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Josh Wardle got a very nice round of applause at the Game Developers Conference when he said that he designed Wordle without giving a thought to monetization. He also triggered a thing that has been all too rare during the pandemic: a room filled with game developers laughing and smiling.

Wordle has been one of the rare sensations of gaming, as it was built by a single developer and has been played by millions of people since Wardle made it public in October 2021. The title had no monetization, but it went viral after Wardle made it possible to share daily results as emoji squares on Twitter.

Plenty of clones have appeared on mobile stores to steal some of Wordle’s thunder, but Wardle was able to cash in for a seven-figure payment when The New York Times Company bought Wordle in January. Not bad for a software engineer and artist who made the game for his partner. It was one of the fairy tales of the game industry, like the stories around the creation of games like Flappy Bird, Threes, Stardew Valley, and more.

“I think of myself as an artist. Running things is not interesting to me,” he said. “But the flip side of this is I didn’t want to monetize the game. Other people are totally fine monetizing the game. I didn’t want to make money from the game. This is probably the best possible outcome.”

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Wardle has inspired envy because he made the fine art of making a hit video game seem so effortless. He is a rarity, as he thought about himself as an artist and not a game developer at all.

“I don’t think of myself as a game developer at all,” Wardle said. “I kind of want to be upfront about that. Maybe what I’m sharing with you here is like totally naive, but I just want to share what my experience was.”

I walked an average of 15,000 steps a day this week at the GDC in San Francisco searching for this kind of story. Amid the fearful gloom of the pandemic and the Ukraine war — which has put 30,000 or more game developers, some of whom I know personally, at risk — it hasn’t been easy to find inspirational tales lately. But I was pleased to come upon some moments that made the risk of venturing into crowds and possibly getting the coronavirus more palatable.

A less sexist industry?

The rejuvenating thing about returning to an in-person GDC in San Francisco was the chance to randomly meet new people or hear a good story during a session. Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of the Tropes vs. Women series of videos, revisited her criticism of sexist patterns in games a decade after it originally ran. She was glad to find that the overt sexism she found in games a decade ago — like the frequency of female characters whose butts were highlighted in titles — had been reduced.

James Wardle shows a slide from his Wordle game.

For instance, while she found a lot of tropes in the original Dishonored (2012) game, she didn’t find any in the Dishonored 2 (2016) title from Bethesda’s Arkane that came out after the Tropes vs. Women series ran. She warned that we are nowhere near equity for the depiction of women in games, and the industry has a long way to go, but she let herself get emotional. One developer approached the mic and tearfully thanked Sarkeesian for making it easier to come out as a trans person in games, thanks to her critical work. Sarkeesian got down from the podium, walked into the audience, and gave the developer a long hug.

The industry has been rocked by sexual harassment scandals at companies such as Activision Blizzard, Riot Games, and Ubisoft. But it is still heartening to see the occasional moment of brightness and human connection amid the gloom.

The power of language

As I looked around for other touching moments, I came back to Wardle’s talk. Wardle’s creation has revived the category of simple word games, and Wordle has become of the world’s biggest games.

Wordle
Wordle

The end result is a daily word guessing game. You try to guess a hidden word, and you only have six attempts. If you guess a letter and the box turns gray, then that means the letter is not in the word. If it turns yellow, then it means the letter is in the word but not in the correct position. If it turns green, then the letter is in the solution and in the correct spot.

Wardle got started on the title as far back as 2013. He was working on word games for the Android mobile platform. He had originally built the game with more than 13,000 words. But he thinned it out after testing the game with his partner. He didn’t work on the title again until the pandemic.

Suddenly, it made sense to build something that could create a human connection for people who were stuck in lockdown. He made a series of decisions that might otherwise be considered mistakes, such as letting people play only once per day. He also decided it would be played on a website instead of a mobile app, largely because he knew how to develop for the web but was pretty bad at making apps. He chose not to monetize it because it was pointless if all he wanted to do was to make a game for his partner.

Wardle and his partner playtested the game for about six months on Wardle’s website.

“I made the game for her,” he said.

He slowly expanded the access to the game. Then it took off as celebrities started playing it and posting their results on Twitter.

Since everyone was suggesting that he figure out a way to monetize it, Wardle decided he didn’t want the responsibility. So he sold it off.

“I made this game, but I had no interest in running a game business,” he said.

James Wardle made Wordle for his partner.

He figured The New York times would be a good steward.

Wardles said one of his favorite quotes was from literary theorist Terry Eagleton, who said, “Language is the very air I breathe.” He believes human beings are creatures of language.

Wardle played a game called Mastermind when he was a kid, and Wordle is a kind of variation on it. While playing a New York Times crossword puzzle, Wardle decided to go back to the design of the Wordle game. (He thinks crosswords are one of the best co-op multiplayer gaming experiences.) He also decided to have people work on the same game once a day so that they would have something to discuss on social media. And all you had to do to get a friend to play was to share the game on social via just a link.

“That ended up being a huge part of the game,” he said.

Wardle made it easy to share your results from the game, and he released that in December 2021. And he found that it took off like a rocket. Celebrities like Paul McCartney raved about it. Jimmy Fallon talked about it on his show. Trevor Noah talked about it as well, as did Monica Lewinsky. And the spinoffs came out in force.

But what pleased Wardle was the human connections. He came from a small town in Wales in the United Kingdom, and he was able to play the game with his father and his mother. It means that they stay in regular contact by sharing their words with each other.

“That’s what I want,” he said.

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