Six Lessons From the Success of Wordle

What the creator of the viral game did so incredibly right

Clive Thompson
OneZero
Published in
8 min readJan 24, 2022

--

Wordle

By now you’ve probably heard the story of how Wordle — the hit word game — was created.

But! Just in case you’ve been highly offline, the tl;dr is:

Brooklyn-based software developer Josh Wardle created it last year as a gift for his partner, who was obsessed with word games like the New York Times’ “Spelling Bee”. Wardle put the game up for free online in October, and it quickly went all hockey-stick. There were 90 people people playing it in November, 300,000 by early January, and only a few weeks later, about 2 million a week. One survey estimates that 14% of American adults are playing Wordle.

What’s the allure? Some of it is just that Wordle is superbly designed: You have six attempts to guess a five-letter word, and you get Mastermind-like clues as to what you got right (and wrong) with each guess. It’s social; because everyone is hunting for the same word each day, you can race against friends and commiserate (or crow). After you solve it, you can humblebrag-share an image of your solution on TikTok or Twitter or any socialtube. And because it’s a word game, it prompts tons of fun strategy sharing online — including intellectually nifty essays explaining “sonotactics” and the “sonority sequencing principle.” Did I mention? It’s free.

There’s probably luck involved, too. As the puzzlemeister Will Shortz notes…

“There’s virtually no way to predict fads like this,” Will Shortz, the New York Times Crossword editor, said. “They take off for no apparent reason and then die as people move on to other things.”

Still, after reading rather obsessively about Wordle’s booming success, I think I’ve gleaned some additional lessons about what the designer did so very right.

So, forthwith: Six Design Lessons from the Success of Wordle…

1) You don’t need to reinvent the wheel

Jotto, a game invented in 1955

Most successful ideas do not arrive out of nowhere; they’re extensions or riffs…

--

--

Clive Thompson
OneZero

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net