Downtime

Did the New York Times Kill Wordle by Buying It?

The Times’ games chief has thoughts.

A Wordle game where the first two guesses are STILL and ALIVE.
Photo illustration by Slate.

A few weeks ago, a clip of an announcer at a Major League Baseball game explaining how to play Wordle to his co-announcer was going around the internet. The footage, featuring the San Francisco Giants’ Dave Flemming and Jon Miller, goes on for an alarmingly long time, and describes the game in mind-numbing detail: “The yellow means letter is correct, but not in the correct spot,” Flemming says at one point. Some may interpret the clip as proof that baseball is not an exciting sport, that baseball announcers need to get some new material, or just that we’re all stuck in the culture vacuum that is the end of summer. But I was more interested in what it said about Wordle. The online word game, if never quite hip, was excitingly everywhere earlier this year. Now, though? It was possible we had just witnessed the actual sole remaining person in the world who didn’t know about Wordle being told what it was. It was a little sad. How the mighty have fallen?

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At the end of January, the New York Times bought Wordle from its inventor, Josh Wardle, for an undisclosed sum in the “low seven figures.” The purchase was met with some skepticism—had Wordle sold out?—but the game stayed largely the same, and the Times even figured out how to maintain users’ stats as the paper integrated it into its platform. However, somewhere along the way, I know that I personally drifted away from playing it every day, and there are signs I’m not alone. It’s undeniable that fewer people are talking about the game and posting their scores on social media: On a recent Monday, 30,214 people publicly tweeted their Wordle grids. That sounds like a lot, until you consider that in February of this year, that number was regularly topping 300,000. (These numbers come from @WordleStats, a Twitter bot created by Kevin O’Connor, a software engineer, to track Wordle activity on Twitter.) Google searches also seem to tell a story. None of that is conclusive, though, and clearly someone must still be playing: There are still all those websites publishing “clues” for solving the puzzle every single day.

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It’s been a little over half a year since the Times acquisition, so it seems like a good time to ask: Who is still playing Wordle? Were those seven figures worth it? Is the Times ever going to start charging for it? In short, what comes after online puzzle mania? Will Wordle be able to translate it into online puzzle immortality? Jonathan Knight, who oversees games at the New York Times, agreed to answer Slate’s questions about life after peak Wordle. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Slate: The website Statista published a chart showing that search interest in Wordle has been declining since its peak earlier this year around the time of the Times purchase, though overall holding steady. Is that graph worth paying attention to?

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Jonathan Knight: I think it doesn’t tell the full story, because for a while, typing Wordle into Google was actually the way that you would start playing Wordle for a lot of people. Over time, especially once we migrated it to the New York Times, people began to come to Wordle each morning, each day, whenever they decided to play, through some different channels. For sure there are fewer people playing Wordle today than there were at the height of its popularity. But it’s still a quite large and healthy audience.

Judging by conversation alone, the Wordle craze has definitely died down some. Are people playing less? Or playing but talking about it less?

People are definitely still playing Wordle. We’re very pleased with the ongoing engagement with the game. I’ve been in the games industry personally for a very long time and have seen viral games explode and go through kind of their life cycle, and as with anything like this, of course you can’t sustain the peak of your total viral explosion. And you do expect that that will come down, and largely that’s a factor of just fewer new users every day discovering your game because everybody’s already discovered it. I literally almost never meet someone who hasn’t played Wordle. Anytime it comes up in conversation at dinner parties or conventions or family gatherings, I mean, just everybody knows what we’re talking about.

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We’re still seeing a lot of new users come in, although a lot less than originally. And we’re seeing the existing world player base staying and playing every day. There’s certainly less Twitter activity, as we would expect. But a lot of that has moved into private threads, WhatsApp threads, Messenger threads where you find a group of friends or family, and there, we do see very consistent, ongoing sharing behavior.

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I noticed some people reacted negatively to the Times buying Wordle. What did you make of that?

I think we knew from the beginning what was in our hearts, if you will. We loved Wordle and our marching orders as a team were very clear: We were going to maintain what makes this game special. We see ourselves as stewards of the game. And we really didn’t want to change the experience in any way. The game remains free to play. It’s free to play for everybody. It has been a great vehicle for introducing this really big, broad audience to our other games, to the New York Times. And I think we’ve been very thoughtful and sophisticated about how we’ve done that and, to the extent that we prompt people to create a free New York Times account, it’s like, “Hey, you, you don’t have to do this. You can just keep playing Wordle. But if you do do this, your stats and streaks are gonna be stored for you.” That’s a pretty great, I think, value that we’re providing.

