NYT Crossword App
The New York Times (NYT) Crossword app got its start as the New York Times Crosswords Daily in 2009 and was published by the games company Magmic. NYT took over control in 2014 and recently, has been adding new subscription-only games to entice more users to subscribe to the NYT Crossword app. Most advertising for the app is done through Twitter, although a recent out-of-home campaign — the first ever for the NYT Crossword — debuted in Boston and Seattle. Details of our findings are below.
HISTORY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD APP
Early History with Magmic
- In 2008, The New York Times entered into a year-to-year contract with games company Magmic to develop and host the newspaper's Crossword App on iOS.
- A year later, in April 2009, the New York Times Crosswords Daily 2009 app, which was previously only available for Blackberry at $2.99 per month, became available in the App Store for $9.99.
- Players were required to give the NYT their email addresses to play and were automatically assigned a Magmic profile.
- Features of the Magmic app included the following:
- Players would have the ability to play the daily crossword puzzle from the NYT newspaper.
- They also had access to more than 4,000 puzzles from the NYT Crossword archives.
- Players could send their solve times to their friends for comparison.
- An online leader board allowed players to compete against top players.
- Players could listen to either the in-app soundtrack or import their own music from an iPod.
- Confident players could solve the puzzle in "pen," while less confident solvers could use "pencil."
- Puzzles could be solved in the grid or next to the clues.
- Related clues were automatically highlighted.
- Players could reveal letters, whole words, or the entire puzzle.
The NYT Takes Over
- In December 2013, the NYT began testing a beta version of NYT Crossword app as a "Try Version 2.0" option in the original app interface.
- New features that would be included in version 2.0 were the following:
- The ability to print PDF versions of the puzzle (web app only) was added.
- In response to subscriber requests, the app would feature simplified menus for the "clear," "check," and "reveal" options.
- The puzzles would have larger grids and smaller numbers.
- The ability to complete rebus responses more easily was added.
- The new version featured updated cursor logic so the cursor would skip squares filled with pen, but would not skip squares that are empty or filled with pencil.
- The timer was updated to save a solver's stopping point so that it would start at the correct time when the player returned.
- The New York Times formally took over control of the Crossword App and released the second non-beta version on May 29, 2014.
- This was the first version that was completely produced by he NYT itself, without the involvement of Magmic.
- The transfer of the subscription data from Magmic to the NYT was the "first time that Apple ha[d] ever transitioned user-ids of a subscription app," which as a technically challenging, multi-week process.
- After 900 reviews the app only had an average 1.3-star rating in the iOS App store, with users calling the app "terrible," "a bungled opportunity," and "a major step backwards." Most complaints centered on users losing their past scores and access to the "Times' 18 years of crossword archives."
- The price for a subscription to version 2.0 of the NYT Crossword app was $40 per year or $6.95 per month.
- As of June 11, 2014, the app had 200,000 subscribers.
The Debut of the Mini Crossword
- A few months later, in August 2014, the Mini crossword, constructed by Joel Fagliano, debuted as part of a new app subscription package and would only be available online or in the app.
- The Mini crossword was an attempt to "encourage more people to try the main New York Times crossword puzzle, which is considered one of the toughest — and which many beginner solvers find overly intimidating."
- Product director Matt Hural developed the concept of the Mini, which was a 5x5 crossword puzzle, and added it to the app. The Mini would be offered for free on a daily basis right next to the main crossword puzzle.
- The idea was that beginners would solve the mini each day as a ramp up to solving (and paying for) the main puzzle.
- The NYT found that the Mini was ideal for a "new generation of solvers" because it only took a few minutes to solve.
- The Mini also made a "perfect steppingstone for solvers who’d long been intimidated by the difficulty of the main puzzle" and found a new previously-untapped audience.
- In addition, because each Mini puzzle was created just days before it was published, it could contain topical clues that made it more relevant.
Updates and Device Expansions
- In September 2014, the NYT Crossword app became available for Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, and Windows Surface users could solve the puzzle using a stylus. The same app features were available for Windows as for iOS subscribers.
- In 2015, the Mini became a part of the main NYT news app, which opened up to even more solvers.
- In January 2015, several features and fixes were introduced to The New York Times Crossword Puzzle app for iPhone and iPad. They included the following:
- Average solving times were added for unrevealed puzzles. Once a puzzle is solved (without revealing letters), the app would provide the time it took to solve the puzzle and how that compares with the solver's average time overall.
- If any squares were revealed, that puzzle would not count toward the average, but the time-to-solve would still be provided.
- A highlighting feature was introduced that would highlight the "info" button if there are any notes attached to a puzzle.
- The ability to share solving times to Facebook and Twitter was added.
