Puzzazz’s book store app updated today, with it brings the New York Times crossword puzzle, marking a big step for the Seattle-area company.
New York Times crossword subscribers can now freely access the past 3 months of puzzles, at no additional cost. The puzzles come with all of the benefits and trimmings that Puzzazz offers, including the handwriting recognition software, TouchWrite.
There are lots of puzzle apps, but without a doubt, Puzzazz is the puzzle section of the App Store. Its digital shelves are not just stocked with crosswords, but with puzzles that other app makers would dare not attempt. Books are filled with the likes of cryptic crosswords, puzzle short stories, logic squares, there’s even a puzzle hunt. Even if you’re not a New York Times crossword subscriber, you should check it out.
Roy Leban, Puzzazz’s founder, was kind enough to discuss with me, a little about himself, Puzzazz, and the details of his collaboration with the New York Times.
Puzzle Pile: Tell me about yourself.
Roy Leban: I’ve been a software developer since I was in junior high (which was pretty uncommon when I was in junior high), and I put myself through college as a systems programmer on mainframes and, later, developing personal computer games. After that, I did some cognitive science research in graduate school and founded or worked at a series of startup software companies, some of which were successful and some of which were not. That’s how it works. I’ve also worked at Microsoft and Ashton-Tate, and did user experience consulting for companies like IBM. Most of my work has involved creating great user experiences for software, such as the cult classic FullWrite word processor.
In my spare time, I’ve been a puzzler about as long, solving and creating puzzles basically all my life. A few years ago, I ran across a crossword that I had created about 30 years ago. It was pretty bad! I’ve learned a lot since then. One nice bonus I have here at Puzzazz is the opportunity to nurture young constructors who are where I was when I started.
Around about 2000, one of the puzzles I had created for an MIT Mystery Hunt ran in GAMES World of Puzzles, in a special section. That got me thinking that perhaps I ought to submit some for publication. The first puzzle I submitted, to Will Shortz at the New York Times, got accepted.
Puzzle Pile: What’s your puzzle cred, what are your claims to fame in the puzzle community?
Roy Leban: I’ve had puzzles in a lot of publications and books, including the New York Times, GAMES Magazine, the LA Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I also did one paper book a few years ago, Who-doku from Sterling. I also co-founded the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt. When we ran the first one, we didn’t even know if anyone would show up or if there would be a second one. Puzzle Hunt 14 had 1200 puzzlers!
Puzzle Pile: What is your favorite puzzle type, Crosswords, Sudoku, KenKen, or something less mainstream like Hitori or Masyu?
Roy Leban: If you’re talking straight puzzles, I have to say variant crosswords. I call what happens in a puzzle like crosswords “acceleration.” As you get closer to the end, it gets easier because your choices get narrowed down. Yeah, I know the Saturday NYT is an exception here. Variant crosswords have twists of some sort and it’s a lot of fun to discover the twist if it’s hidden, or to learn how an obvious twist affects solving. I like KenKen way better than Sudoku.
But I have to say I really love puzzlehunts and metapuzzles. I love the challenge of the extra level of thinking that’s required to solve them. As a solver, I have to figure out how it was put together and, as a constructor, I have to create it in a way that all of the unmentioned things can be figured out.
Puzzle Pile: What triggered you to go from a puzzle creator to move into digital distribution and original publishing?
Roy Leban: It was really the other way around. I was working on a couple of different ideas and I started Puzzazz as a spare-time thing, a web site with a puzzle a day. The competing project was a coordination services company (yeah, nobody else understood what that meant either).
Because Puzzazz didn’t need to make money initially, I was able to run experiments without regard to how they would affect revenue. So, I did that and I also conducted market research, and I concluded that there was potential for a real business here, one focused on the future of puzzles. I had an opportunity to join the Founder Institute in Seattle, so I did that and the program really helped me focus on what the business would be — creating the best way for people to solve puzzles in the digital world.
