The Washington Post tried to buy Wordle before the New York Times did

Wordle was a lockdown phenomenon: one of those games that, merits aside, simply landed at the right time. I’ve kicked the habit now but like pretty much everyone else I had a Wordle phase with the family WhatsApp group and, yes, when I’m nearly out of chances I have gone running to my six-letter friend Google. Wordle’s enormous popularity was such that, in January 2022, the New York Times purchased the game from creator Josh Wardle for a sum “in the low seven figures.”

That was perhaps the most inspired move of a wider push by the gray lady to be a bit less, well, gray: especially when it comes to its burgeoning gaming section, which is now a major revenue driver for the paper. The NYT’s games section is the subject of a new Vanity Fair feature, which covers the events around the game’s acquisition.

The deal followed the Times publishing an article about the game’s success in early January 2022 after which Jonathan Knight, a games industry veteran who now works for the NYT, took notice of how many messages he’d been receiving about the game. After playing, he came to understand the appeal himself. “The next morning I woke up thinking about the game as soon as my eyes opened. Solved it again. Thought: Oh, I can’t wait for tomorrow.”

Impressed by the game’s ability to make players return, and the stats showing they did so in droves, Knight made contact with creator Wardle on January 5, 2022. The acquisition was announced on January 31. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen us move on an acquisition this fast,” says the Times’ Alex Hardiman.

The NYT moved so fast, in fact, that it caught one of its most venerable competitors off-guard. The Washington Post has also been expanding further into games and Vanity Fair says, citing “two sources familiar with the matter”, that it had been looking into acquiring Wordle itself before the NYT swooped, something that senior figures at the Post now consider a major missed opportunity.

Other tidbits include the NYT’s efforts to add necessary features to Wordle without breaking the game itself, like a log-on capturing peoples’ stats. It’s also had to deal with the unforeseen consequences of fiddling in any way at all with something that has this level of popularity. Puzzle editor Tracy Bennett, who oversees Wordle at the NYT, recalls experimenting with the idea of a themed word (in this case, ‘FEAST’ on Thanksgiving day) that caused unexpected anger among some players: “It did change the rules of the game in a way that I hadn’t really thought about,” says Bennett. “Having to guess what the editor might be thinking on a particular day does add an element to the game.”

Wordle’s success has turbo-charged the wider push the NYT is making into games, with its audience doubling in size over the last year (around 75% of which is American). “It’s undeniable that Wordle was a big tipping point for us,” says Hardiman. “[But] it’s not Wordle only. It’s Wordle driving more attention to other games, allowing us to invest more in games and ultimately driving attention to the rest of the bundle, and to news too.”

There is no doubt what the main event is, however. “Wordle cast a long shadow, right? It’s a tough act to follow,” says Knight. “It’s hard to have a viral phenomenon—period. In games, they don’t come along that often.”

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