- The ability to shake the device to undo a letter was added.
- Downloaded puzzles could now be deleted, but would still be available for re-download later and original solving data would be retained.
- A "close button" was added to close the "congratulations" screen.
- In November 2016, the NYT Crossword app was made available to Android users for the first time.
- The Android app included access to the daily crossword puzzle, the daily Mini puzzle, 20 years of archived puzzles, and a "play anywhere feature" that allowed subscribers to continue playing the same puzzle across devices.
- As with the iOS app, the Mini puzzle could be accessed through the Google Play store for free. The subscription rate for the full version was also the same, at $39.95 per year or $6.95 per month, with a 50% discount for NYT digital and home delivery subscribers.
- As of December 25, 2016, the apps had over 245,000 subscribers.
The Games Expansion Team Forms
- In 2017, the NYT formed its "Games Expansion Team" to brainstorm and design new puzzles for the NYT Crossword app.
- The team was tasked with attracting new subscribers — specifically international subscribers — to the app.
- As Eric von Coelln, the Times’ executive director of puzzles stated, "As the Times looks to expand our base, being able to provide the kind of quality… puzzles to a broader international audience, it’s something we’re really looking to do."
- In May 2018, the Crossword app was expanded to include a new puzzle exclusively for subscribers called "Spelling Bee," followed by another subscriber-exclusive puzzle, "Letter Boxed" in January 2019.
- As part of a marketing incentive to lure more people to the Crossword App, "Spelling Bee" was offered for free to non-subscribers during the 2018 holiday season.
- In June 2018, subscribers to the NYT Crosswords app topped 400,000.
- On June 10, 2019, a new puzzle called "Tiles" was added to the NYT Crossword app.
- The addition of "Tiles" was meant to be a "low-stakes game to help users relax and wind down, offering them what game designers hope will be an appealing, 'not too stressful' puzzle."
- In the first quarter of 2019, the NYT Crossword app had more than 500,000 subscribers and more than 60% are standalone subscribers.
- In the future, the NYT could look at spinning these new puzzles off into standalone apps, as the "Games Expansion Team" is "creating a product that has standalone value, but being inside the Times brand gives us even more ways of expanding that value to drive revenue for the Times."
Current App Features
- Current subscriber features of the NYT Crossword app include the following:
- The NYT Daily and Mini Crossword puzzles are downloaded to the app before they appear in print (at 10 p.m. ET on weekdays and at 6 p.m. ET on weekends).
- Players have access to more than 10,000 NYT puzzles, including the Daily puzzles through 1993 and the Minis through 2014.
- Players can access the puzzles on their computers, iOS devices, Android devices, and Kindle devices.
- Every day at 3:00 a.m.ET, a new Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed puzzle is downloaded to the app.
- Players have access to PDF copies of various puzzles that have appeared since 1997 in the Sunday Magazine.
- For online subscribers (not mobile), there is access to the acrostics puzzles that have appeared since 1999 in the Sunday Magazine.
- Players have access to the subscriber-only bonus puzzles through 1997.
- Players can connect all devices through their New York Times account and sync their progress (puzzle packs are currently only available on the device on which they were purchased).
- Players have access to Across Lite, a third-party application developed by Litsoft, that allows web and mobile web users the ability to print and play puzzles with the file extension .puz. (This software is not developed or supported by The New York Times).
- Current prices for the NYT Crossword app are $6.99 per month or $39.99 per year, but the "Bite-Sized Minis" pack can be purchased for $0.99, "Best Easy Puzzles Ever" pack can be purchased for $4.99, and the "Mega-Mondays" and "Easy Jumbos" packs can be purchased for $8.99 each.
- Current non-subscriber features of the NYT Crossword app include the following:
- Non-subscribers can access the daily Mini crossword puzzle for free.
- They also have access to three archived crossword puzzles per month.
- The games KenKen, Sudoku, and SET are also free for non-subscribers to play.
- Non-subscribers can also purchase puzzle packs that consist of new puzzles or curated archived puzzles.
List of Versions, Updates, and Fixes (iOS Only)
- This list is provided as insight into how often the NYT Crossword app is updated and what types of updates are made.
- January 26, 2016 (This is the first update noted on the App Store) — Version 2.7.0 — A "tab bar" was introduced, which would make the app easier to navigate and fixes were made to the archive calendar, syncing capabilities, cursor skipping, and the "Congrats" message.
- May 4, 2016 — Version 2.7.1 — Added the ability to use AirPlay to stream the NYT Crossword puzzle to Apple TV and fixed notifications.
- September 7, 2016 — Version 2.7.2 — The authentication and login system was upgraded to improve the syncing process.
- September 8, 2016 — Version 2.7.3 — Fixed a crashing problem.
