Regular readers may remember how the viral success of Wordle led to an unexpected flood of downloads for an unrelated, six-year-old iOS game that also happened to be called Wordle! (note the exclamation point.) Those readers may also remember how mobile developer Steven Cravotta pledged to donate some proceeds from his unexpected Wordle! windfall to charity.
Since that report, though, Cravotta’s Wordle! has ended up in the hands of mobile gaming powerhouse AppLovin after selling for an undisclosed sum (as first noticed by TechCrunch). In doing so, the multi-billion-dollar company seems to have found a legal way to exploit the popularity of the Wordle name and brand to make millions of dollars in revenue.
A tale of two Wordles
Cravotta originally launched his mobile Wordle! in April 2016, at age 18, years before Josh Wardle would happen upon the same name for his unexpected web hit in 2021. Cravotta’s simple anagram game—whose gameplay closely resembled PikPok’s popular, pre-existing Four Letters—received a few updates in the months after its release, but then sat untouched and largely unnoticed for years.
“I never thought it would turn into anything so I kind of let the project go after a little bit,” Cravotta said in a recent YouTube video. “It was getting like one to two downloads a day for the past six years.”
Fast forward to late December 2021, when thousands of people hooked on Wardle’s web-based Wordle started to search the iOS App Store for a mobile version. With no official iOS offering from Wardle—and with Apple cracking down on some clone makers—players started downloading Cravotta’s similarly named Wordle! in vast numbers, eventually peaking at 200,000 downloads a day, Cravotta said. These numbers were despite the games having almost nothing in common gameplay-wise, except their shared use of letters to form words.
Following the unexpected popularity surge, Cravotta reached out to Wardle, and the pair decided to donate a portion of the app’s swelling proceeds (which came primarily from ads) to Boost! West Oakland, a child-tutoring charity. Cravotta announced that $50,000 donation on February 24, by which point his app had received 8 million downloads, according to The Washington Post.
After the donation, things start to get a little weird for Cravotta’s Wordle! Internet Archive captures of the iOS App Store show the mobile app’s publisher account being transferred from Cravotta to the new Goldfinch Studios shortly before February 21, just before the donation was announced. The listed publisher then changed to AppLovin subsidiary Lion Studios Plus by March 31. That studio, founded in 2018, has cranked out dozens of derivative casual mobile games like Project Makeover, Bingo Story, and Solitaire Cruise, to name a few.
Those publisher changes coincide closely with app updates that have morphed AppLovin’s Wordle! from Cravotta’s unrelated anagram game to one closely resembling the web-based hit that shares its name.
In late January, the Wordle! app started receiving “bug fix” updates for the first time since 2016. But it was a new “6 Guesses” mode, added in a February 6 update, that caused the app version to closely mimic the web-based Wordle‘s gameplay and presentation, right down to the green and yellow letters offered as clues for the five-letter word hunt. Later updates would also add results sharing and daily puzzle features, further linking it to the popular web game.
The “6 Guesses” mode is now the first thing you see when you launch the Wordle! app for the first time. Cravotta’s original game is buried in a menu as “Word Fever” mode.
AppLovin has not responded to a request for comment from Ars Technica. The company told TechCrunch that it is bringing Wordle! to millions of mobile players worldwide and that the game is “exclusive to mobile devices.”
A representative for Cravotta said that “there is no comment at this time regarding the topic involving any acquisition,” but noted Cravotta’s current work on Puff Count, a free app that “keeps track of your puffs and nicotine intake to make quitting easier.”