Puzzles and games have always been central to the newspaper experience, but no media company has had as much success mining that obsession digitally as The New York Times.
Games are so popular at the Times they’ve become one of four main pillars bundled to keep subscribers paying each month, along with The Athletic, Cooking and Wirecutter, their consumer review website. In fact, the Times regularly touts the importance of its games as a primary reason news consumers remain long-term subscribers.
Wordle remains the Times’ most popular game. After purchasing the viral word game created by Josh Wardle during the pandemic, the Times said it brought in tens of millions of new users and led to their best quarter ever for new subscriber additions. Not bad for a game that remains free to play, even as a subscription to New York Times Games will set you back $5 a month (or $40 a year).
Now, it appears the Times might have another Wordle on their hands.
Connections, the brainchild of the Games staff at the Times, is a unique word game in that users aren’t asked to spell a word or guess letter by letter. Instead, Connections offers 16 words and asks users to organize them into four color-coded categories — yellow is the most straightforward, purple is the most difficult, and often filled with palindromes, homophones and words with more than one meaning.
The game’s simplicity masks a deeper complexity, where categories can range from “marine mammals” to “countries when ‘A’ is added,” such as cub or tong. Connections also wisely takes inspiration from Wordle by allowing users to share their color-coded results on social media. However, they lack the instant recognition of Wordle’s easy-to-understand grid.
Connections actually shares a lot of similarities to “Only Connect,” a popular British game show on BBC where three people must figure out what four words have in common before time runs out. After host Victoria Coren Mitchell pointed out the similarities between Connections and her show, the Times said the content of their game is “unique, handcrafted and has a distinctive style synonymous with New York Times Games.”
“We’re absolutely thrilled with how Connections is performing,” Zoe Bell, executive producer of games at The New York Times, said. “Connections is the most successful launch of any game we’ve developed in-house since the Mini Crossword in 2014, and it’s our second-most-played game after Wordle.”
The puzzle’s growth is impressive, considering it launched in its beta format in June and was only added to their Games app in September. Even early critics have been won over, such as Slate’s Heather Schwedel, a longtime Spelling Bee addict who thought Connections was initially too easy.
“It’s funny, I have kept playing, and I find myself liking the game more and more,” Schwedel said via email. “Like maybe they've figured out the right balance? But I wonder if it’s actually gotten harder and therefore better, or I’ve just gotten more used to and/or addicted to it.”
Connections started as an idea back in 2021, during a brainstorming session Bell calls the “Game Jam.” Once a prototype of the concept was created, Bell and her colleagues tested the new game by playing it … a lot.
Most game ideas are canceled before they ever make it to a public beta test. Those that do make it to public testing don’t always succeed. Digits, a daily math puzzle asking users to come up with calculations to create a target number, only lasted five months before shutting down. But Bell said they knew Connections was “special” from the moment they started developing it.
Jonathan Knight, head of games at the Times, told Nieman Lab that, in addition to their entertainment value, games are evaluated on metrics the company thinks can grow its subscription business. That means a successful game needs to reach a large audience that will come back and play every day — a user playing the same game every day for 30 days is seen as an informative metric.
All the puzzles in Connections are developed by Wyna Liu, an editor at the Times since 2020. Liu’s main experience had been working with crosswords. In a piece for Times Insider, she described how inspiration from word games created by cartoonist and puzzle maker Robert Leighton helped her create Connections.
“With the help of an answer key, I learned from his puzzles that a drawing of a tick, a thumbtack and a tow truck could be used to express the term ‘tic-tac-toe,’” Liu explained. “I also discovered that a picture of a telephone could be matched with a diamond ring, a visual pun on the sound a phone makes, and a bursting balloon could be paired with a soda can, since both go ‘POP!’”
With talk of artificial intelligence dominating the industry, Bell said the Times receives hundreds of submissions every week from just seven spots in the newspaper, so there’s no immediate need to turn the creation of crossword puzzles over to computers. Bell said one of her favorite weekly meetings is the “Crossword Maybes” review, where editors go through the top contenders and then work with the people who built them to get the puzzles ready for print.
“It's a very crafted experience,” Bell said. “Humor, wordplay and a sense of difficulty in the clueing are all really hard, right now, for AI to manage.”
In addition to Liu, the Times has specific staffers working to craft each puzzle. Joe Fagliano writes the pint-sized daily crossword puzzle Mini, while Tracy Bennett selects the words each day for Wordle.
“AI keeps improving, but I think the joy of solving a puzzle is that you know a human on the other end put it together for you,” Bell said.
So, what other games are in the pipeline? Bell didn’t offer too many details other than her excitement over what the Times plans to roll out soon.
“We're hitting a lot of different beats — all puzzles, of course. It doesn’t take too long to develop any one game because we're really focused on finding the fun as quickly as possible,” Bell said. “That said, we have to try a lot of different games before we find a hit like Connections. So, there might be a gap, or we might get excited about the next game we prototype and more quickly release it for a public beta.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at email@example.com.
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