The Story of Wordle
By Cody Sung
Volume 2 Issue 5
March 28, 2022
Original screenshot by Cody Sung
Have you heard of an online game called Wordle? Wordle is a word game, released less than half a year ago, and yet has captivated millions of players. How did it do it? How did it get to this point, and what are the factors in the story of how a simple game became an international hit?
Josh Wardle has had a bit of history with making things for the Internet to enjoy. For example, he created The Button in 2015 and Place in 2017. With this experience, he decided to create Wordle just for his girlfriend Palak Shah, who loves word games. Without her, the game wouldn’t be the same. She helped create the word list by sorting through over 12,000 words and determining if she knew them or not. The two played it for months.
Seeing success with his girlfriend, Wardle introduced it to his family’s WhatsApp group. The game quickly became an obsession with them. Wardle, after seeing the success with both his girlfriend and his family, released it to the public in October 2021.
The climb was swift. On November 1, 90 people played it. Not at all bad for a game originally made for two. However, two months later, over 2 million people played it, over a 22,000% rise. The game grew so big that Wardle was overwhelmed by its success, saying that he feels “a sense of responsibility for the players” and that it is his responsibility to keep the game operational.
There are a few reasons why Wordle ended up becoming extremely popular. Firstly, Wordle, unlike many other online games, doesn't want your money. It has no paywall that blocks the game, nor does it have any ads, making it simple and uncluttered. Secondly, there is only one word per day. According to Wardle, this makes players hungry for more, and so a lot of them come back tomorrow. Lastly, and the factor that contributed most to the sudden rise of Wordle, would be the result-sharing feature added in December. Wardle, inspired by players sharing their results using green, yellow, and black emojis, created an automated system to share results without spoiling the answer for anyone else. After the feature was added, the game exploded in popularity.
On January 31, 2022, the New York Times bought Wordle for a price in the “low-seven figures”. In its announcement they indicated that the game would remain free. However, concerns arose, as they have a paywall for its games already, and since Wordle was now owned by the New York Times, they may put Wordle behind that paywall. This caused people to download the webpage of Wordle to prevent the paywall from affecting them.
While the New York Times has not implemented a paywall (as of the time of writing), it has made some changes to the game. One of the changes made by them was moving the game to a new URL. The old URL did not include nytimes.com, instead using powerlanguage.co.uk, which was a domain that was not designed to go viral. A side effect of that move was that although the New York Times said that data would transfer over, streaks were reset.However, it was more or less resolved a day afterwards.
There were other changes made by the New York Times too. The title of the game has been changed from a Helvetica font to the signature font of the New York Times to match their other games. Another change was that there is now a menu to the left of the help symbol, leading to more New York Times products. These changes do not affect gameplay, as they are mostly cosmetics. However, there are changes that affect the gameplay itself.
One change affected what words were allowed to be entered into the game, as the New York Times stopped players from using certain words. If someone tries to use them, the message “Not in the word list” shows. The other change affects the list of words used to determine the answers to Wordle, as the New York Times has removedanswers that it has called “insensitive”. While that may not seem like an issue at first, this causes the New York Times version of the game to be out of sync with the original, affecting score-sharing with the few people that still can and do play on the original list.
Wordle’s success has sparked a rise of games similar to it. Some have a unique twist on the concept. Take Absurdle as an example. Absurdle tries to prevent you from winning, even changing the answer in some cases. Others have tried to copy the game on Apple’s App Store. However, Apple did remove the copycats.
Like everything else, Wordle has a story. It rose from obscurity to becoming a hit on the Internet to becoming a product offered by the New York Times. Thanks to its unique features and clean design, it will become more and more popular, unless the New York Times puts it behind a paywall. For now, though, Wordle will be enjoyed by millions for free.