The Origins of Words with Friends

  • by Ryan Rigney
  • November 03, 2010 05:00 AM PT

How a modern take on a classic board game became a way for millions of friends and family to connect.

Be sure to also read: The Origins of Angry Birds

In November 2008, a newly formed team of ex-Ensemble Studios (creators of Age of Empires, Halo Wars) employees got together and released a chess game for the iPhone. NewToy's first game, simply called Chess With Friends, featured asynchronous online play, meaning that players don't have to be online at the same time to play together.

The game received high praise from critics, but it was its successor that really captured the world's attention and became a staple of iPhone gaming. Words with Friends took Scrabble's well-aged formula and turned it on its head. To date, millions have downloaded the game and its free, ad-supported version from the App Store, and there have been no signs the Words with Friends craze will end any time soon. In this exclusive interview, Paul Bettner, cofounder of NewToy, speaks with us about the early days at NewToy and what led to the creation of Words with Friends.

The Origins of Words with Friends

Paul Bettner

GamePro: You previously worked at Ensemble Studios on beloved franchises like Age of Empires, a sharp contrast with the kind of games you work on nowadays. What was it like back then?

Paul Bettner: I joined Ensemble Studios as a software engineer just after the original Age of Empires shipped. We were less than 20 employees back then. I was at Ensemble for over 10 years, and during that time we shipped Age of Empires 2, Age of Empires 3, Age of Mythology, and lots of expansion packs. Ensemble Studios was like a second family for me and it was an incredible journey, shipping over 20 million units, getting acquired by Microsoft, working on many incredible prototypes that never saw the light of day -- such as the Halo MMO -- and finally watching the sun set on the studio when Microsoft decided to close the doors at the end of 2008.

GP:What led to the formation of your new company NewToy?

PB: In mid-2008, we were working on Halo Wars for Microsoft when they announced they'd be shutting the studio down as soon as the game wrapped at the end of the year. As we considered our options, we kept coming back to Apple's recently announced App Store. My brother and I had always talked about about opening our own studio at some point, and we realized this was the perfect opportunity to take the leap. So in August of 2008, we left Ensemble, bought some MacBooks and started working out of our local public library. A few months later, we put Chess With Friends on the App Store.

GP:What was the inspiration for Words With Friends? How did you come up with the idea of making Scrabble as an asynchronous online game?

PB: The biggest inspiration was the iPhone. It was the first device to come along that was truly an "anywhere, anytime" device -- a communications platform that was also an awesome portable game device. Playing games with your friends was the most natural extension of those capabilities. So after we developed Chess With Friends, we wanted to make another "With Friends" title that would appeal to a wider audience, and Words With Friends was born.

The Origins of Words with Friends
At its core, it's about language –- something that unites us all. There's something compelling about the way the game combines skill and luck on the basic human canvas of communication. Anyone can pick it up and instantly get it. But more importantly, it's about connecting with friends, family and acquaintances... it is Words with Friends, afterall." -Paul Bettner

GP: How large is the Words with Friends team?

PB: Right now, we have a full-time staff of about 30, including coders, graphic designers and business development folks, and if you count contractors, that number goes up quite a bit more. We have plans to eventually grow much larger and we're currently building a space in an old cotton mill in McKinney, Texas that has room for 60 employees.

GP: What was it like going from working on games like Age of Empires and Halo Wars to smaller projects like Words With Friends and Chess With Friends?

PB: It was liberating. Those big games end up taking years to complete, and it's easy to get burnt out after a while. But when developing for the iPhone, those years turn to months. To be able to have a vision for a game and see it fulfilled just a short time later is very satisfying. And it's what enabled us to move from Chess to Words With Friends so quickly.

GP: Do you think Words With Friends connects people in a deeper, more personal way than Facebook or Twitter?

PB: First of all, yes and no. Some people just play the game to play a game, without much back and forth banter. We've heard from others who spend more time chatting than making moves. So it depends.

Ultimately, the level of connection you make with others is up to you. That said, playing an ongoing game with someone gives you more opportunities to talk directly, versus someone sitting on a friend or follower list. And the game itself is a great ice-breaker. "Nice move," or "Vowels must hate me today," you might say. From there, you can talk about anything, and the fact that in-game chats are private often encourages people to speak more openly than they would on the Internet, sometimes even with strangers met through a random match.

GP: Is cheating a problem in Words with Friends? People can exit at any time and use a Scrabble word generator to find an awesome word to play. Is that something you're concerned with?

PB: We don't advocate cheating, but people are going to do it no matter what we do, so we leave the choice up to the individual player. But if you suspect someone of cheating, it's really easy to just move on and find someone else to play.

The Origins of Words with Friends
[B]ig games end up taking years to complete, and it's easy to get burnt out after a while. But when developing for the iPhone, those years turn to months. To be able to have a vision for a game and see it fulfilled just a short time later is very satisfying." -Paul Bettner

GP: What's the future of Words with Friends? Are there any plans for Words with Friends 2? What about integrating player statistics to track things like total games won/lost, highest-scoring word, and so on?

PB: We have a bunch of ideas for future Words with Friends features, including player statistics and other features we get requests for on a daily basis. Words With Friends 2? Now there's an interesting idea...

We're also looking at a number of other things including Game Center and Open Feint (a social platform that allows you to track scores and see what your friends are playing). You'll see us move in this direction at some point in the near future.

GP: Are there other types of iPhone games other than board games that you'd be interested in working on?

PB: Absolutely. We really enjoyed developing We Rule for Ngmoco. We've got a couple other projects in the works that branch out even further from our roots, while staying true to Newtoy's motto of striving to make beloved games that the whole world enjoys.

GP: What exactly is it about Words with Friends that makes it appealing to so many people? How did you beat Scrabble at their own game?

PB: It's two things. First, it's the game play. At its core, it's about language –- something that unites us all. There's something compelling about the way the game combines skill and luck on the basic human canvas of communication. Anyone can pick it up and instantly get it. But more importantly, it's about connecting with friends, family and acquaintances... it is Words with Friends, afterall.

A lot of people tell us it's a great, unobtrusive way for them to catch up with people they don't necessarily talk to everyday. Others say they've met a lot of new people through playing random games or hooking up with other players on our Words with Friends Facebook page. That focus on connecting people together is what we feel ultimately keeps people coming back to our games again and again, and it's how we stand out from our competition.