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Originally published May 4, 2014 at 8:01 PM | Page modified May 5, 2014 at 9:08 PM

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‘Snap Attack’ builds on popular Microsoft game ‘Wordament’

A small operation inside Microsoft is about to come out with another puzzle-like game that it hopes will match the success of its first one, word for word.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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One of Microsoft’s best mobile apps is about to hatch a sibling.

No — not Office on the iPad.

I’m talking about “Wordament,” the ridiculously addictive word game that two Microsoft employees built at home in their spare time.

The Boggle-like game was so good, Microsoft acquired it and moved the creators, Jason Cahill and John Thornton, into the entertainment group where they now have a five-person studio supplemented by five outside contractors.

“Wordament” isn’t in the same class as “Temple Run” or “Angry Birds.” But since launching three years ago, it has kept growing and now draws about 1 million players a month. They compete against each other in a continuous series of two-minute matches that are orchestrated by the Xbox Live gaming service.

The free, ad-funded game is now the 12th most-used “modern” app on Windows 8 and serves more ads than any Microsoft game because people spend so much time playing it.

As an encore, the team is launching a sequel called “Wordament Snap Attack,” which will be available for Windows Phones and Windows PCs on Tuesday, and later this summer for Android and iOS devices.

“Snap Attack” is a free, Scrabble-type game in which players receive seven letters they can use over and over to make words during a 2½-minute session. The letters snap into place on the game board, which has a few words in place to build upon.

At the end of each round players are shown words they could have created and how their score ranks on a global leaderboard. Then it starts all over again, with a new game board each time.

Compared with “Wordament,” “Snap Attack” is a bit more complicated, and it may take a few rounds to get the hang of it.

But there’s potentially a much bigger audience, Cahill said, since there are more Scrabble players than Boggle players in the world.

The new game probably won’t help Microsoft catch Apple and Google in the mobile space. But it may appeal to those who do use the platform and those who wonder if it’s still possible for creative new projects to hatch and grow amid Microsoft’s giant, established businesses.

“Wordament” grew and grew in part because Cahill and Thornton showed up early for the “devices and services” party in Redmond — before Microsoft formally decided to get its online services onto as many devices as possible, whether or not they’re running Windows.

They initially built “Wordament” just for Windows Phone, after employees were encouraged to build apps to improve the platform’s then-meager selection.

Then they released versions for Android and iOS devices, where “Wordament” has become one of the top word games in several countries. It’s also available on Windows 8, Kindle and the new Android-based Nokia X phones.

At first the team built different versions for each platform. Then it turned to an outside vendor called Xamarin and used its tools to build a single version that runs on Windows, iOS and Android.

Taking the game to competing platforms initially raised some eyebrows — and drew sharp emails from some executives — but the strategy proved out.

About half the game play now happens on iOS and Android. But Windows usage also picked up, once players could share the game and compete with friends and family using different devices.

“If you could only email other Windows Phones that would be terrible, right?” Thornton said. “It’s kind of like that. You want to be able to play with anybody that has another phone.”

Windows is still the biggest platform for “Wordament” though, and it’s especially popular among Microsoft employees.

If you’re on a bus or waiting for a Little League game to start on the Eastside, look at what people are doing with their phones. Chances are good that you’ll see someone killing time with a few rounds of “Wordament.”

The game is also popular overseas, where Windows Phone’s uptake is greater than in the U.S. It’s now offered in 15 languages and 56 percent of its users are abroad.

Keeping up with the growth and internationalization kept Cahill and Thornton from pursuing other game concepts they had until recently.

A turning point came in September, when Cahill vacationed in Hawaii. Some people like to sunbathe or swim there, but Cahill thinks it’s the perfect place to write puzzle-making software.

“Writing puzzle-makers is actually my vacation. I enjoy that,” he said.

On the airplane?

“On the beach, on the lanai, you’re just like, wow, this is the best place in the world to make a puzzle-maker.”

Thornton doesn’t get it either.

“I was at the office getting Skypes from him. He was like, ‘Check this out! Check this out!’ ” Thornton said, laughing. “I was like, dude, you need to go swim.”

But the project was rolling and soon they had playable prototypes. They reused about 80 percent of the “Wordament” code, including lexicons drawn from Microsoft’s Office suite.

The team also tapped Microsoft’s cloud-computing service to run the complex program that generates “Snap Attack” boards. Cahill said it takes 240 virtual machines on Azure 22 hours to generate one month of puzzles for the game.

“Snap Attack” is launching Tuesday on the Windows Store for Windows Phone 8 and 8.1 and Windows 8.1.

Versions for iOS and Android are ready but they won’t be released until summer. They’re all-in on the devices and services strategy, but the home team still gets a head start.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com



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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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