Brought Together by Chickens: Behind the Popular Game Wordament

REDMOND, Wash. – March 7, 2012 – Wordament, the hit Windows Phone game developed by two Microsoft employees, was launched this week on a second touchscreen platform—Windows 8.

Jason Cahill and John Thornton, two full-time Microsoft employees, created the hit Windows Phone game Wordament in their spare time.

Being selected as one of the first apps to launch as part of Windows 8 Consumer Preview is just the latest in a series of thrills for Wordament’s creators, who have been on a wild and wordy ride since they created the massively popular multiplayer, Boggle-esque game last year.

“We have been working harder than I’ve ever worked,” said co-creator Jason Cahill. “But this is a once-in-a-decade opportunity. The Windows Store is going to be the biggest app store in the industry. If you have the opportunity to be there with a free app on day one, you’d be crazy not to take that.”

If Cahill and co-creator John Thornton could spell out the fortuitous moments and milestones of Wordament’s success one word at a time, the first would be rather unexpected: c-h-i-c-k-e-n-s. Yes, chickens.

A year ago, the duo—both 15-year employees of Microsoft—were working for the Windows Live photo team, a group that (no surprise) had lots of photos on its office walls. Cahill’s wall had a photo of chickens.

This sparked the conversation that started it all.

“Hey, are those your chickens?” Thornton asked.

“Yeah!” Cahill said.

Turns out, the coworkers shared a penchant for backyard chicken farming. And, in addition to spending their days working for Windows Live, they found out they also enjoyed spending nights and weekends tinkering with apps for Windows Phone.

And thus, a dynamic duo was born.

“We had really a coworkery relationship for a while, but that was the spark, and the reason we became friends,” Cahill said. “It was chickens that brought us together.”

Wordament is now available as a free app for Windows 8 Consumer Preview. The Windows 8 version has all new features, including a minimized mode (pictured) that allows players to do more than one thing at once.

The resulting partnership may have started small, but it has yielded not only an uber-popular word game, but also a year of hard work and highlights for the pair, including downloads in the six figures, a player finding 125 words in 120 seconds (more than a word a second), another player using Wordament to propose to his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, and having their game shown off by Microsoft senior executives several times at high-profile events and meetings.

It’s all still rather mind-boggling to them.

“It did start off very much as two guys in a garage a couple of hours a week,” Thornton said. “Then everything got bigger and bigger, and more and more it became something that we had to take seriously. We didn’t want to let people down.”

The result of their hard work and persistence was a game that is “super fun to play if not downright addicting,” said Travis Howland, director of publishing for Microsoft Game Studios Mobile.

When it comes to playing the game, “it is like putting a bowl of potato chips in front of a player; it’s hard to resist having one, and once you’ve had one you can’t stop,” Howland said. “However, Wordament is a lot better for you than potato chips.”

“Moonlighting” Door Opened

In 2010, Microsoft set the stage for Cahill and Thornton and other aspiring developers at the company with two things. First, it unveiled Windows Phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Then, later that year, Microsoft gave employees a “tremendous gift,” Cahill said.

Wordament pits players “against the Internet.” All who play the game at a given time are using the same word board and competing in real time for top scores.

“Microsoft said as long as our intent is to help improve Microsoft platforms, employees are free to moonlight on [Windows Phone and now Windows 8] and keep the proceeds and intellectual property of what they do,” Cahill said. “It’s really just this incredible opportunity for employees to develop something they care about in their own time.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

Around Valentine’s Day last year, Thornton shared a game he had been working on with Cahill.

“We were both playing with apps in our spare time, and one day I was showing Jason this idea I had been working on for a word game running on a server in my house,” Thornton said. “He kind of looked at me funny and said, ‘That’s never going to work.'”

Cahill gave him some advice on servers. Thornton asked Cahill if he’d like to help with the game. Cahill said, “Not really; I’ve got a lot going on.” They both went home for the weekend.

“When we came back on Monday, he had already written an entire service to use,” Thornton said. “He said, ‘Do you still want to partner?’ From there we just kept rolling with our game.'”

Thornton’s concept was purely conceptual at the time and based on the notion that the whole world could play a game “in one room” at the same time.

“That was the idea, but how to actually do that, how to implement it, what the rules would be, that all came from Jason and me working together,” Thornton said.

Both men loved word games, but they wanted to do something different from the prolific Scrabble-based games they’d seen. And, they both loved Boggle.

“The biggest problem is that Boggle is a great board game but not a great electronic game,” Cahill said.

They ended up creating something unique, a word-search tournament where players compete with “everyone on the Internet” to be the best word finder in each game. Each game of Wordament has all players competing on the same board, in real time, to get the highest score.

The duo got ready to launch their free app a couple of weeks later, expecting it to have a small presence, expecting to move on to their next app project together, and not expecting that it would make any money. They threw in an advertising function at the last moment, mostly just for fun and to see how it worked.

