Wordle, the word-guessing puzzle game that’s taken over our Twitter timelines, doesn’t currently have an official app. That may come as a surprise to anyone who’s searched for it on the App Store, though — earlier today, doing so would show you several blatant unofficial copies, each of which use the same name and mechanics as the original, which was made by Josh Wardle and distributed on the web for free.
Most people who’ve been online recently will have had at least some exposure to Wordle if they haven’t been playing it themselves (The Guardian reports it has 2 million daily players). It’s a simple concept but done well: each day, you go to the Wordle website, where you’re given six chances to guess a five-letter word. The game gives you feedback about what letters you’ve put in the right place, what letters are in the word, but not in the order you’ve picked and what letters aren’t in the correct answer. Certain parts of Twitter have been taken over by black, green, and yellow square emojis, which players use to show off their gameplay without spoiling the word of the day.
As with many good viral ideas, Wordle has spawned waves of parodies and memes
As happens to most good ideas (especially the ones that go viral), there have been several clever parodies of Wordle, along with waves of jokes on Twitter using the emoji block format that players use to share their scores. But while many of the parody versions point users back to the original, this doesn’t seem to be the case for the versions on the App Store. Instead, they try their best to look like the web version without mentioning that they’re actually a spin-off. Trying out five versions of the game from the App Store, only one seemed to acknowledge Wardle’s version — ironically, it was one of the few that didn’t actually call itself Wordle.
The situation is a little embarrassing for Apple, which has often cited its high standards and App Review process as a reason it should be allowed to keep control over which apps run on iPhones and iPads. The review process has been called into question by multiple scams and controversies, but these feel especially blatant — they’re using the same name and have an extremely similar interface to the original. It’s easy to see many people being tricked into thinking that they’re playing an official version.
Even worse is that the apps are copying a website, months after Apple championed progressive web apps in court as an option for developers during its legal battle with Epic Games. That argument may fall flat with developers targeting mobile audiences. As Owen Williams, a UX manager, points out on Twitter, they won’t even get a seat at the table when someone searches for their creation on the App Store (which is something a lot of people might do if they, say, see a flurry of tweets with the name of a Cool New Thing everyone’s playing with).
To add insult to injury, it appears that Wordle clones aren’t nearly as rampant on Google’s Play Store. Only one of the first two dozen search results for “wordle” appeared to be a clone, and it was buried deep behind a “show more” button. Google Play reports the app has “500+ downloads” — the developer behind one of the Wordle clones on iOS claimed to be getting 5,400 downloads an hour on Twitter, and their version wasn’t even in the top three search results. (The same developer tweeted a screenshot of a notification saying that their app was waiting for review, with the caption “let’s see what Apple thinks” prior to the app going live.)
Wardle hasn’t monetized his version of Wordle with ads, subscriptions, one-time payments, or a tip jar. It’s totally free. According to a profile in The New York Times, he made the game for his partner, who enjoyed crossword puzzles. “I think people kind of appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun,” Wardle said of Wordle’s success. “It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs. It’s just a game that’s fun.”
“We’re going to the fucking moon”
The Wordle apps I tried haven’t copied the original’s lack of a monetization scheme. Some showed a plethora of ads, often with the option of paying to remove them, and one even had a $30-a-year in-app purchase to unlock the “Pro” version. (That particular app’s developer said on their now-private Twitter account that the app was “going to the fucking moon” and that one of their goals for 2022 was to “make tons of fucking money.”) Paying would let you choose how many letters you wanted in the words and would allow multiple games a day. As many have noted, the real Wordle’s once-a-day play is another one of the things that makes it so appealing.
Wordle’s developer explaining the game’s share function.
Most of the apps I tried didn’t have any obvious copies of the original’s share feature, which lets you easily copy a series of spoiler-free blocks to share with friends or on social media. The one that offered the $30 subscription, however, did — adding a few extra words and saying “The Wordle App” in place of Wordle.
Keeping blatant copies off the App Store might not be an easy moderation task if Apple wanted to do it — for example, there are a few games on the App Store that share the “Wordle” name but not gameplay. However, they’re pretty obviously not trying to capitalize on a trend by copying a popular app — many of them haven’t been updated in years (and are therefore not likely requiring any judgment calls from App Review).
It appears that Apple has decided to try, though. Roughly an hour after we published this post, we heard that the clones had started disappearing from the App Store. All the ones we saw that used the word “Wordle” in their title are now gone.
The Verge reached out to both Apple and one of the developers behind a Wordle clone. Neither responded to our request for comment.
Update, 7:50PM ET: Added that Wordle clones are now disappearing from the App Store.
Correction, January 12th: The original version of this article stated that you get five tries to guess the Wordle word, when you actually get six. We regret the error.