Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The tiny 2022 acquisition that is a huge media story

By Brad Rees, CEO of Mediacells

Many of Mediacells friends and competitors have been predicting developments in the new-tech arenas but all this has been overshadowed by a very human story today and perhaps sets the narrative tone for 2022.

Even the nostalgic, rags to riches success story of Bobby Kotic’s Activision, a brand saved from the 1980s arcade game scrapheap for $500k back in 1990 and sold this year to Microsoft for $68.7 billion couldn’t cut through to normal people like the news that Wordle, a homemade web game, has been acquired by the New York Times.

Yesterday’s Sony Interactive Entertainment deal for shooter video gamemaker Bungie for $3.6 billion was put in the shade by a five-letter, six tries word game based on code that has been around for half a century.

Already nostalgic sentiment for the ‘simple, pure, elegant’ mystery word game is trending with some velocity on social media.

Gamification experts, like Toby Beresford, have unpacked the gaming experience around Wordle and determined that its good-addiction qualities are predicated on something called ‘enforced scarcity’, which is a kind of posh delayed gratification apparently.

Gen-Z purists are already lamenting the end of puzzle-a-days – now that the free game has been snapped up by a media owner who will inevitably shunt the game behind a paywall, a paywordle.

It feels a bit like a Napster moment when something good and peer-to-peer transforms into commercial media – it is inevitable and necessary in order for the service to evolve.  As pioneer Josh Wardle puts it today, “I am just one person and it is important to me that as Wordle grows it continues to provide a great experience”.

The general manager for the New York Times Games (what a job!) describes the Wordle proposition as ‘precious moments of discovery, surprise and accomplishment,’ which already sounds like a compelling sponsorship pitch to a luxury adventure family holiday company.

Mr Wardle has always shown humility since a launch audience of 1, his girlfriend, through to the two-million milestone in mid-January and who knows how many after today’s news.

It was always going to be the New York Times who bought it. It’s a love story of an English software engineer who creates a word game for his partner, in Brooklyn.

The story already conjures images of foppish Englishman Hugh Grant – I wonder if the NYT bought the film rights, game show rights, the Metaversal format options on it.

For now, it’s a tiny acquisition, let’s assume $3m, for the New York Times who acquired the online sports news outlet The Athletic for a reported $550m. But there is no love story in a 1.2 million sports subscriber plotline.

Despite the behaviour-shifting consequences of big media and tech investing in a future where virtual and augmented reality will be the norm, there is something more compelling about a guy who wasn’t interested in making money, making a bit of money, while at the same time somehow giving something back.

The popularity of the game itself is unwittingly revealed by Josh himself, ‘the game has gotten (sic) bigger than I ever imagined (which I suppose isn’t that much of a feat given I made the game for an audience of 1).’ Successful products, media, tech or otherwise, are borne from having a vivid, target audience in mind. How this will convert into the brave new meta-landscape is anybody’s guess.


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