So, last year, he built a no-frills, quick-loading game, just for her. She shared it with friends and family, and it became a bit of an obsession in their little bubble.
Then, the programmer, Josh Wardle, decided to open it up to the world.
On November 1, 90 people played it. But soon, word got out. According to one report, it might have been people in New Zealand who caught onto it somehow and spread the word.
Regardless, its popularity grew fast. By New Year's Day, 300,000 people a day were playing the game; by mid-January, that had risen to 2 million daily.
I'm sure you know the game we're talking about: Wordle, a very simple, one-play-per-day-only game that drops at midnight. The point is to identify a five-letter word (just one five-letter word) each day, within six tries.
People post on social media how long it took them to reach the end of the game. So, it was fitting that on Monday, we learned what the end of the game looks like for Wardle: a payday "in the low seven figures," as the New York Times bought Wordle from him.
I don't know where we are within the shelf-life of Wordle; whether people will continue playing it, or if -- as many of the commenters on the Times's article announcing the purchase predicted -- the mere fact that it's now going to be owned by a big, established media brand will undermine the simple game's popularity.
But, I do think it's quite useful to break down how Wardle dreamed Wordle up, built it, grew it, and sold it over the course of just a few months, ultimately selling for what seems like a healthy but not insane price.
Fittingly, I think we can identify five main points:
- First, the game is short, simple, and habit-forming. I've only been playing it for a few weeks, but the fact that there's only one play per day, and that you know when it's going to become available, makes it habit-forming.
- Second, it's clean and simple. There aren't many options or distractions on the page (and it's a page, not an app). You can play the game, and then you can share how you did. No ads, no "enter your email," no login to Twitter, etc.
- Third -- and this point has to do with both its genesis and the exit -- Wordle itself is basically an incremental addition to the kinds of online word games that the Times already publishes. Thus, it fit in with the kinds of things that the Times might be interested to acquire.
- Fourth, I think it was the fact that the game paradoxically didn't seem built to sell, so to speak, that makes it (or made it; we'll see) appealing.
- Finally, there's the ultimate purchase price. "Low seven figures" is a nice haul for a game that Wardle initially built as a side project, and it could be life-changing money for a lot of people. But, it's a low enough price that I can't imagine a lot of balking on the New York Times side of the table
In December, according to the New York Times report on its own transaction, the company had 1 million subscribers to its subscription Games product, which is part of the company's goal to get as many subscribers in the English-speaking world as possible.
At least "initially," the company said World will "remain free to new and existing players."
Will they stick around? Will readers even notice that Wordle is soon to be "brought to you by the New York Times?" Or will people move onto the next thing quickly?
Time will tell. But for Wardle at least, it's nice to find a story like that that winds up with a happy ending -- and one that other people can learn a bit from, too. And as for me, it's almost midnight as I write this; I think I'll go play one more round.