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How Do You Design the Next Wordle?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2023

David Shariatmadari, an editor at The Guardian, was asked by a colleague to “have a go” at inventing a new game, a new viral sensation like Wordle. The game he came up with is called Wordiply (it’s fun!) and he wrote up the whole process of how he went about designing it. The idea behind the game is a simple one and the way in which Shariatmadari arrives at it is a familiar trope in discovery stories:

That’s where my older brother, Daniel, comes in. While I’m racking my brains about how to come up with a better version of Boggle, he’s with his partner Nic in a hospital waiting for their baby to be born. On the morning she is due for an induction, they arrive bright and early at 8am. I call at about 11am to see how things are going. “What about if you had a word,” Daniel says, “of three letters — and the point of the game is to find the longest word that still has those three letters.”

“You mean like an anagram, but you make it longer?” I ask, confused.

“No, you’ve got to keep them in order. So if you had ‘bid’, then maybe, er, ‘forbidden’ would be the longest word.”

“Or ‘ambidextrous’.”

“Right.”

This is typical. I’ve been thinking about this for weeks. Daniel is supposed to be having a baby today and instead he’s come up with something that just might be the next Wordle.

“I think that’s pretty good,” I tell him.

“Yeah, OK — gotta go.”

“What about the bab — “

It’s worth reading the whole thing — stories of invention and discovery are always interesting and the familiarity that most people have with word puzzles makes this one easy to follow and even to place yourself in the creator’s shoes. A key part of the design process is to look for the spark:

Next, I pitch the longest word game: “So if you have a word like ‘pit’, you could have ‘spit’, ‘spittoon’, ‘hospitable’.” “Amphitheatre!” Will exclaims, triumphantly. There’s a beat before we realise it doesn’t work. But I can hear an excitement in his voice — pride at having swung even if he missed. Maybe there is something to this. We do a paper prototype, and decide to play it against the clock — 15 seconds. I call out the word “cub” and everyone scribbles furiously. Time’s up before we know it, and all I managed is “scuba”. Someone gets “incubation”. Will has “cubism”. “You know what?” he says. “It’s a good game!” Entrancement? Unlocked. Well, possibly.

I found this via Clive Thompson, who riffs on Shariatmadari’s piece here.

Alas, there is no magic formula to finding the right mix of rules. You just have to tweak and tweak, and test and test.

Often the hardest part of finessing a design can be some incredibly weird thing you’d never predict.

For Shariatmadari, the hardest part was creating the list of allowable words. Since the goal of his game was - given a target word like “pop” (for example) - to find the longest possible word that contains the target, there are a ton of super-long medical and chemical words one could use, like “pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism”. But allowing words like that could break the feeling of fairness, giving an advantage to people who rote-memorize really long medical words. (As an aside, this is why I find competitive Scrabble rather dreary: Success hinges upon memorizing endless marginal two-letter words that normal people rarely ever use in daily speech; this does not feel, to me, like a particularly interesting skill.)

I have a weird relationship with word puzzles. I don’t like crossword puzzles but have been doing them recently with a friend over FaceTime, which has been enjoyable. Boggle is my jam and has been since childhood, but I dislike Scrabble with an intensity that is almost absurd. I’ve never played Wordle (I know!) but I do Spelling Bee every day. I’m not sure why I love some of these games and dislike others — all word games require pattern matching to some extent, which is something I enjoy and am good at, but for some reason Scrabble and Wordle don’t interest me at all while I cannot get enough Spelling Bee.