The Game That Got Away

Published May 28, 2024

A special look into Hey, Good Game’s experience

Wordle summary

Wordle's a web-based daily game about one single word. It was created and developed by a Welsh software engineer, Josh Wardle. Players have six attempts to guess what the five-letter word is and feedback is given on each of the tiles in a colored format that indicates whether you're right or not about those letters in that position.

Wordle has just one solution each day, and the players for that day attempt to get the same word. So during 2023, Wordle was played 4.8 billion times. According to our estimates, it's become a cultural touchpoint. It's written into TV episodes and it's referenced continually, not only on our podcast but in many other media and platforms.

But before we get into our very own Wordle story here at HGG, let’s explore how Aaron got into building games and what brought him down this path.

Aaron’s beginnings

Aaron

Hi everybody! Well, for how I got into building games, it’s actually a nice story. So the first game that I built commercially was not originally intended to be commercialized. One of the Hey, Good Game properties, kakuroconquest.com, is right now the most popular website out there for playing Kakuro.

Back in the mid-2000s, there was a pretty big Sudoku craze. Everybody was playing Sudoku, and this was a time when people would actually go to bookstores and hang out, and near my house, could walk to a Borders Bookstore, if anybody remembers what that actually was.

Along with the stack of books of all of these Sudoku puzzles, there were just some other offshoot puzzles, and Kakuro was one of them. I had really taken to Sudoku; one of the sites at the time that had kind of popularized the game was websudoku.com. As I was looking at these Borders books and some of these other games, I was like, “Well, I bet I could make an online version of Kakuro.” 

This looks like a fun game, and it just kind of hit at a time for me where I had just invested, like, five years in a prior startup, and I just wanted to do something fun. I wanted to build something fun. And so I made my online version of Kakuro. No intent to monetize initially. I just wanted to see if I could do it, and that's what got me started down that path.

Putting up Kakuro

Aaron

I just put it up on a web host and didn't really think much of it. There were really two aspects of that. I made a puzzle generator that would actually generate the puzzles, and then I made the puzzle player, which was the online player, and really just kind of got it up. And the first iteration that was up was around 2006 or 2007.

Then I would say over the next two-ish years or so, it kind of quickly shot up to consistent number two in the Google search results if you're searching for Kakuro. And so I kind of got a steady following. And like I said, I never initially intended to monetize, but what kind of altered my thinking on that was later in 2007, I actually built another game, and I couldn't get off the conquest theme and called that one World Conquest. And what World Conquest was basically a slight knockoff of the Risk board game, but on Facebook.

And so you could play Risk on Facebook against your friends. And I immediately put on ads on that because that attracted quite a following pretty quickly. I ended up selling that four months after I built it. But it was sort of out of that experience, like, I guess there is some money to be made on ads. And it was only after kind of going through that experience of selling it that I later came back to put some ads on Kakuro Conquest.

But, yeah, it was just a slow and steady build over time.

Advertising in the late 2000s

Aaron

Well, I think there were things to learn both on buying traffic through ads and having traffic on your site. So back to the other game for a minute. One of the ways that I quickly grew the audience for the World Conquest game on Facebook was actually buying Facebook ads. And it's insane to think about this today, but back then, like, you could, for anywhere from one to click, get people to your Facebook game and that. So, like, there was this arbitrage.

Like, you could literally get people to your game cheaper than you were monetizing them on the other side. While it's theoretically possible to do that today, we're just in a very different environment. It's very competitive. It's super hard. There are so many data scientists today, like, the idea of buying traffic, to have a positive arbitrage on a game today is just… it's night and day different. 

The other thing is, you know, I think back then, for most games, or at least most people in my position, it was really like he had one option, it was Adsense. And bulk of the Adsense traffic was really like text ads you would maybe see occasionally, like a display ad come in, but it was so much. Here are your three text links right alongside your game. And that was kind of the bread and butter of what Google was doing at the time.

And it just kind of evolved over time from there to have these days, like, we get emailed all the time by ad providers wanting to work with us on our ad strategy and just a lot of other options that are kind of more open to small- to mid-sized game creators that weren't available then.

Motivation to keep going

Aaron

I think it's multifaceted. I think it's fun. It's relatable. It's fun to build something that your family and friends and others can play. And so there were a whole lot of family Risk games back in the day when I had built that game.

