Case Study: The New York Times Crossword Puzzle

Case Study: The New York Times Crossword Puzzle
By Rob Woodbridge


Two years ago, Magmic Inc., one of the companies in the forefront of connected mobile game development secured the rights to create and distribute the coveted New York Times Crossword game on all cellphones and smartphones — including Research in Motion’s BlackBerry and Apple’s iPhone.

I recently sat down with Jeff Bacon, Director of Product Management for Magmic, about the company’s experience developing and launching the product and it was an enlightening discussion on the ongoing launch, now two years in, of this venerable brand.

With this brand, the challenges were more complex than just releasing the company’s own intellectual property and expectations would be so high that invariably this would be the most important brand the company would launch, good or bad. The comforting corollary to this is that the New York Times was a patient partner with a history of early technology adoption.

The first thing that struck me was the length of time it has taken the company to get to a strong business model. They started development on the BlackBerry and J2ME phones, selling through carrier decks at a fixed fee. This is where the relationships with the carriers were so important — before AppStore made its debut and altered the way we buy applications. Reception of this model was good but this game, as with all other applications, needed a means to make additional revenue or risk losing the battle with the latest and greatest development project Magmic was working on.

Challenges were many but mostly around the development of a usable interface that was worthy of the brand. Constant development advances needed to be integrated into the game or it would become a secondary brand in the very competitive casual games market on smartphones. Devices at the time were limited and expectations were not as high until the iPhone was released.

Enter the iPhone

The approach with the iPhone was clear from the start and it afforded the ability to completely revamp the UI and really extend the brand from the paper to the device. The power and usability of the device needed to be harnessed and replicated — the iPhone was made to play crosswords.

Pricing on the iPhone was another opportunity for change. Knowing that the subscription model was the most appropriate for a game such as this it was always the intent but the technology hadn’t been completed by the time the game launched. Not wanting to wait the number of months until Apple completed in-app purchases, Magmic launched the game with a fixed fee until the end of 2009 and launched the subscription service in the fall of 2009. The subscription service brought the price to start to zero — when the game was downloaded it came with a full week of daily crosswords to test drive as well as the complete archive of crosswords available digitally from the New York Times website, all free of charge.

The NYT’s Crossword game went through multiple code revisions, 3 price changes and a business model change until it finally stabilized. A casualty of this were obviously the reviews and ratings the product was given in the early days. As any developer knows, relying on reviews and world of mouth establishes the reputation of the application and with all these changes the game suffered in the beginning.

Part of the challenge was getting the people who played the game and loved the game to offer their reviews and ratings — the most severe failing in the iTunes software is that the user is only prompted to rate the application when they delete it from their iPhone, usually in anger. Magmic designed an in-game review reminder that coaxed the satisfied gamer to action after a number of days or a number of plays. Since implementing this, the reviews have skyrocketed and ratings are mostly 5-star.

One of the other side-effects of launching this brand has been the pull it has been able achieve on other games Magmic supports and distributes — some of its own IP as well as acting as a publisher on behalf of other developers. In order to capitalize on this unique opportunity, Magmic built an in-game catalogue of their applications which resulted in a huge increase in sales activity as a result of being on hundreds of thousands of devices with the main product.

Another huge challenge of being a game developer targeting these penultimate brands is matching the mobile gaming expectations with the real-world game play across hundreds of different devices — you can’t just release to only one platform, you need to be everywhere for everyone. This means the gameplay experience will be different and the purchase process with be inconsistent depending on the device (for example, the BlackBerry doesn’t offer in-app purchasing nor does it offer subscription capabilities).

One last comment to dispel the myth that big brands are easy to port to applications. It is always hard to launch any application with the noise of close to 200,000 apps across multiple devices and, while the NYT Crossword is a world wide known entity, support and leverage from its marketing might does not guarantee success. Tweaks to the pricing and business models, modifications to game play and UI, and listening to customer feedback is still of paramount importance — without which no amount of support will help.

However, a full-page ad in the paper wouldn’t hurt.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of UNTETHER.tv and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

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