- October 6, 2016 — Version 2.7.4 — Optimized the app for iOS 10 and fixed a statistics reporting issue.
- January 23, 2017 — Version 2.8.0 — Made access to the Mini and Daily puzzles easier, and fixed the "new-puzzle notification toggle on the profile screen."
- February 13, 2017 — Version 2.8.1 — Improved puzzle packs screen display for the iPad.
- June 29, 2017 — Version 2.8.2 — Added a prompt to ask user if they would like to continue their last puzzle if they have minimized the screen for longer than a minute.
- September 7, 2017 — Version 2.8.4 — Fixed an issue with limited access during airplane mode and improved app stability.
- October 10, 2017 — Version 2.8.5 — Optimized the app for iOS 11 and fixed statistics and puzzle pack screen display issues.
- November 13, 2017 — Version 2.8.6 — Fixed contrast puzzle settings and crashing issues.
- January 8, 2018 — Version 2.9.0 — Added a direct link to the Wordplay column for tips on completing puzzles, improved the Voice Over accessibility for visually impaired users, and optimized the app for iPhone X.
- February 14, 2018 — Version 2.9.1 — Fixed crashing issues when restoring purchases of puzzle packs.
- March 28, 2017 — Version 2.10 — Added a security update.
- May 17. 2018 — Version 2.11 — Updated the settings screens for easier account management and added social sign-on capability for Facebook and Google.
- May 23, 2018 — Version 2.12 — Bug fixes.
- June 17, 2018 — Version 2.13 — Pinch-in and zoom fixes and visual enhancements.
- July 23, 2018 — Version 2.14 — Added additional encouragement for puzzles that are nearly solved.
- August 29, 2018 — Version 2.15 — Introduced Autocheck, a new feature that allows the answers to be checked by the letter and fixed a keyboard display issue.
- August 31, 2018 — Version 2.15.1 — Additional bugs fixed.
- September 25, 2018 — Version 2.16 — Introduced Siri shortcuts for "Solve the Crossword" and "Solve the Mini" for iOS 12 users and introduced a "From the Archive" section that highlights recommended puzzles based on user skill.
- November 8, 2018 — Version 2.17 — Improved Voice Over capabilities and added additional solver feedback and encouragement.
- December 17, 2018 — Version 2.18 — Added a highlighting feature of the "day of the week streaks."
- March 19, 2019 — Version 2.19 — Updated the iOS password manager integrations and re-added the feature that shows how many puzzles are left to solve in a puzzle pack.
- June 24, 2019 — Version 3.0 — Added leader boards for the Mini Crossword puzzle, updated "Recent Puzzles" to be a part of the "Play" tab, and added a highlighting feature for puzzles not yet solved.
Historical Marketing Strategies
- Not much appears in the way of marketing in the early years of The New York Times Crosswords Daily 2009 app.
- On the NYT Crossword web page, subscribers could print and play the NYT Daily crossword puzzle for $39.95 per year or $6.95 per month. Home delivery subscribers received free access, but there is no mention of the actual iPhone app from Magmic.
- In October 2009, a small blurb advertising the Magmic app shows up on the NYT Crossword page.
- The link from the web page blurb leads to a short description of the app, which states, "Magmic Games and The New York Times are pleased to offer mobile versions of the world standard in Crossword and Sudoku puzzles. Both applications give users access to the same daily puzzles featured in The New York Times print edition with elegant user interfaces and multiplayer features. Officially licensed by The New York Times."
- The NYT Crossword web page remained largely the same through 2012, but in 2013, the page dropped all information about the app, which coincided with the NYT takeover of the app.
- It wasn't until August 1, 2015 that a new web page design appeared on the NYT Crossword page, when links to the Mini crossword, the subscriber page, and to other puzzles went live on the website.
- On the "Subscribe to The New York Times Crossword" page, potential subscribers saw an offer for one month free, with access to the paper's "newly redesigned app" and the ability to "start a puzzle on one device and finish it on another."
- In addition, the new subscriber page showed that Times subscribers received 50% off their crossword subscription.
- The price remained the same, at $39.95 for a year or $6.95 per month and it was available on the App Store or the Windows Store.
- The NYT Crossword page looked generally the same until 2019, when it changed slightly to include mention of one of the new puzzles available on the app (Spelling Bee) and a new way of advertising the price. For instance, rather than show the $39.95 per year and the $6.95 per month, the new site showed 81¢ per week (pay monthly) or 38¢ per week (pay yearly).
- On the checkout page, it showed a total of $3.47 per month or $19.97 per year, which was the discounted price for subscribers. The full price was not advertised on the website.
