Q&A: The minds behind Wordament

Q&A: The minds behind Wordament

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Today Microsoft announced that Wordament, the popular and addictive Windows Phone word hunt game, is being rereleased as an official Xbox LIVE title for the phone. In another sign the former indie app has hit the big time, the game is also now available for Windows 8. John Thornton, 37, (left) and Jason Cahill, 38, created the hit Windows Phone word search game Wordament. The former indie title is now available for Windows 8 and will soon be released as an official Xbox LIVE title for Windows Phone.

For Wordament creators John Thornton and Jason Cahill, today’s announcement caps a wild end to a wild year. The veteran Microsofties started working on the app on Valentine’s Day 2011, mostly as a fun after-hours sideline to their day jobs as program managers in Windows Live .“A little game to play with my wife and a couple of friends,” says Thornton, 37.

Today, Wordament has a global fan base and downloads “well into the six figures,” says Cahill, 38. The game—which maintains a near-perfect 4.5 star average on 4400 ratings—is also among the first born-and-bred Windows Phone titles to inspire unabashed app envy: Type its name into Bing or Google and up pops “Wordament iPhone”—a sign of lots of wishful searching.

Part of the game’s appeal is its simplicity: Players are presented with a 4x4 grid of lettered tiles and have two minutes to swipe in as many words as they can. When time’s up, you see all the words you found and a (typically much longer) list of common and obscure words you missed. (Read: 5 tips for boosting your Wordament score)

The other thing that makes the game unique is that it’s massively multiplayer: you and the rest of the planet battle on the same game board at the same time (hence the game’s “You vs. the Internet” tagline). The Wordament game server dishes out 523 unique puzzles a day, nonstop.

I recently caught up with Thornton and Cahill for a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation about the game and how it’s changed their lives. On the day we met, the duo were excited but exhausted—Cahill had been up most of the night putting final touches on the code for the new Windows 8 version. Here’s part of our exclusive sit down.

The new Xbox LIVE version of Wordament features both English and Spanish game boards.How did Wordament come about?

John Thornton: I made this little Boggle-style game board, and the notion was that you play against everybody. I  set up a little server in my house on a single-core laptop, and I had this thing working where the phone could talk to my laptop over my Comcast DSL and pull the game board down. I showed it to Jason and he clearly got disappointed. He’s like, “That’s not how you do these things.” He’d just come off working on SharePoint Online, so he knew all about web services. He said, “What you’re doing is completely wrong.” [To Jason, laughing] You were visibly frustrated with my approach.

Jason Cahill: John said, “Well, do you wanna help?” And I said, “No, absolutely not.”

JT: It was almost a bit of slap down at the time. He said, “Dude, are you really going to spend your time on that? You have a family. You have a full-time job. You’ll make more money by focusing on your job.” But money wasn’t even in the equation at that point.

So what changed?

JC: I went home and I was like, Oh, that would be really cool. In fact, I know how to do it and he‘s doing it all wrong. [laughs]. So I started working on it that Friday night. I came in Monday—it was Valentine’s Day—and said, “Do you still want to partner up?”

How long did it take to finish?

JT: Six weeks from “let’s do this” to being done. I wrote the phone software, Jason did the game server.

JC: It showed up in Marketplace on April 1. We literally stayed up for 36 hours after it launched because we didn’t know if the service was going to run or fall over.

What’s the secret to the game’s success?

JC:  It’s very simple, but one key is the game’s always running. You just get done with your results and—boom—you’re back in. We started noticing early on that our players didn’t come, play a few games, and leave. They stuck. They played 20 games in a row. I’m like, Oh my god, that’s a full hour! Also the fact that it’s a two-minute game. You always have two minutes somewhere.Wordament shows you what words you've found, and which ones you missed.

One thing I’ve never liked about Words With Friends is waiting—days, sometimes—for my opponents to make their moves. And chatting with them while I play.

JC: You’re playing on their schedule, not on your schedule. With our game, you play when you want to play.

JT: Our joke is we’ve built an antisocial social network. You don’t need friends.

I see hints of Boggle and other word games. What else did you draw inspiration from?

