‘The New York Times’ buys Wordle: the masterstroke of (at least) one million dollars | Technology



In the media sector, there had been mergers of communication groups, newspapers that acquired televisions and vice versa, and radio stations that stole their star announcers from others. What had never happened until now was that one of the main newspapers in the world announced with great fanfare the purchase of a game. And that he also presented the operation as a strategic move. Last monday, New York Times announced that he had bought Wordle, the internet fashion game, created a few months ago by engineer Josh Wardle as a gift for his partner. The “seven-figure” price (that is, more than a million dollars) may seem enormous when compared to the simplicity of the invention – the challenge of getting a five-letter word right within six attempts – but it corresponds to the price. success of the product: in November it was practiced by 90 people. In January its original version alone had 300,000 users.

Why has Wordle become so popular? Above all, for its simplicity. The rules are learned in two minutes. Its interface is minimalist, diaphanous. It invites tranquility in a digital world full of hooks in the form of links and insistent notifications. It’s free. It does not seek to hijack the user’s attention (although it succeeds) or their data. It has a naive air, of the Internet of the 20th century, when it was still dreamed that the free and decentralized network had been born to fix the world.

That’s why he likes it. And it has become a viral phenomenon due to the mystery transmitted by the green and yellow squares published by the players on their networks and that tell, without crushing the solution to anyone, how the day’s game went. Because there is only one challenge every 24 hours, like the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, and that cadence, countercurrent in an internet where success is measured by the hours the user is hooked, is paradoxically its most addictive ingredient, as I recalled in an article in this newspaper Jaime Rubio Hancock. A chocolate fanatic who eats it all the time can end up fed up. If he can only eat one square a day, he will look forward to that moment.

In 2013, Josh Wardle made a similar prototype and showed it to several friends, but none were convinced, he says. The New York Times. Then began the golden age of pages that keep their visitors engrossed for hours while they plunder their data in exchange for small dopamine shocks, and that are now under suspicion. Like all viral phenomena, Wordle has exploded at the right time and has revealed itself as perfect entertainment for times of pandemic: it distracts and connects the user with other players without exacerbating the digital saturation accumulated after two years of lockdown.

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What the announcement did not specify New York Times was what exactly that purchase extended to. To questions from EL PAÍS, those responsible for the American newspaper replied: “The newspaper has bought the game with all the rights and interests that it entails.” It is not clear what consequences this may have for the dozens of versions that had already emerged in almost all languages. According to expert intellectual property lawyers consulted by this newspaper, a game and a trademark can be registered, but not the idea of ​​guessing a word and giving clues with colored decoys, which would allow anyone, based on that idea, make a different development with another name.

But Wordle is not a totally original game either. In fact, from a strict point of view, nothing is, neither in the world of games, nor in that of culture, nor in that of science: everything is built on previous ideas. In the case of Wordle, the influences, for those who are a few years old, are evident: it is quite similar to Mastermind, a board game that became popular in the seventies, and very similar to Lingo, broadcast on television in several countries and whose stage The most remembered in Spain was the one presented by the singer Ramoncín on TVE between 1991 and 1996. What it brings as a novelty compared to similar pastimes are, above all, two things already mentioned: it can only be played once a day ―although the idea is not original because it is taken, as Wardle himself has acknowledged, from the Spelling Bee from New York Times― and the way players communicate their results through the little squares.

If not totally original, Wordle has become a very special product for hundreds of thousands of people. And for this reason, if the newspaper does not manage the purchase well, there is a risk that the operation will cause an image problem, judging by the tone of many of the more than 600 comments that the news accumulated. Wordle has been everyone’s game during these months. Free, non-intrusive, respectful of privacy. An anachronism in today’s internet. Quite a few readers, including many of those who pay for hobbies (three euros a month, 25 a year), showed their preventive rejection that the newspaper wanted to charge for it. “I am a subscriber of New York Times and i hate this. RIP, Wordle. There cannot be a single good thing in this world,” said one. “It was nice while it lasted,” sentenced another. Several subscribers pointed out that in their family they competed to solve the Wordle first, and that including it behind a paywall would prevent them from doing so.

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New York Times has ensured that the game will maintain its characteristics and will continue to be free ―like the Spelling Bee, which is outside its offer for subscribers―although in one of the two articles published on the day of the announcement the word “initially” was added to that promise. You do not need to charge to make it profitable. The game will bring you huge traffic and data from hundreds of thousands of users, which also translates into money. But even more relevant is the clear message that the newspaper sends to its readers and to the market: puzzle games are important to us, if yesterday we were the world reference, now we are even more so. Another recent announcement from the newspaper, which has gone more unnoticed, reflects its enormous interest in the world of puzzles on the internet: it has launched a scholarship to train female crossword puzzlers, from the LGTBI group or from ethnic minorities to give more diversity to their hobbies.

The statement posted by Josh Wardle on his networks on the day of the sale perfectly matched that message: “I have long admired the approach of The Times about the quality of their games and respect for the players. Their values ​​are aligned with mine and I am delighted that they will be managing the game in the future.” In other words, instead of taking my grandmother’s jewels to the moneylender on the corner, who is going to chop them up and resell them tomorrow, I have accepted the offer of someone who knows what matters to me, who is going to take care of them and value them. In addition to these sentimental reasons, with the operation, Wardle pockets a considerable sum and saves himself the enormous expense of maintaining the servers of a page with enormous traffic, but without advertising and that does not exploit the data of its visitors.

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After the announcement, some users on the networks complained that the newspaper spent so much money to buy a game, instead of using that money to pay journalists. At least in the case of New York Times, that can be a false dilemma. Its games section – like the cooking recipe section – has accumulated more than a million subscribers in recent years. In addition to providing interesting content, its success has helped the newspaper’s staff continue to grow, even during the pandemic. According to Ismael Nafría, expert in digital strategy and author of the book The reinvention of The New York TimesToday, the newsroom is made up of 1,700 professionals, compared to 1,300 in 2017. Their salaries are also among the highest in the world in the sector. The reality is that hobbies have helped pay for investigative reporting and special envoys in Syria.

New York Times has taken the race to become the global leader in online puzzles and crossword puzzles very seriously. In the English language they are many bodies ahead of their rivals. In other languages ​​the competition is just beginning.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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