Words with Friends rising in McKinney, on iTunes

By Danny Gallagher
Reprinted with permission of the McKinney Courier-Gazette
dgallagher@acnpapers.com

David and Paul Bettner sit at a corner table of a downtown coffee shop on W. Louisiana Street, engrossed in their laptops like so many coffee house regulars.

They type furiously across lines of unrecognizable gibberish that only a true tech-head could decipher, pausing to test out a word game on the screen or their iPhones.

From a distance, they look like any member of Generation-X, mooching off of a cafŽ’s wireless Internet connection so they can write a blog post or check up on their fantasy football team. However, this seemingly familiar scene was taken back in May of 2009 and the Bettner brothers are developing a game that will become one of the most successful iPhone apps and downloaded games of all time.

“If we were ever going to have a chance to start our own game company,” David said in 2009, “this is our chance to take it.”

They not only built their game company. They built it into an unmitigated gaming powerhouse that created “Words with Friends,” one of the highest rated and most downloaded apps on the Apple iTunes store.

“We always had high hopes for Words With Friends,” Paul said by email, “but only in our wildest dreams did we think it would become as successful as it has.”

The brothers first worked for Ensemble Studios in Dallas, a game development company brought by Microsoft in 2004 that developed popular titles such as “Halo Wars” and “Age of Empires.” They developed Newtoy just before the studio closed and laid off its staff of 200-plus people. They decided the time was right to work on games for the newly released Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, starting with a turn based multiplayer chess game called “Chess with Friends.”

The success of their first app enabled them to hire a few more people for their small-staffed studio. They still toured the downtown coffee bars and restaurants and even the public library to use their public Wi-Fi connections, they started work on “Words with Friends,” a “Scrabble” inspired word game that pits iPhone users against each other.

The response made it an essential download for iPhone users from all walks of life. It not only received critical acclaim from industry experts and magazines such as “Wired” and blogs such as “TechCrunch” but has also been downloaded by millions of iPhone users. It remains one of the top 25 highest grossing apps in Apple’s iTunes store after more than a year on the market.

Naturally, the game has a huge fan base from unofficial online communities that hold regular tournaments to celebrity status players such as musician John Mayer and practically every player in the Texas Rangers’ and Dallas Stars’ clubhouses.

“It seems like hardly a week goes by without seeing a reference to ‘Words With Friends’ somewhere in pop culture,” Paul said. “Just this week, Jason Bateman raved about us on the Jimmy Fallon show.”

This spreading, non-lethal computer virus isn’t immune from McKinney’s legion of drive-by gamers either. Joseph Martin, a mechanical engineer from Raytheon who lives in McKinney, picked up both “Chess” and “Words” for his iPad six months ago. He has six games going at once and not a day goes by that he doesn’t make his move. He only plays on the iPad because if he had an iPhone, “I wouldn’t get any work done.”

“I’m, in my never to be humble opinion, very good at ‘Words with Friends,'” Martin said. “I play fairly competitively as far as the people I play against. I work very hard to win.”

McKinney District 4 Councilman Ray Ricchi admits to being a fan of the Bettner brothers’ creation. He said he plays with his family and friends throughout the day at the office and in-between meetings, but never, of course, during city council sessions.

“It’s a great way to play games with your children,” Ricchi said who more than a few games going with his 12 and 17-year-old boys. “Back when I was growing up, my grandparents and me would sit around and play board games at night but with all the activities that the kids are involved in and everything I’m involved in, this is a great way to keep in contact and be with your kids another way.”

Martin said “Words with Friends” offers word game aficionados a more interactive and streamlined game for more than half the price of the officially licensed “Scrabble” app.

“You can take your time,” he said. “When I’m playing ‘Scrabble’ against my wife, I take a long time to make a play, a really good play, and it drives her up the wall…With ‘Words with Friends,’ I can be off doing something else or take two days to make a good play.”

Paul said this combination of interactivity and pacing has made it such a huge success.

“At its core, it’s about language, something that unites us all,” Paul said. “There is something compelling about the way the game combines skill and luck on the basic human level of communication. Anyone can pick it up and instantly get it.

“Finally, it’s about connecting with friends, family and acquaintances,” he added. “It is ‘Words With Friends,’ after all.”

Of course, with great success comes great responsibility. Paul said maintaining the game’s high quality can be difficult.

“A good example is the server farm that hosts ‘Chess’ and ‘Words with Friends’ games,” Paul said. “At first, everything ran smoothly but as the games grew in popularity, all kinds (of) things started going awry. In the early days, that meant one of us had to frequently stay up all hours of the night working with the servers. Now, we’ve outsourced the entire process.”

Fortunately, they have more than a coffee house Wi-Fi connection and their wits to keep up with the inevitable bugs and updates. Newtoy has a staff of 17 full time engineers, artists and designers, housed in 5,000 square feet of office space at The Cotton Mill on Elm Street that is being expanded as they staff grows. They have also released a new kingdom strategy game called “We Rule” for the iPhone and iPad and have some other projects in the works, but Paul can’t spill the details on them just yet.

Ricchi said he hopes the Bettners’ business becomes the first of many clients in McKinney’s commerce model.

“That type of company, the intellectual property types of companies, are recession tolerant,” Ricchi said. “That’s exactly what we need in the city of McKinney. Silicon Valley didn’t start up overnight. Someone had to put that flag in the ground first.”

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