The New York Times is one of the world’s most recognized newspapers and has been in circulation since 1851. With 10 million subscribers, the Times has a huge audience and an even larger cultural impact. But the Gray Lady isn’t content to just rest on her laurels and focus on news - other verticals in which the Times operates are product reviews (The Wirecutter), sports (through their 2022 acquisition of The Athletic), cooking, and, of course, games. In addition to their home-grown casual titles, the Times famously acquired viral sensation Wordle in early 2022 and since then has launched hit games Connections and most recently Strands (in beta).

To learn more about the Times’ games strategy, your host Niko Vuori talks with Jonathan Knight, Head of Games at The New York Times

New York Times Games: You can find Jonathan Knight on LinkedIn.

Lightspeed Gaming

We’d also like to thank Lightspeed Venture Partners for making this episode possible! With its dedicated gaming practice, "Lightspeed Gaming," the firm is investing from over $7B in early- and growth-stage capital — the by far largest fund focused on gaming and interactive technology. If you’re interested in learning more, go to

This transcript is machine-generated, and we apologize for any errors.

Niko: Hello, and welcome to the Naavik Gaming Podcast. I'm your host, Niko Vuori. Today, we have a very special episode. On the pod, we have a guest from one of the biggest gaming companies on the planet.

Its games were played over 8 billion times last year, and it continues to release games beloved by tens of millions of players every week. I'm talking, of course, about the New York Times and its head of games, Jonathan Knight. By now, I'm sure you all know how significant the games business has become to the times, how much they're investing in it.

And we actually are welcoming Jonathan back after about a year when he was last on the show not long after the Wordle acquisition. And obviously a lot has happened since then. So I wanted to have him back to tell us how the games business has evolved what the new slate of titles coming out looks like what does it mean to build a thriving community around casual games at the times, and of course I went to vent about the streak mechanic in Wordle and how desperately it needs a streak freeze feature. It really does. I lost my 390 day streak when I flew to Amsterdam, and the time zone messed with my streak, and next thing you know, it was gone.

Anyway, I wanted to get that off my chest and get it right to Jonathan. Anyway, without further ado, Here to discuss the New York times game strategy. I am thrilled to welcome back Jonathan Knight. He's a long-time gaming industry veteran, a former colleague of mine at Zynga and wanted to say, welcome back to the show, Jonathan, thanks for being in the pod again.

Jonathan: Thanks for having me back. It's great to see you.

Niko: Awesome. All right. With that out of the way, let's get right into today's episode. So Jonathan, we had you on the show before just over a year ago. But it was a while. So let's remind our listeners about your background. Tell us a bit more about your gaming industry career and how you landed at the New York times, driving their gaming strategy.

Jonathan: I've been in computer and video games my whole career. I started out as a producer at a company called interplay. I worked my way up to become an executive producer, general manager, ultimately head of studios. I worked for big traditional game companies like electronic arts and Zynga.

Where you and I overlapped and I would say just building, launching, operating big games at scale with branded IP or original IP. And yeah, I've just had a fortunate career and worked on a lot of incredible properties with incredible people. And a few years ago I was approached by the New York times.

It was a little bit of a departure in a way, because it's non traditional game company, but. They were really eager to build out their games business and had a really cool platform for games and an amazing brand. And I could see they were on a really good path and it's been a great move and I've been loving it.

Niko: The joke, which I'm sure you're well aware of, is the New York Times is now a gaming company with a little side hustle in news. How long before you take over overall leadership of the Times given the growing importance of games?

Jonathan: I think, it's, yes, it's funny, but the reality is that, that it's the strategy working, it, we, it's strategy.

The company is to be the essential subscription for curious people seeking to understand and engage with the world. We consider news to be at the center of what we do and it is, and it always will but the deliberate strategy is to have this constellation of standalone lifestyle products, whether it's games, cooking, wire cutter, the athletic.

And the fact that games is a world class product in its own right, but also plays a major role in the overall bundle strategy for the company. For us, it's just, yeah, it's the strategy working and it's great to see.

Niko: Yeah, I know you don't break the numbers out, but I was, looking at your subscription numbers and digital content.

I think the games belong in there. Very impressive growth rates over the last, Probably a couple of years. When did the time to decide that this was something they wanted to invest in heavily? Obviously they've had the crossword forever, 1940s, I want to say. And a couple of other games as well, but you predate you as you is joining the team.

What's been driving that subscription revenue growth? What's been driving the digital content, IE gaming growth for the times. Is it new titles or is it just more engagement from existing? Subscribers.

Jonathan: Yeah. First of all, you're right. Yeah. The we've had this idea since 1942 when we ran the first crossword puzzle on the paper.

And I think, I was looking back over the history recently in 1996 was when the company launched its first website And at that time we had a digital crossword puzzle and a digital crossword subscription offering at the very same time that the news went. Digital for with its website.

