The mastermind behind the five-letter word brain teaser that has captivated much of the puzzle-loving world chose a seven-letter word to describe his emotions after the New York Times paid more than $1 million for his brainchild: r-e-l-i-e-f.
Brooklyn-based British software engineer Josh Wardle, who released Wordle three months ago, cashed in Monday after The Times announced that it had purchased the mega-hit word game for an undisclosed price in the low seven figures.
‘My biggest sense, actually, right now, isn’t joy. It’s relief,’ said Wardle, hours after the sale, in an interview with Time magazine.
He also put out a message assuring fans that the game would ‘initially’ remain free for existing and new players after users started a #KeepWorldleFree campaign to prevent The Times from putting it behind its paywall.
The Times has not revealed its plans for the global phenomenon but said it expects the acquisition to broaden its digital content as it tries to reach the goal of 10 million subscribers by 2025. It currently has about 7.6 million digital subscribers.
Wardle, who created Wordle to play with his girlfriend Palak Shah during the pandemic before releasing it to the public in October, said his goal has never been about financial gain.
‘The goal was to make a game that my partner would enjoy playing,’ he told TIME.
‘What’s interesting is, people ask me all the time about the monetization stuff. Like, “You could put ads on it, You could do premium.” And I don’t know, maybe I’m an idiot. None of that really appeals to me. I think because I started with the intention of not doing it, it’s been easy to say no. If I’d been trying to make a viral game I think it would be very different.’
Wardle, reluctant to be photographed, told TIME that he has not been a fan of the attention his game has brought him.
‘My inbox is destroyed,’ Wardle said.
He spoke about the humble beginnings of the game, which doesn’t even have an app but can be found through a URL address.
Wardle, who graduated from university in London in 2006 and moved to the U.S. for a masters in fine arts in 2008, came up with the idea for the game while working as a software engineer at Reddit.
‘I built a prototype of Wordle in, like, 2013,’ he said. ‘There were a couple of things wrong with it. You loaded up the game, and it picked a random word from the 13,000 that are five letters long. And it turns out in the English language, there are a lot of really, really out there words. And so that game was different. Like, brute force, you were trying a lot of guesses that weren’t words, which didn’t feel good to me.’
Despite keeping the game just between him, his girlfriend and his family, he eventually opened the word game to the public in November at powerlanguage.co.uk, named after Wardle’s online persona.
‘It’s my alias that I use online,’ Wardle explained. ‘It comes from me and my friend fooling around in his backyard. We were young and dumb and the neighbor came over and shouted at us,’ he said.
‘What I thought he said was, “Don’t use that power language.” I think it was because we were swearing. Turns out in retrospect, I’m pretty sure he was saying ‘foul language.’ I misheard it as ‘power language,’ but I was so captivated by the idea that swearing would be called power language — the idea that it had this power — that I got caught up in it in a way that you do when you’re a teenager, these dumb things. So I bought a domain name. And, hey, if you’re going to release a game that goes viral, don’t put it on a website called powerlanguage dot co dot U.K. forward slash Wordle.
‘I’ll tell you that for free. Everyone has to Google ‘wordle’ every day because no one can remember what the domain is.’
Initially, people who searched for it in app stores were led to a Wordle app created by Steve Cravotta, who had used the name for a different game.
Cravaotta offered the money made by the confusion to Wardle, but the two decided it should instead go to Boost! West Oakland, a tutoring nonprofit where Shah had volunteered, TIME reported.
Wordle’s unwieldy domain name did not stop it from becoming a global success.
The once-a-day online game gives a player six chances to figure out a five-letter word, using the least number of guesses.
A green brick indicates that the letter is correct and in the exact location; a yellow brick indicates that the letter appears in the word but in a different place; and a gray or black brick indicates that the letter does not appear anywhere in the word.
The app had 90 users by the beginning of November but continued to grow to 300,000 users by mid-January and now millions play the game daily.
As The Times seeks to grow paid readers outside its core news content, games and puzzles have become a key part of a strategy to keep its audience engaged on its apps and websites.
The newspaper was an early adopter of the paywall when it started digital subscription plans back in 2011. That strategy helped it buck the trend of falling print revenues and build a digital business.
It has also bought into other digital media such as subscription-based audio app Audm and product review website Wirecutter. Last month, it agreed to pay $550 million in cash for sports site The Athletic.
Its Games unit, which has more than one million subscriptions, started with the Daily Crossword, and later launched games such as Spelling Bee, Tiles, Letter Boxed and Vertex.