Skip to main content
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Wordles collide: ‘Wordle!’ developer donates $50,000 after old app goes viral by accident

(The Washington Post illustration; Dimitry Loiseau)
7 min

Steven Cravotta is the lone creator of “Wordle!” — no, not that one. Six years ago, the self-taught developer built a word-based puzzle app for fun. Cravotta, who was 18 at the time, originally thought the project was a bust; its average daily download rate was in the single digits. Then last December he checked the app’s stats and noticed it had 500,000 downloads in a span of five days. After some digging, he realized a slew of people looking for the viral, web-only game “Wordle,” created by software engineer Josh Wardle, were mistakenly downloading his app instead.

Cravotta’s beloved side project has since become the No. 1 game in the App Store in eight countries, and the 24-year-old is cashing in on that success for a good cause — and with Wardle’s blessing. This week, Cravotta is donating $50,000 of the revenue generated through his “Wordle!” app to a charity they both agreed upon.

“It’s crazy to think back during that time when I was building [‘Wordle!’], because I was literally reading through a dictionary on the Internet and putting words into the game manually,” Cravotta told The Washington Post via Zoom. “I just had no idea it was going to blow up like this down the road.”

Cravotta’s “Wordle!” sits at 8 million downloads and is only available in Apple’s App Store. It features a few different games that have players guessing or spelling words with a limited number of attempts. By contrast, Wardle’s “Wordle,” which the New York Times recently acquired for an undisclosed seven-figure price tag, is a single game that gives users six chances to guess a daily five-letter word.

What’s today’s 'Wordle' answer? It depends on which site you use.

Wardle’s game, currently only playable via web browser, launched in October and grew in popularity in large part thanks to Twitter, with users sharing cryptic photos of their green-tiled victories. Its success has since spawned a wave of adaptations and themed knockoffs — some of which have attempted to profit off the mistaken identity.

Given how similar the names of Wardle’s and Cravotta’s creations are, naturally some players have been confused about which game is which.

“Confession, I’ve been playing the wrong ‘Wordle,’ ” one user tweeted earlier this month.

Cravotta first became aware of the app’s breakaway success around Christmas. The developer was home spending time with family in Atlanta, and hadn’t paid much attention to the app’s metrics dashboard for a couple of days. Back then, “Wordle!” averaged around two to three downloads per day.

“I had no reason to build this app other than I enjoyed doing this,” he said. “It was my passion. And you know, I didn’t think anything was going to come of it, I just thought it would be cool to have my friends play a game that I put on the App Store.”

Meet Worldle, the geography guessing game its creator calls a ‘tribute’ to Wordle

When he finally checked the app’s stats that week, he saw a single vertical line that shot upward, indicating a major uptick in downloads. Cravotta initially though fake accounts or spammers were responsible — after all, what app gets half a million downloads in less than a week seemingly out of nowhere?

“I thought someone had sent robot downloads to my app, or whatever,” he said. “But I did a quick Google search, and obviously, Josh Wardle’s game came up — ‘Wordle.’ ”

He rushed downstairs to tell his parents the good news.

“I freaked out,” Cravotta, who’s now based in Santa Monica, Calif., said. “I was like, ‘This is insane. This guy made this great game, and people are confusing it for mine.' ”

While the “Wordle!” app doesn’t cost anything to download, developers of free apps can still earn revenue via in-app advertising, in-app purchases or affiliated marketing. After noticing his app’s spike in revenue, Cravotta immediately messaged Wardle, from one developer to another, about the mix-up.

“I read how [Wardle initially] didn’t want to put ads on it or make any revenue off of his game — and I respected that,” he said.

Despite the similarities between the games, down to the titles, Cravotta said that it never crossed his mind to take legal action.

“Absolutely never ever crossed my mind,” he said. “Josh and I teamed up instead to make a positive impact on the world. We uplifted each other.”

With Wardle’s support, Cravotta decided to donate $50,000 of the app’s revenue to Boost West Oakland. Boost provides free tutoring and mentorship for children in Oakland, Calif. — the city where Wardle, who now lives in Brooklyn, used to be based. Seeing as both games centered on word puzzles, Cravotta felt the money should go to a literacy-focused nonprofit. Wardle agreed.

“It’s almost fate that Josh and I were connected,” Cravotta said. “What’s great about our generation is we are not here to go after each other, but uplift each other’s ideas and make the world a better place while doing it.”

You shouldn’t cheat at 'Wordle.' But here’s a weird way that you can.

But besides developing apps, working a day job at an advertising agency, and running his own TikTok ad agency, Cravotta — dressed in a plain white T-shirt — said he’s not too different from other 24-year-olds. Beyond being an entrepreneur and a big gamer, he loves Italian pasta, going to the beach and hyping up his friends to create unique projects of their own.

“This is what I love to do — creating cool stuff,” Cravotta said.

Cravotta’s career was inspired by his role model of a dad, who has a background in sales. Having grown up with social media, it wasn’t long before he found himself promoting products and showing companies how to gain traction online. But still, he felt something was missing.

“I wanted to promote something that I built — something that was my own,” he said. “And so that’s kind of how I came to start developing my own products. And that led to me building websites that I could put ads on, and then eventually building apps that I could promote and, you know, earn revenue from.”

Cravotta learned how to code, build websites and, eventually, create apps by watching YouTube videos — all part of his side hustle at the time.

“It was the coolest feeling in the world to build something that other people were using,” he said.

Though there’s much uncertainty in the world of entrepreneurship and content development, Cravotta said taking risks is part of the experience.

“I think a huge part of being successful is just taking bets on yourself. It's kind of what I live by,” he said. “And that's definitely one of my main goals — to inspire other young entrepreneurs to start doing this. Even if you don't see the long-term benefit yet, just start doing stuff that you're passionate about.”

His latest project, Puff Count, which is also free on the App Store, helps people manage their vaping habits to quit. Cravotta built the app after watching several of his close friends struggle with vaping addictions. The app reached 30,000 downloads within the first month.

“If I was building games that were getting hundreds of thousands of downloads, I knew I could build a product that could help the same amount of people live healthier lives,” he said.

Looking ahead, Cravotta would like to create and develop apps that speak to this larger goal of helping people.

“I think creating games is cool,” he said. “But I’m definitely much more interested in building products that help people live better lives. And, that’s not to say I won’t build games in the future, but I think right now, that is my main mission. I think that’s what I’m here to do.”

Amanda Florian is an independent journalist based between the U.S. and Shanghai, China. Her specialties include Internet culture, language, music, and China’s new media scene. Florian’s work has appeared in CNN, NBC, USA Today, Discover Magazine, Rest of World, The Charlotte Observer, and more.