Wordle fever is quickly spreading. But what’s behind the sudden boom?
The web-based, no-account daily word game, playable on Apple
phones, tablets or desktops, is becoming a sensation. On social media, countless players are sharing their results. Copycat games are also becoming popular.
Wordle creator Josh Wardle has even been profiled in The New York Times. (Alas, he didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for an interview.)
At heart, the game is a study in simplicity. Players have up to six attempts to guess the five-letter word of the day, with Wordle offering feedback after every try. If you choose one of the correct letters, Wordle will highlight it in a shade of yellow. If the letter is also in the right space, the highlight goes green.
Those who solve the puzzle are encouraged to share their results (without actually sharing the correct word itself). Hence, the postings on Facebook and Twitter that say “Wordle in 4” or “Wordle in 5” (meaning 4 or 5 tries), along with occasional added commentary.
In a sense, Wordle is succeeding in part for the same key reason that other games find a fan base — it’s all about approachability. “If you look at what makes a game popular, it’s usually very simple to learn the rules, but it takes a lifetime to master,” says Mark Griffiths, a professor at Nottingham Trent University in England who studies gaming and behavioral addiction.
Wordle’s social component, as in the sharing of results, is also critical to its overnight success, experts say: The more people talk about the game, the more other people learn about it and want to play, so its popularity only snowballs.
In a word (or two), Wordle “has social currency,” says Brandon Gains, vice president of marketing for MonetizeMore, a company that works with web and app publishers. (Gains has also written about what makes apps go viral.)
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Of course, Wordle also benefits from the never-ending popularity of word games, from Scrabble to crossword puzzles and the New York Times’s relatively recent digital version of its popular Spelling Bee. Craig Chapple, a strategist with Sensor Tower, a company that tracks the app industry, notes that word game apps generated nearly 500 million downloads in 2021. “There’s totally a massive market,” he says.
Still, Wordle doesn’t necessarily follow the standard playbook for games — to the point that Mark Griffiths calls it almost an “anti-game” in its aesthetic and approach. But some think that could be part of its appeal.
For starters, Wordle isn’t app-based — meaning it’s played via a website, which isn’t as typical for games that go viral. It’s also a game that doesn’t market itself in traditional ways or tries to win followers through advertising.
“‘I think the scarcity is part of the appeal… the Beanie Baby effect.’”
— Jennifer Baum, a New York publicist and Wordle player
The story goes that Wardle, a software engineer, created it to make his word game-loving partner happy, without any concern about flashy graphics or, for that matter, without any kind of business strategy.
Or, to quote the New York Times profile, “There are no ads or flashing banners; no windows pop up or ask for money. There is merely the game on a black background.”
Wardle himself described his creation this way: “It’s just a game that’s fun,” he told the Times.
It’s also a game that intentionally limits your opportunity to play it. You get one daily shot at Wordle — no more, no less. That’s a far cry from app-based games that try to get you to play for hours on end (and that try to sell you upgrades along the way).
“‘If [Wardle] wants to turn it into a business, it looks like he can.’”
— Brandon Gains of MonetizeMore
The daily limitation appears to be working in Wordle’s favor. Jennifer Baum, a New York publicist who’s a fan of the game, calls it the “Beanie Baby effect,” referring to the plush keepsakes that skyrocketed in popularity at one time because they became hard to get.
“I think the scarcity is part of the appeal,” she said of Wordle.
It’s hard to say if Wordle will see its popularity continue to rise. Like any other trending cultural phenomenon, a game can have its moment, but then the moment quickly passes, say those who follow the gaming industry.
It also remains to be seen if Wardle, who named his game as a play on his own surname, will eventually try to monetize his creation in some way.
Still, the opportunity clearly exists. “If he wants to turn it into a business, it looks like he can,” said Brandon Gains.