When Josh Wardle created a quirky word game in late 2021, he used his own name as inspiration for the game’s simple title. Speaking with reporters in early 2022, he said he created the game because he and his girlfriend both love word puzzles and word searches.
The game, Wordle, tasks players with guessing a five-letter word in six attempts. After each guess, the game shows players which letters they guessed correctly and which aren’t in the word.
The game’s initial draw is simple: it’s free to play and fun to guess correctly. When you manage to divine the day’s word in two or three guesses, you feel like a genius. You might even feel compelled to share your performance with your friends. That’s where Wordle’s biggest hook comes in.
Word games have been popular for decades. The New York Times’ crossword puzzle has been a favorite pastime of coffee-drinking word-lovers since the early 1900s. However, social media has brought games in general to a new level of popularity. Sites like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to share your game performance with your friends, which makes them more likely to try a game out and share their own results.
Wordle capitalized on this dynamic by using two attention-grabbing features. Firstly, players are only able to guess one word each day. If you guess incorrectly and miss the word, you have to wait until tomorrow to redeem yourself. This keeps players from getting burned out in the short term.
Secondly, every user gets the same word to guess every day. As such, guessing a tough word can make you feel victorious when you share your results with your friends.
Wardle resisted calls to monetize the game when it exploded in popularity in December 2021. He told reporters that he’d prefer to keep the game free. In late January, Wardle solid the game to the New York Times for an undisclosed sum above $1 million.
“I’ve long admired the NYT’s approach to their games and the respect with which they treat their players,” Wardle told reporters at the time. “Their values are aligned with mine on these matters and I’m thrilled that they will be stewards of the game moving forward.”
Since the NYT took over the game, it has remained free and is as popular as ever. Time will tell if it will remain the most popular word game on the internet or if it’s only destined to enjoy fifteen minutes of fame.