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NEW YORK CITY — What's a five letter word for the best reason to buy the wildly popular, and free, online word-guessing game Wordle?
Well, that would probably be M-O-N-E-Y, but for now the New York Times, which announced Monday it had bought the game in a "low-seven figure" deal, says it will keep Wordle free as it transitions to new ownership. But a careful read of the language used by the subscription-only online publication in that assertion reveals a bit of subtlety that seems to hint that no-fee access may not last.
"At the time it moves to The New York Times, Wordle will be free to play for new and existing players, and no changes will be made to its gameplay," according to a Times press release.
If you haven't seen it or played it, Wordle gives players six tries to guess a five-letter mystery word via a website that refreshes the puzzle each day. The simple, gridded interface indicates correct letters and placements for each guess. Everyone plays to guess the same word, and Wordle also provides a progressive tally of each player's stats.
Brooklyn software engineer Josh Wardle released the guessing game to the public in October 2021, according to the Times. Wordle exploded in popularity and has rapidly become a daily obsession for solvers. Ninety people played the game on November 1. Nearly two months later, 300,000 people played it. Now, the puzzle has millions of daily players.
And the origin of the game tracks back to a couple looking for ways to kill time together during pandemic-induced home isolation.
In a Jan. 3 story, Wardle said he first created a similar prototype in 2013, but his friends were unimpressed and he scrapped the idea. In 2020, he and his partner, Palak Shah, "got really into" the New York Times Spelling Bee and the daily crossword, "so I wanted to come up with a game that she would enjoy," he said.
The breakthrough, Wardle told the Times, was limiting players to one game per day. That enforced a sense of scarcity, which he said was partially inspired by the Spelling Bee, which leaves people wanting more, he said.
Wardle said his game now ending up as a new node in the New York Times empire totally makes sense.
"If you've followed along with the story of Wordle, you'll know that New York Times Games play a big part in its origins, and so this step feels very natural to me," Wardle said in a statement. "I've long admired The Times's approach to the quality of their games and the respect with which they treat their players. Their values are aligned with mine on these matters and I'm thrilled that they will be stewards of the game moving forward."
For millions of its past and current worldwide readers, the New York Times likely requires no further bonafides when it comes to the puzzle realm, having achieved its own benchmark success with its namesake daily crossword puzzle. And the Times offered this reminder of that success in Monday's press release.
"New York Times Games have captivated solvers since the launch of The Crossword in 1942," the Times wrote in its press release. "Our experts create engaging word and visual games — in 2014 we introduced The Mini crossword, followed by Spelling Bee, Letter Boxed, Tiles and Vertex.
"Our games were played more than 500 million times in 2021, and in December, we reached one million Games subscriptions."
According to its website, a subscription for unlimited access to the Times' current portfolio of games will run you $5 per month.
Jonathan Knight, general manager of The New York Times Games, said he was a personal fan of Wordle and noted the Times was dedicated to ensuring a bright future, and wider audience, for the game.
"If you're like me, you probably wake up every morning thinking about Wordle, and savoring those precious moments of discovery, surprise and accomplishment," Knight said in the Times release. "The game has done what so few games have done: It has captured our collective imagination, and brought us all a little closer together.
"We could not be more thrilled to become the new home and proud stewards of this magical game, and are honored to help bring Josh Wardle's cherished creation to more solvers in the months ahead. As part of our portfolio of games, Wordle will have an exciting future with the help of a team of talented engineers, designers, editors and more, furthering the user experience."