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How the New York Times is expanding into puzzle games like Wordle

Bynewsmagzines

Feb 18, 2023
How the New York Times is expanding into puzzle games like Wordle

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Wordle was a delightful hit word game that took the puzzle gaming world by storm in October 2021. Made by a lone developer named James Wardle, Wordle was a rare sensation of gaming as millions of people played it and shared their scores globally on social media.

Then the New York Times Games bought it for “seven figures” from Wardle and turned it into a flagship game alongside crossword puzzles and other educational titles. Now the steward of Wordle and the New York Times Games business is Jonathan Knight, who has had a long career in games.

The world’s most respected newspaper seems like a funny company to be in the games business, but keeping readers engaged and happy on the New York Times web site is important, and nothing is more engaging than games. A new study found that Wordle is the most popular word game in America (44% of those surveyed play).

All told, the New York Times Games were played nearly four billion times in 2022 and it has tens of millions of players every day. Wordle superfans like Meghan Markle, Stanley Tucci and Jimmy Fallon regularly tout the game to their massive audiences.

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I talked to Knight about the business recently. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

New York Times gameboards.

GamesBeat: It’s an interesting place you’ve wound up. How long have you been there?

Jonathan Knight: A little over two years. We’ve had a great couple of years. I’m excited and bullish on the opportunity. Games are an essential part of our overall strategy as a company. We’ve had a lot of growth, accelerated by the Wordle acquisition at the beginning of last year. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Wordle with the Times. That’s gone very well. We’re investing. We’re taking games very seriously. We have a big vision and ambition.

GamesBeat: Have you talked about how well Wordle has done to date?

Knight: We’re not giving out a lot of super specific figures. Not long after the acquisition we said that Wordle brought tens of millions of new users into the New York Times ecosystem. We’re pretty pleased with the sustained amount of engagement with Wordle every day, from audiences all over the world. It’s obviously come down a bit from its height, as any viral explosion will. I was watching Anderson Cooper interview Monica Lewinsky about Wordle on CNN. That’s when I realized that maybe we had peaked.

But it was a true phenomenon, a crazy time. It’s calmed down a bit since then, but we’re seeing a very large audience still engaged with the game every day. We see a huge percentage of the audience sharing their scores every day. That percentage has not changed since day one, which is incredible. People have moved into their friend chats, WhatsApp threads and what-have-you. They continue to engage with the game every day. It brings people together. It’s a little something we can all agree on. I’ve been really happy with it.

Wordle

GamesBeat: How large is the whole portfolio of games? What else do you have?

Knight: The anchor product is of course the New York Times Crossword. We ran the first crossword puzzle in 1942 on Sunday during a tough news cycle at the time, which was a big choice the paper made. We’ve lived with that legacy ever since, with games being a fun distraction from the news. But the Crossword has really been that anchor product. We went digital with it early on in the world wide web. We launched an iOS app for the Crossword in 2009. And then steadily began growing game subscriptions in parallel to the news subscription.

We launched Spelling Bee about four years ago. Spelling Bee plus the Crossword, we were seeing subscriptions generated by Spelling Bee really stack on top of the Crossword subscriptions. That’s when the company realized we had an opportunity for a portfolio of games, and not just the Crossword. That began an effort to rebrand from the New York Times Crossword to New York Times Games. We launched a number of other games. The Crossword Mini, which is a really fun bite-sized five-by-five crossword puzzle you can do every day in a minute or two. There’s a leaderboard associated with that. And from there, Tiles, Letter Boxed, and Vertex, which are three additional expansion games. We have all daily puzzles made by humans, curated and edited with New York Times standards for rigor and wit and relevance and so forth. And then I would say finally we have a Sudoku puzzle we run every day. It’s eight games in total. The Crossword and Mini, Spelling Bee, and Wordle are the three big tentpoles.

Jonathan Knight back in 2014.

GamesBeat: Do they all share some identity around language? Is there something consistent that connects them to the New York Times?

Knight: Setting Sudoku aside for a second, the rest of them are all human-made and curated. I think that’s our superpower. We have a community of constructors. We have what we think is the world’s best puzzle editing team, still led by Will Shortz. He’s been the crossword editor since 1993. That’s our superpower. We draw on the community of puzzle constructors and have a great process there for getting puzzles out every day. That’s true of the Crossword. We have an editor on Spelling Bee who curates that puzzle every day. That’s one thing.

Second, I think our puzzles are time well spent. You know as well as I do that there are a lot of mobile free-to-play games out there that tend to just suck the life out of you and keep you engaged 24/7 and monetizing every moment. We offer high quality puzzle games at a fair subscription price. We don’t monetize the experience beyond that. You finish the puzzle and you’re done. It’s time well spent. You feel good about it. You solve something and you come back the next day for the next puzzle. All of that, plus a very clean design that doesn’t yell at you. It has a great sophisticated aesthetic and clean design. That’s what we’re known for.

