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14 January 2022updated 01 Feb 2022 2:01pm

The New York Times just paid millions for Wordle. Why?

It is a once-a-day game, like a crossword or Sudoku, which means that it's habit forming.

By Emma Haslett

In an era of collective exhaustion, it is perhaps unsurprising that a soothing new trend has taken over the internet: Wordle, an online word game that takes a few minutes to complete but only allows users to play once a day, was launched quietly in October 2021 and has quickly become a viral hit, with “millions” of people playing last month. 

Now the game’s success has attracted one of the biggest names in the business: the New York Times said this morning (1 February) that it had paid Josh Wardle, Wordle’s creator, “in the low seven figures” for the game.

The game’s disciples praise its clutter-free interface for providing a few moments of calm each day. But is that all that explains its hefty pricetag?

How did Wordle go so viral, so fast? 

Becky Ingram, a behavioural scientist at the market data company Kantar, says several factors make Wordle a social media hit. 

First, being a once-a-day game – like a traditional newspaper crossword or Sudoku – means it’s habit-forming. That’s particularly important in the dissociated world of homeworking and pandemic-related uncertainty. “It’s just a bit of certainty and routine, every single day, but it’s very reliable, it’s very dependable.”

Would it have cut through in the same way during a less chaotic period? “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think we would have had that longing for simpler times.” 

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Simplicity is also part of its success, Ingram suggests: specifically, its clean design, which is free of ads, pop-ups, sign-up forms and other distractions. 

“We’ve got so much information being thrown at us at the moment,” she says. “It’s very clear: just six boxes, which means it kind of feels warm. When you look at a lot of stuff, there’s too much information. It’s cognitive overload.”

“I think people appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun,” the Wardle, told the New York Times last month. “It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs.”

That said, the game would not be played by millions were it not for social media. Once users have completed their game, they can tweet their result using rows of grey, yellow and green box emojis to indicate how many guesses it took for them to win. Wardle has said he added the option to share after he noticed a player from New Zealand doing it. 

“The emoji grid just leaves the colours and it’s a way for you to share how you did without ruining the game for others, which has really led to this communal aspect, specifically on Twitter,” he told New Zealand’s RNZ. 

[see also: The fidget business]

Ingram suggests the fact that only Wordle insiders would have understood those tweets may have contributed to the game’s fast growth. “It’s the sense of being the first to discover it – but then when it gets big, being able to say ‘I was there at the beginning’.”

Sharing on Twitter also offers players a reputational boost. Because it’s a word game, completing it “feels slightly academic”, says Ingram, giving players a sense of having “achieved something which is quite meaningful”.

Why is the New York Times interested?

The Times‘ “Games” section is the stuff of legend: not only does it have the traditional crossword offerings, but it has quicker, addictive games too. Spelling Bee, for instance, challenges the player to find as many words as possible using a selection of letters, while the Mini Crossword is nine three-, four- or five-letter words, which many users challenge themselves to complete inside a minute.

Games form a big part of the newspaper’s growth strategy. It has a standalone subscription package for games: its annual report indicates that in 2020, that package had 840,000 subscribers. In a report this morning, it said it plans to increase digital subscriptions to 10 million by 2025, driven in part by an increase in Games subscriptions.

Does this mean I won’t be able to play it unless I have a New York Times Games subscription? Why does everything pure get ruined?

The newspaper has assured Wordle addicts that nothing is going to change. In a statement, it said: “When the game moves to the New York Times, Wordle will be free to play for new and existing players, and no changes will be made to its gameplay.” Wardle added that he was working with the Times to “make sure your wins and streaks will be preserved”.

Will the Wordle craze really last? 

From the traditional crossword to the 2010 craze for Words With Friends, Wordle is descended from a long line of word games. But Ingram says that the number of players is likely to drop off after a while: “Some people will jump onto it because it’s new and shiny.”

The game is only available on its website (although will soon move across to the Times), so any iPhone or Android apps claiming to be Wordle are fake. Apple removed one widely downloaded copy, to which its developer Zach Shakked had added $30-a-year “pro” option; he later admitted to having “crossed a line”.  

However long Wordle lasts, Ingram suggests Wardle’s association with the game and its “pure” vision will stand him in good stead for the future. “Imagine if he was to bring another game out. People would jump onto it to see what he’s done next. My suggestion to him is to go make another one,” she says.

How do you play Wordle?

The rules are simple: each day, the game chooses a new five-letter word from a list of 2,500 for people to guess, using Scrabble-like letter tiles. They’re given six chances, and are provided with colour-coded clues: a yellow tile means the letter exists somewhere in the word, a green tile means that letter is in the correct spot, a dark grey tile means the letter doesn’t exist anywhere in the word. 

Wordle sometimes uses the same letter twice. This can make certain words harder to guess, as there is no indication that this is the case.

While most users simply start by guessing a five-letter word, dedicated players have developed methods based on linguistic theory and even cryptography.  

Who is Josh Wardle, the developer behind Wordle?

Wardle is a Welsh software engineer who lives in Brooklyn and whose surname provided the inspiration for the game’s title. He has worked for sites such as Reddit, where he helped to create viral experiments, including The Button. In a New York Times piece he said the game was created for his partner, Palak Shah, after they “got really into” word games during the pandemic. The game was originally launched by Wardle on his family WhatsApp group.

In his statement this morning, Wardle said his game’s success had been “a little overwhelming”. “After all, I am just one person,” he added.

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