JC: I love board games—the Marklin edition of Ticket to Ride is my favorite—and all good German board games have multiple ways to win. So it’s one of the things we did in Wordament. You can win by finding a few long words, or lots of short ones. We also added these secondary puzzles. We have “digram” puzzles with the special two-letter tiles and we have themed puzzles. We get people that will sit in the game—because the themes are every fifth puzzle—and wait for those.

How do you create the game boards?

JC: We build and curate all of our boards, so there’s no randomness. They’re made by machine with a heavy duty set of rules—about 25 at this point. This is all patented by the way. There’s very stringent criteria around what is an acceptable board versus what is not.

Rules like what?

JC:  With the exception of our themed boards, every board must use every tile at least 3 times. We also guarantee you have over 100 common words on every board.  Initially we shipped without the notion of common and obscure words, but we quickly realized it was really important. If you see a list of words that you don’t recognize, and you didn’t find, you’re kind of like, “What is this game?” 

I often score by accidentally swiping words I didn’t know.

JT: I still really don’t know what TAE means, but I use it all the time.

JC: We have 177,000 words in our dictionary at this point, so we have pretty good coverage of the English language. But there’s some human curation that happens in there, too. My wife moves about 20 to 30 words a day from the common to obscure list in our game dictionary. We just got her an Oxford English Dictionary subscription. Now she’s like, “I know Chaucer used that in 1536, but he’s the only one!” [ed. For the record, Chaucer died in 1400. But we’re allowing Jason some creative license here.]

The new Xbox LIVE version of Wordament, coming soon, features achievements and other new features.What about swear words, some of which I never see. Do you censor boards?

JC: We had to make a call about whether we were going to allow bad words or not, and we’ve been very principled about it. If a word’s primary and secondary definition is a racial slur, or if it’s purely obscene, we strike it. Right now we have 170 banned words. But it’s a fine line. We argue a fair amount about whether we should be in the censorship business at all.

JT: The problem is when you get into more competitive environments. “Sh** [ed. bleep!]” is fine in competitive Scrabble.

JC: We also have a lot of parents contacting us saying, “My seven-year-old who’s learning how to read loves this game!” So it’s a delicate balance.

I’m constantly amazed by some of the scores—some players are finding nearly a word a second! C’mon, they must be cheating.

JT: We had some of the same concerns in the beginning. We launched in six weeks and had no anti-cheating policies. Over time we’ve said, Let’s try to figure out how to figure out if somebody’s cheating. I don’t want to give away the details, but basically you can come up with algorithms. It’s actually pretty easy to figure out.

JC: It’s statistical analysis on par with what Visa is doing. We’re looking at how you just played versus how you played in the past.

So you’ve caught cheaters?

JC: Oh, yeah, every week. We catch them all the time and we ban them all the time. We’ve also flagged a small number of people who weren’t cheating, and are just legitimately amazing in a way we haven’t seen before. You can go to YouTube and see these people play. They’re amazing people. They’re just better than all of us.

In addition to all the time you must spend on the game code, you also have very active blog, Facebook, and Twitter followings. How important is that?

JC: It’s as much an engineering feature as anything else. We didn’t just build a piece of software, we built a community—and spend at least an hour to an hour and a half a day talking to them. We’ve got 2200 Facebook friends now.  It keeps us super in touch with what people want. We don’t always do what they ask, but we always come back with an answer.

JT: It’s a family affair at Jason’s house. His whole family’s into it.

JC: We also fix bugs in the community every day. Right now we have four players on the United States on AT&T that can’t play. We’re escalating issues and talking to AT&T—that’s not a trivial amount of work.

JT: We’ve spent hours on these four players. But we have to—they’re not able to play. It’s not OK.

How did you wind up moving from Windows Live to Xbox and running your own “micro” game studio?

JC: At one point Microsoft Game Studio made us this incredible offer. They said, “You guys are doing this as your night job. You’re probably incredibly tired. Would you be interested in just coming over and making Wordament your day job?”

