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The rise of once-a-day games: Design lessons learned from Wordle's legacy

What can game developers learn from Wordle's success? Dylan Woodbury reflects on once-a-day games like Wordle, and shares what devs can learn from the three pillars of once-a-day game design.

I believe the success of Wordle represents a revolution in popular mobile game design. The simple yet infectious game developed by Josh Wardle has become a blueprint for developers of similarly designed puzzle games like Quordle and Heardle. These pivots have thrived based on the inventiveness of their relation to the original Wordle. For example, Quordle is basically the same game as Wordle except it incorporates four simultaneous puzzles instead of just one, and Heardle’s twist is that players guess songs instead of words. However, Wordle’s breakthrough indicates a much greater opportunity than some tangential clones for which the greatest requirement is a title that rhymes with the word “wordle”.

(Author’s Note: I’m currently developing a game named “Curdle”. Players view an image of milk each day and guess how long it’s been sitting outside for.)

The purpose of this article is to imagine the greater possibility space of mass-appeal social gaming beyond Wordle, and also to empower creators to develop their own unique and compelling “once-a-day” games. Now is the perfect time to do so because the Wordle wave has trained and primed millions of casual gamers for the next web-based once-a-day gaming trend. They aren’t even expecting a polished or complex product, and competitors are limited, so the time to innovate is now!

Whereas games like Quordle and Heardle are short-term fascinations, Wordle seems like a game that could stick around for a long time. It feels somehow fundamental in the same way that classics like Crossword Puzzles and Sudoku do. Its rules and subject matter, along with the overall effect Wordle has on players, give it this hard-to-pin-down attribute of being “essential.” Regardless of whether this is true, it feels inevitable that somebody would have eventually made Wordle. It’s as if some divine force guided Josh Wardle’s hand. This is the overall impact that game designers should be striving for in order to create a viral social mobile game.

In order to uncover these new essential mobile-social experiences, we first need to understand what makes Wordle so successful. Then we can brainstorm methods of crafting these essential-feeling “once-a-day” games. What we need is a framework for evaluating viral-focused social media games like Wordle.

Three Pillars of Once-a-Day Game Design

For those who don’t know, the rules of Wordle are simple. The game presents the audience with a different five-letter word each day to guess the spelling of. The daily limit makes it possible for players to loosely play together, and also inspired the “once-a-day” genre label. For each word, players get six attempts to submit at their leisure. After each try, correctly guessed letters are indicated with colored highlights. From these simple rules emerge the qualities which made Wordle a smash hit. We’ll evaluate Wordle based on how it achieves the accomplishes the following goals:

  1. Engage players of different levels of skill and engagement.
  2. Promote conversation.
  3. Provide a quality long-term experience.

These core goals establish the properties of excellent once-a-day game design. We’ll use this framework to analyze Wordle’s success, and later we’ll use it to theorize the broader possibilities of the genre.

Goal 1 - Engage players of different levels of skill and engagement.

Wordle has achieved the holy grail for puzzle games, which is that all players, no matter their skill level, can be equally engaged with the same series of puzzles. For example, I personally consider myself a skilled player, so while I strive to complete my puzzles in three turns (*brushes dust off shoulder*), less skilled players are just as engaged attempting to complete puzzles in the maximum six turns. If skilled and unskilled players were not somehow able to equally participate in the experience, the game could not be played and discussed by everyone at the same time, which is one of the most important aspects of once-a-day games. Developers should also consider all levels of competency in order to maximize the size of the potential audience, which also increases the chance of a viral breakthrough.

In addition to catering to players of different levels of expertise, once-a-day games should also compel players of all levels of engagement as well. Wordle accomplishes this by allowing players to invest as much time as they want on each puzzle. They can play in a minute while eating breakfast, or they can attempt guesses slowly throughout the day. The result of this approach is a flexible gameplay experience. The best example I’ve witnessed of the value of this flexibility is a group of college students I noticed while I was working in a library. They pulled out their own sets of homemade tiles with letters spelled on them and proceeded to shuffle them around for an hour, searching for every possible word at every step of the game. That incredible level of investment is a result of the flexible gameplay, and it can be achieved without discouraging brand new players.

