How James Robinson built Waffle into an unexpected success

Published Apr 16, 2024

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and about your game?

Hello everyone! I’m James Robinson, also known as Jessian, and I’m the Chief Wafflemaker of Waffle Studio and the creator of the word game Waffle. I’ve been working on software for a long time for a lot of great companies, and I’m happy and proud to say that I now work full-time on Waffle to give everyone the best game experience that I can provide.

Waffle is a word puzzle game that challenges players to create words by rearranging a grid of letters. The shape of the grid is square and it has tiles in it, which makes it look like… well, a waffle. Players create words by switching tiles all around the Waffle, and each Waffle has only one solution. Players can tackle the Daily Waffle, Deluxe Waffle or go through the long Waffle archive for more fun, so pick out any mode that fits your fancy!

Could you tell us how early you got involved with software and game creation?

I remember that back when I was a kid, we had a Commodore 64 and my dad taught me some stuff. I was so young back then, and I don’t know if he taught me a lot of things at the time, but I did pick up a lot of it. He showed me that Basic was the programming language at the time, and how that worked and got me into it. I would just sit there as he was typing it out and he’d explain how it was going. And I remember debugging and that sort of thing, you’d print it out on this old matrix printer and go through it.

So yeah, he sort of encouraged me to learn programming. I went to Visual Basic on my computer and stuff like that, and I always tried to make little games with that. So it's quite old technology that I started with. I had one of these Psion Organisers as well. It was like this little hand-me-down that I got from someone. You could program it with Basic, and it had two lines of text on the display. So you could type on these two lines like a whole program.

And I managed to make a very small game out of that by just, I had a little character that you can move up and down between the two lines, and then it would have a sort of projectile coming across the screen that would try and take you out and you just had to jump between these two lines and it would speed up and you get a score at the end.

That was very popular. I handed it around in class at school and people were crazy over it. I didn't see it until the end of the day, and people were trying to beat their scores and everything. And I thought that was a great example of a game that was very simple but still addictive and competitive. That was a good memory of one of my early programming attempts.

Can you share more about your gaming journey in general?

Frankly, I feel like a relative imposter in the games industry. Lately, I've been going to these games conferences, but I've never managed to finish a game aside from Waffle before.

I've always wanted to make a game, and I've always had it in my New Year's resolutions to finish a game. I’d be like, “This year, I'll just do something that I can get out there and people can play it.” But I've never managed to get past the sort of first stages of creating a game.

Like, I get into the concept of it and then I don't get to the end of it and actually finish it so people can play it, but it's always been in the background of my mind, it's always been something that I wanted to achieve. And I've always tried to learn different game frameworks, like Unity or Cocos2D, and I did a lot of Flash stuff early on… but yeah, again, I never managed to get to that point where I actually finished a game that could be played all the way through.

It was only when creating Waffle I was using web technology, which was something I was using day in and day out, so it was a bit more familiar and I could knock something up quickly by just using things that I already knew. It was very simple, so I actually managed to finish it and I could push it out there for people to play.

And it's been a bit life-changing, I guess.

The team behind Waffle

I haven't been doing it on my own so far. My wife, Ness, does all the social media stuff, and she’s actually the one who came up with the name for Waffle. That night when I was coming up with this idea, I just drew it out on a bit of paper, as I like to do in my notebook, and I showed it to her, and her first comment was, “Oh, that looks like a Waffle.”

And, yeah, that was brilliant, because that's obviously a great name for it. Aside from that little backstory, Ness does a lot of the social media posts and replies to people for me.

I'm also working with my consultant, Charlotte Cook. Charlotte's doing a lot of the reaching out to partners that we can work with and different people that can further Waffle and the studio. She’s also slowly introducing me to the games industry and teaching me stuff.

So, yeah, now I've always found people to talk to about the game and catching up with other game developers.

Creating a bigger team

I still would like to build a team because I wouldn't say it's lonely, but I don't get enough time to fulfill all the ideas that I've got, and I think that's the main thing. I want some help to see if we can make some of that a reality and try it out, so that's the main impetus for hiring people.

But I also love sharing ideas with people, and I think it would be great to have a small team of people that we can throw ideas around with. And if we come up with something, we've got the skills to create it really quickly.  And I think we need to take advantage of that as much as possible and streamline that so that if we do have an idea, we can just come up with it.

