Developer overwhelmed by game's runaway success, doesn't oppose future paywall
Viral online puzzle game Wordle has been acquired by The New York Times Company (NYTCo), publisher of The New York Times.
The game requires players to guess a five-letter word within six turns – a task made easier by Wordle offering clues that players have chosen letters used in the word, and whether or not they are in the right position. Gameplay is similar to codebreaking pegboard game Mastermind, but with 26 different "pegs" – and of course the answer has to be an English word. A single puzzle is offered daily.
Wordle was created by a sole developer, Josh Wardle, as a lockdown distraction for his partner. It took off when Wardle added a feature allowing players to share their results, and is now thought to have millions of daily users – up from mere thousands in October 2021.
Wardle announced the sale on Twitter, saying that as a lone developer he has struggled to tend the game as its popularity grew. He also opined that, as The New York Times’ online puzzles were an inspiration for Wordle, the NYT is the right home for the game.
NYTCo revealed the deal is valued "in the low seven figures" but has not offered greater detail. The deal is not sufficiently large to have rated a mention on the NYTCo investor relations page, nor a regulatory filing.
Or maybe not, because The NYT article about the acquisition reveals that the newspaper has over a million subscribers for its games and puzzles service, and that they collectively solved 500 million puzzles in 2021 alone. Plus, y'know, it felt like virtually everyone was playing Wordle at one point or had at least heard of it, so the price isn't too surprising.
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A disclosure: your correspondent is an NYT games subscriber and finds that the $20 annual fee delivers many hours of head-scratching frustrate-o-tainment at a very reasonable price. The service is also impressively digital: the Times Crossword's digital incarnation is very usable, gamers' histories are recorded and easily accessible, while some games have generated respectful and vivid communities dedicated to solving puzzles.
Do the math: a million $20 subscribers produce a very decent revenue stream. And in your vulture's opinion Wordle definitely adds value to the service. If Wordle brings in more subscribers, or gives current customers a reason to hang around, that low seven-figure sum won't take long to pay for itself.
The Times has pledged the game will remain free to current and future players, for a time. That stance suggests Wordle could eventually pass beyond the Times' paywall. Alternatively it may follow the model of the NYT "Mini" Crossword: free to play each day, but playing past puzzles requires a subscription. We'll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile Wardle says he is working with the NYTCo's tech people to ensure that, as the puzzle moves to its new home, people's streaks won't be lost. If successful, that should help foster loyalty.
The acquisition is probably also bad news for Wordle clones, which are legion and sometimes quite trashy – your correspondent confesses to having tried a couple of versions that limited their vocabulary to swearing. I excuse those tawdry excursions because Wordle is addictive: one a day is not enough – especially when I’ve just flamed out (again, dammit) on the Spelling Bee. ®