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You mentioned that Wordle is and remains free. So there are no plans to put it behind the paywall?

Well, I said it remains free up to now, just to clarify, and I always have to be careful about this because I don’t want to predict the future. So it’s free to play. If you were to ask me, “Will you ever put the mini crossword behind a pay wall?” or “Will you ever change the subscription access rules for Spelling Bee?” I’d give you the same answer, which is: I can’t predict the future.

Can you talk about whether Wordle has increased subscription conversions?

I can’t give you any numbers. But I can definitely refer you to some of the comments made on our earnings calls, where Games has been mentioned. We’ve had a lot of success this year with subscriptions as a result of Games.

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There are people who think the Times made Wordle harder, right?

That’s always a fun one, but, no, we did not make Wordle harder. That was also one of those things where we had to just try to do our best to ignore the Twittersphere and stay focused on our values, which was very much to keep the game approachable. We really believed in Josh Wardle’s principles around how he decided what the solutions would be, and to be honest, we are still going off of the solutions that Josh created. He created several years’ worth of solutions, and we’re largely sticking to those. We did actually early on make a couple changes to remove words that we thought were overly obscure, like AGORA.

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I’ll never forget watching the Today Show and Savannah Guthrie and whoever else is on that show arguing about whether we’d made the game harder or not. She was great, ’cause she kind of defended us. I think there was a week in there where on average, the game was a little harder not long after we bought it, and that probably contributed to those perceptions, but that was not based upon anything we had done.

When you say harder on average, is that based on a general perception, or do you have actual numbers?

Now that we’ve rewritten the game and connected it to our backend and brought it into our systems, we can actually see the average score per day across the whole audience. So we can actually track, like, “Oh, that was a tough day.” You even see that in WordleBot, like, “Oh, the average was 4.8.” You’re really only seeing the people that are playing that have registered with a New York Times account that’s connected on the site that they’re playing WordleBot, so it’s a subset of the total audience. But now the Games team can see the total Wordle audience.

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In the early days before we had done that rewrite, Twitter actually had done some work to analyze the scores that people were posting. And so it wasn’t 100 percent scientific, but it was a good proxy for how difficult a Wordle might have been on any given day, ’cause you could just scrape the scores that people were posting.

The level of detail that WordleBot can go into in analyzing your score is crazy. Where did it come from?

The WordleBot came from a really clever team inside the newsroom called the Upshot. They, kind of in parallel and independently from the game itself and the work that my team was doing, took this really interesting scientific journalistic approach to Wordle. And once we had made it part of the New York Times, they were able to, at least for New York Times users with New York Times accounts, start to see what their scores were and what their words were and kind of develop it. We’re trying to bring the two products a little closer together. We’re putting a link to WordleBot more prominently on the game coming up soon.

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Do you have targets for about how many people should get every word?

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I mean, candidly, no, we don’t have targets in terms of completion rates. The goal with Wordle is that the words should be common words that everybody knows. We do see that the vast majority of people get the Wordle every day and there are some variations, but not enough that I would say that we’ve really had to change course on the difficulty of the game.

The day the Wordle solution was FETUS, that got a lot of attention. How did that play out for you?

What was unfortunate about that moment with FETUS is that the timing was very concerning because that leaked decision on Roe v. Wade came out, and then an engineer happened to notice that the solution was gonna be FETUS in a couple of days. And there was no way for us to change the word and guarantee that everyone would get the new word.

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Up until very recently, we didn’t have the ability to actually change what the word was going to be and have that change be true for everyone, especially within a short time window. We’re actually, to be totally candid, not 100 percent through that tech transition. We’re very close to being able to actually change a solution so that everybody gets the new solution without even knowing that we’ve made a change.

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What we said at the time and still really believe is that Wordle should be a diversion from the news. We were concerned that that answer could be hurtful to some segment of the population, and that’s not at all what our games are about. So we knew we would in any scenario have wanted to change that answer for that reason. It just so happened that the tech made it such that we couldn’t guarantee that everybody got the new word. So some people still did get FETUS. And so we had to come out and just be super honest about what happened and why.

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Since the acquisition, one of the things the Times has been focused on is that tech, and the latest official Wordle milestone is that players can now play it in the New York Times’ crossword app. Can you tell me more about what it took to make that happen?