And it only takes a few days to put it out there and see what people think of it. So that's a reason to have a good team, just to make things like that happen. But I also like working in an office on a similar sort of point. The office that I'm in now is a rented office that me and my wife come to.

I'm excited about inviting more people into the office and having people around that you can actually talk to face to face.

Did you design Waffle yourself?

I mean, I did have a bit of influence from Wordle, and you might be able to tell from the color scheme. But I've always had an interest in design, keeping a sort of minimal design, making things as simple as possible, but still having a bit of charm to them, like typography and colors and just things like that. Little animations, micro animations, stuff like that.

I've always had an interest in design since I was messing around with Flash when that was popular. I also collect a lot of playing cards, and you can get a lot of playing cards that are done by graphic designers and they have different designs on each card. And I love stuff like that. It's a very small sort of art form, but it's still compelling and it's character and personality to it.

So I guess it comes from that.

Waffle’s popularity, design-wise

Yeah, I think one of the reasons Waffle's been so popular is because it has a bit of personality to it. I like to say that we try quite hard to make sure it has something a bit extra. And people can tell it's created by humans, so that adds to the appeal as well. We've got people behind it who are putting in the effort to make it enjoyable, make it fun.

So yeah… Trying to keep it human, I guess. You know, I do this because I like seeing people enjoy it. I try to put things in it to make people enjoy it more, and just try and encourage people to play nice with little comments, jokes, you know, stuff like that, and it seems to be appreciated. We get nice comments back, good feedback… I like one of the comments about our donations page, and we have like a “buy me a coffee page” on And someone described that as the most wholesome page on the Internet.

Because you look at that and you see all these comments that we get, just people thanking us for the game and what we're doing. And I think that's partly because they can see it's created by people and there's a person behind it. And we try and push out messages to people just to say, “Hi, how are you doing? I hope you're enjoying the game this week.”

So, yeah, it's nice.

Do you create your own puzzles or have it automated?

Hmm… I think the right word for it would be curated. Yes, I created the original algorithm for the puzzle generation, but certain things go into creating a good puzzle where you need a human eye over it. You need to check them, play them, and you need to get a feel for them to see if they are good puzzles.

And there are certain things in it that we can put rules in the code. So over time, the code has changed to be less systematic and better feeling. It has certain heuristics, I guess you'd say about it that choosing words that aren't too obscure. You could have one obscure word, but you don't want them all to be obscure, as it’s nicer when it’s symmetrical. I think it just looks nice, things like that.

And we're always reviewing the words as well, and this makes or breaks it. We have to be sure of the word list as we don't want words that people don't recognize or are not internationally known, because we've got British and American players. So I try and remove any words that are not cross-Atlantic. I removed the word “dilly” the other day, as it didn't seem quite good nor did it fit in. And it's surprising how often they come up.

What I really need to do most of the time is to go through the whole word list and decide if certain words are good or bad, but that's quite a long list, and I just sort of pick them out as they come across and do it that way.

But, yeah, we do curate the puzzles and check the number of moves that they involve, how difficult they are and if it feels good. Though mostly, you know, as time goes on, that process gets more and more automated, but we still check, of course.

How did you arrive at the mechanics of Waffle?

There’s a story behind it actually. To start from the beginning, I was doing my washing up one evening, and I was thinking about Wordle and how that works and how it's luck-based. I wondered if there was a way to make a word game like that, where you're trying to find the answer that's not luck-based. 

If you were given the letters to create the word, then that would make it different because there's only one solution that could be based on the letters. However, the only way that works is if there are several words in the puzzle. So I tried to make words out of a 4x4 grid.

After I got done washing up, I quickly went to my computer, and I was trying to come up with words that fit into this game that were compelling to play and solvable, and a 4x4 grid of four-letter words was too difficult to create. I couldn't find enough words that fit in that sort of shape.

So I ended up going for five-letter words because I think, like a lot of people at the time, I had some code that I'd written to try and find the best word or starter word. I had a list of five-letter words already, and I tried to fit those into a grid and it worked. And we just ended up with this shape and this sort of puzzle that you could solve just by having given some letters.

