Rodney Gibbs, CEO of Ricochet Labs

Special contributor to Silicon Hills News

CEO Rodney Gibbs calls it “a scrappy little startup.” But Ricochet Labs got on the radar fast with its social-mobile-knowledge based game, Qrank.
The company was barely in its alpha stage when the BBC called on Ricochet to create Qrank trivia games surrounding the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton to engage its audience. Esquire magazine listed Qrank among its “80 people, places and ideas that matter right now.” And the University of Texas used it to test knowledge retention. So imagine what will happen when the company really goes live in first quarter 2012.

“That’s when we’ll begin offering it for third party use for people who have some form of content who are struggling with how to engage people using a mobile device,” said Gibbs.

Considering that knowledge and trivia games have been around forever—Gibbs says it goes back to Socrates–it’s kind of amazing that Qrank has taken the world so by storm. On the other hand, maybe it’s not. Qrank–which Ricochet Labs calls a social-mobile, location-aware platform–is a knowledge based game you can play anywhere, any time against friends, acquaintances, or strangers, on Facebook, your mobile phone or the web. The game can be built around any kind of content. It can center on a place: on a topic like politics, the arts or pop culture, or it can mix it all up. You might get a question about where you can play Chicken Shit Bingo in Austin, with a question about a recently deceased dictator, another about who wrote Canterbury Tales and another about the founders of H&R Block tax company.

And it’s new every time you play it, which is a secret to its success. Ricochet prides itself on having 30-40 percent new content every time, much of it current events.
“You see it in your morning paper, and there it is on the game,” Gibbs said.

The company curates a Qrank game all its own but it has also worked with several alpha clients to create games around those clients’ content. Instead of just words or videos as a content medium, Qrank snags customers and potential customers, getting them competing against each other, rewarding them with a squirt of dopamine and a ranking among their peers. Ricochet plans, by early 2012, to roll out a scaleable version for companies that want a new way to engage customers, on down to individuals creating a game for Mom and Dad’s 25th wedding anniversary.

One of Qrank’s alpha clients was the Texas Tribune, whose Qrank game lets readers compete over Tribune knowledge. At the end of the month, the paper gives a prize to the ranking Qranker. In December, it’s an electric guitar. Analytics says 300-to-500 people finish the game every day. The numbers rise if you add in the players who don’t finish.

“Part of the mission of the Texas Tribune is to create a more informed, aware Texas population…and one way to do that is incentivize participation with fun and humor. That’s how the Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) works,” said Reeve Hamilton, the Tribune reporter who has taken on the job of creating the Tribune’s Qrank content.

As the official Qrank curator for the paper, Hamilton creates a dozen questions based on the news from the day before and posts them to the Tribune’s Qrank game. But he started as a Qrank player.

“Everyone in the capitol community was playing this game,” he said. “We were in internal competition with each other. My goal was to beat my boss. I always used to tweet my score…that’s a bit gauche.”
“I think it’s more and more the rise of nerd culture,” Hamilton said. “I don’t really follow sports. I follow random bits of knowledge.”

Bits of knowledge are going back the other way, too. Higinio Maycotte, founder of Umbel and many other Austin startups, said his company mines information about players to provide a clear picture of who the Tribune’s audience is.
“It takes a reporter five minutes to write a question about an article he’s working on and immediately create a ton of engagement with very little effort,” he said. “We can provide really rich data back to the publication… we can tell them everything about their readers…we can tell them what (the readers) eat.”

Gibbs has a background in studying people and engaging content. He has a degree in sociology from Rice University and a master’s in fine arts from UT. A Houston native, he worked for a Public Broadcasting System channel in Chicago and as a screenwriter for various television productions before joining Human Code (now Sapient) writing stories for games.

“I love the story telling,” he said. “You have all these characters and they can make different choices based on who they meet along the way…writing for games is a lot like writing for television with all these people sitting around coming up with ideas and creating the script.”

From Human Code he launched his own company, Fizz Factor, which made handheld games for the DS. His game titles included the Incredible Hulk, Spongebob Squarepants and the Tale of Despereaux. In 2004, Amaze Entertainment, looking to expand, set it sights on buying Fizz Factor and Gibbs worked as studio director. Then another technology caught his eye: the iPhone. He could see that the end was in sight for expensive, relatively static boxed games.

With his technical director at Fizz Factor, Michael Baird, he formed Ricochet Labs in 2009. They didn’t know, for awhile, what they meant to create. They liked the Foursquare idea, and knew they wanted a mobile game that was location based. And they knew they wanted something social and experiential. But what?

“We spent a lot of time talking to smart people,” Gibbs said. The company has four advisers with many credits to their names among them: Ross Fubini of Kapor Capital and Success Factors; Jason Goldman of Twitter and Google; Maycotte; Kip McClanahan of Silverton Partners and Tipping Point and Jason Reneau of Mindbites and Freemarkets. Baird and Gibbs traveled to the west coast to meet with those partners and talked to Maycotte and Reneau in Austin.

“We wanted to focus on a single solution,” Gibbs said. “These guys could talk to us about ‘Here’s what’s coming up, here’s what’s going on, this has been tried, people want that, here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not, here’s an opportunity….’”

One of his inspirations was the Alamo Drafthouse Theater which had created trivia games for its customers. The trouble was, the games were labor intensive to create and only changed about once a month. That frustrated die hard Alamo fans who visited the theater more frequently. The cofounders knew that constantly changing content was key.

When Gibbs and Baird settled on an idea, they bootstrapped it for a bit. They raised $400,000 in the seed round in spring of 2010 and are preparing to go for a series A round in early 2012. Austin, Gibbs said, is perfect soil for starting something new. Tech businesses support each other rather than scavenging talent.

“One of the things I love about Austin,” Gibbs said, “is with so much entrepreneurialism going on here there’s an acceptance of failure. There really is a culture of ‘fail faster.’ So if you try something and it doesn’t work you can just try something else. You can use half of this idea and half of that and that might work. Which is great because it’s hard to put things out whole.”

Maycotte, one of the company’s advisers, even recommended that they get some early successes going with Qrank before making the game widely available for other company’s content.

This spring, Gibbs said, one of the top three game publishers is releasing a major mobile quiz title and the BBC has a game coming out, both based on Qrank’s technology. They’ll be branded in some way connected with Ricochet Labs or Qrank.

So, for 400 points: “Which scrappy Austin startup based in a funky office under the gables of an old building looks like it’s about to take off?”