So it's been there all along. I would say I think around 2018 with the launch of spelling bee and seeing that spelling bee with its own kind of custom paywall and it's free to play. model was stacking subscriptions on top of the crossword subscription. And you could see the share of subscriptions coming, from the crossword growing, sorry, share of subscriptions coming from Spelling Bee was growing.

And the overall subscriptions were growing. That's when I think the company felt like, okay, we have a games opportunity here. It could be more than just the crossword puzzle. And since then it really has been powered by content and, it's a story as old as time, but content's King. And when we launched new games that's like the, probably the single biggest lever we have for growth and new audiences obviously translates into the subscription funnel for us.

So with the acquisition of Wordle 22, we just had a massive propellant to that strategy. We were worried, how would we follow that up? Big shoes to fill. We launched connections last year homegrown game, and that was thrilling for the team, following that acquisition world to have a home run out of out of this, the team and we just saw continued growth there.

We're also seeing like the games app, the dark times games app becoming. A way bigger funnel for new users than than it ever was before. But again, that has been powered by the games themselves. Wordle, Spelling Bee, Connections. That's what people are searching for. That's why they're coming to us.

And And then we think we've got a great product, which, I talk forever about, that keeps people and retains them. But yeah, at the end of the day, it's the games.

Niko: Yeah. There's a lot to unpack there. We actually have planned questions on most of those things, the app in particular, that was brand new when we talked to you or not brand new, but it was fairly new when we talked to you last year and it sounds like it's really been growing quite a lot.

But I did want to ask, so if I just want to clarify the strategy really is to have This is maybe not the exact right word, but multiple hooks for subscribers to potentially subscribe. So they're doing the free content, they're doing the free games, there's a new game launching, they haven't subscribed yet.

Suddenly it's oh this is one that I actually do want to subscribe for. Now they subscribe. So it's you mentioned there's like kind of layering in the ability to get people at different moments, depending on what they care deeply about. Is that fair to say?

Jonathan: That is fair to say. And we have what some people might call a little bit of an unorthodox access model to games.

It varies from game to game. And ultimately, the daily crossword puzzle, the full spelling bee experience, these are our premium Sort of subscription only games. But I would say that like increasingly what we're seeing is that the strategy is like use the free games to get people to try and offer like stats and streaks and metagame features as a way to prompt.

Registration, if you don't create an account with us, we're not going to be able to, store your stats and show you all that. And then the archives, and we're rolling out the Wordle archive as we speak, but, we've seen this with the crossword and with the mini, and now with the Wordle archive that becomes a real strong subscriber value.

For our subscribers now, they've got over 10, 000 crossword puzzles on their phone going back to 1993. And you can binge those, play them at your leisure. And, that's just a big part of the value in addition to, of course, getting a new crossword puzzle every day. And so that increasingly is becoming the strategy.

We've got Connections Archive in development now. And I think, that's what you'll see going forward for all of our major games to more or less the daily puzzle is free, register to get metagame features and then subscribe to get all of the content, going back. For X number of years.

There'll be some like subtleties in there and some differences. Spelling Bee, I think is a great model where it's a little more free to play. You get partial experience, get full experience if you're a subscriber. There's a free trial on the app. So there's some different layers to the access model, but, we're just finding that subscribers really value content.

Niko: And that's not a surprise. Content is King. We've known that across many industries for a long time now. Not surprising perhaps that's the case. As you recall from Zynga, we had a very In retrospect, perhaps not quite as sophisticated as it could have been, but we had a fairly robust cross promotion strategy.

When a new game would launch, we would make sure that everybody was coordinated and all the different games would point towards the new game, especially the higher affinity ones. And, you'd have a big pop of users on day one or whatever day we decided it was ready, stable and had all the features and set.

Is there something similar At the times, I'm an avid I play Wordle, I play Connections, I'm playing the new strands in beta as well, I play all of them pretty much every single day but I have yet to really see, at least on my end, a kind of a concerted push to move me from one product to another, or say if, because you like this, maybe you'd like this too, so I'm curious to hear how do you think about it internally, this cross promo strategy, is there something similar to what we used to have at Zynga where we push to push?

Players from one product to another especially the higher affinity ones.

Jonathan: Yeah. The first thing I'd say is that our scale now is a real competitive advantage that we didn't have even just a few years ago. And that has reminded me a lot of Zynga. With strands, we wanted to do a small, quiet, open beta just to get a read on retention.

And I would say within a couple of days, we. I had seven figure users and there's just no keeping it quiet. Can now like safely get anything we want to do in front of millions, if not tens of millions of users and. Very short order. And that reminds me a lot of that competitive advantage we had at Zynga.

We could launch a Facebook game and it would instantly go to number one and instantly have millions of DAU because all we had to do was just put a pop up in Farmville and that was the end of it. And then you sort of go like, okay that's a powerful weapon. We want to use it responsibly. But I think the stage we're at now is when we launched new games.

What we saw, I would say very specifically with Connections the number one referral source for Connections was Wordle. I should actually say number two. The number one source was Search, as there's just so much organic demand and search for our games. But the number two referral source was Wordle.

