In a month of spectacular video game industry buyouts, symbolised by Microsoft's incredible $68 billion (€60 billion) swoop for Activision Blizzard, there is one purchase that has sent paroxysms of fear across the planet. On Monday, the New York Times revealed that it had bought the viral megahit Wordle for a "low seven figure sum". The web-based word puzzle, which launched last October, was originally intended as a gift from software engineer Josh Wardle to his partner. But it has become a viral sensation, amassing an audience of millions – and key to its appeal is the fact that it's free, with no ads.
So what does a big newspaper like the New York Times want with a game like Wordle, and what happens next?
In its announcement, the NYT said Wordle would “initially” remain free to current and new users. That doesn’t mean that Wordle will never be locked behind a paywall, but for now it won’t – and bear in mind that the NYT currently lets nonsubscribers play some of its other games and crosswords for free. “It’s a little early for us to talk about where we might go with the game,” says the NYT’s general manager of games, Jonathan Knight. “Our number one objective is to continue what makes this game so special – I think in that regard we are more like stewards at the beginning. I think we have a good sense of why it’s so popular and we’re committed to maintaining that game design.”
Those worried about the game being suddenly plastered with ads can probably relax, too. The NYT’s own games, as well as the Wordle page and app, are all reassuringly stylish; there’s an Apple-like concern with cleanliness and uniformity in both the visual design and the user experience. “We have a fairly minimalist design to our games,” says Knight. “We make elegant visual puzzles. Josh has said publicly that he was inspired by our games – he and his partner play Spelling Bee.”
'I've long admired the Times's approach to the quality of their games and the respect with which they treat their players'
So why would the NYT pay a seven-figure sum for something that it’s not going to directly monetise? “Our number one priority is around users and engagement,” says Knight. “Our strategy is to have more people spending more time with the Times – both the news and our products around the news, whether that’s games or cooking or audio or [product review site] Wirecutter. Clearly Wordle has created a huge daily engagement phenomenon and we see intrinsic value in that. So the first order of business is really to bring it on to the NYT site, introduce our audience to Wordle, and Wordle’s audience to the New York Times, and go from there.”
There’s an important piece of background here that non-NYT subscribers might not realise: this newspaper is extremely serious about games. Alongside a daily crossword and sudoku, it has Tiles, Spelling Bee, Vertex, Letter Boxed and Mini Crossword – all interesting, smart and highly acclaimed, and all designed by the paper’s dedicated games team, which is effectively run as a development studio. Ideas are brainstormed then prototyped and tested over many months, and several designers are graduates of the NYU Game Center, the groundbreaking game design school that has become the industry’s equivalent of art and design’s Central St Martins in London.
This is something Knight, who has previously run studios for Electronic Arts and Zynga, is keen to emphasise. "We have a set of creative pillars for our games – we want them to feel like time well spent, they should fit well into your day, we like that we're all collectively working on the same human-made puzzle at the same time and trying to get to the same solution – we think that's really important. Our games are about mental challenge and mental fitness and staying sharp – what you might call smart fun."
It’s safe to assume they’re not in this for a quick buck. According to Knight, the NYT made contact with Wardle at the beginning of January, when the game was still early in its ascent. “I’ve long admired the Times’s approach to the quality of their games and the respect with which they treat their players,” Wardle said in the press release announcing the sale. “Their values are aligned with mine on these matters and I’m thrilled that they will be stewards of the game moving forward.”
If you're worried about losing your winning streak data in the move, it's OK
According to Knight, the paper, which has been running a crossword since 1942, has always understood the value of games as part of the news package. “We get incredible letters from our players and fans, heartfelt messages about people who solved a crossword with their elderly parents – even in times of tragedy, word games are the things that kept people together until the very end … [During the pandemic] we’ve all spent a lot of time indoors with each other and we feel like our games have brought a lot of joy to people. We see that in the business, too – games have really grown in popularity over the last couple of years.”
The NYT games team was inspired by Wordle, Knight says, especially the spoiler-free way that it lets players share the solution on social media, with rows of coloured squares. "What I love, is that the little grid of green and yellow squares is actually a story, a personal and unique story, about how you solved the puzzle that day. And you can share that story without giving away the ending – so if I haven't solved it yet that day, I can still enjoy that story; and once I have solved it I can sort of pick apart your story," says Knight. "It's really magical that way. Today I was on Facebook with some friends and someone posted a grid I'd just never seen before - so it's a story that doesn't seem to get old. It's a very clever, innovative sharing mechanic at a time when people really need that."
Expecting Wardle to maintain control of his game as it became a global phenomenon was always unrealistic. In 2014, game developer Dong Nguyen was so traumatised by the demands of maintaining his viral megahit Flappy Bird that he took the game off app stores and apologised for its supposedly addictive qualities. For Wordle, stewardship at the NYT is a best case scenario. This way, the game will exist on a stable platform with a team on-hand for technical updates – and Wardle gets to benefit from what he’s created without ruining it.
And if you’re worried about losing your winning streak data in the move, it’s OK. An NYT spokesperson told me: “Josh Wardle is working with us to make sure streaks and stats will work as they have to date.” Phew. – Guardian