If Microsoft is ever going to have its Alec Baldwin moment, it will happen because of a home-brew game called “Wordament.”
Baldwin was famously thrown off a plane in December because he wouldn’t stop playing an addictive word game on his iPhone.
The actor was playing “Words With Friends,” Zynga’s Facebook version of Scrabble played by more than 8 million people a day.
So far the closest thing on the Windows Phone platform is “Wordament,” an extracurricular project of two Microsoft employees that became a surprise hit after its debut last year.
The free, ad-supported app is a twist on the word-hunt board game “Boggle.” You compete with players around the world in two-minute matches and work your way up leader boards.
It’s still a pipsqueak in the broader world of mobile games, with hundreds of thousands of downloads since it appeared on Windows Phone in April 2011 and on Windows 8 last month. It has tens of thousands of unique visitors a day, with up to about 650 playing together at once.
But as one of the highest-rated, exclusive games on those platforms, it’s positioned to lift off. It may even draw people to Microsoft’s fledgling mobile devices, at least if they’re “Boggle” fans.
The game was created as a side project by John Thornton, 37, and Jason Cahill, 38, who worked on the Windows Live photo team and had offices next to each other. They built the game after Microsoft began a “moonlighting” program in 2010, encouraging employees to build Windows Phone apps in their free time.
Thornton (left) began tinkering with word games and made a New Year’s resolution in January 2011 to build an app a month. One was a prototype puzzle game he showed to Cahill and asked if he wanted to help. The answer was no, initially.
Cahill (right) and his wife were “Boggle” fans who played against each other wirelessly on Nintendo DS handhelds. The more he thought about the possibilities of a computer-generated game board connected via Internet services, the more excited he became about the project.
“I went home after telling him this whole lecture on how the way you get ahead at work is by doing work and not by doing moonlighting … and ground all weekend,”Cahill said. “I came in Monday with a basic implementation of a service and a set of puzzles and I was like, ‘OK, can I help on this half’ ?”
This still cracks up Thornton.
“He must have coded the whole weekend after telling me no,” he said. “It was kind of funny.”
Thornton said the game’s popularity sank in for him a few months later, at the Kirkland Fourth of July parade. Looking over the shoulders of a row of people in front of him, he noticed they were all playing the game.
Later that month, the Xbox Live group asked them to distribute “Wordament” through the game service. The Xbox group then hired them, where they’re now the principals of a new studio expanding “Wordament” and developing new titles.
I heard about “Wordament” last year from a friend and fellow “Boggle” fan at Microsoft and was planning to write about the game after the Windows 8 preview version (left) was released in February. But I waited, partly because the game froze on a Samsung Windows 8 tablet I’ve been using. I wondered if the newsroom installed some kind of filter, because I’d spent so much time testing “Wordament” on the tablet.
Finally I got in touch with Cahill last week, and he explained that the Windows 8 version is a prototype and they’re preparing a fix for the “suspend/resume” issue I encountered. Meanwhile, the trick to unfreezing it is the “downward swipe” gesture that closes and exits Metro-style apps.
The game can be played with a mouse but it works best with touch-screens, on which you mark words by sliding your finger across the letters. Speed and responsiveness are critical, so the game’s a good way to sample the performance of a phone or tablet.
“Wordament” seems to be a game that Xbox Live could use to expand on platforms such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
I wonder if “Wordament” will end up preloaded, alongside “Solitaire,” on Windows Phones or Windows 8 tablets when they appear later this year.
The original goal with “Solitaire” on Windows was to teach people to use a computer mouse, so perhaps “Wordament” will help familiarize people with the new Windows 8 touch gestures.
That would propel the game into the “Words With Friends” league.
It could also offset productivity gains promised by the new software, though, and potentially cause problems for Alec Baldwin types.