With Strands, the number two referral source was Connections. And we're just seeing the new games just build on top of each other that way. As for sort of like moving you from game to game and cross promotion, I think, we're not a traditional game company. I think that's why people are really responding to what we're doing.

We're very respectful of people's time. We're not trying to get you to spend all day in our app. We don't want 24 7 engagement. We don't want to funnel you into things that you don't want to do just so that we can get more engagement. We, That's why we really like the design of the app. It's very clean.

It's very elevated. The games are all there. You can choose which ones you want to try and which ones you don't. You're, think users are smart enough to do that, on different surfaces, like on mobile web browser, you can be a little bit lost in terms of how did I get here and where am I going next?

And we want to help those users with navigation and discovery. And with the wordle audience, we have found that like showing them spelling B is a really powerful kind of pathway. And I think you will see us, methodically experimenting with that sort of like next action post game.

But philosophically speaking yes, two plus game usage is an important metric for us, people that are playing two or more of our games. Puzzles tend to just get more value and retain better in the long run. But we don't want to overdo it, right? I don't want to push you into a game that you don't like just for the sake of it.

Yeah, that's where we're at with that.

Niko: Yeah, it resonates very strongly. A lot of what you just said there is I've been playing wordle. So the Times crossword is too hard for me. The mini is fine. I can do that. But the times crossword is too hard for me. It takes too much time and time is the one, resource that we don't have any more of than anybody else on the planet.

We have 24 hours in a day and that's it, right? So what I really like about wordle and connections, which is part of my morning ritual. Is I just, I can get through whirl and connections in just a matter of minutes, but it's just a really nice kind of brain stimulant gets me going like a cup of coffee almost.

And I started playing strands, but I'm actually interestingly fine finding that maybe we can geek out on the design there, but I don't know if you're going to change the design much. But the hint feature, if I may give you a piece of feedback, the hint feature doesn't feel quite right to me.

I almost prefer it to be gone entirely so that I have to figure it out for myself. If you hit the hand feature, It's so easy to get the simple words, right? You can collect more than you need to do the entire puzzle. Now, you're only cheating yourself, of course. And it does feel like cheating, quite frankly.

But yeah, when you hit that hint thing and it shows you the word, it's like, basically, that's game over right then and there, right? What's really nice when I find myself having the most fun with it is when I don't hit the hint feature at all and I figure it all out for myself. And that feels really quite satisfying.

So anyway, geeking out on game design a little bit, but that's the one thing where I, that's why I don't go back to it as often as I do with wordle and connections, because they feel really pure in terms of how you solve them. Whereas with the hint feature, it feels dirty yourself a little bit.

I know you're only cheating yourself, but nonetheless, that's what it feels like. So anyway, my two cents there. But what I like about all of these games, including strands is if they're quick, they're easy to do. And yeah, you just spoke to that as well. It's a remarkable feat.

I think if you think about they're essentially hyper casual games, right? If you were to describe these games they're casual or hyper casual, maybe not quite hyper casual. And I don't think there's anybody else on the planet who actually has a subscription. Business around casual or hyper casual game.

So it's quite unique position that the times occupies in that says, do you often think about that yourselves and say how on earth did we manage to build a, tens of millions of people? 8 billion plays last year, apparently 5 billion came from wordle a subscription business around this casual type of gameplay.

It's a really remarkable feat, actually. And I don't know if you guys reflect upon it internally but I'm just calling it out here because I look at it and say, wow, this is quite special and it's quite unique.

Jonathan: Thank you for saying that. And yes, we do reflect on it. If there's one thing that the New York Times is good at it, it is reflecting upon things that is a big part of our culture and and you're right.

And I think the reason for there's a few reasons why it's working. The, number one is that we have human made puzzle content every single day. We've got an incredible team of constructors and editors and the crossword is You know, crowdsourced in a sense of like, we get a few hundred submissions of crossword puzzles every week and we sort through them and edit them and really choose the best of the best.

And all of our other puzzles are human made and there's one puzzle a day. And you're sort of in this very interesting relationship between. Solver and constructor, you can almost as a solver, you know there's another person like right behind this puzzle that's trying to trick you and they've decided what the answer is.

And you're trying to figure out what's in their head in some ways. And that's just like. You know, yes, it's, you can call it a hypercasual game or a puzzle game but the human made component is pretty unique to what we do. And it's a big part of our heritage as a newspaper and like we have writers, we have editors and we have a lot of like rigor and testing that goes behind, the content that we're putting out every day.

And it's like our stamp of quality and. And it's our brand. So I think that's in part why it works. And, and, but because of the model, Hey, for the cost of the Starbucks every month, you can get all this incredible human made content every day, a very elevated app experience without a bunch of bullshit around coins and treasure chests and pop ups and power ups. And we're not monetizing the core loop. We're not trying to create some sort of pay to win or pay to get an advantage. It's just more elevated than that. And it is a really I see it as a bit of a slow moving, innovators dilemma in a way.