Overall, Wordle allows players to absorb the game into their lives however they see fit. That appears to be a strong quality of once-a-day games. This approach allows for a game to become more engaging over time as players continue to get more invested, without the need for increased complexity over time.

Goal 2 - Promote conversation

Another incredible aspect of Wordle is that it is a conversation starter. I regularly hear my coworkers comparing their experiences with the day’s challenge. “You took six turns? I only needed four!” one will say. Competitions over the game naturally emerge in the real world. On social media, the daily words often prompt discussion, for example when especially difficult or culturally significant words are chosen. The ability to promote conversations, to trigger players and possibly specific communities into dialogue, appears to be another critical element of once-a-day game design. Players who are compelled to talk about the game with others are deeply invested, and their conversations will compel others in their social group to play.

Goal 3 - Provide a quality long-term experience.

Regardless of how fun a single session of a mobile game is, if players aren’t confident they’ll enjoy playing it in the long-term, then it’s nearly impossible to convince them to play even for just a short while. This is because most casual mobile gamers aren’t just looking for a momentary escape, but for a longer treadmill of progress that they can merge on top of their lives. Therefore, once-a-day games must provide players long-term value and a quality day-to-day experience in order to convince them to play.

The biggest factor for a quality day-to-day experience is variability. In puzzle games for example, if players do poorly on one day, they should still feel confident in their ability to succeed the next day. Conversely, even if players do very well for days in a row, they should still be reasonably concerned that their next puzzle could be the whammy that spoils their streak. Even if a player doesn’t do well often, they still have a chance for even the greatest “big win” moment if they get lucky and guess the word on the first try, which they could then boast to their friends about. The variability of Wordle puzzles creates an engaging long-term experience.

Wordle also provides players with long-term value through its visualization of player statistics, which allows players to form their own long-term goals. In mobile games, these long-term goals are absolutely necessary for creating elements in the game that the player perceives as valuable. The biggest motivator in Wordle is the “win streak”, which keeps track of how many days in a row players have solved the puzzle. This basic system helps to persuade many players to solve the puzzle every single day. Another source of long-term value is a player's desire to improve their statistics. After each puzzle, Wordle displays a bar graph showing the frequencies of past results. Players may be motivated to keep playing in order to eventually shift their statistics, for example by replacing their most common result with a better score, or eclipsing a friend’s overall performance.

Essential Subject Matter

We now have a framework for evaluating once-a-day games, but we still need to figure out what these games should be about. We should learn from Wordle developer Josh Wardle’s perspective. I believe that one of the most important creative choices that Josh made was to choose the subject matter of “language”, which is something that many designers and analysts have overlooked in their evaluation of Wordle. At his 2022 GDC lecture, Josh Wardle quoted literary theorist Terry Eagleton who said, “Language is the very air I breathe.” Wardle is very aware of the power of language and used it to full effect with Wordle in order to create an experience that deeply resonates with society at large.

In order to compel an entire society to play, casual social games must tap into something at the core of our human existence. An essential activity at the center of a game’s design is the only way to make a game that itself feels essential. When brainstorming subject matter, designers should consider the basic faculties of our species including memory, comparison, number-sense, pattern recognition, and so on. They should also consider societal phenomena. This includes cultural games or customs, like playing Rock Paper Scissors or knowing how to tip a waiter. Anything that everyone can identify with and understand can inspire once-a-day games of universal appeal. Aspects of psychology and social behavior could also provide ideas for subject matter. Designers, searching for interesting essential and possibly overlooked aspects of our lives, should be able to start theorizing new concepts for once-a-day games. An understanding of the previously discussed three pillars of once-a-day game design will also inform any experimentation.

As further evidence that “essential” subject matter is actually essential for viral social media games, we can analyze the ways language in Wordle impacts the quality of the experience by breaking it down using the three pillar framework. For starters, Wordle’s gameplay is incredibly engaging largely because players have spent their entire lives practicing language. Players come to the game already knowing hundreds of five-letter words and the nuances of spelling them. This aids Wordle in its goal to engage players of all levels of skill and engagement. If the game had to teach players the English language from scratch, that there are 26 letters with thousands of combinations, it would be impossible. The inherent variability and accessible complexity of language allows for an appealing gameplay system, and also helps to provide a quality long-term experience.

