It wasn’t quite fun and games that got the phenomenon started. The Dallas area has long been, and remains, a nexus of video game development. But it was the bust-up, in late 2008, of one of its biggest gaming companies, the Microsoft-owned Ensemble Studios, that threatened to put the Bettners on a bus back home. The Miami natives had come to Dallas in the early aughts, when Ensemble was making a mint with its Age of Empires franchise. And the office perks—an arcade, a screening room—were princely. Microsoft’s money made for plush digs high above Royal Lane and Central Expressway, until the company decided it was game over.
Sitting in the airless and cramped Newtoy conference room that doubles as their COO’s office, the Bettners are still unsure of what happened at Ensemble. Picking over a microwaveable lunch of chicken tikka masala, Paul speculates that Microsoft’s thinking went something like this: “Hey, the studio in Dallas is burning x millions of dollars every month. Why not just close it and spend that money in Redmond?”
Rather than wait to be pushed, the Bettners decided to jump, leaving Ensemble on September 15, 2008—just months before the company shuttered and to the cheers of envious co-workers. Earlier in the year, Apple had launched its app store and had made game development for the iPhone an open invitation to any and all coding geeks—deep-pocketed industry giants such as Electronic Arts as well as the so-called garage developer—who could come up with the $99 it cost to buy its software development kit. There was suddenly, Paul remembers, “incredible excitement about building games for the iPhone, and we thought we could be among the pioneers.”
Absorbing the expense of a rented office space wasn’t a possibility, so the Bettners carved out a corner of the McKinney Public Library, which, for almost a year, they treated as their headquarters. It was working out fine until they began Skyping with their cousin Michael Chow, a young Harvard grad they brought in as a Newtoy co-founder. “It was very quiet Skyping,” Paul says, laughing about the library ruckus they made.
“Put it this way,” David says. “We got a lot of random shushes.”
Desperate to get to market with a product, the Bettners worked on side-by-side laptops—“pair-programming in the extreme,” David says—and within two months had built and delivered to the iTunes Store something called Chess With Friends, the most obvious game they could think of that would be engaging (checkers, meh) but, most important, would fulfill their turn-based gaming concept and vision of the iPhone as a uniquely mobile and flexible gaming platform.
Seeing the fruit of their labor so quickly posted to the iTunes Store had the thrill of a checkmate, even if Chess With Friends turned out to be a bit of a fizzle. While still at the library on McKinney’s town square, they set out to expand their “games with friends” franchise with the next obvious choice: Scrabble.
Or maybe it wasn’t so obvious. Only a handful of months earlier, Hasbro, the toy powerhouse and owner of North American rights to Scrabble, had filed suit against Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, another wily team of brother-programmers whose Scrabulous, a blatant online knock-off of the classic board game, had become a runaway hit on Facebook. The Bettners went to school on the Agarwallas’ troubles. It turns out the similarity in game play between Scrabulous and Scrabble wasn’t necessarily the problem. There are numerous, only slightly modified variations of the Scrabble format—games such as Literati and Alfapet—available online and at the iTunes Store. What got the Agarwallas in Dutch with Hasbro was the appropriation of the Scrabble name.
Eight months after Chess With Friends was launched, and after many hours of close consultation with intellectual property attorneys, Paul and David Bettner floated Words With Friends into the app universe—and held their breath.
“Paul and I had been working almost a year at that point, just burning through our life savings,” David says. “And I was rapidly watching my bank account go down to zero.”
“We both were,” Paul says. “Coming in for a landing! We were literally counting the number of weeks we had to go before we had to get a job.”
Like tiles on a Scrabble board, the Qs and Us mercifully aligned.
“Pretty much all in the same few weeks,” David says, “we sealed a deal for seed money from some investors, signed with [game publisher] NGMOCO to develop We Rule, and Words With Friends was released. Our monetization got a little better.”
Still, they couldn’t afford to properly promote Words With Friends, a game that, unlike the NGMOCO-financed We Rule, they own outright. The Bettners definitely had an “oh, no” moment when, like Chess With Friends before it, their Scrabble copycat failed to gain immediate traction.
But strange things happen in the cybersphere, where Words With Friends slowly became buzz-worthy and eventually a full-blown viral sensation. The game went on “rocket boosters,” Paul says, when just past midnight on October 5 of last year—three months after its initial release—pop star John Mayer tweeted to his 3.2 million followers: “The ‘Words With Friends’ app is the new Twitter.”
Did Newtoy pounce on Mayer’s out-of-nowhere endorsement? “No,” Paul says. “We were too busy keeping our servers from catching on fire!”