I think just the communal element, you know, building something that others can play. It's a lot more fun than some of the other B2B-style endeavors that I've been on. But I think there's also a side to it where it's just interesting from a business perspective. And I think we kind of have heard some of this from some of the guests that we've had, too. Probably most notably like Richard Mann with Nerdle.

Now that’s a guy who's been part of many B2B things over the years. He's like, “This is so much different dynamic with the player is very different. They're getting a free product. You know, they might complain from time to time, but it's just you sort of can take more of a mentality of, ‘I'm gonna prioritize what's important to me.’” And also the fact Holger said on an early podcast, like, “I just get a deposit every month because people came and played my game.”

And it's such a different dynamic than I think, anything else I've been involved in business, that it's compelling both from the making something that you resonate with personally and also just from a business model perspective, it's pretty intriguing.

Did you try to buy other games?

Aaron

Yeah. So throughout the 2010s, you know, I had another startup I built that had nothing to do with games. First three years of that startup, I didn't take a salary. And so I was supplementing that with other income on the side, sometimes consulting a little bit of this game revenue. And I think what became clear to me by, like, 2012 is it wasn't a full salary replacement, the Kakuro income, but it was steady income, and it was reliable income, and it actually helped me personally fund a lot of that other startup experience over time.

And so that was when I began to build up a little bit of a thesis of, “Boy, it'd be nice to just own some more of these properties.” And that's really kind of when I started down this journey of, like, I'd really like to buy more of these games. As a developer, a creator myself, there's always like, “Oh, I could build more” but I kind of had a core focus on my primary startup, so I didn't feel like I could invest a ton of time in just thinking up the next game. So I really started thinking about, well, what games could I go acquire?

And so I've had quite a few outreaches over the last twelve years or so, but one of the first ones I went back to was because I had so much respect for websudoku.com, you know, just trying to reach out to Gideon over there to investigate a potential sale of that property.

You know, I think he was pretty happy with how it was going, and we exchanged a few back-and-forth pleasantries over time, but just never quite went anywhere. Fast forward to January of ‘22. That's really when I saw Wordle taken off in a big way and immediately knew, like, I have to make a run at this. Coincidentally, it was just sort of a perfect storm of timing. I sold kind of my primary startup that I had been working on in mid ‘21.

So while I was still kind of a little bit occupied, like, post sale with some of it, like, I had a little bit more capacity, I had a little bit more cash, and so there was more of a, like, I should really take a run at seeing if I can buy Wordle.

Nate

So to give context for everyone, Josh Wardle launches Wordle in October of 2021. It really takes off in popularity in November and I think even early December, when he kind of adds in the social sharing aspect. And so between the three months that game takes off, what were you thinking, like, in that time, like, that moment where you wanted to reach out to Josh to see if there's, like, some opportunity here? 

What was going on in your head in this space and time?

Planning to try and purchase Wordle

Aaron

Yeah, I think there was probably a moment in late December, around the holidays maybe, you know, the very first part of January ‘22, where I've been a pretty active Twitter user for a long time, maybe a little less these days. But you just started to notice, like, on Twitter, on the moments I was on Facebook, like, all of these shares of people sharing their scores, and you could just see something taking off. 

And then me playing the game, there was just kind of a delightful experience of, “This is a really well thought out game!” and it seems like there's something really unique here. So it was kind of noticing those things. And then, you know, I think I had spent a little bit of the prior summer building up a database of, like, hundreds, now in the thousands of games that I might want to potentially go buy. 

I had built up some techniques about looking at traffic on similar web and just some different things. So I kind of immediately go look at, well, how's this game really doing? And you start to see, like, oh, my goodness, this just took off in a huge way! Unheard of numbers, like, on anything that I had seen before. And so it was, I dug up a bunch of records before we recorded. This was Saturday, January 8, and I had two bits of outreach that day.

I first called a domain broker who owned or represented the owner of Wordle.com, the domain name. And the second outreach was directly to Josh Wardle. And I did both of those in the same day. Why?