You could fit them into this shape, and then it evolved over the next couple of days. After that, the process that I used was testing it with my friends, and I just sort of gave it to them and saw if they enjoyed playing it or if they would play it at all if it sort of captured their interest. These friends in particular, John and Rachel, I've got a little WhatsApp group with them and I just sort of put this word puzzle in front of them and tried to see if they would play it.

Dragging around the letters was good, but after that, it got quite difficult. They needed clues of what letters go where. And then I thought, you can just keep moving letters until they turn green.

But there needed to be a limit on the number of moves, otherwise, they were just moving all the letters and it felt a bit too robotic. So that's how I got to the point where I limited the amount of swaps you could do, and I thought you could then score it based on how many you had remaining.

The first version I had on paper was on a Thursday, and then by the Tuesday of next week, I'd sort of refined that to the point that it is now really taking shape, where you've got this number of swaps and you've got to solve this. These words are in this grid and you get this number of stars, though the stars came later, I think.

So quite quickly, I had that up and running, and that's still pretty much how it is today.

What is the most common feedback you get from your players?

I wouldn’t call it an issue, but the most common thing people wanted was to save their stats. They want to make sure their streak is transferred to a new phone, those sorts of things, which I didn't plan ahead for when I first started this. I mean, it was just a throwaway game that I wanted to put onto the Internet, and I didn't think people would be playing it long enough that they were particular about their scores, but, you know, it makes sense.

So that comes up a lot. I mean, people are quite happy with how it works. They want more recognition for five stars, I guess. Because it comes to a point, if you look at how it works, you can sort of get an idea of how to get five stars every time. There's a certain sort of strategy to doing that, so people are trying to get a streak of just five stars, and they're trying to achieve that every time.

But, yeah, we don't get a lot of feedback suggestions, so I'd welcome them, though, if anyone's got any suggestions for it. We're always trying to find new ways to improve it and we've come up with different ideas. We've got quite a lot of them, to be honest, of things we want to do. But it's just sort of finding the time to do them, which I was chatting to Richard the other day at Nerdle about. 

And so we were sort of saying, for a game that practically runs itself, I don't seem to find enough time to do the things I want to do. And I don't know why that is, but I'm hiring more people, so I'm hoping that we can fulfill some of the ideas that we've got.

It's obviously only in one language at the moment, and some people have requested or even created their own versions in other languages. So we'd like to sort of try and support that, create a few of those. But overall, I just want to create more games, I guess. I want to create similar games that have the same sort of level of compelling joy that this one does.

And I think I've got a lot of other ideas that we could take forward. Yeah, we've got quite a long list of things we could do.

What kind of ideas would you like to give life to?

We've got another game that I did recently called, so you can have a look at that. I'm quite happy with that one, as it’s quite good, and I think it has the same feel as Waffle. One of the things that was in the back of my mind when I was creating Waffle is I thought someone's probably already done this.

I mean, I've had ideas before about games, and then you search for them and you find someone else has done it in a far better way than I would have been able to achieve. But this one I decided just to not look and I thought I just wouldn't do the Google searches. I'll just put it out there and if someone's done it before, they'll tell me like, this game that already exists.

But yeah, I was quite lucky.

It didn’t seem like anyone has created something that's the same as this, and I’m glad since I feel it's a new sort of mechanic. Again, there's probably, there might be examples out there of similar sorts of word searches, but so far I haven't quite found something that works the same as this, and I’m quite happy with that.

That's the current game that I'm trying to slowly introduce to people. I haven't opened it up to the full Waffle audience yet, but I welcome people to try it and let me know what they think. So far the comments have been good. I had a little feature in there where people could write me a message and give us some feedback, and it gets sent to our Slack channel and we can see what people think of it.

And so far people are quite happy with it. I like to make the sort of minimal games that require logic, and potentially more word games, but that’s the general theme of things that I want to create. And I'm just happy to have the freedom to do it now. I mean, Waffle allowed me to quit my job and do this full-time. So I've got the freedom to fulfill some of these ideas that I've had in notebooks for a long time and I've got a stack of them on the shelf that has varying levels of quality ideas, but hopefully, there's a couple in there that might be fun, but we can just try them out now.

We've got a good audience that we can just push things out to and see what they think, which is a very fortunate position to be in.

You were given a lot of offers for Waffle, why didn’t you sell it?

