Puzzle Making

A new offering is being beta tested, and a small team of passionate puzzle makers at The Times talk about how an idea becomes a game.

An illustration of three hands coming together over an abstract presentation of colorful numbers, math symbols and code colored in blue, green, red and yellow.
Credit…An Chen

Deb Amlen

A new game called Digits will be available this week for a limited-time beta release by the New York Times Games team. The beta test is available to everyone and is free to play.

In the game, players are presented with six numbers and they need to combine them using common mathematical operations to reach a predetermined total. It was made in-house by the Games team, which is led by Jonathan Knight, the general manager.

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The Digits game board as it appears in the beta test.Credit…New York Times Games

Digits is a departure from the language-based fare that The Times’s puzzle lovers have grown used to, but Mr. Knight says that the team is excited to offer something that provides balance to the suite of games.

Most of the games offered by The Times are handcrafted — every day, a human being is involved with the puzzles in some way — and that is a point of pride for Mr. Knight and the team. In a March 9 interview on the Naavik Gaming Podcast, Mr. Knight elaborated, saying that constant engagement is not the team’s goal, as it is for some companies. Neither is producing an abundance of games.

The priority is to produce puzzles that are “thoughtfully made, thoughtfully played” — that’s the team motto. Players should be left feeling that their interaction with the game was “time well spent,” according to Mr. Knight.

Most gaming studios go through a fairly standard process in order to bring a new project to life, but there is one thing that differentiates the games made by The New York Times from those made by other companies.

“It’s fairly democratic,” Zoe Bell, the executive producer of New York Times Games, said in an interview. Anyone on the Games team can pitch an idea. It’s a departure from the process at Ms. Bell’s past jobs, where only the game designers were allowed to contribute ideas.

New York Times Games holds an annual event called Game Jam and, yes, toast and jars of jam are provided for the attendees.

“Game Jam is a ‘hackathon’ for games,” Ms. Bell explained, “and we treat it here as a way to explore new games and new features for existing games, anything new for our game products.”

But just because an idea is pitched does not mean that it will be greenlighted.

“We want a handful of games that we’re really proud of, with a lot of following and engagement,” Mr. Knight said. He cited Spelling Bee and Wordle as examples of these types of games. (While Spelling Bee was made in-house, Wordle was made by Josh Wardle, a game developer, and sold to The Times.)

The team breaks the game development process down into phases, and Mr. Knight and other members of the Games team shared their general process.

The first phase, of course, consists of coming up with an idea that has potential for development.

During Game Jam, a pitch is developed into a presentation that explains what the game is, how it addresses the needs of the Games audience and why it should move forward. It also includes a rudimentary prototype. Other members of the team can pitch in as needed to polish the prototype.

Digits was based on two European television game shows, “Des Chiffres et des Lettres,” a French program about numeracy and vocabulary that began in 1965, and “Countdown,” an English show that started in 1982. Ms. Bell had seen the French show and was fascinated by how intense the gameplay was.

For Game Jam 2021, Ms. Bell teamed up with John Westwig, a software engineer, and Dylan Campbell, a producer, to create a version of the game that players would find both challenging and fun. (Mr. Westwig no longer works at The Times)

A concept committee evaluates the presentation and rudimentary game prototype during Game Jam. This committee consists of leaders from Games’s product, production, design, editorial and research functions, as well as Mr. Knight. The team members who came up with the concept check in with the committee throughout the process.

The concept committee greenlighted the Digits prototype in late 2021 and the team began work on the project, which included an initial public beta test. After a delay to focus on integrating Wordle into the Games framework, Digits — which was called Order of Operations at the time — moved on to the next phase in early 2023.

The purpose of this phase is to develop a Game Design Document and build a wireframe of the game, which is a more advanced design of the game board. The document answers many of the same questions as the pitch presentation, but it also delves further into “finding the fun” in the game.

“In the context of what we’re making, we want people to feel smart, we want people to feel rewarded, that they used their time well,” Heidi Erwin, a digital puzzle designer and prototyper on the team, said in an interview. Ms. Erwin added that the team’s goal was to make players feel as though playing the game was an interesting and unique experience.

Two elements are discussed during this phase: what game makers call the “core loop” and the “core action,” both of which keep the players coming back for more.

In Digits, for example, the core loop is entering numbers and orders of operation repeatedly in order to figure out the correct path to the total. The core action is tapping the numbers on the screen. The visual impact of the game can also influence the perceived level of fun.

The team also begins to discuss accessibility issues and aesthetics at this stage. The game values are further fine-tuned during discussions about gameplay issues, such as what a level consists of, whether the levels should be timed and whether streaks or clues should be provided.

The concept committee reviews the G.D.D. and, if it’s greenlighted, a prototype of the game is built.

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The rules and an early prototype of the Digits game board.Credit…The New York Times

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Credit…The New York Times

The goal in this phase is to create a playable experience that shows a fun and engaging game. While it is not yet ready for public view, it is functional and can be used by the research staff for play testing. Ms. Erwin and Bella Virgilio, a senior software engineer, build the prototypes. Their job, as Ms. Virgilio said in a message, is to make the prototype feel like a New York Times game.

The game is tuned further based on feedback from the play test. In early Digits testing, for example, the respondents said that the game became too hard too quickly, so that issue was addressed by improving communication to players about level difficulty. The G.D.D. is updated to include requirements for running the game over the long-term, which includes content and production tools.

The new prototype is evaluated by the concept committee and, if it is greenlighted, shared with the entire Games team for a larger internal play test. More feedback is gathered, and any additional bugs that are caught are fixed before the beta version is shown to the public.

The prep phase is a complex process that involves New York Times staff from other parts of the company.

The legal team does a search for copyright issues with the game’s name. The Games departmental directors and marketing team help decide what types of marketing are needed. More puzzles are added so that players won’t run out during the beta.

More user research may be conducted if the team decides it needs more feedback. Quality assurance managers are asked to test the game for functionality and performance.

Design issues such as color palette and logo development are addressed by product designers. Tiffany Pai, an art director on the Brand team, created the icon and color palette for Digits.

“Earlier on in the process,” she said, “we had considered using orange for Digits to tie it more explicitly with our other numbers game, Sudoku.”

After some debate, she said, she and the team decided that the diversity of color across the Games portfolio worked, and that green was a calm and joyful color to represent the new game.

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The Digits logo, designed by Tiffany Pai on The Times’s Brand team.Credit…The New York Times

Before the game goes to the public, a greenlight committee reviews it. This group is broader than the concept committee and includes directors from all of the departments that have been involved up to this point.

New games such as Digits are beta tested publicly, in the mobile Play section of the New York Times home page.

While the beta version of the game is being tested, any bugs that are found are watched carefully by the team, but only the most urgent — those that may interfere with gameplay or scoring — are fixed at this point. Diving in to fix everything can interfere with the responses to the beta test.

Based on the results of the test, the greenlight committee decides whether to move it into the development phase, where the game is coded and the designs are finalized. If the response to the game isn’t what the team is hoping for, the committee must decide whether further tuning would be helpful or if the development of the game should end.

Puzzle lovers can try Digits here.

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