From XOR to Wordle Mania: The Unexpected Journey of Xordle's Creator

Published Nov 1, 2023

Xordle
Xordle
Xordle

Hi! Tell us about yourself and your game.

I’m Kelly Dornhaus, sort of. The text I put in all of my social media profiles is “I like games and I make games, under this pseudonym and elsewhere”. I’m a professional programmer and game designer.

Xordle is a variant of Wordle where you solve for two words on one board. The two words can’t share any letters. So for example, if you get a green clue it means exactly one of the two answer words you’re solving has that letter in that location.

A friend initially described it as Wordle if it was made by FromSoftware, a studio famous for their difficult video games like Dark Souls and Elden Ring. The two answer words are almost always related thematically in some way, and there’s a free starting clue that’s also in-theme, so it’s not quite as intimidating as it sounds.

You also get a couple of AI-generated images related to the theme when you solve the puzzle as a little reward for finishing the puzzle, which sometimes helps clarify what the theme was for some of the more nuanced puzzles.

How did you get started and what sparked the idea for your game?

I was very impressed by the design of Wordle, and by what I’d call some very wholesome technical decisions.

I loved that you didn’t have to log in, there weren’t any ads, and its ability to work even if you had no network connection. I was inspired by all the Wordle variants that were sprouting as a result of its popularity and simplicity.

I wanted to participate in that, and I ran with the first pun on “Wordle” that came to my mind. In programming and logic, there's a term called XOR, or "exclusive or". It means that out of two options, exactly one is true, never both.

In Xordle, any clues you get are true of exactly one of the two answer words.

Describe the process of building the initial version and launching the game.

I found an existing Wordle implementation on Github called hello-wordl. It had a nice implementation of the Wordle rules and UI, a good list of words, some mindful accessibility features, and a permissive license. So I used that to start implementing my own rules and features.

The puzzles were originally not themed, and I would sprinkle a few themed puzzles in here and there on holidays, which were well-received. While I personally enjoy the game more with random words (and there's an unlimited mode for that), the majority seem to favor themed puzzles. Now they’re almost always themed, and I accept submissions from users and give them credit for the puzzle.

How has the game grown so far in terms of traffic and popularity?

The biggest bumps have come from YouTubers or TikTokers playing the game. I was on vacation, and a few weeks into it, I saw a huge traffic spike. It was easy to trace back to Scott Stro-Solves on YouTube who has a lot of excellent puzzle content.

There was a second large spike a few weeks later that was harder to track down. With YouTube, the creator will link to the site and the web server knows where it was linked from. But this was just a massive amount of traffic from Google or people directly typing the URL in their browser.

Eventually, I worked out it must be a TikTok and found Michael DiCostanzo had played it. His content is excellent fun and you should check it out, as there’s a whole world of Wordle TikTok that you’ll easily find from there. I follow a ton of Wordle creators on both TikTok and YouTube now for personal enjoyment.

I also put a link on a number of sites that were categorizing variants at the time. But it mainly grew over time by word of mouth.

What has been the most surprising aspect of building your game?

How nice all the players are. Almost all players who’ve contacted me or written about it have been entirely supportive.

Do you monetize your games?

I don’t monetize Xordle. I like it being free of any commercial concerns. Perhaps it's a nod to the vibes of the old web. I enjoy that it’s something someone puts out there so other people can enjoy it. I’ve considered selling prints of some of the AI-imagery, but I don’t really like that it would confuse the relationship with players, and the idea of profiting from AI-imagery is controversial anyway.

I don’t need money to run Xordle and I don’t expect anything from the players. It is a gift.

If you could go back, would you do anything differently?

I do wonder about a few decisions I made.

First, Xordle has a calendar view where you can see and play all past puzzles. Wordle doesn’t have that, and I think it was a great decision for Wordle. It’s such an elegant game and you just play it every day. And if you miss, you miss — no need to catch up.

The theory with Xordle was that it’s more niche, and so I wanted to cater more to the people who are more deeply into these word games. For similar reasons, it has an unlimited mode where you can play random puzzles. It all adds up to a kind of complex UI and a less elegant experience. I’m happy with it but I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I’d kept it just as simple as Wordle.

Secondly,  I decided to always give players a free starting word. At the time, the only thing I didn’t really like about Wordle was the blank slate every day. Now, I see how some people like to use a starting word every day. Some prefer a fun word to start with. Some like to think of a new one every day. And some like to discuss it. But again, I’m happy where it ended up because Xordle is now themed so the starting word is typically a nice hint.

But in the end, I probably wouldn’t change a thing.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Mostly I focus on my day job at a video game studio and on my family life. I’m very protective of my family time.

But, I do always have some side projects going.

I enjoy making simple game prototypes for other game designers and always have a few coals in the fire myself.

Do you have any advice for other game developers who want to get started or are just starting out?

The best four pieces of advice I know for starting developers also happen to apply to experienced developers.

#1: Start with something that works.

Don't start with your grand vision. Start with something that works and tweak it. You can have your grand vision, but it may fail for any number of reasons you don't know. If it's not working for various reasons, you'll have a very hard time figuring it out. If you start with something that works and morph your way to it, you'll find the failure points one at a time.

This applies to code, too. If you can start by modding or forking an existing project, do so.

#2: Playtest the heck out of it.

Play it a lot yourself, and have others play it a lot. It's really easy to convince yourself that something will be fun, to get lost in your own head and perspective.

Games need to be played and felt and iterated on.

#3: Listen to players' experiences.

People often give feedback in the form of a list of suggestions. That's normal, but it's not what you want: you want to know what the experience they had was and work out a solution for it yourself. You're the one with the vision for the game, and you're the one hearing feedback from various perspectives.

It can help a lot if you directly ask players simple questions that get them to talk about their experience. "Do any moments come to mind that you enjoyed? and "Do any moments come to mind that were unpleasant?" You'll still get a lot of suggestions, and your first job is to figure out where the suggestion is coming from.

Work backwards to see if they're saying they enjoyed something and want more of it, or didn't enjoy something and are trying to solve it for you. Some suggestions will be good, but it's important to get to the heart of their experience and compare that to what you're going for and what other players are experiencing before working on solutions.

#4: Play a lot of other games.

Play for fun, and play with a variety of people. The more you know about other games, what makes them fun to you and what makes them fun to others, the more solutions you'll have in your mind to problems and the better you'll be able to process player feedback.

Who or what inspires you? (People, games, books, podcasts and others)

This may sound like a non-answer, but I try to gain inspiration from just about everything. I consider it a personal failure when I can’t enjoy something. That may be too harsh, there’s lots of stuff I’ve failed to enjoy, but I usually give it a good shot. If other people are enjoying it, I want to learn how to enjoy it too.

Other than your own creations, what’s your favorite game to play?

Love Letter. It’s a very simple card game of logical deduction and light bluffing. It’s always our warm-up game on board game days, but it’s also always my favorite game of the night. And I get to play it with my seven-year-old daughter, too. 

Where can we go to learn more about you and your game?

You can play Xordle at https://xordle.org and I have some other Wordle variants I run as well.

My friends K & R Garfield suggested the game rules for Fibble which I then coded and put up at  https://fibble.xyz. It’s Wordle but it lies to you once per clue.

Another friend, Mike Elliott, suggested the rules for Warmle, which gives you clues based on alphabetical proximity to the letters in the answer word. I run that at https://warmle.org.

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.