Yeah, I thought about it a lot. Every day since I got offered to, and it was around late 2022. I mean, I had offers before that, but this was significant enough for me to pause and rethink the rest of my life. So I guess you'd call that a life-changing offer, and I had to make a decision whether I wanted to either sell and just live on a boat or something… go to other countries, do anything.

Or I could just keep the game and make more of them, because it's got such a big audience that if I didn't have that, then it would be a lot more difficult to test out new game ideas and things like that. So I'd be losing a lot if I sold it. I could also just, you know, go back to my day job, which wasn't a bad place to be, but I'd always dreamed of making more games.

So, following that dream of having the freedom to make more games was worth more to me, I guess, than the offer that I was given. That's not to say I don't still think about it every day, because it's come up a few times. We've had more than one offer put on the table, and I have to think about it every time I think it's worth taking the time to consider it and be grateful to be in that position.

But so far, yeah, I've kept it. I'm carrying on waffling independently and seeing where it goes.

At the point that I got the first offer, we had about 450,000 players a day. So, you know, we were doing okay, very well even. But really, we hadn't even tried promoting the game to anyone, so it felt like there was still a long way to go with what we could do with it, and that factored into my decision.

We felt like, well, if we've got around 450,000 players now, and we haven't even tried to do a TikTok campaign or put some ads on Google, then who knows what numbers we could get? Unfortunately, it turns out it's a lot more difficult than that. We've tried doing a TikTok campaign, doing ads on Meta platforms… I don't know, it doesn't seem to have had much of an impact, to be honest.

But recently we hit a new record—510,000 players this week, which is great, though we still don’t know why or how. It's just the viral nature of it is giving us this very slow but steady incline. We have a very flat but slightly inclined number of plays each day, though it hasn’t spiked. It rose to 450,000 and it sort of stayed there for a very long time. And it very slowly increased gently.

And we were waiting patiently for it to hit half a million, and it did in March. So half a million players in one day, and it seems to have stuck around there now, and we’re very happy with that.

Will Waffle be your final job?

I've not considered if it's my last job, but I wouldn't mind if it was, to be honest. I mean, I wouldn't say Waffle is my final work, but making games probably is going to be my last job. I'm 38 now, so I feel like I've got a little way to go before I can retire, but I'm just enjoying creating more games.

So my plan at the moment after I turned down the first big acquisition offer, I thought, well, I've just got to go all in on this and quit my day job. Work on this full-time, see where it can go, and try as much as I can to create as many of my ideas as I can. Put them into reality as much as I can. That's what I want to do and that's what I'm doing.

And luckily it's going well, so it can support that idea. That plan is going ahead and it seems to be going okay. So, yeah, hopefully, it is my last job because it's pretty good, something I could have only dreamed about.

So is game creation going to be my last job? Yes, let's say yes.

You collaborated with some game creators as well, could you tell us about that?

I collaborated with the creator of Squaredle, and I got in touch with him through Discord, I think, as well as Canuckle—the Canadian Wordle variant. We've done crossovers with them and it's just been really fun to do, as it’s sort of a good experiment.

So the first one we did with Canuckle didn't go that well, to be honest, because we changed the colors of the letters. I used red instead of green, and it was a bit disconcerting for some people who came to the game and saw it was all different. People weren't quite so sure about that, but other than that, people did enjoy it.

I think we gave a bit of a twist to it and, you know, it works both ways. We sort of promote each other and we spread the word about these different puzzles that we've created and that applies to Squaredle as well.

Squaredle created a waffle-shaped version of their puzzle and it sort of matched up with the Waffle of the day, and that was really good because it fit well. And, yeah, I think people appreciate it. People enjoy being referred to a new game that they can find so it's gone down really well doing that, and I would like to do more of that. And we've talked about doing it again as well.

We did a crossover with Nurdle as well. We made a Nerdle-colored version of Waffle and, yeah, that went really well. We'd like to do more of that because it's just a fun little thing to add to the daily routine of the puzzle that people enjoy playing, then having a little surprise to find.

More on collaborations

When it comes to collaborations, I haven’t actively started to seek other creators out. I think they've come to me generally, and I love talking to new people about what they're doing. Through Waffle, I've met a lot of people that I, you know, wouldn't have otherwise got the opportunity to chat to, so I always enjoy doing that.