Current Marketing Strategies
- Currently, the New York Times Crossword app is advertised on the "Mobile Apps" page of the NYT website.
- The links on the "Mobile Apps" page lead to the current New York Times Crossword app App Store download page, where the app currently has a 4.9-star rating on 48,500 reviews, and to the Google Play store download page, where the app currently has a 3.8-star rating on 2,490 reviews.
- In February 2019, The New York Times launched an ad campaign for the Crossword Puzzle and specifically, the NYT Crossword Puzzle app.
- The campaign, which debuted in Seattle and Boston, was an "out-of-home effort for the Crossword centered on the line 'Wordplay, every day,'" and encouraged "viewers to download the crossword app."
- The advertisement showed "whimsical illustrated grids" and suggested times when playing the crossword could be a nice diversion (such as waiting for coffee to cool or for a date to show up).
- The campaign is specifically focused on the Mini Crossword, which takes just minutes to complete, but as seen earlier, it is a clever mechanism for getting people to eventually subscribe to the full puzzle.
- According to OOH Today, this campaign represented the first out-of-home marketing effort ever for the NYT Crossword puzzle and ran through March 21, 2019.
- Advertisements were visible in Boston on digital out-of-home screens, billboards, on train station platforms, on buses, and in bus shelters. In Seattle, they were seen on light rail trains and in city buses.
- As mentioned by The Drum, "The Times remains focused on growing Crossword subscriptions and engaging even more players by introducing new puzzles and games."
- The NYT Crossword puzzle also has its own Twitter account which appears to have been created in 2016, but this is used for both the print and digital versions. Advertisements include the following:
- On May 17. 2017, the NYT Crossword app for Android was promoted both on Twitter and at Google IO 2017.
- On June 12, 2017, the Mini Crossword was promoted, in addition to the Children's Mini Crossword Contest.
- On November 17, 2017, the Android version of the NYT Crossword app was advertised on Twitter.
- On May 9, 2018, the Spelling Bee, a subscriber-only game, was introduced, but offered for free to non-subscribers through September 27, 2018.
- On June 22, 2018, the Spelling Bee and NYT Crossword Puzzle app were advertised together.
- On November 20 and again on November 25, 2018, the NYT offered Spelling Bee free for non-subscribers for a limited time.
- On January 25, 2019, the NYT advertised its new subscriber-only puzzle, Letter Boxed.
- On March 7, 2019, Letter Boxed was offered for free for non-subscribers for a limited time.
- The other games included with the Crossword subscription, Spelling Bee and Letter Boxed, were advertised through Twitter on April 22, 2019.
- On April 29, 2019, the NYT offered Spelling Bee free for non-subscribers for a limited time.
- On June 10, 2019, the new puzzle included with subscriptions, Tiles, was advertised.
To find the history of the New York Times Crossword app, we used media articles directly from the NYT, along with those from other reputable outlets such as CBSNews, Adage, Adweek, The Drum, and OOH Today, among others; the NYT Crossword blog; industry publications such as Polygon, Windows Central, and TouchArcade, among others; and the Internet Archive tool known as the Wayback Machine. This allowed us to provide a comprehensive timeline of the NYT Crossword app. We made sure to exclude any references to the print version of the puzzle, except where the two puzzles were advertised or linked in the same publication.
In an effort to determine how the NYT Crossword app has and is being marketed, we again used the Wayback Machine to provide screenshots of advertisements. During our research, we discovered that until 2017, the newspaper did not advertise the app much at all, and in fact, did not seem to place any ads outside the newspaper's website. In an attempt to find such ads, we used the Times' own website (by way of the Wayback Machine), reputable marketing-focused sources (including Adage, Adweek, and The Drum), social media, and commercial archive sites like iSpot and Quartz. Unfortunately, all we found was a brief mention of the app when it first became available in 2009 and commercials for the newspaper itself.
However, in 2017, a new Games Expansion Team was formed and this is when we finally found some advertisements for the app and new subscriber-only games on Twitter. It became apparent that social media has been the primary marketing outlet for the NYT Crossword since then. In 2019, though, it appears that the Games Expansion Team and the NYT are beginning to branch out as a first-ever out-of-home campaign to advertise the NYT Crossword app was launched in Boston and Seattle. This was the only formal off-Twitter advertising we were able to identify. However, media interviews with the Games Expansion Team members and other executives at NYT appear to be strategic marketing moves as well. The primary mechanisms for gaining subscribers until now are word-of-mouth, NYT subscriber discounts, the introduction of new subscriber-only puzzles, and social media.
Note that by necessity for the historical nature of this request, many sources are beyond our 24-month limits. In addition, some information that may not be available through the Wayback Machine without using the filters has been added to a separate Google document for easier retrieval.