New York Times Games Chief Insists Wordle Is at No Loss for Words – at Least, Not Yet

No matter when you search “Wordle” on social media, someone’s always in a T-I-Z-Z-Y about whether the insanely popular online word game is trying to take advantage of the millions of players who sign on to solve the puzzle and share triumphs and frustrations with friends each day.

The conspiracy theories have only intensified since Wordle creator Josh Wardle sold the game to The New York Times in late January for an undisclosed seven-figure amount. When it comes to this five-letter word game, many Wordlers routinely turn to the four-letter variety.

Now New York Times General Manager of Games Jonathan Knight is seeking to reassure suspicious Wordle fans. “Our objective has been, and remains, to continue to make the game great,” he told TheWrap. “We see ourselves as stewards of what Josh Wardle created.”

As testament to the general level of free-floating Wordle anxiety, last week, Wordlers were upset over the fact that one game (284 on March 30) apparently had two answers — depending on whether users left the game’s webpage open on their device or loaded it fresh in a new window. TechCrunch declared the incident “chaos!”

“We did not change the way Wordle works,” a Times spokesperson told TheWrap. “We did remove a few obscure words in an effort to make the puzzle more accessible… To ensure the game is in sync with the updated version, solvers should refresh the website where they play Wordle. So, to clarify, the process of removing the obscure words was what caused this situation with two solutions (on Wednesday) — but it can be fixed just by refreshing the website that solvers play the game.”

That explains that dust-up, but it’s just the latest of much fan fallout over Worldle. The Times purchase launched a Twitter snark-fest over the fact that Wordle is virtually a replica of the classic TV game show “Lingo” — so what was The New York Times buying, exactly?

Fans also voiced understandable concern that the Times may add subscription fees for the currently free game, while others insisted that the words have gotten harder. And hey, ad trackers are spoiling the fun! Finally, some believe the Times has radically edited the word list, leaving it out of sync with the list created by Wardle, the Brooklyn-based software engineer who designed the game.

To bring some clarity to the controversies, TheWrap turned to Knight for more answers as he hopes to bring a voice of reason to the “chaos” that is Wordle fever.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jonathan Knight (New York Times)
Jonathan Knight (New York Times)

Can you define the magic?
You know, it’s the 80th anniversary of the crosswords, we don’t think that interest in word puzzles is going away. I think a couple of things that have changed and one of the things that makes Wordle so great is that it’s such a surprisingly social experience for a game that doesn’t have any actual multiplayer mechanics built into it and doesn’t have a chat function built into it or anything that you might see from like a traditional multiplayer game. Yet it managed to be one of the most social games, one of the biggest social phenomenons in gaming of the year.

The company statement on game 284 also addresses another popular misconception — with the removal of obscure words, the list has actually gotten easier, not harder, right?
I can categorically say we’re not making the puzzle harder. We did go in and remove a couple of words that were on the obscure side. I can confirm that the word agora… was due to come up, and we did remove that word. The word that day was aroma instead of agora. We are also keeping an eye out for words that we think would be insensitive, or potentially offensive, just as we make those judgments on the crossword and the Spelling Bee puzzles.

Is there a number of words on this list that you can reveal?
There’s a couple of years worth of words. I can say that I don’t have a specific number to give you. But we have a fair amount of runway and we’re putting thought into what comes after that.

Some have complained that Wordle just clones the classic TV game show “Lingo,” and there are Wordle clones like Word Master available for free online. If the puzzle existed before, besides Wordle’s word list, what did the the New York Times buy, really?
We bought the official Wordle. It’s the IP of course, we bought the game itself, the code, the assets. Despite all of the clones and knockoffs, and despite there obviously being lots of word games to choose from out there, this is the one that everybody, that the internet, decided was the one they wanted to play. It’s just really well crafted, there’s a bit of drama to the way the letters turn over.

Are Wordle critics correct in their complaints about ad tracking since the New York Times took over the game?
We’re not doing anything that that we don’t already do for the crossword, the Spelling Bee and our other game web pages. It’s true that when we brought the game over, we implemented some level of tracking that is very consistent with what we do and is a lot less than the average website. We take privacy very seriously.

Are players eventually going to have to subscribe and pay to get Wordle?
I hate the fact that my answer to this question always comes off as cagey — it’s not at all intending to signal anything nefarious, but we just as a rule don’t really make predictions or promises on what may happen down the line… What I can say is that we are seeing great value to business from introducing [the Wordle] audience to our other products.

Since the acquisition, has Wordle brought in subscribers to the New York Times, both to games and regular subscriptions to the newspaper?
We don’t have updated numbers to share, but I think last year in Q4 we shared that Games subscriptions had surpassed 1 million, which was a really big milestone for us. We do see real value in the Wordle audience coming to the Times and being introduced to Spelling Bee and the crossword, which have their own subscription model. The crossword is a subscription-only product, Spelling Bee has a free-to-play window up to a certain rank and then if you are a subscriber, you get the full experience.

Do you have other any other addictive games coming up?
We have a game design team, and [a few weeks ago we took] two days as a team to do a Game Jam; it’s essentially a mini-hackathon. We take two days to generate new ideas and to create prototypes. We did a test prototype late last year called Digits, which was a numbers-based puzzle that we are considering… but [the Game Jam] can’t predict the future, and we don’t have a crystal ball or statement about what might be coming.