The excellent language-based gameplay is partially responsible for convincing players to compete and share the game with their friends. Our deep and personal relationship with language also greatly contributes to the goal of promoting conversation. The subject matter of language is so obviously baked into our lives and our social fabric, of course the daily words will occasionally spark interesting conversations and meme-sharing.

By studying games like Wordle through the lens of the three properties of successful once-a-day game design, in conjunction with an analysis of its essential subject matter, we can learn to more effectively brainstorm, design, and deploy viral social games. The problem is that we need more examples of designers conducting original experiments so that we can learn from them.

Applying These Principles to a New Once-a-Day Game

I recently made my own once-a-day game that I hope will serve as an example of how to create an experience like Wordle without just regurgitating it. One day while brainstorming, I was thinking about the essential human activity of “memory” and its role in trivia games. I wondered if there was a way to make a trivia game in which there was no way to cheat and look up the result online, something HQ Trivia excelled at. But it had to work as a once-a-day game, which means players probably don’t have a time limit.

That’s when I started thinking about tapping into the essential human activity of “prediction” instead of “memory”. Prediction is an incredibly important and regular function. One obvious form of prediction is gambling. Drivers on the freeway constantly anticipate the movements of cars ahead of them. When experiencing any form of narrative, people can’t help but make guesses about where the story is going and brag to friends when they were proven right. Prediction even underlies essential aspects of our society, including finance, government, and military.

At its core, my game, which I’ve called DisDat, presents players with daily predictions about the future. Players respond “yes” or “no” to questions like “James will win in tonight’s season finale of Survivor,” or “Bitcoin will end the day priced above 50k”. Prescient players have opportunities to brag to their friends, especially if they go on a streak. 

Evaluating DisDat

We can analyze DisDat the same way we evaluated Wordle. We’ve already discussed its prediction-focused subject matter, so now we’ll evaluate the game’s design using the three pillars of once-a-day game design outlined above.

Does DisDat appeal to players of all levels of skill and engagement? It does, and one of the biggest reasons for that is that the gameplay simply consists of players selecting “yes” or “no”. This allows anyone to participate, even if they only have a few seconds to play or don’t know anything about the topic. The game’s barrier to entry couldn’t be lower. Still, dedicated players could spend an absurd amount of time researching topics all day, and could think about their prediction while doing other things. This ability for the game to exist beyond the screen is another incredibly valuable quality of once-a-day games that we also identified in Wordle.

Does DisDat promote conversation? Uniquely so, I would say. While the subject matter of Wordle involves words and puzzle-solving, DisDat is about predicting events that are already a part of the ongoing social conversation. Once-a-day game designers should experiment with other ways of making their game about something inherently conversational beyond daily puzzle-solving comparisons. The allegiance of Wordle competitors to the puzzle genre has been one of the biggest mistakes holding the form back, in my opinion.

DisDat players are also motivated to talk to others about the game because the daily predictions feature a variety of topics that require different areas of expertise, so this may trigger invested players to reach out to people in their lives for help. If someone doesn’t know much about sports, they might reach out to the biggest sports expert in their life. While Wordle promotes conversation through competition and comparisons between players, DisDat encourages players to discuss and debate their picks with one another ahead of time, which is uniquely possible because there is no way to cheat and know the answers to future events.

Does DisDat provide a quality long-term experience? Yes. While designing DisDat, I actually applied my experience in casual mobile puzzle game design to take additional steps to ensure long-term value, whereas Wordle succeeded with a more hands-off approach. In DisDat, by correctly predicting questions, players earn points towards increasing their “rank”, which denotes progression in the game. Players earn more points the higher their streak is, so that puts a lot more pressure on winning every day. While many Wordle players can win pretty reliably, DisDat targets a daily success rate closer to the fifty percent mark. Hopefully this results in a more exciting experience and not a frustrating one.