I would like it to be faster moving, but I'm impatient and want to go faster, but it's still this I see other, traditional mobile free to play apps and studios in the word space, and I just, I know they're looking at us with great frustration. Like, how are you able to not do any of all, any of those like hated mobile free to play tactics that, that other studios have to do to just squeeze every last cent out of their users because they're in this arbitrage game around user acquisition, LTV and And we're just not doing any of that, and we're getting incredible amount of organic inflow of users and great subscriber retention, great conversion.

And it's it's all working, but I think it starts with the human made content. It starts with our respect for people's time. We talk about it as time well spent. And and then this kind of clean elevated UX.

Niko: Yeah. This connection between puzzle maker and Solver is actually a really interesting one.

I know it started of course with, will and the crossword originally. People, he's legendary. Everybody knows him by name. And I think it's Tracy Bennett does the Wordle. So I've never met her. I don't know what she looks like, but I, I know she's in your team and I know her name because I.

Do the word all every day. And I'm actually embarrassed to say I've forgotten the, who does connections. But she's great. That's right. Sorry. Yes. Thank you for reminding me. And so I recognize her name too. And so this idea of having a connection, like a human to human connection, even if you don't know the person, but you put a name on it is really interesting.

And it actually taps into something that I've I know, as I was researching this episode, I noticed you've used the word community quite a few times in interviews, media coverage and in stories, and you're I think, alluding to some of that here as well. So I'm very interested to hear, what do you mean by the word community and building this community of players?

Cause your games aren't traditionally. Social air quotes, right? There's not clans. There's you know, you're not sending invites to other people. If there is any kind of playing together, it's pretty much offline play, right? It's just you sitting with your family or friends at the kitchen table, having breakfast together, things like that.

So there's no. Overt social, and yet it does feel social in an interesting way, and you have used this word community quite a few times, especially over this last year. So I'm very interested to hear. How do you think about community? How do you talk about it internally with the team? And how are you tapping in to?

Essentially social without the features that you typically associate with that in a product in a game on mobile or elsewhere.

Jonathan: Yeah, I think there's two big streams there. One is our forums, which we host first party forums. Obviously there's activity out and. The internets around Reddit and everything, like people are getting, creating Facebook groups or, there's places where people are gathering that we're not in control of, but we have made it central to what we do to have first party hosted forums.

The Spelling Bee Forum is our most popular and that we see that as a place for like our most dedicated solvers to come for tips, tricks, hints, ways to get better at solving and. To talk to each other about like their solution that day or whatever it might be. And so they're coming together in those forums and, from a business perspective, we do see, we get great ad revenue from those forums.

We see a lot of strong correlation between visiting forums at playing the game. propensity to subscribe. We see like great subscriber retention from users that are both playing the game and visiting the forum. So we know that it's driving value. And it's also just core to who we are to try to help solvers be better, get better at solving our puzzles.

So that's one and that started with wordplay, which is the crossword forum, spelling bee forum has been wildly popular. We have a wordle forum called the wordle review. We have the connections companion. So I would say they're like, all of those things are, it's a little bit lumpy in terms of how they're surfaced and the discovery and access to those pages from the games themselves.

And a lot of people don't know they exist or they find them, in a circuitous way. But that's one big thrust, but the second one is really, which wordle led the way on this, but the wordle connections we're seeing it with strands, spelling bee. These games are social.

without having social features built into them, but the social is playing out in the group chats. Where our users have like self organized and anyone out there who's in like a passionate world group, like I am knows that that is the place where you're posting your score every day.

And. We're living basically rent free. Thanks Mark Zuckerberg in that space and not having to build chat because the chat's happening there. We're not having to build a leaderboard because people are, competing with each other in that space where we don't have to have, even for those people don't even have a push notification or remind that their friend played because the group chat is that push notification.

So it's cool. And we see that we think of that that group chat is like literally the other half of the product experience. We can almost think of that as my surface, even though I'm renting it from WhatsApp. So yeah, it's surprising. Those games are surprisingly social and they're just playing out in different spaces.

And then people are ultimately coming back to us the next morning.

Niko: Yeah, and it's really so I've never actually been to the forums and I have to confess. I didn't even know you had them. To your point about entry points, like that might be something to consider, given that I actually did research this and I'm an avid player, daily player there.

I don't know if I'd actually participate in the forums, but nonetheless, I didn't even know they existed. But for me, the social really, the most fun social is actually the one that plays out in the real world whether it's at the kitchen table with your kids them helping you or my kids are big swimmers, so we go to swim meets all the time and everyone's bored there.

You're. Doing connections you're doing wordle and everyone's pitching in and helping out and it's just a it's a really there aren't. That many it's almost like a board game in many ways. I don't know if you ever consider it that as an analogy for you guys, but it feels like it's a board game that you can play with, anywhere from 2 to 8 players.

Almost that's how it feels like the in real life component of it and in a way that most other games are very few games. I can really point to, is that part of the design philosophy? How do you design games? That's where I'm going with this. Like, how do you actually sit down and think about this from the ground up?

