Eight years and 250 million downloads later, Words With Friends is getting a sequel. The word game, a touchscreen take on Scrabble that once got Alec Baldwin kicked off a plane, first launched in 2009 and has been one of mobile’s most enduring hits. Since then, the game and its studio were acquired by Zynga, and Words With Friends has received multiple updates and been ported to a range of platforms. Most recently, a stripped-down version came to Facebook Messenger. As with many long-running games, this success creates an interesting dilemma for its developers: how do you build something new without disrupting the existing audience?
For Zynga, the solution was to make a sequel that’s entirely optional, ensuring it was fully compatible with the original Words With Friends. Although the sequel is a brand-new app, available today on both iOS and Android, it feels more like a very large update of the game fans know and love. “We wanted to provide [players] an option of upgrading their experience with the sequel,” says Gurpreet Singh, product director on the game. “We’re not forcing players to update.”
You’re still taking turns placing words on a board, with push notifications alerting you when your opponent has made a move. But there are new modes, including a lightning round where teams try to spell words as quickly as possible in real time, and a much-requested solo mode, where you can play against AI-controlled bots while you wait for your friends to make a move in multiplayer matches. The sequel also introduces power-ups to provide some hints on the best word to play, and the app looks different with brighter colors and easier-to-navigate menus. “We wanted to make it feel less cluttered, a little more breathable, a little more spacious,” says lead experience designer Michelle David.
While these new tweaks are fun, the most important thing about the sequel is what stays the same. Notably, if you upgrade to Words With Friends 2 from the original, all of your friends and ongoing matches remain intact. If you’re in the middle of a match, that match will still be waiting for you in the new version, and all versions of the game will be compatible. The sequel is so much like an update that it raises the question as to whether the game actually needed a sequel at all.
Many games feel increasingly like services, releasing ongoing updates and expansions designed to keep players engaged for months or years. It’s a safe and lucrative model, where companies can produce a regular stream of income for proven hits, while avoiding the risk inherent in a brand-new title. But in this scenario, developers are often faced with the question of how to make something new without dividing their players. When, if ever, is the right time for a sequel? World of Warcraft was first released in 2004, yet is still receiving major updates with no direct follow-up on the horizon. Meanwhile, Bungie went the opposite direction by forcing players to move on to an entirely new experience with the sequel to Destiny.
For Zynga, the decision came down to a handful of reasons. “We spend a lot time with our players, trying to understand how we can continue to evolve the experience,” says Singh. “We’ve been testing several ideas for the last few years, in terms of how we can improve it. That led us to a handful of ideas, and we felt like if we could combine them together, it would necessitate a sequel for us because it’s a meaningful enough impact.” In this approach, creating a sequel is actually less disruptive for players than simply releasing the new features through an update. Those who want to update can, while those who want old-school Words With Friends can stick with what they know and love.
Obviously Words With Friends isn’t quite as complex as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and maintaining a friends list across games is a lot simpler than ensuring a Destiny character you’ve spent years customizing can work across multiple games and hardware platforms. But, as traditional single-player games give way to service-based ongoing experiences, Words With Friends 2 presents an interesting path forward. It’s a game that works as both sequel and update — and doesn’t force players to make the tough decision of leaving the old game behind.