GamesBeat: You’re not going to go buy God of War next.

Knight: No, not going into strategy or MMO for mobile just yet. Wait, no, that’s Game of War. We’re not going to go for a PS5 game either. I’ve been in mobile so long.

GamesBeat: I’ve written about Arkadium before. I don’t know if you know them. They had an interesting approach with developing web games for newspapers. The idea was to keep people going to those websites, engaging them. They may have gone for a news story, but they might also see the games, play the games, and that keeps them on the site longer. Ultimately they argued that there was a benefit back to the publication as far as hanging on to those readers and keeping them reading the core product. Is that kind of strategy similarly applicable here? That games can come back and build the core readership of the New York Times.

Knight: I think it’s core to our overall strategy as a company, actually. Meredith, our CEO, rolled out the New York Times strategy last year to be the essential subscription for curious people, English speakers that are seeking to understand and engage with the world. That vision of the essential subscription for engaging with and understanding the world–news is at the center of that, but it’s surrounded by a multitude of products. Games, cooking, the Athletic, Wirecutter. We think we have a full suite of products to offer – again, with news at the center.

We are absolutely seeing that our subscribers, especially our subscribers that take the all access bundle and have access to all that, when they engage with more than one product, they’re much more likely to retain over the long haul. We see news and games as a healthy combination. We see great user behavior and retention around that combination. We do think it works both ways. The news is obviously a very big audience coming into the New York Times every month, and it’s an incredible way to introduce them to games. But being engaged with games also makes you more likely to engage with the news product as well. That’s a big part of our strategy and a big part of why games are so important to the company.

Wordle
Wordle

GamesBeat: You could almost expect games at some point to exceed the number of users that are reading a publication. I don’t know if games have that kind of magnitude or importance for the Times.

Knight: Well, without getting into specific numbers, the New York Times audience every month is massive. We have a very large reach, a global reach. We’re not talking about games being bigger than news or anything.

With Wordle, I would say that Wordle was an amazing moment for us. Again, the audience has come down somewhat from its high, but Wordle at its height was just an incredible moment. Certainly as a games team we had to scramble to handle the traffic and have a strategy in place for introducing them to the New York Times products, to other games, to getting them in the registration flow and creating a New York Times account if they wanted. It’s an optional free account so we can store their stats and streaks for Wordle. But through all that process we were really excited about the scale of the audience we brought in.

GamesBeat: What else are you looking at doing as far as a road map and potential future games?

Knight: We have a lot of platform investments to continue to make in games. It’s a homegrown product. It’s a wholly owned tech stack. It’s a wholly owned games team, which differentiates us from our competitors. We’re making those investments for the games to be playable across all the different surfaces. We have the games app. We have the news app where you can play our games. We have the website where you can play our games – mobile web, desktop web, all the devices. We want a multiplatform game experience with a unified login and unified back end where everybody plays the same version of the game everywhere, no matter where you play.

In traditional gaming, where you and I come from, that’s sort of table stakes. But for us, to build a high quality platform for gaming is a new investment. We’re pretty far along, but we have more to do. I’m really interested in metagame features. Being able to track people’s stats over time so that they feel like they’re improving. We’re doing a bit of that now and we’ll do more in the future. I want to get to achievements that can be represented as badges or whatever. Ultimately we’re pretty excited about the opportunity to reward our players with achievements. That’s a big focus. More to come on that.

Content is always a big focus. It’s platform, content, platform, content, as you well know. We don’t need a new game tomorrow. Wordle was our new game, and when you have something of that magnitude, we’re just focused on it and making it successful. We’re very focused on improving Spelling Bee and bringing new features there, as well as Crossword. I would say the platform and our existing live games, if you will, that continues to be where most of our investment and focus is.

We have prototyping going on, as you can imagine. We’re trying out new ideas all the time internally. I expect to be doing a couple of more public betas of new puzzles this year. We have a small engine running against that, and we balance that against the core stuff we need to deliver.

GamesBeat: Do you have internal game development teams working here?

Knight: It’s not set up like a traditional game studio. We have a large live digital product that’s a subscription business. It sits inside of the larger New York Times subscription business. We’re broken into sub-teams that are going after different aspects of our subscription business. We do have a small effort internally dedicated to prototyping. Lots of folks contribute to that when they have time. We have a dedicated prototyper. I suspect that going forward, now that we have our legs under us on the platform side, and now that Wordle has fully ingested and gone well, we’ll be able to resource that a bit more.

