'Wordle' Creator on Why He Doesn't Want Users to 'Binge' Or 'Get Addicted' To His Game

With origins as a humble personal project, the daily puzzle game Wordle has slowly but surely taken the internet by storm. Reflecting on this unexpected level of success and how he intends to support the experience going forward, solo-developer Josh Wardle spoke to Newsweek in an exclusive interview.

If you are not already a hopeless Wordle addict, then you will at least be aware of it thanks to cultural osmosis. Irrespective of what circles you move in, you will likely have seen a few mutuals sharing multi-coloured grids on social media, boasting about their latest score on this new website.

In short, it's comparable to the pen-and-paper game hangman, in the sense that you have to try and guess a word (which is always 5 letters long) within a certain amount of attempts.

According to onlineslots.com, the probability that you nail it on your first try is 0.5%, but that's not the goal here. Instead, you need to get it wrong a few times so that you can narrow down which letters are (or are not) in the correct answer. For more details on the specifics, check out our play guide here.

For what is such a simple premise, it's really captured the attention of people across the globe. Speaking about how it's taken off, Wardle said: "The response has been absolutely incredible. At the start of November, only 90 people were playing Wordle. As of January 9, there are now 2 million people involved with the puzzle on a daily basis. It just keeps growing and growing and gowning.

"For obvious reasons, Wordle has mostly been popular in English-speaking countries. After all, it is a language-based game. When it launched, it actually took hold in New Zealand first [...] which is something I've never experienced before."

"The Twittersphere over there is quite small, so everyone tends to be rather interconnected. That means that if one person shares something, a lot of others are likely to see it as well, which is how Wordle gained such momentum."

This is a pretty significant achievement for what started out as a personal project for its creator. The game wasn't originally hosted on a public website, as it was conceived more as a way of killing time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was just meant for the enjoyment of him and his partner, Palak Shah, but when they realized it had the potential to reach a larger audience, they decided to release it to the wider world.

'Wordle' Isn't Supposed To Keep You Engaged for More Than a Few Minutes

One of the many things that's interesting about Wordle is that it is not designed to keep you engaged for hours on end. There is only one puzzle to solve every 24 hours and, once you have cracked the word of the day, there is nothing left for you to do other than discuss it with others.

Talking about this, Wardle said: "I built a prototype of Wordle in 2013. Functionally it's almost the same as the one we have now, with the biggest difference being that the older version allowed endless play. In other words, you could just keep on going until you had your fill.

"The idea to impose a limitation came when my partner and I started getting into crosswords during the pandemic. In particular, The New York Times have this puzzle called "Spelling Bee", which has this once-a-day model that I thought was really effective.

"I liked the idea that everyone around the world was trying to solve the exact same word at the exact same time. It created a shared communal experience [If] there were multiple puzzles to solve and everyone was at a different stage, then there wouldn't be that kind of conversation, which I think is the most fulfilling part of Wordle."

Wordle Being Played On a Mobile Phone
Photo shows a person playing "Wordle" on a mobile phone. The game has become a hit phenomenon and is now enjoyed by 2 million users on a daily basis. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

It's not just the fact that restricting things generates more conversation. Going against conventional wisdom, Wardle doesn't want to keep people constantly engaged with his product and actively hopes that you only spend a few minutes a day on it.

About this, he said: "With the prototype version of Wordle, I found that being able to play endlessly just meant that you would eventually lose interest. You would play for like 20 minutes, and then get bored and want to move on to something else.

"But if you limit how much people can play, then you keep them hooked without taking over their lives. It's also interesting because this [notion] runs counter to a lot of what you expect from mobile games. The assumption is that they're supposed to keep you engaged at all times, but most people can solve a Wordle puzzle in about 5 minutes and then forget about it.

"The game won't allow you to binge or get addicted. In general, I'm pretty wary of apps that want to consume all of your time and maximize engagement like that. I just don't think that stuff's very nice to do to other people quite frankly."

He was reluctant to explicitly name any names when talking about these more predatory apps, but it is worth pointing out that a number of clones have already started to come out of the woodwork. These imitators take Wardle's concept and then adapt it so that they can make a few bucks.

One example even has a "Pro" mode, which encourages you to pay a fee so that you can solve consecutive puzzles without having to wait between them.

Why 'Wordle' Will Never be Monetized

Speaking of which, Wardle's player-friendly attitude also extends to his policy on monetization, as there's no way to spend cash in his game whatsoever.

It's very easy to imagine a version of Wordle that is rife with microtransactions like Pokemon Unite. For example, you could pay a few cents to get a hint, to reveal a letter or to buy yourself an extra try. Suffice it to say, Wardle is not keen on the idea of using such tactics and maintains that this will never happen with his version of the game.

Speaking about this, he said: "I want to be clear that, when somebody creates stuff and releases it online, it's totally fine if they want to charge you for their effort. I think people should get paid for the hard work they do but there is clearly a line.

"In the case of Wordle, I was creating an experience for my partner. My goal was never to generate income and it just grew organically. That's why it's not monetized, even though it is very easy to imagine how that could look. I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can afford to not charge for Wordle. The hosting costs aren't that much, so I don't need to recover any expenditure. "

The idea of trying to turn a profit from something that is being used to connect people with their loved ones also sits uneasily with Wardle. He continued: "I think people quite like Wordle because it's playful and harkens back to the earlier days of the internet. Back when things were just a bit more fun and companies weren't trying to [push] you towards all these microtransactions and into spending your money all the time.

"My favorite thing about the response to the game is that I get these emails and messages from people, talking about how they've used it to keep in touch with their loved ones. There are parents who aren't able to see their adult children because of COVID, or friends who can't meet up in person. They are comparing Wordle scores as a way of checking in with each other.

"It's become something to discuss and to let people know that you're thinking about them. All those things are so positive and so twisting it just to make money feels wrong to me."

The Future of 'Wordle'

If monetization is (thankfully) not on the cards, then it is worth considering what the future of Wordle holds. The game has been updated once already (to introduce the popular grid share feature), but Wardle's not sure if he should now leave well enough alone.

When asked if he considers Wordle a finished product or not, he said: "Again, you can imagine ways that it could be changed or have new features added to it. Perhaps there could be an archive so that you could go back to previous days or maybe there could be an app! Right now, it's just the website but it doesn't have to be that way forever.

"So yes, there are definitely other things that could be done, but I'm trying to weigh up if they should. Whenever I'm thinking about that, I try to return to why I made it in the first place. It was always meant to be a nice thing for me and my partner to enjoy together, so I don't want to lose sight of that."

"I only want to make changes if I think that they are in keeping with that original idea. Which may be a terrible way to go about it, but I'm worried about what my motivations would be otherwise."

Wordle is available to play for free right now. The daily puzzle resets at 7 p.m. ET.

Wordle Screenshot
Image shows a game of "Wordle" in progress. The green letters squares indicate that a letter has been put in the right place, yellow means that the letter is in the word of the day but not somewhere else, and incorrect letters are shown as grey. PowerLanguage