Like, how do you create that magic from a, it's a completely blank slate. There's a gazillion word games out there. There's so many word games out there. And yet you are able to put a fresh twist on it. Time, seemingly time and time again. I'm at least with connections following on Wurbles, Heels, and now Strands, which I can definitely see becoming.

Bigger coming out of beta again. I don't know if you're going to fix that hint feature. Cause that's going to be a deal breaker for me, I think long term, but nonetheless what's the design process at the times that gets you these hits that gets you these games that really do feel part of a family.

Jonathan: It's a great insight board games. And I'm glad you mentioned that because I do agree with that. And and you're right. There's a strong tradition with the crossword puzzle going back generations, he's shot across the room. What's a five letter word for. European capital starts with a P and you and, it's a little harder for us to quantify that, in a classic sort of product management sense.

But but we do think that's part of the organic nature and part of the multi generational aspect of our product, which, increasingly we see is like a real strength. And we're in this for the long haul, like I'm, we're, we've absolutely think we're building a hundred year product or a forever product.

Um, yes, like that, that works its way into the aesthetics, the idea. And we talk about that internally that our games have their. Tradition and root in, in sort of paper products and printed physical products, and there is a kind of a board game vibe. And so we want that to come through and that's part of why the UI and UX is in our games is so like 2d and simplistic and and elegant.

And so I think, yeah, increasingly we're with the more games we have, the more we want to like really recognize that and internalize that. As far as like our new game, I don't want to like. Give away the whole store there. We do think we have a somewhat repeatable process at this point for creating new games.

But as you well know, like game, like people are fickle and like trends come and go and it's entertainment and you can never quite know what's going to work. And so we do develop a lot of prototypes and a lot of concepts internally that never see the light of day. And we have, what you might imagine is like a special Stage gate process, green light process of getting a lot of things into the funnel and then having checkpoints and validation points where we can kill stuff that's not working and making sure that we don't get too married to something that, I get very passionate about our games and I believe in them and I get hooked on them and I think everybody in the world is going to love them.

But, We're trying to make games that appeal to, the most amount of people and they're going to have great retention. And yeah, as you might imagine, we kill a lot of things. We get to a stage where we can ultimately get stuff in front of real users. We start with, user testing and we start internal.

Then we go external, we'll do focus groups. We'll, we use online tools like discount and we like interview people. And we just started building a case as we move our games through that funnel. For continued optimism, conviction, validation, ultimately we put things out web only web first, just to see, if it takes off and then we're measuring retention on a much bigger scale and then we've got some success metrics and, we've killed we killed digits, which was our numbers puzzle that I really loved.

A lot of people love it and a lot of users love it. And so we're upset with us when we took it down, but it didn't quite. meet the bar and then connections came along and and exceeded that bar and so did strands. I think we have a, a mix of A healthy mix of intuition, brand values, like know what works.

We have certain filters. I've talked about a few of them, human made puzzles, time well spent the social aspect of it, the sharing. The sort of board game vibe and then, we start putting that through a more data centric process, until we get to something that's working.

Yeah, and we've got a couple of things coming up the pipe that I'm excited about, so we're. We're not done yet.

Niko: It's clearly working. I alluded to some of these numbers earlier. I think the numbers that you shared for last year was 8 billion plays of which wordle was 5 billion.

I have to believe connections. And again, it's. Games are very subjective, so who knows if I'm, if everyone else is as passionate about Connections as I am, I really like that. I almost like it better than Wordle in some ways. How do you, I know you can't share what the numbers are going to be for 2024 but you can probably talk about trends here a little bit about, you've talked about stacking and layering these games on top of each other.

8 billion plays is a lot, but like, where do you go from here? Is it just growth upon growth? Is it rocket ship or is it more of a kind of a steady as she goes like growth? And it is, it's more about the layering and not about the explosive rocket ship. How are you guys managing growth essentially?

Let's ask that question. How do you manage growth at this kind of scale when you're in the billions in terms of play sessions? And I think you've shared tens of millions of weekly players.

Jonathan: Yeah. Look, we want to keep growing, we want to keep growing our subscriber base and ultimately contributing profits to the company that help, secure the independence of our journalism and, protect the mission of the company.

So that's at the highest levels or what gets me out of bed in the morning. And to do that, we need to keep growing audience. We need to particularly keep. Growing that sort of the top of the funnel that what we call the non subscribed WAU. Because that's our convertible audience. So we're pretty focused on, on that. And then we're, once we do get an anonymous user to register, ultimately subscribe, we're focused on subscriber retention, churn, starts, stops, net ads. It's basically we're managing a subscription funnel. Games is like a big driver of growth.

App downloads is a big driver of growth. We have other aspects, in terms of paid acquisition brand marketing, owned and earned media partnerships. There's a number of things we're pursuing to, continue to grow. And I would say we're considerably bigger than we were this time last year.

