Angry, upset, irate, duped — Wordle knock-offs leave fans of free game fuming

The wildly popular puzzle game Wordle has found itself in the middle of unexpected controversy this week as knock-off versions are trying to make a buck from the free game.

Free word puzzle game has taken off in the pandemic

Wordle a perfect fit for the pandemic, enigmatologists say

7 months ago
Duration 1:57
For millions around the world, Wordle is now part of their daily routine. But that rapid rise in popularity during the pandemic is also enticing copycat apps.

UPDATE: Since this story was published Wordle was sold to the New York Times.

The wildly popular puzzle game Wordle has found itself in the middle of unexpected controversy this week as knock-off versions are trying to make a buck from the free game.

Developed barely two months ago by software developer Josh Wardle for his puzzle-loving wife, the basics of the game are quite simple: players must take guesses to correctly spell a five-letter word. In under six guesses, players use clues to decipher the word of the day, which is the same one for every player in the world that day.

Guess a correct letter in the correct place and the game turns the letter green. A correct letter in the wrong place is yellow, and any letters that aren't in the word are greyed out. That's it.

This simple concept has exploded this month, from a few dozen of Wardle's friends and family playing in November to almost three million people participating this week.

Wardle's game is free to play and based in a web browser, a move that inadvertently opened the door to a number of imitators to launch app-based versions on Apple and Google devices, most of which try to get users to pay to play.

A free online-based word game called Wordle has taken the internet by storm this month. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

One such version, by New York-based app developer Zach Shakked, has earned particular ire online, since he was so blatant about it, even tweeting what he was up to and gleefully reporting on the number of people downloading his game, which sold for $29.99 US.

While Shakked has gained the most recognition, he is far from the only one to try. Roughly a dozen apps have sprung up on the App store in recent weeks, most of which ape the look, feel and concept of Wordle, while conveniently adding a price tag. Most of them mysteriously started to disappear from Apple's App Store starting on Tuesday, as the online outrage started to spread.

Users are upset

Apple confirmed to CBC News that the company removed a number of Wordle-like apps this week. As of Wednesday morning, only one game with the word "Wordle" in its title was still available to download, and that was an unrelated children's game from 2017, where users have to spell as many words as they can out of a set of letters, within a set time period.

A look at the the App Store's user agreement suggests why the others have been purged.

"Don't simply copy the latest popular app ... or make some minor changes to another app's name or UI [user interface] and pass it off as your own," the company advises. "In addition to risking an intellectual property infringement claim, it makes the App Store harder to navigate and just isn't fair to your fellow developers."

Adam Kertesz is one of many fans of the game, and he says he's gotten his family hooked on it, too. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Not surprisingly, Shakked has been besieged with criticism online. Julian Sanchez from Kitchener, Ont., says the stunt is emblematic of the problems of the tech sector as a whole.

"That drive to look at things that work already and try to find a way to insert themselves so that they can make money is the core of the tech industry," Sanchez told CBC News. "It's not really geared around solving large problems — it's about trying to take a slice of the pie."

Donal O'Beirne, who works with data visualizations for a living, says he is among the millions who have become obsessed with the game in recent weeks. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Sanchez said there's no need for the knock-offs. "People are loving [Wordle] and it works, but god forbid something be free and fun and no one make money off of it."

'It has that community feel'

To fans of the game, the original free version has been a great form of self-care in getting through the pandemic. Torontonian Adam Kertesz says he got hooked on the game the first time he played it, and has quickly turned his friends and family into dedicated players, too.

For Kertesz, one of the biggest selling points of the game is that it can only be played once a day, with a new word coming for all users at midnight every day. Most of the paid versions tinker with the concept by adding the option of playing multiple games a day, or playing versions with more than five letters.

That built-in feature is what gives the game "that community feel," he said. "You feel like you're part of a bigger thing."

It's also why Kertesz has no desire to download any of the app versions that would allow him to play the game more often. "It takes away from the pureness of it, the once-a-day event."

Stacy Costa, a puzzle expert at the University of Toronto, says the game's popularity makes sense because it is a simple joy for many people in the middle of a very complicated and lengthy pandemic. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Edmontonian Dónal O'Beirne, who runs a data visualization practice at ATB Financial, is another devotee.

"It's a fantastic intellectual exercise," he said. "It allows you to focus on word pattern analysis and word frequency analysis, letter frequency analysis and cryptography ... I am a complete nerd about this. I have so much fun."

Stacy Costa, an enigmatologist — or puzzle expert — at the University of Toronto, says the game's popularity comes as no surprise.

"Those five or 10 minutes that you're doing Wordle or any puzzle, you're not thinking about everything else going on in the world," she said.

"You're ... fixing some of that chaos."

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