SAN FRANCISCO — Josh Wardle never set out to make a viral game. In fact, he doesn't really consider his creation that much of a game at all, or himself a game developer. Speaking at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the software engineer and artist reiterated that he made Wordle for his partner as a private exercise they could engage with together every day during the pandemic, based in part on crosswords and The New York Times' Spelling Bee and drawing direct inspiration from the classic Mastermind board game.
"In fact, I don't think of myself as a game developer at all," Wardle, whose other famous viral sensation includes Reddit's The Button and Place social experiments, told the crowd. "When you think about like viral, exciting games, you don't think about word games, which is kind of sad to me. I love words, I love language."
Wardle's online handle, and the name of his personal website on which Wordle was hosted before it was acquired by The New York Times, is "powerlanguage." Despite his humble intentions, Wordle has become one of the biggest games of the year, reviving the word game genre and spawning countless spinoffs in the process.
Wardle told the story of the game's origin, which traces back to 2013 when he was experimenting with word games and Android app development. The original Wordle featured endless play and a much larger word bank encompassing the English language's roughly 13,000 five-letter word list. But as he workshopped the experience with his partner, for whom he originally set out to make the game, he decided to whittle down the list. And then he dropped the idea, he said, for six whole years.
The other unorthodox choices he made were making it a website instead of a mobile app --- a decision he said was because he knew web development but sucked at making mobile apps --- and giving it a hard-to-remember URL. He also chose not to monetize it any way.
"My partner and I played this together for about six months," Wardle said. "So it was on my personal website from January to June, and it was public website but no one was playing. I hadn't told anyone about it."
Everything began to change when the game expanded to Wardle's family members, friends and eventually far-flung locations like New Zealand. Soon, the game was picking up steam. Wardle recounted the sheer absurdity of its meteoric rise, with celebrities picking it up and scores of alternative versions, Wordle clones on mobile app stores and all manner of news stories about the game being played all over the planet.
Eventually, Wardle said he began to feel immense pressure about managing the game and what to do with it in the future, so he sold it The New York Times.
"I made this game, but I had no interest in running a game business. Basically, I think of myself as an artist, I really enjoy creating things. Running a gaming business is not interesting to me," he said. "And I think I think that for some people, it [would have been] different. But for me, this was really clear." Wardle added that he thinks The New York Times will be a good steward for the game going forward.
Wardle said that beyond all the game development faux pas and unintended quaintness that led to Wordle's success, he feels that it was the social connections it has powered among family and friends that made it such a sensation.
"What really struck me is that right now we are more connected than ever, but people want for connection,” he said. "Wordle became this really lightweight way to check in with friends and family and tell them you love them without using big heavy words like, 'I love you.’"