Gaming these days can be a slippery slope for news publishers to cut costs and crush dreams. But it doesn’t have to be. Just ask the New York Times.
The more than $1 million reportedly paid for the Wordle game just over a year ago looks like money well spent, albeit by some less than objective numbers from the publisher.
Value of a NYT Games Subscriber
Someone paying for games makes $5 a month or $40 a year. Someone paying for the “All Access” bundle brings in $4 per month for a year. Then the standard rate of $25 per month and so on
First of all, the popular word game was played more than two billion times in the past year. Some of those players later became subscribers — “tens of millions,” in fact, said Jonathan Knight, head of games at The New York Times.
Although he declined to elaborate on those figures, what little he did share broadly matched what the editor had already published.
Before the Wordle deal, there were around a million subscribers to the publisher’s games section, now it has “over a million subscriptions” to using its own language.
And the NYT’s own language is important. Around this time last year, the Times publicly committed to focusing on “unique subscribers” rather than “subscriptions” to meet its goal of 15 million unique subscribers by 2027.
A significant number of NYT’s current subscribers pay for games as part of a broader package, but consider that the Times had around 9.6 million paying subscribers at the end of 2022. This means that about a tenth of the publisher’s subscriber base has access to its games. That is a significant number of people who find the gaming offerings valuable.
As Knight explained, “We’re continuing to onboard new subscribers who would have previously added a game subscription and we’re offering them the ‘All Access’ bundle, which we think is a better deal and gives them access to more products to participate .”
It’s part of a broader game at the publisher, which is focusing on more lucrative bundles that give subscribers access to different titles, rather than those specific to a particular title (The Athletic) or industry (Cooking).
The more bundles like this are sold, the higher the average revenue per subscriber should be. Someone paying for games will bring in $5 a month or $40 a year, while someone paying for the “All Access” package will bring in $4 every month for a year and thereafter brings in the standard rate of $25 per month.
“We’re onboarding new subscribers who would have previously added the Games subscription and are offering them the bundle, which we think is a better deal to give them access to more products,” Knight said.
That’s why the Wordle deal was so crucial. It brought people who wouldn’t have come to the New York Times otherwise. And once they got there, the question was how to get them to stay: often by getting them to play other games at the Times, and then convincing them to spend more time making themselves whole view other content there. By all accounts, Wordle has become yet another marketing funnel for potential subscribers — a notable number of whom are younger, more international, and more diverse, according to the editor.
“If you’re a subscriber and engage in both news and games in a given week, the odds are you’ll keep [your subscription] over a long period of time is much higher,” Knight said.
Aside from subscribers, Wordle has also been a mainstay of The Times’ games product strategy. Thanks to an influx of people joining the publisher’s games division as part of the deal, executives there were keen to do whatever they could to capitalize on this momentum. So they accelerated plans to create a more rounded experience for subscribers — particularly in the crossword app.
The app is (despite the name) the hub of all the publisher’s puzzle games on mobile. Last month Sudoku was added, joining The Crossword, The Mini Crossword, Spelling Bee and Wordle. Given this shift, a planned relaunch of the app later this year as the New York Times Games app comes as no surprise. When that happens, it will mark the end of a gradual transformation that began in 2021 when the puzzle game Spelling Bee was added to the crossword app.
“What the Times has done so well with its game strategy so far is that it replicates some of the more habit-friendly elements of that traditional newspaper experience,” said Joseph Teasdale, technical director at Enders Analysis. “Everyone has the same experience in these games on a daily basis.”
On that basis, gaming is an important habit that anchors the publisher in a way that news these days is no longer. More and more people are reading stories in different ways, from different sources, and at different times of the day. Games are different. Everyone at the Times has a puzzle a day. So players have the same experience every day. This is good for any media company that wants to become an indispensable habit for people.
So it makes sense that one of Knight’s big focuses right now is finding new ways to capitalize on the inherent competitive nature of games. Of course there are elements of this that are already baked into the games, like the stats and streaks in both the Wordle and Crossword games.
Still, Knight believes more could be done to encourage that sense of progression and accomplishment in his games. The more subscribers play multiple games at the Times, the better the retention rate tends to be, he said.
“The next level for us is to push that strategy and have some kind of metagame that keeps someone busy for a long time and gives them the right to show off and feel like they’re improving their minds and skills in the game,” Knight said. “That relationship with the user through an account with the New York Times is what drives it.”
Don’t expect these investments to deviate too much from what has already worked. Word puzzle games are a priority, Knight said. The plan could extend to logic puzzle games as they’re a natural extension of what’s already established, but that should be it for now.
“We want to have a handful of really high-quality human-made puzzles that people can solve every day,” Knight said. “We don’t want a portfolio of 30 games that just get mixed together in a standardized way. Our brand stands for quality, made, edited and curated by people.”
There’s also probably a simpler reason for this attitude: puzzle games are inexpensive. They don’t cost a lot of money compared to what it costs to create a typical game that someone might play on their phone — let alone another subscription service like Netflix or a gaming console. And yet they contribute so much to the Times subscription business.
“That’s the other thing about these games that the Times focuses on, they’re super cheap,” Teasdale said. “It’s a great ROI when it comes to subscriber metrics and revenue. That calculation works really well compared to actually developing how people think a game looks like these days.”