Wordle’s creator, Josh Wardle, gave a talk at this year’s GDC, which has been bringing people joy. Described by one member of the audience as “the opposite of every NFT and Metaverse panel,” during the talk Wardle explained the hit game was created as long ago as 2013.
From the very start of Wordle’s meteoric rise, its developer Josh Wardle demonstrated an extraordinary modesty combined with a lack of a desire to make money from the project. This seemed to be infectious, when the developer of another app with the same name donated his windfall to a charity of Wardle’s choice. Then earlier this year, Wardle sold the game to The New York Times. This, as Ars Technica reports he said during his talk at the San Francisco convention on Thursday, was to be free of the stress the game’s success had brought him.
Prior to this, as far back as 2013, Wardle had been playing with the idea of creating a word-based version of the 1970s board game, Mastermind. However, he notes, he quickly learned this couldn’t be achieved by just dumping in every five-letter word in the dictionary.
Josh Wardle’s pre-Wordle Wordle, from 2013. Let you play continuously. Included many more words, including lots of esoteric one people don’t really know. pic.twitter.com/T5SoU667dC— Stephen Totilo (@stephentotilo) March 24, 2022
Words like “BYDED”, “DAWTS” and “BWAZI” turned out to be no fun at all to try to deduce, in the same way that any combination of coloured pegs could be in Mastermind. This led Wardle to realise the secret sauce was in letting the player make deductions based on their own familiarity with language. It is, he said, about “what you can tease out, based on what you know about language.”
To do this, incredibly, Wardle’s partner devoted her time to ranking all 13,000 five-letter words in the dictionary into one of three categories: “I kno”, “I dono” and “I mayb kno”. With this, the word list was refined, and ready to go! In 2014. At which point Wardle lost interest in the project.
Then there was a pandemic.
Wordle creator James Wardle got applause at his GDC session when he said he didn’t make wordle for monetization. pic.twitter.com/3L7GjauO1t— Dean Takahashi (@deantak) March 24, 2022
Wardle clearly made good on Wordle in the end, with the seven-figure buy-out by the NYT. But it remains fascinating how much he didn’t want to monetise the game when it was his. During the talk, the audience frequently broke into applause at his stating this lack of a desire to sell ads, or work out how to squeeze profit.
The Games Developer Conference, while generally considered to be a bastion of indie gaming and progressive development, is in reality is just as infested by corporate bollocks as the rest of the conventions. This year you could have attended such sessions as “Transforming Games With The Blockchain Economy,” Understanding NFTs: A Sea-Change For F2P Games,” and “The Magic That Makes The Metaverse Feel Real.” So a talk like Wardle’s can be an oasis.
The THINGS YOU ARE NOT MEANT TO DO (that Wordle 100% did)— Alissa McAloon @ GDC (@Gliitchy) March 24, 2022
#1: I MADE A WORD GAME pic.twitter.com/byjpBSJ4Sn
Wardle called his talk, “Doing The Opposite Of What You’re Meant To,” citing his making a website, not an app, and limiting players to just one game a day. Oh, and that he “had a terrible URL.”
Wardle then went on to encourage others to create word games too. He pointed out that when your games are based on words, you don’t need to explain these to your audience. They are already familiar with words. As VentureBeat reports, Wardle quoted his hero, literary theorist Terry Eagleton, saying, “Language is the very air I breathe.” He went on to call human beings “creatures of language.”
Wordle has ended up being a game that connects a lot of people every day, from me and some old school chums sharing our daily results, to Wardle himself, messaging his parents in Wales from his home in New York, as they play the game together.