James Wardle talks about creating Wordle at GDC.
James Wardle talks about creating Wordle at GDC.

GamesBeat: Subscriptions are an interesting model. I do wonder how many options you decide to create for the subscriptions, whether to individual games or the full slate of the games or the all access bundle you mentioned. How do you approach those different possibilities?

Knight: I call us the bundle within the bundle. When you subscribe to games, you get access to all the games. It may be that you really want the Crossword every day, and you want the archive of 10,000 crossword puzzles. If you subscribe you get all that, but you automatically get full access to all the games. We have some games that are free. Wordle remains free to play for everyone, whether or not you’re a subscriber. Crossword Mini is that way also. Spelling Bee has a limited free experience and you go to the full experience if you’re a subscriber. But once you have a game subscription you have everything. From there you can add news or you can just take the bundle and have news, cooking, games, the Athletic, and so on. Within games we’ve decided to just have one games offering, rather than paying for individual games. It all comes together.

GamesBeat: Did you consider taking Wordle inside the paywall, or did that not seem like a good idea?

Knight: Well, the strategy with Wordle was to–we have access to this incredibly large audience. Most of whom are brand new to the New York Times overall. As a funnel into our more premium games like Spelling Bee and the Crossword, it’s been very effective. The strategy was to simply leave the game alone. Don’t touch it. Don’t change it. It belongs to the internet in a lot of ways. Simply introduce them to Spelling Bee, to Crossword Mini.

What we found is that people who love Wordle also love other word games. Spelling Bee, the reason it’s a premium game, it’s a little more nuanced. You’re finding lots of words each day, not just one word. It has a lot of layers to it. It has a ranking system. A lot of Wordle players are falling in love with Spelling Bee. That funnel is working really well. There’s no reason to change that at the moment.

GamesBeat: You must get access to some very interesting puzzle creators. I understand from talking to other companies in the industry, there are some people who are quite good at designing these kinds of things, puzzle experts.

Knight: The crossword constructor community is incredible. It has a long and vibrant history. It’s an amazing community. There was a documentary called Wordplay made about that community and Will Shortz a couple of decades ago now. It’s always fun. I watched it on the Sunday before my first day on the job. Will runs the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament every year in Stamford, Connecticut. It’s a great way for that community to come together. We have a Wordplay blog in our community. It’s an amazing history, an amazing community.

A couple of things about that might be of interest. The New York Times is still the premier destination for someone to have their puzzle published, hands down. We get hundreds of submissions every month. We have a world class editorial team that works with constructors to get the very best puzzles possible to ultimately publish every day. We have constructors that have been with us a long time, that have been published many times, and we also have record numbers of debut constructors, which is really exciting.

Two years ago we hired Everdeen Mason as the editorial director for New York Times Games. She partners very closely with Will and the whole team. She’s done an incredible job of, I would say, modernizing the crossword constructor pipeline. Our editorial standards, the way we think about inclusivity, the way we think about diversity, not just with the constructors but with our overall standards around the clues–she kicked off a diverse crossword constructor fellowship last year, where we had hundreds of submissions and selected five constructors, novice constructors from underrepresented groups, who came in and were partnered with a New York Times editor to be mentored at puzzle construction. All five of them had their puzzles eventually published. We’re starting on the second annual class of diverse fellows.

I could go on and on. I’ll stop there. But I’m very passionate about that part of what we do. It’s a bit under the hood for a lot of people. They might think, “Oh, Will Shortz makes a crossword puzzle every day and that’s it.” There’s an incredible amount happening there. A lot of creativity and a lot of innovation.

GamesBeat: Are you expecting something to happen along the lines of a Wordle II?

Knight: A sequel? Somebody asked me the other day if we’d licensed out the movie rights to Wordle yet. No, we haven’t, and we have no plans for the sequel. Wordle is a very special game. It was lightning in a bottle in a lot of ways. We feel fortunate to end up as the stewards of that game. Those don’t come along very often. The next Wordle won’t look quite like that. It’ll be something else. But in the meantime a lot of people still play it every day. We’re very happy with it.

GamesBeat: It’s an interesting corner of the games business, even if it’s not as widely known.

Knight: I think Wordle changed that. I was at GDC last year right after the acquisition. It looked like Microsoft buying Activision and the New York Times buying Wordle were getting about equal play in the halls of the convention. A lot of people came up to me.

GamesBeat: Was it last year that Josh Wardle gave his talk at the conference?

Knight: He did do a talk, yes. This year my executive producer, Zoe Bell, will be giving a talk. One year later from the New York Times perspective. What was it like to acquire and integrate Wordle into our platform? That will be a cool bookend. I’m really enjoying it.

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