So we've seen like really significant, both audience and subscriber growth. I think we shared recently Meredith shared, as part of an earnings release that we had 20 million weekly active users on connections. Wordle's considerably bigger. These are big numbers for sure.

And the, I would say the number of users that are playing two plus products has tripled year over year. I would say that our. Our advertising revenue from games tripled year over year. We don't break out subscribers subscriptions, we get, we're part of the bundle as well.

And we're increasingly driving a lot of bundle starts just from games. And people are opting to take the full bundle even though they're hitting a games paywall. It's a little bit that's why we're, we roll it all up in the reporting. But we're, I would say subscription revenue from games is also way up year over year.

So it's really, I would say, very exciting growth. And we're optimistic and ambitious about the coming, few years.

Niko: Oh, congratulations. Definitely from the outside looking in. It does look like, it's just almost like success after success. I'm sure it's the sausage when the sausage gets made.

It's not quite as simple as that, but but certainly, seeing connections on, like I said, I can see strands probably is going to. Yeah, another big one based on what I'm seeing, at least, but brings me to the app. So tell us more about the app. So the app was fairly new. I think when we last spoke not brand new, but fairly new.

And it sounds like it's really had a breakout year or breakout 12 months, give or take here in terms. I saw it. Hitting number one in the app store, the Apple app store charts on multiple occasions, I think. And I've seen people sharing about it. Not just you number one word game.

Number two, okay. All right. All right. A little humility. You got a little word. Okay, fine. Who was number one then? Who do you have to beat to get up there?

Jonathan: I think actually we were that week that we hit number two, um. I want to say it wasn't monopoly go. I think it was call of duty or something, but normally monopoly goes octopine.

Niko: That's yes. Maybe we'll for the foreseeable future, I seem to be playing the LTV cat game extremely effectively. It's a whole other episode right there, but but yeah, so talk to us about the app, the kind of the thinking behind it the launch when that happened, just the timeline and then how, whatever you can share on how it's doing and how you think about putting.

Content in there, since for lack of a better phrase, the games, you already mentioned that you go web first and then you determine, where next kind of thing. So yeah, tell us more about the app strategy, which I presume is a separate strategy to the overall game strategy.

Jonathan: I would say it's like increasingly important and, a deliberate shift and one that's been happening for the last couple of years to more of an app first strategy for NYT games and, to clarify the crossword app launched in 2009, it was an early editor's choice award winning iOS app.

And what, it's like what you're remembering is more like our rebrand of the app is like redesigning and we started rolling that out to all users. We were testing it late last year. We rolled it out to all users at the top of this year. So it's the completion of.

A kind of phased approach to the full rebrand from crossword to games, which, we completed on web a while ago. We completed it a while ago in terms of the commercial surfaces. What am I subscribing to? You're subscribing to games. Now you're not subscribing to crossword. But with the app the.

The downloads that we were getting from people searching for crossword on the app store, so important. And we were really winning, in terms of like app store search authority for the word crossword that, we were very careful about just. Rebranding the app, changing the name of it, and then hurting that that funnel.

And so we were very careful. We tested our way into that. We were very careful. And in fact, we were very successful in making that transition from crossword to NYT games, rebranding, changing the icon, changing all that store, the store assets and really fulfilling the vision of a portfolio of games, not just the crossword the redesign of the homepage.

It was a year long project that I'm really proud of. And it's, I think it's very beautiful. And I'm happy to say that just a couple of days ago, it was announced that we're nominated for an Apple design award for 2024. And I'm going to be going to. The mothership and Cupertino in about a week great honor to, to be there for WWDC um, to the worldwide developer conference and for a special event around Apple design award nominees.

So like super exciting and a big honor. And also the metrics have been really strong. Like we, we basically approached and, from Zynga days, and I remember You know hopefully I don't get in trouble for saying this, but like I screwed up drop seven when I was there and people who worked with me at that time will remember.

And I'm sorry, Mark Pincus, if you're listening, because he was right. And we were wrong. And we took a beloved game and we thought we were doing something good. And we basically killed the game. With a redesign. So when you redesign a beloved app, it's a very dangerous undertaking. And so we just thought, let's just do no harm if we can hold metrics where they were, but then implement a redesign that allowed us to go into the future with additional games and a new platform for content.

But in fact, the metrics are like way better and it's higher converting and, obviously better for two plus games and some of the other things we care about. So huge success story there, along with bringing connections into the app. And a bunch of PR we got in the first part of the year as well as the thousandth wordle, which was a huge celebration.

And the app is just like really taken off. When I took over the team in 2000, our app was ranked about number 425 on the top three iOS games chart. So to peak at number two from where we were a few years ago in the 400s, it was just like an incredible feat. And we've been sitting in the top 15 or.

Usually top 10 free games on iOS all year long. And we're the number one word games. It's just it's literally been staggering. It surprised even me. And we did 10 million downloads of the games app last year. That was up from 5 million the year before. And I think we're pretty close to 10 million already this year.

