ Trivia took similar measures as some CAPTCHA solutions, OCR software might be unable to do the job, but honest users would be annoyed.

On Android, cheaters with sufficient technical knowledge might sooner or later reverse-engineer HQ Trivia's code and intercept the messages its server sends to the clients. In that case, they will be able to intercept and decrypt everything without even needing OCR. But they might never have to make this effort anyway.

Part II (Search): Perform automated Google searches

As some cheaters have explained, one strategy is to just ask Google the same question the game is asking, and another (which is often necessary in the case of "Which of these..." questions) is to combine keywords from the question text with the various answer options, with the combination that yields the highest number of Google search results most likely being the correct answer.

Sophisticated cheaters will generate a nice overview on a large screen, enabling them to quickly scan the results with their eyes and make a decision.

It has been suggested that certain types of questions don't lend themselves to googling. A good example someone provided is a question about 7 of the 10 best-performing stocks in a given year: most Internet reports may relate to tech stocks (and there's no shortage of good news about them), but the steel industry was the (counterintuitive) answer in that case. And then there are questions such as the number of times the word "sex" appears in the U.S. Constitution. If no one counted it before and published the result, then it can't be googled.

The problem with questions about obscure facts that squarely fall into the "totally useless knowledge" category is that most users don't like them at all. It's not a problem if a trivia quiz game asks a question the user can't answer, but the question and the answer should at least be objectively relevant knowledge.

Given the negative impact on the user experience, HQ Trivia can't bring up too many questions of that kind. It's not even a definitive protection against cheating as the next (and final) section explains.

Part III (Entry): Submit the answer

With an iOS device one can't directly control an app like HQ Trivia. With Android, however, it won't be a problem for geeks to emulate taps. That is very significant because it means the same decision-maker (who based on the Google search results, and possibly other reference material such as Wolfram Alpha) could theoretically control a large number of accounts, sending messages from one device to many devices that submit the chosen answer.

With a "one to many" tactic, cheaters can pursue two objectives:
  1. If they are convinced of what the correct answer is, they'll submit the same answer on multiple accounts, potentially winning multiple shares of the total reward available to all users.
  2. In those rare cases in which the answer can't be googled, someone could push a button that instructs different accounts to submit different answers. Hedging one's bets wouldn't lead to the maximum reward, but it would at times be the best strategy for getting at least something.
The availability of HQ Trivia for Android enables multi-account organized cheating. In order to register an account, one needs a phone number, but there are various ways of obtaining phone numbers at low costs or even for free (such as Google Voice). Determined cheaters will do this, and the higher the prize money, the greater the lengths to which they will go.

For the company behind HQ Trivia it would be hard to block accounts only because they're very successful. Also, cheaters with many accounts would probably not use an identical set of accounts each time.

Again, I'm absolutely not opposed to prize tournaments, and I hope to see our game used in eSports at some point. But no one can protect a trivia game, much less on Android, against the kinds of cheat techniques discussed in this post.

Cheating for money is not the future of trivia gaming. That much is certain.

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