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Modernizing a classic: the new HTML5 New York Times crossword

‘a vastly superior experience’

Samit Sarkar/Polygon
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Word games are a dime a dozen on mobile devices and the web. But the renowned New York Times crosswords section, edited by Will Shortz, retains a certain unique cachet. There's a difference between solving any old crossword puzzle and completing the day's New York Times crossword puzzle.

Even so, it was actually easier to jump into a puzzle through the Times' crosswords mobile app than on its website. Until very recently, most web users would print crosswords, or download them from the site and load them up in a desktop client. The method seems archaic in the era of the modern web, with browsers that support fully polygonal video games through platforms such as Facebook.

Earlier this week, the Times launched a revamped, HTML5-based version of its crosswords section, a change that had "been discussed for quite a while," said Brian Murphy, the company's vice president of engineering, in a phone interview with Polygon. But while implementing web-based crosswords seems like a no-brainer idea, redesigning the crossword experience for the first time in over a decade was a delicate process that the Times didn't undertake lightly or carelessly.

"The challenge for us [was] to toe the line between what works for longtime, loyal solvers and what appeals to new or inexperienced players," said Tim Griggs, the Times' director of paid products, to Polygon over email. The company sought to grow its existing player base, which Griggs called "sizable," but didn't want to alienate users. The gameplay now takes place within the browser, but the developers recognized they needed to keep elements that were vital to longtime players, such as the ability to print crosswords and access archived puzzles. It was also important to add features that would entice new players, like tutorials.

The launch was not without its hiccups, which Murphy characterized as the "typical bugs that crop up when you're launching something," and the Times knows that the functionality isn't all there just yet. "We are absolutely paying close attention to the sort of customer feedback that we're getting, to see how this transition is going," said Murphy.

Griggs called the current version of the crosswords section a "first pass" at meeting the needs of both old and new players. For now, the developers are focused on fixing any remaining issues and restoring the feature set of the previous setup. And over time, said Griggs, the developers plan to layer in the kinds of elements that will deliver a better experience for everyone. Some leaderboards are available now, but competitive play is coming. And the Times hopes to attract new players with features such as social-media tools and user profiles.

"The aim is to build a site and gameplay that's easier for casual gamers to embrace," said Griggs. "We want there to be little friction between playing for the first time and building a habit."

The Times isn't neglecting players who are accustomed to the desktop client; the old download setup will stick around for a "short transitional period," according to Murphy.

"But we're really looking to move folks over to what we think is a vastly superior experience," he added.

According to Griggs, the Times decided to revamp the crosswords section based on a combination of user feedback and usage data. Part of the problem, said Murphy, was that the company wasn't "delivering a consistent experience for [its] puzzlers across the various platforms." The Times' iOS crossword app, which is developed by an outside studio called Magmic, already has the kinds of modern features that the Times' in-house developers want to eventually add to the web crosswords.

The inception of the redesign, according to Murphy, was an "innovation challenge." It's an event that occurs a few times a year in which the Times' internal developers are invited to come up with ideas and submit prototypes of projects that would improve the company's online presence. When one developer made an HTML5 version of the crosswords section, said Murphy, "We took that as a jump-start to really give [the crosswords section] the sort of refresh that it needed."

Griggs pointed out the crosswords' built-in difficulty curve — a Monday puzzle is manageable, but it takes a sharp mind to complete a Saturday crossword — as a natural element that keeps players coming back on a daily basis, something many casual games strive for. A more user-friendly experience will also play a part in attracting and retaining players, said Griggs. (The free one-month trial that the Times is currently offering will at least help with the first part; regular monthly subscriptions cost $6.95 while annual subscriptions cost $39.95, and New York Times subscribers receive a 50 percent discount on those prices.)

If the redesign is successful, it could lead to a better crossword experience across the board. "We want to see what the reaction is to this new platform," said Murphy, "as something that we might be able to think about using more broadly."

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