A view of the popular browser-based game Wordle, which reportedly has more than 3 million players around the world. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Wordle: The global phenomenon that’s not pulling in any revenue

Janet Nguyen Jan 27, 2022
A view of the popular browser-based game Wordle, which reportedly has more than 3 million players around the world. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Update: The New York Times Co. has announced that it’s acquired Wordle for an amount “in the low seven figures.” The Times said that the game will “initially remain free to new and existing players.

You’ve likely encountered the gray, green and yellow boxes of Wordle, the web-based word game, all over your Twitter feed and Facebook timeline from players eager to show off their scores.

For the uninitiated, Wordle is a game where you have six tries to guess a five-letter word. With each turn, the game reveals either which of the letters you guessed are in the correct position, in the word but in the wrong spot, or not in the word at all. According to The Conversation, Wordle has 3 million players around the world. 

There are several reasons why it’s gone viral — it’s simple, it’s free, it’s easy to find, and it’s shareable, said Anindya Ghose, the Heinz Riehl Chair Professor of Business at New York University.  

There is no backlog of games to binge on — a sole daily puzzle forces, or creates, the opportunity for a communal experience. 

“With that feature, it leaves us wanting for more, and that’s a huge incentive to come back daily,” Ghose said. 

Wordle isn’t the first online or mobile word game that’s become a sensation. Words with Friends, an online multiplayer word game that shares similarities with Scrabble, became one of Apple’s top-selling apps shortly after it launched in 2009. The New York Times’ Spelling Bee game and crossword puzzles, which you can play on your browser or through an app, also boast many devotees.  

Wordle’s (lack of) revenue stream 

Despite Wordle’s success, its creator Josh Wardle said he currently does not intend to monetize it.

“I am a bit suspicious of mobile apps that demand your attention and send you push notifications to get more of your attention,” Wardle told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. “There are also no ads. I’m not doing anything with your data, and that is also quite deliberate as well.”

Wardle, explaining the reasons behind his decision not to monetize Wordle, asked, “Why can’t something just be fun on the internet?” 

“I’m fortunate enough. I’m in a position where I’m comfortable. I don’t have to charge people money for this. I don’t begrudge people if they’re making things and charging money for them online. That’s fine. But with Wordle, that was never the goal,” Wardle said. “And I would, ideally, like to keep it that way.” 

Wardle currently works as a software engineer at MSCHF, and previously occupied the same role at Reddit. He’s created other popular games, like Reddit’s The Button  — a social experiment that featured a button with a 60-second countdown in which someone anywhere in the world had to press the button to keep the game going.  

Steve Cravotta, the creator of a separate word game named Wordle! where players guess anagrams, saw downloads spike after the success of the web-based game. (Cravotta’s app had already existed prior to the launch of Wordle.) 

Cravotta reached out to Wardle about donating the proceeds from in-app purchases, and the two decided to donate Wordle!’s earnings to Boost! West Oakland, a California-based charity that provides mentoring and support to youth, reported Rolling Stone. 

Could Wardle change his mind and sell it to an entity that incorporates ads or a subscription fee? Ghose said over email both advertising and subscriptions are possibilities, but ads are primarily effective when there’s a lot of content. So, Ghose explained, a subscription is “more feasible,” but he does not see that happening because a payment model could affect the game’s success. 

But Sensor Tower insights analyst Dennis Yeh said that many of the other word games out there will continue to be ad-driven. 

He explained that Wardle’s decision is rare because of how easy it is for app makers to monetize their games nowadays. Doing so is “relatively pain free” and can be done through a variety of different ad networks, according to Yeh. 

He noted that one of the more popular in-app purchases with these games is simply opting to remove ads. They’re not driven exclusively by ad-monetization, like “hyper-casual games,” nor are they repeatedly driven by in-app purchases for special features, like strategy games (where you might buy something like extra currency). 

Wordle’s popularity has spawned copycats, with developers who have tried to cash in on the craze.  A clone called Wordle — The App, for example, tried to charge $30 for an annual, premium-tier subscription. 

In response, Apple removed those games from the App Store. PocketGamer.biz, which confirmed the decision with the tech giant, noted that Apple’s guidelines say: “Come up with your own ideas. We know you have them, so make yours come to life. Don’t simply copy the latest popular app on the App Store, or make some minor changes to another app’s name or UI and pass it off as your own.”

The stability of the word-game market 

Yeh said the mobile word-game market has “always been relatively stable” although the pandemic helped boost its growth. 

“It’s grown, basically, along with the mobile world in general,” Yeh said. In 2021, the mobile gaming market pulled in $90 billion in revenue, according to the analytics company App Annie. 

Yeh said that many people, especially in developing markets, have turned to mobile games to pass the time because of console shortages, which have been fueled by disruptions to the global supply chain. Plus, consoles and PCS “are not getting any cheaper,” he pointed out. 

He noted that word games have broad appeal, which means they’ll always have a consistent user base. 

Ghose said that psychologists have found that word games stimulate both the language and logic-processing areas of our brain. “And because of that, like many other games, they also release dopamine, which is a hormone that helps us feel and allows us to feel pleasure and satisfaction,” Ghose said. 

Yeh said many of the large gaming companies offer word games in one form or another. Zynga (which is set to be acquired by Take-Two) owns the popular Words with Friends, while AppLovin is behind Wordscapes, the top-grossing mobile app in the “Word” category, according to Sensor Tower chart rankings. 

Yeh said he thinks that ultimately word games — like many mobile games that rise in popularity —  will likely be bought by one of the larger mobile gaming companies, or already be part of a larger, vertically integrated company like AppLovin. Through AppLovin’s platforms, game developers can publish their apps. 

These larger gaming companies, like Zynga, AppLovin and Unity, will continue “being the standard bearers for the subcategory,” since they have the resources to advertise and acquire users at a large scale, according to Yeh. 

“That’s just kind of how the industry operates these days,” Yeh said. He thinks Wordle is “a unicorn” in the sense that it’s been able to achieve organic popularity, despite not being part of a large company.  

Another element that separates Wordle from mobile games is that it has gone viral globally, Ghose said. He noted that even at their height, the popularity of games like Farmville or Candy Crush was relegated to certain regions, like Western markets and some parts of Asia. 

The publication Rest of World reported that other developers have even built versions of Wordle in other languages — including Portuguese, German, Urdu, Hungarian and Japanese. 

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