If I'm ever given the opportunity to speak to someone that I haven't met before, who's got an interesting story about what they're doing or how they've got to where they are in their career, I always prefer doing something like doing that. 

Just talking to people and seeing what they're doing with their games, they've been certain there was a Wordleverse Discord group and, yeah, I think we just met on there and started talking about how we're getting on, creating our games… and it's just natural to see if we can do some sort of crossover that benefits both of us and let other people enjoy it as well. 

So it's a win-win for everyone and that's sort of how it came about. Just finding people to talk to about the games, and it’s a great community to be involved in now.

How did you market Waffle?

It really just went viral, and I didn’t do anything special to put it out there, you know? I did initially just put it out on Reddit, on certain Reddit subreddits, sort of the web games one, and there was a word or group, and that was it, I think.

And it sort of gained about 800 players on the first day. Numbers gradually increased, but then it got featured in a PC Gamer article and that bumped us up to a certain degree. And then we got mentioned in another article by Lifehacker. They did an article about what's about this new game called Waffle, and had an article saying Waffle is the new Wordle, which was very nice, very appreciated that that came across.

And then that just boosted our numbers to the next plateau, really. It bumped us up to, I think, 430,000 at that point. And it just stuck. Every time we had one of these articles, it would just step up. Again, that wasn't anything that we had prompted. It just spread, which is obviously a dream position to be in.

We didn't pay anyone to get into those places. I guess the only other thing I did was on Twitter, as it was known back then. I put a few comments on people's Wordle scores… but only if they were aggravated by Wordle, you know? It was quite natural that I would recommend this new game that I'd cooked up called Waffle.

I don't really think anyone paid any attention to that. So I can't really put any of Waffle's success down to that. We also got bumped up in the Google search results for the word “waffle”, and I don't know if that really helped us. I mean, people were searching for “waffle” to find our game. So the click-through rate for waffle searches is quite high.

But it meant that we quickly became the number one search result for the word waffle in the UK, America and various other countries, which was no search engine optimization on my part. I have never been involved too much on the SEO side. I know the basics of SEO, but I've never had to put much effort into that, I've never bothered, really.

My cousin asked me actually, and she said, “I was wondering if we could have a call and you could just give us some advice about search engine optimization, how we can boost our Google ranking?”

I just had to say, “I don't really know, to be honest. You just have to make a game that people love, I guess.”

Could you tell us about your monetization scheme?

It’s primarily through ads. I mean, early on, I try to avoid ads because no one likes ads. And I know it's a common thing that comes up in other episodes of the podcast, but we know no one likes ads as they are typically presented, and they can be obtrusive.

The way they work is, you know, disconcerting for a lot of people. And so I did try and avoid them for a long time because I don't like them either. So I tried getting people to support the game, just like one-off donations and things like that, but that was early on.

And then one of the offers that I had to acquire the game, sort of not massive offer, but the guy basically said to me after I turned him down, he said, look, this is what I would do with it. Put some ads on it, because you can actually earn an income from it. And, you know, that was a big thing for me because that meant I could do this full-time, and I don't think I would be doing this full-time now if I hadn't tried it.

We work with an ads partner, which makes it easier, I think, like other people have said, you just, in basic terms, you just have to give up part of your website to ad space, and they swap out the rest. It wasn't that straightforward, but let's just say it was. I wish it was though, but it's not quite that simple.

But yeah, I mean, I still don't like ads, and I would love to have a solution that is not as ugly, because, like you said, I've tried to put effort into how this game looks and keep it minimal and pleasant to play, and ads are not helpful in that regard.

So I don't really want to have ads, but I do have ads because otherwise I wouldn't be able to do this as a full-time job and establish what we're calling Waffle Studio, and we're going to create more games.

I'm using ads to be in that position to provide more games to people, and most of them are fine with it. I haven't had the negative feedback that I was expecting, I thought people would hate it. I was dreading the idea of sticking ads on my page.

But, you know, I think people prefer that to having a game that they can't play because they have to pay for it. And obviously, that's not the be-all and end-all, as you can have a hybrid sort of situation with free-to-play games. They do it in lots of different ways, but, ads is just the position we're in at the moment.