So I, I think we're looking to double that again. And it's just been, it's been awesome. And we see that users in the games app relative to mobile web, desktop web, et cetera, they're higher engaged. They, it's higher converting and it's just, and it's a better experience, right?

You don't, it's, you can find the games more easily. And all of that. Yeah I don't know what else to say.

Niko: It's been like success story. Yeah, that's great to hear. Congratulations on the design award. And of course, all the success there as well. It sounds quite an exciting ride.

I had a question here that was not planned, but it came up to me as we were talking this many people downloading the app and, of course, playing the games. I'm presuming the vast majority of them are probably not New York Times new subscribers. So I'm Wondering and share as much as you can, because I'm very interested in this if there's any metrics you could share around this, if let's say you do 20 million downloads of the app this year, let's just say that for argument's sake, like what percentage of that would you hope to or will you or are you converting into new subscribers?

I'm presuming you would care about that, right? New York times is for all jokes aside, it's still The New York Times it's news. So while games obviously is, it is amazing that it's such a big part now of the business and it's growing so rapidly and it's, it is time well spent. I, I presume there's some internal metrics or some internal conversations at least around how do we get some of these folks who are playing our games to actually become new subscribers too, because I think new subscribers are probably the stickiest subscribers on the planet.

Once you subscribe I've had my New York Times subscription. I don't know how many years now, like forever. And I think all the new subscriptions that I'm subscribed to but for digital newsletters, those I do subscribe and then unsubscribe if I'm not getting enough value but new subscription, generally people don't drop them.

So very curious to hear what conversations happen internally. Are there any metrics you could share? How are you tracking success going from games to news and any.

Jonathan: I will say that we're experimenting a lot right now in this area and learning a lot. So there's probably not too much I can share because it's fluid and dynamic, but you're on the right track.

It's an area of great interest to us. And, with the game's audience having a really grown massively year over year especially for the last two years, it's increasingly like an opportunity. And yes, a lot of the people that are downloading the app they're coming for the games, and they're coming in and they may never have had a relationship with the New York times.

And we see that as a, like an awesome opportunity. Yeah, don't really have any specific numbers to share. The color I can provide is that we definitely see that for subscribers that engage with both games and news on any given week have. The best long term subscriber retention of any sort of like usage pattern surprise.

So we know that combination, the news can come and go that, the new cycles can be lumpy. There's all sorts of factors that go into, news fatigue, news demand, but games is daily habit. And so the combination of news and games is really powerful. Um, we definitely think there's opportunity.

The There's so much that the times has to offer. That's not just, the war in Ukraine or the war in Gaza or Trump trial. There's just like an incredible amount of content. That's lifestyle. That's culture. Obviously like our cooking product, our other standalone products. And yeah, we do see an opportunity to introduce that kind of content to our audience who may have come for the games and didn't think themselves as newsreaders.

Yeah, more to come there. It's a, it's definitely an area of focus and enthusiasm.

Niko: Yeah, 20 million download. I don't actually know what the current subscriber number is. For the news product is how you probably know this off the top of your head, but I have got to believe the 20, 000, 000 significantly dwarfs the number of actual new subscribers the times has.

And so you must be looking at that and saying like we have over 10, 000, 000 subscribers at the enterprise level.

Jonathan: Like we have over 10, 000, 000 subscribers at the enterprise level.

Niko: Got it. Okay, so 20, 000, 000 downloads, though, still be twice that. There's obviously and if you can move yeah. That 10 million number by 10%, like that's a pretty huge lift, right?

So yeah, so I can totally see why that would be a priority. And that's why I why. Occurred to me that to, to ask the question there. Now there is a point I believe there's a saturation point for how many games you can play. Now you say you're tracking the two games a day. I'm sure you track the three and four and five games a day as well.

Is there a saturation point for games like this? Or is it just the, it's a bigger offering. And so if I don't want to play strands on a certain day, there's a new game coming. I'll play that instead, or do you Do you hope to have players playing in multiple? I mean, You obviously want them in two, because otherwise you wouldn't track that.

Is there a world where you're like, look, we need that two to go to three, or not need to, but like, and here's our path for doing it? Or do you feel like at some point, we can't launch five games in a year, like that's just too much? Or even one game this year might be too much or what? So I think that's the question I'm getting at here.

You're at a sweet spot right now. You have just the right number of games, I feel, where it's I'm not gonna play all of them, but I can play most of them. And then once you, Push over the edge a little bit. It's Oh God, there's too much there. There's too much choice. I can't play all these games.

Doesn't mean you're going to unsubscribe, but it just, I think it means the fly wheel maybe starts turning a little bit slower. So curious to hear how you guys think about this and how are you being deliberate about the product launch strategy, the new game strategy?

Jonathan: Yeah. Such a great question.

