Depending on who you ask, the biggest video game last year wasn’t the award-winning Elden Ring: it was actually Wordle. The word game continued to take the world by storm in 2022, beating out Queen Elizabeth and the election results in search volume. It was purchased by The New York Times in January 2022, and though its user growth has plateaued, it still has more daily active users than other newspaper offerings like the crossword puzzle or sudoku.
“When we bought Wordle, our main mission was don’t break anything. Just let it keep going,” said Zoe Bell, executive producer at The New York Times, in an interview. “Then over time, we shifted into this mindset of anything we do has to provide player value. So we’re not going to be trying to squeeze players.”
It’s been over a year since Wordle was acquired by the Times, and Bell gave a talk last Thursday in front of game developers in San Francisco describing how the game has changed and grown under the ownership of the Times. The year marks a milestone for Bell and Jonathan Knight, video game industry veterans who kept a popular game’s demanding player base satisfied, and for the Times, which is venturing further into puzzle game development. “We treat [Wordle] with as much respect as we treat the crossword,” Bell said.
Bell said that their approach worked better than “had we tried what some people do when you have a viral game, tried to throw up lots of advertisements or throw up lots of other things in people’s faces right away to try to monetize because you’re worried it’s going to start declining.”
Wordle was created by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle back in 2013 as a prototype, which he eventually shelved. Wardle, who used to work for Reddit, then decided to return to the game and finish it during the pandemic. Palak Shah, his partner, contributed by curating the original list of answers for the game. At first, Wordle was mainly enjoyed by friends and family until Wardle expanded the title to a larger audience in October 2021 and went viral, attracting millions of players a day. The New York Times grew interested and bought Wordle for an undisclosed seven-figure sum.
Wardle gave a GDC talk last year about how he designed Wordle and explained why he sold the game to the Times. He actually drew inspiration from the Times’ once-a-day crossword puzzle and decided to limit Wordle players to one game a day. Wardle said he didn’t want to monetize the game, but at the time, before he sold the game, other people were creating Wordle clones and charging for them.
Wordle breaks a lot of the usual rules of game design. At its core, it wasn’t attempting to monetize or take a lot of time away from players. Guessing the daily word is an endeavor that only takes a few minutes. “The first thing I did that I think you’re not meant to do: I made a word game,” Wardle said in March 2022. “I think when you think about viral, exciting games, you don’t think about word games, which is sad to me.”
“I get to focus on just making a really fun game”
As it turns out, the world loves word games. Since purchasing Wordle, The New York Times has done audience research, curated its own word list, and hired an editor for the puzzle. In audience research, the Times found that younger players who tend to spend money on games would visit the Times just to play Wordle and that these players were entirely new to The New York Times. “That traffic coming to our site really helped our subscriptions last year,” Bell said.
Bell came from the free-to-play mobile gaming world, and she said she found working on a subscription-based product to be an attractive job change. “In mobile, free-to-play, as a producer, you straddle the line between the game designers who are like, ‘Let’s make the most fun game we can make while maybe still making money,’ and the product managers are like, ‘Let’s make as much money as possible while maybe making a fun game,’” Bell said. “Taking the job here was like I get to focus on just making a really fun game.”
Part of the Wordle compulsion is that you can easily share your results with friends, found in the form of small colored boxes, and show off how quickly you guessed the answer. The Times also keeps a record of your win streak. When you open up the NYT Games app, you can see the Times advertising its crossword puzzle front and center, followed by the Spelling Bee and then Wordle. Wordle’s tagline fits in well with the rest of the products: you’re meant to untangle terms with Wordle, wrangle words with the Spelling Bee, and decode digits with sudoku.
Wordle has more daily active users than the crossword puzzle, sudoku, or Spelling Bee, according to the Times, though it would not share exact numbers.
The hope is that Wordle will help revitalize a struggling news industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that, by 2031, the journalism job market will shrink by 4,100 positions. Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are not investing in game journalists, some of whom they have laid off, but they are experimenting with the creation of more Wordle-like products that appeal to general fans.
Julia Alexander, strategy director at Parrot Analytics (and former Verge reporter), said that legacy media publications are likely trying to find reasons for an audience to visit their platforms given how freely accessible news can be across different websites.
“We’re definitely testing a lot of things”
“Gaming can be addicting, creating frequent visiting, and building strong habits that can make converting those eyeballs to other aspects of the organization easier,” Alexander said. “The New York Times isn’t solving a major pain with Games, but it is making the subscription more valuable to those who might get news elsewhere but can’t get Wordle elsewhere.”
“We are building leadership positions in a handful of areas that occupy a prominent place in global culture alongside general-interest news,” The New York Times wrote in an earnings report published in February 2023, stating that Wordle is an investment toward building that leadership.
The New York Times and other legacy media publications are trying to recreate the success of Wordle. As Bell explained, “We’re not expecting that we will necessarily discover the same thing as Wordle with the same huge daily average users or anything like that, but I think something like Spelling Bee, which is incredibly sticky and a deeper game could be interesting too.” The Times is also experimenting with visual puzzles, math puzzles, and a chess puzzle.
“Most games fail, so we’re definitely testing a lot of things,” said Bell.