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Video: Wordle, one year later

Zoe Bell of New York Times Games dives deep on the viral success, growth and controversies of Wordle at the NYT.

Danielle Riendeau, Editor-in-Chief

July 26, 2023

In this insightful and honest talk about viral word game Wordle's first year at the New York Times (NYT), executive producer Zoe Bell outlines the core teachings she and her team came to from shepherding a viral game to a new platform and helping it grow. Bell goes through the first year of Wordle in the publication's possession chronologically, extolling the virtues of "first, do no harm," to the game, adding value to the experience, and overall deciding to "buy a game you love and treat it like you built it."

Bell notes that at first, the Games team had other plans for 2022 (it was supposed to be "the year of Spelling Bee" one of the NYT's other popular word games), but the opportunity to jump on the Wordle ship was too good to ignore:

"If there's a viral hit game in your genre that you can possibly buy, that changes everything," says Bell, noting that the team spent a great deal of time planning their tech, policy and messaging around the acquisition.

"We knew that if we had any chance to hold on to our audience, and even growing it a little bit, we had to preserve Wordle as an internet treasure. So, our product, engineering, and design teams set out with one mission in mind: 'first do no harm at all.' Keeping the game as similar as possible to the existing viral hit while simultaneously kind of assimilating it into the New York Times ecosystem... was not an easy mission."

Smart planning and giving the teams the proper time they needed to "do no harm" helped, as Bell details in the next few months of the timeline.

Zoe Bell and a GDC slide on Wordle's transition plan

Bell also addresses the controversy Wordle experienced when "fetus" was the word of the day in spring 2022. A few days before the controversy, an engineer came to the leads with a heads up that fetus was about to be the Wordle word, and at the time of the previous "loose" editorial review (conducted every three months or so at the time), the controversy regarding the leaked US Supreme Court decision on abortion rights was months off. So, essentially, the team had a couple of days to decide what to do. Tech constraints further impacted that at the time: the game hadn't been fully integrated into the NYT games ecosystem, and some ardent players never refreshed their browsers, making any change to the word list a very big deal indeed.

"So what should we do?" Bell asks rhetorically.

"What would you have done? Would you have changed it? Left it? Talked about it? Not talked about it?"

"So we changed it. And we talked about it, in this article, an Editor's Note," she pointed to a slide referring to an editorial written about the decision. "So in an effort to do no harm, we just explained everything we possibly can to our community. All right. I think that transparency is really important to growing your audience."

She also plays a clip from Saturday Night Live commenting on the event, and notes "So we actually made SNL for this, and when I when I think about all the ways that this could have been spun on SNL, I think we made out pretty well," considering the joke wasn't about the NYT messing things up, rather making fun of "Psychos whose first Wordle guess is always fetus."

Watch the full video above for the whole talk!

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About the Author(s)

Danielle Riendeau

Editor-in-Chief, GameDeveloper.com

Danielle is the editor-in-chief of Game Developer, with previous editorial posts at Fanbyte, VICE, and Polygon. She’s also a lecturer in game design at the Berklee College of Music, and a hobbyist game developer in her spare time.

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