Fundamentally, the business model is super simple — we sell great puzzles. The model is really good for the puzzle ecosystem. When constructors make money, they create more and better puzzles. Solvers buy more, and you have a virtuous cycle. Since I’m a longtime constructor myself, it’s important to me to build up the ecosystem, not take advantage of it. We’re just getting started, but the future is looking really good.
Puzzle Pile: How do you determine which puzzle books to publish?
Roy Leban: Our long term goal is that we have a pretty open marketplace, and we let buyers decide which are the best products. In the short run, we know that we need great puzzles from world-class constructors. We have a mix of very accomplished constructors and a few newer constructors who we’ve mentored and edited more. We’ve had to reject a few people, but, more often, we’ve given constructors advice on what they need to do to improve and encourage them to come back.
We also want variety. We’re the only app, on any platform, that offers more than one type of puzzle, so we want to give buyers as much choice as we can. The desire to give solvers variety is one of the reasons The Year of Puzzles exists — we’re able to publish constructors who don’t want to do a full book and we’ll also able to give solvers an amazing variety during the year.
Puzzle Pile: Tell me about the New York Times crossword puzzles.
Roy Leban: A lot of people consider the New York Times crossword the gold standard of crosswords. We’ve always wanted to support them and we’re hoping to be able to sell their puzzles directly through Puzzazz in the future. In the meantime, anybody with a Times crosswords subscription can solve with the fabulous Puzzazz interface at no additional charge.
Puzzle Pile: Can you go into the details of what users will be getting? What kind of stuff people can expect to see with this addition?
Roy Leban: The daily crosswords will appear as a title on the bookshelf. You’ll need to enter your nytimes.com user id and password, but everything else happens automatically — no manual downloading or anything like that. The puzzles just appear when they get released, and you’ll have instant access to the last three months worth of puzzles.
There have been some pretty amazing puzzles in the last three months! I recommend people check out April 4th, May 8th, June 2nd, and June 9th.
Puzzle Pile: How will your app differ from those that currently offer the NYT crosswords digitally?
Roy Leban: There are three key differences.
First, we’re not charging anybody for access. The Puzzazz app is free and anybody who has a New York Times premium crosswords subscription can solve in the Puzzazz app, at no extra charge. We believe very strongly that people shouldn’t be charged twice. If they’re already paying the Times, they shouldn’t have to pay us even more money. Instead, we hope that people who use Puzzazz for the Times crossword will buy some of our excellent content, some of which is from the same constructors they see in the Times. Just to be clear, every time solvers buy puzzles from us, constructors earn money. We never circumvent a constructor’s web site to offer their puzzles for free.
The second difference is that the puzzles in the Puzzazz app will match the print edition in both formatting and functionality. If the puzzle has an an unusual feature — a non-standard grid, entries that turn corners, a diagonal clue, even oversize squares — you’ll see that in Puzzazz.
And, finally, you get our phenomenal solving experience, including our exclusive, award-winning TouchWrite handwriting recognition technology. On an iPhone in particular, it makes a huge difference, but it’s also great on an iPad. Our goal is to put as little between you and the puzzle as possible and the result is an experience that is delightful. There are lots of nice touches that make solving better, including cross-reference highlighting, clue highlighting and scrolling, clue notes, cell marking, support for lefties, and a number of options for hinting. New solvers will appreciate our How to Solve guide, and constructors will love that their names are listed in the table of contents on iPad.
Puzzle Pile: Will it include the variety puzzles that NYT also produces, or just the crosswords?
Roy Leban: On launch day, it only includes the daily crosswords. We had to build up a lot of infrastructure to let us get the puzzles converted and matching the print edition in a timely manner, and to do so while properly respecting the NYT’s copyright and intellectual property rights. But we will be supporting the “second Sunday” puzzles in the future, and we’re the only app that can support all of them, whether they’re cryptic crosswords, diagramless crosswords, acrostics, split decisions, or even spirals.
Puzzle Pile: Thanks for your time, do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Roy Leban: Enjoy the puzzles! When we have happy customers, it makes what we’re doing worthwhile.