So a lot of people may not remember this at this point because it's now under The New York Times, but Wordle, at the time, was hosted on Josh's personal website, which was like powerlanguage.co.uk. And I just knew that it was probably a personal domain name he probably wouldn't want to part with. I also just didn't think it was a really great long-term home for the game. 

So I was already, like, trying to think a few steps ahead. Like, if Josh is actually willing to sell me this, I'm going to need a different place to host this, and I'm going to front run this and get in front of, like, buying Wordle.com as the new home for this. So I want to already have that worked out if Josh is really willing to sell to me.

So that was kind of what kicked it all off.

Nate

So what happens next after that? You send out an email to Josh, and then you send out an email to the broker. When you sent it to the broker first, did you make an offer on the dot com at that point?

The attempt at buying Wordle

Aaron

So I've got some email records. A lot of it was phone conversations. But I think what the domain broker came back with was I probably came in with what I would have considered a lowball offer for the domain name, which was probably low five figures, and I think he kind of came back over the phone while the seller of the domain name is thinking low six figures for the domain name. And so I kind of was slow playing the domain acquisition because along the way, like, I actually had zero intent. There were a lot of Wordle knockoffs happening around this time, but I just… It didn't seem right to me.

It would have been very easy for me as a developer to create a Wordle knockoff to buy wordle.com and host my own Wordle game there. But there was just something about that where that felt like stealing to me. Like, I didn't think that was right. And so the play was always like, I needed these to happen together in sequence. So I was slow playing the domain acquisition, but I did go back at one point and I offered 60k, and it sounded like we were getting close to a point of maybe being able to settle on a number for the domain name.

But also looking back at this, like, I had several outreaches to Josh, some by email, some by Twitter direct messaging over a multi-week period here. And unfortunately, I just never got a response from Josh. And if you fast forward the clock, knowing what I know now, it was announced on January 31 that he sold it. We pride ourselves at Hey, Good Game on being able to close fast on acquisitions, and, you know, we can sometimes often pull these together in two to three weeks.

Difficulty in reaching out to Josh Wardle

Aaron

But with any big company like that, I got to assume, like, he was probably already under a letter of intent. He probably had a no-shop clause and he wouldn't have been allowed to engage with me in a conversation, quite frankly. So, Josh, if you ever listen to this, I'm a little less offended now that he didn't reply to me, but I was really ramping it up. 

Like, I was just trying to get him to bite on anything. And so some of the techniques that I tried, like, I found a charity that he was really compelled with and interested in, and I donated a non-trivial amount of money to that charity and sent him a note and said, like, “Hey, you inspired me, and I donated to this charity that you like. And by the way, like, if we work something out, I could probably donate 20% of any future profits to that charity. Or another one. Pick another one. We'll figure it out together.”

And on January 16… This is probably the biggest thing I regret in all this, but again, he was probably under a letter of intent. I had no information, and I just sent him basically, “Hey, just so you know, I'm serious. I'll offer you 300k for this, which, in retrospect, like, feels laughable. It was published later that the New York Times paid low seven figures for it. The reality is I could have gotten to a low seven-figure number on this if there had been a little bit of open dialogue with Josh to actually have some insight into the analytics.

But I just wanted him to know I was serious, wanted him to know there was something attached. And it was hard at the time. I had a bunch of texts with Joseph. I was just trying to figure out, like, is this a fad? Is this going away? Or is this the bit, like, how high should I be going on this offer? And, like, really trying to figure out, does this have staying power?

And that's kind of one of the things that it's really easy to regret, like, not offering more at this point. But that was really the big thing at the time. Like, is this gonna stick around? I just was really wrestling with that.

Possibility of buying the domain name

Aaron

I briefly entertained it, and certainly, at that point, it wasn't about, like, “Oh, I'll put my own game up at wordle.com. I did have a moment of, “Boy, I wonder if I bought that for 60k, if I could get the New York Times to pay 250k just for the domain name later” But I don't know. I'm pretty small in the scheme of things, and the New York Times probably has a pretty robust legal team, and I'm not going to chance it on a 50 to 100k domain purchase in hopes that the New York Times isn't going to sue me and it's just going to pay me for the domain name later. 

So it wasn't ever, like, seriously entertained. But I did think about it for a little bit.

Joseph

That's just a war of Retainer vs. Hourly you just setting yourself up for.

