‘The next level for us’: The New York Times eyes better retention for games in subscription drive

Gaming can be a slippery slope to cost cuts and dashed dreams for news publishers nowadays. But it doesn’t have to be. Just ask The New York Times. 

The more than one million dollars it reportedly paid for the Wordle game a little more than a year ago are looking like cash well spent, albeit from some far from objective numbers provided by the publisher.

Value of a NYT Games subscriber

Someone who pays for Games brings in $5 a month, or $40 a year Someone who pays for the “All Access” bundle brings in $4 every month for a year Then the standard rate of $25 a month and so on

For starters, the popular word game was played more than two billion times last year and brought in “tens of millions” of new users to the New York Times, said the publisher’s head of games Jonathan Knight.

While he declined to go into any more detail on those numbers, what little he had shared tracked broadly with what the publisher had already put out there. 

Before the Wordle deal, there were around one million subscribers to the publisher’s Games section, now it has “over one million subscriptions” to use its own language.

And NYT’s own language is important. This time last year, the Times publicly committed to focusing on “unique subscribers” over “subscriptions” to meet a goal of 15 million unique subscribers by 2027.

A notable amount of NYT’s current subscribers are paying for games as part of a wider bundle, but keep in mind that the Times had around 9.6 million paying subscribers at the end of 2022. This means that around a tenth of the publisher’s subscriber base has access to its games. That’s a significant amount of people who perceive the gaming offerings as valuable.

As Knight explained: “More and more we’re taking on new subscribers who previously would’ve 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 engage with.”

It’s part of a wider play at the publisher, focusing on more lucrative bundle packages that give subscribers access to various titles, rather than those specific to a specific title (The Athletic) or vertical (Cooking).

The more bundles like this that get sold the higher the average revenue per subscriber should be. Someone who pays for Games brings in $5 a month, or $40 a year, whereas someone who pays for the “All Access” bundle brings in $4 every month for a year and then the standard rate of $25 a month from then on. 

“We’re taking new subscribers who previously would’ve added the Games subscription and we’re offering them the bundle, which we think is a better deal in terms of giving them access to more products,” said Knight. 

It’s why the Wordle deal was so crucial. It brought in people who wouldn’t have otherwise come to The New York Times. And once they were there, it became a question of how to get them to stick around: often by getting them to play other games at the Times and then by convincing them to spend more time looking at other content there entirely. For all intents and purposes, Wordle became another marketing funnel for potential subscribers — a notable amount of whom are younger, more international and more diverse, per the publisher.

“If you’re a subscriber, and on any given week, you engage with both news and games, the likelihood that you’re going to retain [your subscription] over a long period of time is much higher,” said Knight. 

Beyond subscribers, Wordle was also a shot in the arm for the Times’ product strategy for games. Thanks to an influx of people that came to the publisher’s games section on the back of the deal, execs there wanted to do what they could to capitalize on this momentum. So they expedited plans to create a more rounded experience for subscribers — especially in its Crossword app. 

The app (despite the name) is the hub of all the publisher’s puzzle games on mobile devices. Last month, it added Sudoku, 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 is unsurprising. When this happens it will mark the end of a gradual transformation that began in 2021 when the Spelling Bee puzzle game was added to the Crossword app. 

“What the Times has done so well with its games strategy to date is that it replicates some of the habit friendly elements of that traditional newspaper experience,” said Joseph Teasdale, head of tech at Enders Analysis. “Everyone gets the same experience around these games on a daily rhythm.”

On this basis, gaming is an important habit forming an anchor for the publisher in a way that news isn’t really these days. More people read stories in different ways, from different sources at different times of the day. Games are different. Each of the ones at the Times have a puzzle a day. So players get the same experience as each other on a daily basis. That’s good for any media business that wants to become an indispensable habit for people. 

It makes sense then that one of Knight’s big focuses right now is on finding new ways to mine the inherent competitive nature of games. Of course, there are elements of this already baked into the games, like the stats and streaks in both the Wordle and Crossword games. 

Still, Knight believes there’s more that could be done to foster that sense of progression and achievement across its 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 this strategy forward and have a sort of metagame that’s going to keep someone engaged for a long period of time as well as give them bragging rights and that sense that they’re improving their mind and skills with the game,” said Knight. “Having that relationship with the user, through a New York Times account is the foundation of that.”

Don’t expect any of those investments to deviate too much from what’s already worked. Word puzzle games are the priority, said Knight. The plan could stretch to logic puzzle games given they’re a natural extension of what’s already been established, but that should be about it for now. 

“We want to have a handful of really high quality, human-crafted puzzles for people to solve every day,” said Knight. “We don’t want a portfolio of 30 games that are just blended together in a commoditized way. Our brand stands for quality human-made, edited and curated.”

There’s probably a more simple reason for this stance too: puzzle games are cost effective. They don’t cost lots of money to make relative to what it costs to create a typical game someone might play on their phone — let alone another subscription service like Netflix or a games console. And yet, they are contributing so much to the Times’ subscription business. 

“That’s the other thing about these games the Times is focused on, they’re super cheap,” said Teasdale. “It’s a great return on investment when it comes to subscriber metrics and revenue. That calculation works really well compared to actually developing what people might think a game looks like nowadays.”

Editors note: this story incorrectly stated that the Times had gained “tens of millions” of subscribers thanks to the Wordle game. It was actually “tens of millions” of users. The story has been updated accordingly.

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