When we originally acquired Wordle, it was a simple web game that had really captured everybody’s imagination and was getting tons and tons of users. But there was no back end to the game. People’s stats and streaks were being stored in their local browsers. The solutions to the puzzle were being stored in local browsers. We really wanted the game board experience, the core loop of the game, to remain unchanged. But we found that people cared about their stats and people cared about their streaks. And if you were to get a new iPhone and go to Wordle, suddenly it doesn’t know who you are. So we undertook a project to both connect Wordle to a free New York Times account so that it knows who you are and so that your stats and streaks will be protected, and also to bring Wordle to more surfaces, but in such a way that your games wouldn’t get bifurcated. We could have just launched Wordle in the apps a long time ago, but then if you started playing in the app, you may be logged in as a New York Times account but it still doesn’t know who you are, and your stats and streaks have started over.

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And so what it kind of took is a pretty big team effort to rewrite Wordle. The client side of it got rewritten in something called React so that we could then more easily connect it up to our internal systems, be able to store your stats and streaks, and then be able to bring the game into our app. We worked really hard for the last several months across lots of different technologies, lots of different parts of the company, to get to what we hope is a fairly seamless experience where you don’t really notice that anything’s changed about the game, except that it knows who you are, stores your stats, and you can play anywhere.

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It was announced earlier this summer that there’s going to be a board game version of Wordle. How did that come about?

We think that having the New York Times games as a brand in retail, on a regular basis, ideally an annual basis, is really important and exciting strategically for us. So it made a lot of sense. When we announced Wordle, there was a lot of outreach from lots of different potential licensing partners, people wanting to do things with us and with Wordle. We’re super excited about the partnership with Hasbro.

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How involved was your team with translating the online game into a physical game? Did Hasbro go and work up some mockups and present them to you, or were you working together?

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I’ll just say that it was a great collaboration. We certainly got a look into their process. That was really exciting. They’re the experts on what makes a great board game. We feel like we have a really strong sense of what makes Wordle special as a digital game. The focus has been letting them do what they do best for sure, but they’ve been wide open to hearing any of our thoughts along the way.

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Have you played it?

I have watched videos of it being played. I have not yet—I don’t have a physical copy. I think there’s a couple of beta versions floating around and a lot of jealousy to go with it from the people who don’t have them. I don’t have mine yet, but I’ve seen a video of it being played and I’m excited about it.

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Do you play any of the Wordle knockoffs, like Quordle or Heardle?

I play them all. At least, I’ve tried them all. On a daily basis, no, I have not formed a daily habit with any of them. I think those games are out there. I think they’re fun for people to try. For us, all those knockoffs are keeping Wordle in the conversation to a certain extent, and that’s only a good thing.

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You don’t worry that people are playing them instead of Wordle?

We don’t have any indication that that’s happening. I think there have been examples of games that are deliberately trying to create confusion about which is the real Wordle and trying to sort of pull people from the official Wordle into their Wordle. That’s a different matter, but if there’s an offshoot that’s themed or like Sweardle where it’s swear words, all those things I think are novelties in some ways, or they’re ways for a very small subset to go much, much deeper ’cause they just wanna do more every day. But our sense is that that’s all sort of additive to the core Wordle phenomenon.

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The WordleBot has an updated recommendation for best starting word, and I couldn’t help but notice that it’s SLATE, a five-letter word near and dear to my heart. Do you start with SLATE?

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I’m in the fortunate position to see a lot of data around the best starting words. We actually can see now what the most popular starting word is, so maybe not necessarily the best word, but the word that the most people start with. And in fact, it’s ADIEU. A lot of people go with the vowel strategy. So for me personally, I look at all of that, but I actually like to change my starting word. Some people change every day. Some people never change. I’m someone who picks a word and sticks with it for a couple weeks, and then I get bored and I’ll pick a different one and stick with that for maybe a month. I’m currently using SPACE. A couple weeks ago I was using STARE.

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But I’m starting to sour a little bit on the starting word that ends with E. There’s something both helpful in some ways, because you almost always get either a green or a yellow when you choose a starting word that ends in E, but when it’s a yellow, it can be a little daunting as to where the E might go next. And if it’s a green, it can be a little daunting because so many words end in E. So while it may be very effective, I’m thinking about changing to something that doesn’t end with an E.

I have to ask: Have you ever not gotten the Wordle?

Personally, the dreaded X out of six has happened to me—I wanna say twice. That feels about right. If I said just once I might be lying. It’s probably happened twice, but I really don’t think it’s happened more than twice.

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