And it's just after this guy told me that I realized how lucrative it can be. If you've got half a million people coming to your page, you can actually earn a decent amount of money to carry on and do other things. So it was a bit of a no-brainer, really.

What games do you like to play?

I’ve been playing a lot of puzzles recently, I got a shout-out from my puzzle friends, Nerdle, Squaredle, Polygonle and Canuckle… I play those quite a lot. I love puzzles in general, paper puzzles, especially. I’ve bought a lot of puzzle books since I’ve been doing this endeavor full-time. I love your chat with Jim Bumgardner because I’ve got a few of his books.

Another game I’m into is Vampire Survivors, but that’s a different game altogether. It’s not a puzzle game, but I’ve also gotten really into it recently. It started out as a web game that uses Phaser, an HTML5-based game framework, which is interesting. It’s a retro-style game that just sort of blew up, and I like quite a lot of old retro games. I've got one of these Gameboy-like devices that can play a lot of retro games, all sorts of Sega, Capcom and PlayStation games.

Is there any advice you can give to people who want to be like you?

Oh definitely. I’m a dreamer. Always have been. Aside from the philosophies that I imparted earlier, here are two things I’d like to share:

1. Keep it simple

Yeah, I mean it's all about keeping it simple, which I've always known. They always say to create the minimum viable product and get people to use it. But I don't know, it's easier said than done.

Sometimes you want to make sure that it's still a product that people aren't going to laugh at. And so you or other people are going to be like, “So this the best you can do?” You have self-conscious thoughts about just putting something out there in front of people, but, you know, it's the best way of doing things because you get feedback very quickly.

You find out if it works, you need to put it out in front of people. It may feel embarrassing when you think of what people will think, but you need to put it out there so you can make it better. You need to keep it as simple as possible.

You just need to work out what is the most compelling thing about it, get people to try it and see if they agree that it’s a good thing to be doing.

2. Work with what you’re comfortable with

I myself couldn’t finish the games that I created before with all the other engines and frameworks I used, because it was technology I wasn’t familiar with. With Waffle, I did it with the technology I was most comfortable with, JQuery, something I used day-to-day, and I made it as simple as possible.

3. Create something quickly

I mean, of course don’t rush it. What I mean is that if you can create something quickly, that's better than not creating it at all. So use what you can, create it quickly and then you can always refactor it later.

You can always sort the problems out later down the line if people actually enjoy playing it, because it's worth finding that out first before you spend your time trying to use the hot new thing and architect it to an inch of its life.

So, yeah, don't over-engineer it, just get it out there.

What’s your take on AI in the industry nowadays?

I mean, I do try and embrace it. I guess that's the main feeling I have about it at the moment. We do try and we write a lot of jokes, but I'm hesitant about saying that we try and write a lot of jokes or nonsense in our word definitions. If anyone notices. that seems to be what we spend a lot of our time doing these days.

And we tried to use AI to do that sort of thing and it didn't work very well. It turns out ChatGPT hasn't got a great sense of humor yet, so that's one thing that it doesn't work for. But I use GitHub Copilot, so that helps a lot, you know, speeding up writing code and I think that's, that's a good way to look at it at the moment.

It's a tool that can allow you to do things quicker. You still have to put the effort in to do it, but it speeds things up. We haven't found a way that I think would work in the game itself, so right now, it's just in the background helping us create things.

There are other games like Twofer Goofer, that use AI in them. That was one that I played before I met and spoke to Colin, who created Twofer Goofer. It’s quite a good game that uses AI-generated images as part of its gameplay, and that's great. I mean, that's a great way of using AI to create content, I think.

But apart from that, for Waffle in particular, the content that AI created wasn't quite human enough for us. It doesn’t have the same personality as something that was created by hand and people can tell stuff like that.

So at the moment, it's there as a tool and I feel like we need to keep up with it and embrace it along the way. And don't discount it, because it does help us create things faster.

Where can we go to learn more about Waffle and its Chief Wafflemaker?

Yeah, we do have social channels. I think if you just go to Waffle, really, if you look in the menu. There are some links to our social channels that we pay attention to. And if we release anything else, it's going to be through Waffle, to be honest.

So, yeah, just play your daily waffle and you'll hear from us through there. We push stuff out there quite regularly, and I hope people enjoy it.

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.