DisDat’s points-based progression system is used to motivate new players by setting them up with longer term goals. By achieving certain ranks, they unlock new features in the game. In addition to the daily questions, there are also weekly, monthly, and yearly questions which are limited to experienced players only. These predictions are meant to be more fun, and they also offer a lot more points if you guess them correctly.

Monetization

I emphasize DisDat’s approach to giving players long-term value because I don’t think once-a-day games are currently valuing this important component of casual game design. Elements of long-term value like progression are absolutely necessary for creating profitable mobile games on app stores, and it will probably be greatly beneficial to once-a-day games too. Josh Wardle’s reasons for selling the game to The New York Times make perfect sense, but I hope future once-a-day developers can learn to monetize their product so that they can continue to grow it over time. Many of the proven design practices of popular mobile games in app stores should definitely be applied in viral social media games in order to ensure financial support. Developers of these new games should be just as inspired by Candy Crush as they are by Wordle, in my opinion, though there are many ways to tackle this problem.

Instead of direct monetization, developers could find non-traditional ways of getting value out of these games. They could be promotional tools for other products, or they could be extensions of full-fledged mobile games available in app stores. It’s important to note that in most cases, anything resembling a direct translation of gameplay mechanics from popular apps to once-a-day web games will neglect the importance of having an essential core activity that promotes the three qualities of once-a-day games.

In order to sustain DisDat and get the resources to expand on it while it's live, I will eventually include advertisements that reward players for watching a video. When monetizing viral social media games, it’s important to consider the effect such systems will have on how essential and cool the game comes across. I believe those vague impressions are critical for initially building an audience online, and Wordle’s anti-commercial design is an excellent example of that. Facebook.com also started without advertisements in order to prioritize adoption.

In DisDat, players can unlock the next day’s question by watching a video advertisement, so the experience offers something of great value that doesn’t hurt the experience of players who don’t participate. The game could also occasionally feature sponsored predictions, though it would be important to make those questions still somehow “cool” and feel like any other question. This is just one example of the unique commercialization opportunities of mass-audience games. A game like Wordle could have sold digital or real-world goods like shirts, maybe even special ones that reflect the player’s experience in the game, and made a fortune without compromising Josh Wardle’s vision for the game at all.

The Future of Social Media Gaming

It’s probably a mistake to categorize the genre of games like Wordle and DisDat as “once-a-day”, but the once-a-day mechanic is just so effective at creating a compelling simultaneous experience as well as at habituating players. Still, I don’t think it is essential for providing an experience of similar appeal. We are actually discussing, broadly, the design of “mobile social games”. The defining quality of these games is that society feels compelled to play them together in a social manner, instead of the rate that players are given tasks. Similarly engaging games could feature challenges of different durations of time and still have the same appeal as a game like Wordle.

There are so many new ways players could engage with games like these. Instead of the developer dispersing content, some social media games could task the player-base to create their own challenges using an in-game editor. This would be an interesting way of promoting conversation as players evaluate and share content. Maybe some of these games could lean into multiplayer, and allow players to interact with each other’s challenges by sharing and opening specially made links. This could potentially spark far more conversations and engagements on social media. These are random examples I’m contriving to persuade readers of the vastness of this new space of social gaming.

In conclusion, in order to explore this new space, designers must identify core aspects of human nature and our world that could power games. By constantly evaluating these concepts according to the three pillars of viral mobile games (broad inclusion, conversation starter, and long-term quality), designers can learn to twist essential activities into compelling game concepts. Not only should developers be motivated financially to make these mass-appeal games, but they should feel personally compelled.

While console video games are often thought of as a more “pure” form of gaming compared to mobile games, I think that hierarchy is arbitrary. Making simple games designed for anyone to easily adapt into their lives may seem to some a manipulative activity, but to me it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, perhaps even the apex of interactive design. These are games that people can play together, no matter what background they have. In our chaotic and heterogenous world, there are only so many things that connect people together, and those are the things we should value most. If you ask people whether they think life is better or worse with games like Wordle for us all to play and chat about, I think most would answer favorably.

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