I think for the moment The number of people who are saying there's too many games and the games app is like massively dwarfed by the number of people that are saying when is strands coming to the games app. So I don't think we're there right now. And it'd be a great problem to have, and I don't think we'll have that problem for a long time.

a little while yet, but yes, there's a, there's definitely a point at which like our goal is not to have 20, 25, 30, 40 games in the games app. Like we want to be a highly curated human made offering. And you can go to some of these Sites where you just see tens of casual games, Mahjong's and Sudoku's and solitaire's and, it's just like a page of, dozens of casual games and that's not who we want to be.

Our games are not a commodity. They're again, like curated handcrafted, very special puzzles. And I think, we have a high bar and we'll have probably an even higher bar going into the future for. A game to make it to the major leagues, which is like to come to the games app.

Yeah we're thoughtful about it. We think about it. We don't think we're there yet. And but it's something we'll be tackling probably not too far down the road.

Niko: Fair enough. That's it. Yeah, because a nice problem to have if you get to a point where you've got so many quality games that people are saying you know what?

I'm happy with what we have here. So okay, I have a final question for you on the New York Times and I have a more fun question. Then I know you've got a hard stop. So I'm gonna respect your time here. But one thing I wanted to follow up on this. You had announced some partnership deals a year prior.

Plus ago, you had Delta Airlines. You had Hasbro. I think you had some others in the works as well. Now, obviously, your standalone success clearly is so good that you probably don't need to be doing these partnerships. But tell us more about how those went. Are you doing more? What is the strategy around that?

Has that shifted from when we last spoke a year plus ago?

Jonathan: We continue to be an important partner with Delta Airlines and, we're sort of the exclusive puzzle game offering if you connect for free Wi Fi on Delta airplanes and bring up their portal on your phone and get that free Wi Fi.

And, we're there alongside a couple of other major brands and we're thrilled with that partnership. And, we're excited to have that captive audience that, otherwise would, you know. Be able to maybe play the mini archive in offline mode, but otherwise a lot of our games require internet access and then you can also get the daily crossword, the full spelling bee experience, um, essentially, subscriber entitlement if you're flying on a Delta plane and connecting there.

So we're excited about that. We're continuing to to be a partner to them and they've been a great partner to us. I don't have anything else to announce. It's, I think we're. To your point only want to work with the best partners the highest quality, I think if we identify a place where there's lots of users that we don't think we would otherwise be able to directly, get into a relationship with, and there's something we can do there.

That's a win we're always looking at those things and I work on a couple right now just like nothing to announce. It's an important part of our strategy, but there's a, again, a very high bar, I would say to, to doing a partnership like that. Fair enough. Fair enough.

Niko: Okay. With that, I think we're coming towards the end here, but I do like to ask all of our guests what three games are you playing at the moment or are you most excited by, and you can't name your own. That's a rule we've had to come up with because that's the first thing that every guest as well.

I'm very excited for our upcoming game. So no, can't do your own games.

Jonathan: I've been playing a word grams from fun craft. And that's uh, that's, that's. Jason McGurk, ex Zynga Michael Martinez incredibly talented team there and they're pretty close to what we do in some ways, and they're doing some things really well.

And I liked that word grams game. It's just like a nice mashup. I would say we're, I'm playing a lot of Chess. com, but not necessarily competitively. I'm not really a great competitive chess player, but I like their chess puzzles. I think the chess. com app is excellent. I just think it's a really high quality app.

And I think in a lot of ways, they're an inspiration to us in the sense that they're one of the few. Chess. com and us are like maybe the only two sort of major game companies that are taking this approach mission driven subscription model focus on long term value, long term relationships, big focus on community.

They have a big journalism aspect to what they do. And, I really love that company. And I love that app. What else? Oh, I guess I would say, which is maybe not fair. I don't know what you're looking for, but I'm in a D and D group. And that's actually why I have a hard stop because me and some of the other dads are in a regular D and D game and yeah, that’s it.

Niko: I love it. I love that you said no, and that counts any game, whether it's tabletop or, paper, pencil mobile console, PC, whatever. All right those are great options and choices and quite different to our regular guests. So I appreciate you, you sharing those and your taste in games are quite similar to mine, although I've never been a D and D player.

So that's something that, that bypassed me and my childhood to this day, I'm not quite sure. How to play. So anyway all right listen Jonathan, it was so good to see you again great. To hear the insights, congratulations with all the success and all the growth and the design awards. It seems like a really exciting 12 months, which is why I wanted to have you on the pod today. Thank you again and welcome back anytime.

Jonathan: Thank you. Great to see you. I really appreciate it. That was a lot of fun.

Niko: Yep, absolutely. And always big thanks to our listeners. We'll be back next week with more interviews, more insights and more analysis from the world of gaming.

If you enjoyed today's episode, whether on YouTube or your favorite podcast app, make sure to like, subscribe, comment, or give a five-star review. And if you wanna reach out or provide feedback, shoot us a note at [email protected] or find us on Twitter and LinkedIn. Plus, if you wanna learn more about what Naavik has to offer, make sure to check out our website There, you can sign up for the number one games industry newsletter, Naavik Digest, or contact us to learn about our wide-ranging consulting and advisory services.

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