Nate

Do you think they've been a good caretaker of the game? Do you think that maybe he, in another reality, doesn't sell? Do you think the game maintains its popularity? How has this played out in your mind?

On the state of Wordle now and other what-ifs

Aaron

Well, that's a loaded question in some regards. I would have taken it in a few different directions, but ultimately, I think there are a lot of similarities, too. If you look at, like, the trajectory that some of the other more direct offshoots like Quordle and Octordle and some of those other games have taken, you know, I think this notion of a practice mode or another mode where can kind of play more than once a day, I probably would have introduced a concept like that.

But I think that the fact that there's predominantly the Daily Mode on Wordle today and not sort of that practice mode, it's probably more in line with Josh's original intent and probably also just kind of has more of a staying power that way, too. I think The New York Times has done just a remarkable job that I don't think would have been as easily predicted back in 2022 when they bought this. 

The other games that they've spun up, that they've really built an ecosystem of just really awesome games that people go back to daily and starting with Spelling Bee and then going into Connections and now Strands and some of these others, like, I think they've done an incredible job in that way. And I think that aligns with a lot of what we're trying to do today at Hey, Good Game. We want to have a portfolio of fun, brainy games where any one of the games is individually fun and interesting. Hopefully, we’ve got a good collection there together.

And so, yeah, I think there are some similarities there, too.

How much do you think NYT offered for Wordle?

Aaron

Oh, The New York Times got a steal. We can just assume based on what's been published, 1 to 3 million, there's a difference of capacity. Like what I could pay reasonably and what I would pay. Without sharing too much about my personal situation, it would have been a stretch offer for me to get to 5 million back then, but unequivocally, I would do that all day long. And, like, I think this is a property that's easily worth eight figures, especially in the hands of The New York Times.

Joseph

Well, that's the question, how much is it worth not in their hands, right? How much of the value of this is riding the platform it's on?

Aaron

Yeah. Such a good question. It's hard to speak in alternate realities of how big would this game be today if I had been fortunate enough to buy it. What might be if I messed up along the way or whatever, and obviously don't have the New York Times distribution behind me?

It's so hard to say, but the game is without a doubt bigger today under New York Times ownership than it would be under my ownership. And I'd be posturing or full of bluster to think otherwise. But I do think that the game has so much staying power itself that it's always going to feel like a missed opportunity, for sure.

Nate

I think Joseph mentioned this earlier. It's like nine out of ten people we interview are bringing up Wordle as some inspiration. It's kind of like Bitcoin and all the NFT derivatives, or it's like Nintendo in the eighties that revived an industry and created a bunch of derivative properties around it. It's such a unique game. I think this is more of like a love letter episode to Wordle and really inspiring a number of game creators to create their own Wordle-inspired games, which has been really fun to see.

Aaron’s parting insights

Aaron

I think Wordle’s a huge inspiration to all game creators, no matter how you look at it. I think it's kind of caused a little bit of a resurgence in daily games, brainy games and web games, and in each of those three areas. Like, I think everybody kind of assumed more or less that, if I'm on my iPhone, I'm downloading an app to play a game. Now, I think there are a lot more web-based games today of popular note than there were pre-'21, especially on mobile.

And it's not like we don't have a Wordle clone. Like, I've always been emphatic about that, but it's just been a genre definer and it's in the lingo now in a way that people can talk about it and have an affinity towards. 

So although always feel like this got away, I'm always gonna be grateful to Josh for kind of how he opened up the category, really, in a way that I think has been something that's risen tides for everybody. So that's been pretty cool to see.

Joseph

I think that's so true. The tide has risen on games, and Wordle played a giant role in that. It continues, and I anticipate it coming up over and over and over again as we continue to chat with game developers, like those who had made their first game as a result of seeing Wordle or those who had games in play and have used the increase of activity and interest in daily brainy games as some kind of a provocation to make their games better or different or change or you name it. 

And to the extent that games help all of us kind of jump out of ourselves and play a game and allow ourselves some time of respite or the opportunity to see our own thinking happen, we're all better for it. So thank you, Josh.

Aaron

Josh, if you're listening, I'd love to chat. It'd be great on the record, but off the record would be good, too. aaron@hey.gg, and it’s the same on Twitter. I'm here for you, buddy!

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