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May 14, 2024, 2:35 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Apple News adds a new original game to boost News+ subscriptions

The news aggregator app has focused on puzzles and games that are “more welcoming to newcomers.”

It’s a golden age for those who like to play low-stakes games on the internet. Heck, even LinkedIn knows once-a-day puzzles are great for engagement and getting users to come back again and again.

And now we have another game to add to the mix. On Monday, Apple debuted an original word game, called Quartiles, for Apple News+ subscribers. With the rollout of iOS 17.5, the game is available to Apple News+ subscribers (it’s $13 a month) based in the U.S. and Canada.

As The New York Times did with its hit game Connections, Apple developed its original game in-house. Some have compared the new game to Wordle, but Quartiles reminded me more of Spelling Bee, with two- or three-letter chunks — instead of individual letters — used to find as many words as possible. (Noting the similarity isn’t necessarily a knock, by the way. Those LinkedIn games? One rave review noted “it’s remarkable, and almost shameless, how closely LinkedIn follows the Times’ formula.”)

The New York Times has seen success bundling non-news products like Games into subscriptions. Exclusive-to-the-Times games like Wordle, Connections, and Spelling Bee have been key to attracting millions of users — including the many who don’t identify as cruciverbalists. (The New Yorker’s Name Drop and Vulture’s Cinematrix are other original games developed by news organizations.) Apple began working on ideas for its own original word game soon after crossword puzzles were first introduced in the Apple News app and it became clear just how well the puzzles engaged and retained readers.

In Quartiles, bonus points are given for four-tile words — hence the name! — and users climb through rankings like Apprentice, Builder, Wordsmith, and Expert as they create words. (“Expert” seems somewhat less likely than “Queen Bee” to inspire its own merch.) A “streak tracker” helps encourage users to return.

Apple is now five years into selling Apple News+ subscriptions alongside Apple TV+ and Apple Music in its profitable services business. The original game is just one of several new features rolled out for users of the news aggregator app in recent months. Apple has also invested in editors to help curate news stories. It’s launched professionally narrated versions of partner publication pieces and rolled out original news podcasts like the daily News Today and In Conversation hosted by former WNYC journalist Shumita Basu.

The audio array is not dissimilar to what The New York Times decided to offer in its standalone audio app, though there, narrated journalism skews heavily toward the Times’ own work while Apple News features work across hundreds of partner publications.

The newest Apple News update also includes an oft-requested offline mode so users can read and listen to the news without an internet or cellular connection. The app will automatically download personalized content based on the user’s news habits. For the president, reportedly a regular Apple News user, that would apparently include the latest articles on “unusual animal behavior.”

Hoping to make the app a daily habit for more users, Apple has put special effort into its puzzles — starting with a daily crossword and bite-sized mini in 2023 and adding stat-focused features like streaks, leaderboards, and personal records.

“Crossword puzzles are the perfect complement to news,” Puzzles editor Ross Trudeau wrote when introducing the puzzles last year. “Unlike much of what we read about in headlines, the crossword represents a challenge that, with a little effort, reveals itself to have a tidy set of answers. It’s a problem designed to be solved.”

Trudeau said Apple would take “a modern approach” to puzzles in an effort to make them “more welcoming to newcomers.” He explained:

“We want to challenge the attitude that you have to know obscure things to solve crosswords. With apologies to medieval-verse enthusiasts, we won’t be asking solvers to conjure answer words like Edda or eterne,” Trudeau wrote. “We also intend to eliminate the opaque and coded language often seen in crossword clues. In an old-school puzzle, USSR might get a clue like ‘Erstwhile federation for Brezhnev, briefly.’ That won’t be us. We’ll use plain language: ‘Country that broke up in ’91.”

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     May 14, 2024, 2:35 p.m.
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