JT: The decision wasn’t without heartache.  We had great jobs working in Windows Live. But it became clear to Jason and I that there was anIn the new Xbox LIVE version of Wordament, all your Xbox LIVE friends automatically become your "frenemies" in the game. opportunity to do something big, possibly household-name big. All of a sudden we have art people, we have sound people. It was an opportunity neither Jason or I could say no to.

Big like a Windows 8 version of the game, for example?

JC: The coolest thing is not just that there’s a Windows 8 app, but that it’s the same competition. You’re in the same room as all the people on the phone. So it doesn’t matter what device you play on. If you want to play Wordament, you’re going to play the same board, against the same people everywhere on Earth.

The new Xbox LIVE version of Wordament isn’t too shabby looking either. It’s been translated into 7 languages and features new Spanish puzzle boards. Was it fun to work on?

JT: We had a lot of fun creating the achievements. We felt pretty strongly we want to have it mean something, so we have a couple that are really hard, like getting in the Top 10.

You guys have no shortage of interesting things to talk about.

JT: We’re fascinating at cocktail parties.

10 Comments
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  • I am (gasp!) an iPhone user and an avid Scramble player.  I played Scramble long before the Zynga With Friends version and although I love the current WF version, I sorely miss the original multiplayer version from whence it came.  I got to play Wordament on a friend's phone recently and all of the multiplayer feelings came flooding back!  What's more is that Wordament was clearly a massive upgrade over the Scramble game I that was used to (that always seemed to me to be neglected by it's developers before the WF version).  I marveled at features in Wordament like "words per second" and a ranking list that showed more than the top 3 results (way more!).  I miss multiplayer and have searched desperately in vain for a replacement.  Zynga has effectively choked out the old multiplayer version of Scramble and I can't find any suitable replacements available as an iPhone app.  So my question, as if it wasn't clear already, is when will this amazing app be available for the iPhone?  Wordament could be my salvation!

  • @dcutting: John Thornton responds:

    The answer is absolutely!  Partial games will accrue value to total stats like, total words found and total points.  Partial games will not affect any of the average metrics.  Obviously it would be bad if playing a 30 second round counted against your average score in a full game.  

    These posts offer more details on how we calculate stats:

    wordament.com/.../revisiting-average-score-and-top-players

    wordament.com/.../welcome-to-wordament-on-windows-azure

  • Have they considered taking into account when the user entered the game as part of the score calculation so someone who enters with 30 seconds left, for example, has some sort of curve?

  • @Tony and KTGiang: I posed your questions to Jason, the game's co-creator. He responded: "players will get our 'update required' message, and then automatically be taken to Marketplace for the new, free Xbox LIVE version of Wordament. It should be smooth and seamless.”

  • KTGiang
    34 Posts

    The big question is... will it continue to be free when it goes "Live"?

  • doktorg
    4 Posts

    I got a question as well.

    What's the most people they've had playing at the same time? I've seen close to 500 recently while a few weeks back it was always around 200-300 so I'm assuming this shows an increase in WP7 market.

    And what do they think the max users the server could handle?

  • I'm beginning to here a lot of writers talking about how the 610 isn't positioned low enough to compete with the budget Android devices. Are they serious? Think about it.... Most current WP devices share chassis with Android devices. You would think that the wheels would get to turning inside there heads and think,, "hey, the hardware specs have been optimized, so for every budget Android device that pops up a WP version is possible. The WP lineup is most definitely going to double, or triple, by December....

  • @Tony: Good points.  Words With Friends is a fantastic game and one that has also met with some success, I hear. ;-)  Nobody disagrees. I was just talking about my own impatient, antisocial playing preferences.

    I'll see if the Wordament guys can address your second question.

  • Just to address the Words With Friends question:

    1) You don't have to chat with anyone. I don't.

    and

    2) I don't understand what he means by "playing on their schedule" as if its a one way street. The point is both folks play when they can with no pressure to play NOW.

    Otherwise, Wordament is a fun game. Is it going to be a seamless update into a Live game? Or will it require an uninstall/reinstall?

  • tsrblke
    327 Posts

    I was wondering how MSGS got their hands on Wordament, I didn't realize it was a part time project of two Microsoft-ies.  I hope they've been well compensated for their wonderful addition to the Windows Phone (and now Windows) community!