Heard about Heardle? The musical guessing game was all the rage last July, when Spotify acquired it for an undisclosed sum. It works a bit like a web-based version of “Name That Tune,” giving a player six chances to guess a song based on increasingly long samples from its first 30 seconds. When it first arrived on the scene, before Spotify picked it up, the game was doing huge numbers, with around 69 million visitors in March 2022 alone.
This level of remarkable growth may have always been unsustainable. Even by the time Spotify acquired Heardle last summer, it had already dropped down to 41 million monthly visits. Now that the novelty has worn off even more, Spotify has decided to shut the whole thing down, announcing plans to sunset Heardle entirely on May 5.
For all the fanfare that surrounded the acquisition, Spotify was never really that dedicated to spreading the word about Heardle. The game was never integrated into the Spotify app at all, remaining a standalone internet-based experience. According to TechCrunch, Spotify executives prefer to frame the app around musical discovery rather than gameplay. This is borne out by recent upgrades, including a TikTok-inspired “Smart Shuffle” for playlist recommendations and an “AI DJ” that learns about a user’s music preferences and gets smarter over time as it’s used more.
Heardle, of course, was just one game with a somewhat similar format that emerged out of the “Wordle Craze” of 2021 and early 2022. There’s also Absurdle, a play on Wordle that works against you as you try to solve it. Plus Quordle, which challenges players to solve four Wordle-type puzzles at once. Crosswordle combines Wordle-type gameplay with a crossword puzzle experience. Worldle gives a player six tries to identify a country based only on its shape. Squirdle gives players six tries to guess the secret Pokémon character of the day. The Box Office Game – a rare Wordle spinoff that doesn’t riff on the naming convention – invites players to guess at the Top 5 highest-grossing films for random weekends based only on limited clues.
Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle first developed his web-based word game – in which a new five-letter secret word is posted each day, and players attempt to guess it in six tries – way back in 2013, inspired by the classic board game “Mastermind.” Wardle set it aside for nearly a decade, until the COVID pandemic and lockdown renewed his and his partner’s interest in word games and other time-wasting puzzles. In January 2021, Wardle published the game to the web, just for fun, making the title a play on his own name.
The game took about a year to find an audience, but then it happened extremely quickly. On November 1 of 2021, around 90 people played Wordle. By January 2, 2022, that figure rose to 300,000 people per day. The extremely quick ascent was almost an entirely social media-driven phenomenon. In the first two weeks of 2022, around 1.2 million Wordle were shared on Twitter alone.
A number of theories have circulated to explain Wordle’s remarkable virality in this period. The fact that there’s just one new Wordle puzzle a day creates artificial scarcity, leaving players wanting more and making the hour when a new word goes up feel like an event. It’s a quick and easy game to play, a comforting and repetitive activity that can fit neatly into a players’ daily schedule. But the lions share of the credit likely rests on the ability to easily share a player’s daily results and score, expressed emoji-style in a clear visual grid that makes how you did immediately obvious for other players. The fact that your Wordle results can be shared as an image, which tells a bit of a “story” to your friends, encouraged people to post their scores, thus daily evangelizing the game to new players around the world.
Wordle became such a significant, culture-shifting hit, it was scooped up by the nation’s flagship word puzzle company, The New York Times, on January 31, 2022. According to a March 31 quarterly earnings report by the paper, the game was a huge hit on their website and app, bringing in “tens of millions” of new players, many of whom continued to check out other puzzles and games before leaving the app. In May 2022, the appearance of “F-E-T-U-S” as the secret word of the day – soon after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was first leaked to the press – was seen by enough players to generate a major nationwide controversy, prompting the Times to switch over to a different word.
Conventional wisdom might indicate that, with the lockdown ending and everyone returning to work and movie theaters and bars and so on, interest in Wordle and its associated spinoffs would diminish. That’s what happened with Netflix and other streaming services, after all, not to mention Pelotons, food delivery apps and other “stay-at-home” expenditures.
By Summer of 2022, there were already indications that interest in Wordle was dipping. The popularity of the search term dropped on Google, while a social media backlash against posting your Wordle scores every day was in full swing. Some complaints emerged online that the Times was making the game too easy. A recent BBC piece notes that Google Trends data puts Wordle at only about a third of its one-time popularity.
Still, reports of Wordle’s demise are possibly premature. In November of 2022, the Times hired Tracy Bennett as its dedicated “Wordle” editor; she selects the word of the day from a curated list. The term “Wordle” was also the top Google search term both globally and by US users for the entire year 2022, and the games’ results can also significantly impact Google search traffic. Seven of the top 10 most searched-for definitions of 2022 were Wordle answers, including “cacao,” “homer,” “canny,” and “tacit.” According to a recent item in The New York Post, celebrity pals Ben Affleck and Matt Damon continue to host a VIP “Nerdle League” along with other stars who post their daily scores; the group also includes Will Arnett, Bradley Cooper, and Jason Bateman.
As well, new variations on the Wordle format continue popping up all the time. Just this week, the Times released a math-themed play on Wordle called “Digits.” Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based TV producer Doug Weitzbusch – a veteran of the Netflix real estate reality show “Buy My House” – recently debuted Housle, in which users get six tries to guess the asking price of an actual home. Weitzbusch – who says he remains an avid Wordle player – selects the secret home of the day himself.
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