The Game Takes Off

At 9 p.m. on April 1, 2011, they got an email that the app had been accepted to the Windows Phone Marketplace. Cahill understood that to mean it would appear the next morning and was making some last-minute changes as his wife (their loyal tester, Facebook helper, and now consistently one of the top players in the world who goes by the screen name “Scruff”) played the game.

“All of a sudden she said, ‘Who’s Mark? There’s somebody else in here playing,'” Cahill said. “We literally stayed up for the next 30 hours as the sun rose around the planet, watching people come into Wordament and stay in. And by the end of the first week, we realized people were kind of sticking in there. That was the first time we realized, ‘Oh my, this is an addictive game. This might actually become something.'”

Over the summer, the game continued to gain momentum and a loyal following. Though Cahill felt from the moment the game launched that they were on to something, Thornton said he was a bit of a late bloomer in believing their little app was headed for the big time.

“One of the first big moments for me was the Fourth of July. I was at a parade in Kirkland, sitting there with my wife and family watching things go by, and a family of adults in front of us all had Windows Phones and I looked down and they were all playing the game. People I don’t know. Holy cow, they’re playing the game I made, and I don’t know who they are—random people in public!”

Around that time, Wordament crossed the 40,000 player mark. (Although the two won’t say exactly how many downloads the game has now, they have confirmed that it’s in the six figures.)

Cahill said every time they update the game, the two feel just how many eyes are watching and just how loyal and enthusiastic the Wordament community is.

The game has real-time rankings after each game, and for a long time Wordament would rank players in numeric order regardless of whether they’d tied. Eventually, Thornton and Cahill decided to introduce a feature that lets multiple players share a ranking, or tie.

“First thing everyone said is ‘Hey, this is awesome; we like it,'” Cahill said. “And then somebody comes back to us with ‘Hey, you’re doing it wrong.'”

A regular Wordament player sent them a link to a Wikipedia page on how to do competitive rankings in a fair way.

“Oh yeah, that was actually smarter than what we came up with,” Cahill said. “And within six hours we had pushed the new feature and sent the player a note that said, ‘Hey thanks; you made the game better.'”

Cahill and Thornton got further confirmation of Wordament players’ enthusiasm when they organized a meet-up at a local bar for players to chat and play. They expected a few people to show up, and there were nearly 50. In addition, following the meet-up they got messages asking if the next one could be held somewhere where children could come. They also got word that players in Sweden were holding their own events.

“Wordament is big in Sweden,” Thornton said. “I think overall players realized we were a couple of guys who were trying really hard to do this. That actually made our player base very loyal.”

Wordament Hits the Big Time on Windows 8

That summer, the two also got a call from Microsoft Game Studios to discuss the possibility of making Wordament an Xbox LIVE title. This conversation eventually morphed into a job offer, and once-moonlighters Cahill and Thornton found that playing with Wordament was their full-time job.

“It was a great opportunity for us to do something we were doing in our nights now sort of in our days and nights,” Cahill said.

Howland said he knew Wordament was a promising game when it spread so quickly among Interactive Entertainment Business (IEB) employees immediately after it was launched.

“Many of these people contacted me to suggest that we publish Wordament. But after talking with Jason and John, I could tell that they were very passionate about making great games and had some good ideas about how to leverage the work they had done for Wordament for future game concepts,” Howland said. “It seemed to be a very good fit. If Jason and John were going to continue to make high quality games, why not do it for Microsoft?”

The two were excited by the opportunities and resources that came with working on Wordament full-time with “the power of Microsoft” behind it, but there was one area in which they felt strongly.

“We have this philosophy around our app—we want it to be frictionless. Frictionless to acquire and free to play,” Thornton said. “There are a lot of free-to-play games that are really kind of evil. In order to play, you have to go get an account and give them personal info or sign in to Facebook where they can then mine your contact list and information.”

Wordament will remain free, including on Windows 8, and will make its revenue through ads.

“We’re just here for the game, to make something fun and free to play,” Thornton said.

Around the time that the two joined Microsoft Game Studios, they had the opportunity to create a Metro-based version of Wordament for Windows 8. And, of course, they jumped at the chance. Players can now use a Windows Phone or Windows 8 to play Wordament, and regardless of what device they’re playing on, they’re all still competing against one another.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Cahill said.

After turning their passion project into a full-time job (not to mention a word game phenomenon), the two have some advice to offer employees who are moonlighting as they were not too long ago.

“We did more than write and code a piece of software; we built a community. That is equally as important as anything else you’re going to go do,” Thornton said. “We actively tried to get people to talk to us, and it worked. And we would always talk back. We respond to Facebook comments, emails, blog post responses—we are active, and we listen. The world is a little different than it was in 1999. You have to be able to connect to your customers and talk to them.”

Cahill urged employee developers to pursue only projects they’re passionate about and to think about finding a partner—working together with someone who pushes them and complements their skill set.

“The two of us put together ended up doing something that is greater than the sum of what we could do by ourselves. We both recognize that,” Cahill said.

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